Monday, May 30, 2016

Cool paper: "Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor?"

Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording recently put out a paper that (in my opinion) successfully argues a point I've heard a lot of people try and fail to make over the years. As I read it, the argument is that the common tools of cognitive neuroscience are often misused and misinterpreted. And that we have a far worse "understanding" of how the brain works than we often suppose.

The way they make this argument is by more precisely defining understanding (roughly 'the ability to explain why something is broken when it breaks and possibly how to fix it') and then using a known system---the MOS 6502 microprocessor---to compare the understanding gleaned by neuro tools with what is known about the human-made system.

They basically perform a lot of neuro tests on a simulated version of this processor while it boots different old-school video games. In and of itself, this is pretty fun. There are several important insights and perhaps I'll go over all of them but just one example is the use of transistor lesioning. I've copied figure 4 from the paper to give an idea. What they found was that there are a bunch of transistors which, when lesioned (i.e. removed or made nonfunctional), prevent the processor from loading any game. There's a similar number of transistors which don't seem to affect the processor's ability to boot games at all. The interesting thing is the finding that several transistors seem specific to an individual game, and those are highlighted in the image. For instance, there are 98 transistors which, when lesioned, prevent Donkey Kong from booting but don't seem to affect the other two games. Jonas and Kording point out that in neuroscience, results like these are often used to make causal and functional inferences, such as "these transistors cause Donkey Kong to boot" or "these transistors are Donkey Kong transistors".

Obviously, these inferences are not exactly merited by the results in either case but it's curious that this fact is more obvious when the system being analyzed is one that is known (the microprocessor) rather than mysterious (the brain).

Anyway, the entire paper is well worth reading. As is the inspiration from Biology, Lazebnik's Can a biologist fix a radio?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Why the DOJ's statement matters

I've generally avoided talking about the wave of "Bathroom Bills" that have been making their way through—and in a few cases becoming law in—state legislatures across the country. It's not that I don't have anything to say (hah) but instead that the things I've had to say feel like they miss the point or are too dark for me to be comfortable sharing. But Something happened yesterday that made it clear to me what is important about these bills.

It's easy to miss because there's plenty to complain about. These bills violate nearly every conservative principle in the service of "social conservatism". This is yet another great example of why the various things we categorize as "conservative" in this country are truly strange bedfellows. In seeking to codify "biological sex", these bills actually reveal problems with defining something as complex or tenuous as sex at all. I think these are interesting points, and I think about them a lot, but the second I start putting them down to be shared it strikes me that they miss the forest for the trees.

That's because the most important impact of these laws is the public, authoritative endorsement of discrimination against and harm to trans people. This isn't to say that the immediate impact of it becoming difficult to meet a basic human need for trans people (and others who don't rigidly conform to gender expectations) is unimportant. It absolutely is. But I fear that far more people will be affected by what these bills do to social and political norms than what they do to bathrooms.

Most harassment and discrimination is small, insidious, and not illegal in any way. Nearly all of the trouble I've faced has had a strange relationship with laws. And even when the law is on my side, like when I was kicked out of a women's changing room or my landlord threatened to hold all packages addressed to my chosen name, it was far easier for me to just take it on the chin and not make any trouble than to involve the law. And I'm one of the lucky ones. The absolute worst transphobia is aimed at people who don't look like me, is already illegal, and is often excused for the least convincing reasons possible.

But if the direct effects of laws are of little concern, the social effects are of great concern. This is just one part of what I think of as authoritative claims on the acceptability of groups: "the supreme court considers same-sex couples equals",  "your favorite comedy considers trans people to be a joke and so does everyone watching", "the state considers trans people to be predators",  "the pope considers trans people to be mentally ill sinners". These are statements that come from some source of authority and make some statement about how legitimate or acceptable a group of people are. Obviously some authorities will be more credible than others but people are generally bad at untangling expertise (remind me to cite). While a vanishingly small number of people keep track of every local and federal law that affects trans people, everyone is exposed to numerous instances of these authoritative claims over their lifetime.

Now, imagine a parent of a trans child who has just come out. They have heard several of these statements from authorities. Do you think it matters what the balance of those statements is? Do you think it matters that one of the highest profile statements from legal authorities in recent years has been "trans people are delusional predators who cannot be trusted to safely use the bathroom"? Abso-fucking-lutely. This affects people in states where the bill was not passed for one reason or another. This affects people in states with no such bill in the works. It affects people who would harass trans people so long as they think they can get away with it. It affects people who haven't figured out that they are trans yet. It affects trans people who haven't decided to come out of the closet yet. It affects trans people who would never be questioned in a restroom. It affects the coworkers, friends, parents, and loved ones of trans people.

Have you ever tried to love someone you are ashamed of? Have you ever tried to love someone who is ashamed of you? Statements of authority, like those made by lawmakers shepherding these bills through their states, have the power to support and unite and protect far more people than they would ever directly effect. And they also have the power to harm, to destroy, to slowly eat away at people and relationships like an acid that won't wash off.

This is the context in which I read, through tears, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch's words when she announced the Department of Justice's lawsuit against the state of North Carolina:
Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself.  Some of you have lived freely for decades.  Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead.  But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that  we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.  Please know that history is on your side.  This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time.  It may not be easy – but we’ll get there together. 
Loretta Lynch is the chief law enforcement officer and chief lawyer of the United States of America. This is a big fucking deal.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Trans 101 (for friends and family)

This is list mostly for my family and friends. A lot of you are from Kentucky too and have had basically zero exposure to trans people and our experiences. I'm sure many have a somewhat warped idea of trans people due to inaccurate and harmful representations in various forms of media. That's okay, it's been a learning process for me too. The important thing to me is that those who want the best for me try to learn. The best way to do this is through stories and resources created by trans people in part or in whole. So here's a list of things that I think would be helpful for my friends and family who are unfamiliar with what it means to be trans but interested in learning.

  • PBS did a story on Atherton HS in Louisville. It's one of the first high schools in the South to implement policies to protect trans students.
  • TED things
    • A list of trans TED talks
    • Nicole Maines talks about the impact that non-trans people can have on the lives of trans people. 
    • Norman Spack talks about his work as an endocrinologist who treats transgender teens.
  • HerStory Show is a fantastic but short series on youtube.
  • Laura Jane Grace (of the band Against Me!) has a show called True Trans. Her band's album Transgender Dysphoria Blues is absolutely incredible.
  • Sense8 is weird and captivating and fantastic sci-fi drama series from the Wachowski Sisters of The Matrix fame.
  • Transparent is a very good drama that centers on a trans woman (yes, played by a cis man) who transitions late in life and tries to manage her dysfunctional family. The show includes several trans actors and writers.
  • Orange is the New Black prominently features Laverne Cox's character Sophia Burset.
  • Tangerine is an independent film about two trans sex workers that is in turns hilarious and heartbreaking and difficult to watch.
  • The LGBT Center in Manhattan put together this "Transgender Basics" video. It kinda feels like a high school sex ed video but it also features 2007 Laverne Cox which is cool.
  • Whipping Girl by Julia Serano is fantastic non-fiction. It's many things but one of them is a primer on how the transgender identity relates to feminism and vice-versa. 
  • Nevada is a short novel by Imogen Binnie. Very easy to read with super compelling characters. I don't want to give things away so just read it.
  • A Safe Girl to Love is a collection of fantastic short stories by Casey Plett. She accomplishes a lot in a small amount of space. I would love to read a novel by her.
  • Redefining Realness is Janet Mock's memoir. This is next on my list of books to read but it comes so highly recommended that I wanted to include it.

I will be adding to this list over time. Also, it's worth noting that this list reflects me and my tastes and background (white american trans girl) and isn't meant to speak for all trans people in any way.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Thoughts on the Democratic Primary

I think I'm starting to figure out how to articulate what frustrates me (and possibly others) about the US primary system. I know which party platform is most similar to my preferences in general. But the policies each party puts forward is (de facto) determined almost exclusively by the presidential candidate chosen in the primaries every 4 years. The decision of which candidate to run in the general is a strategic one, but it's put to a pseudo-vote whose outcome we have no reason to believe would correspond to the best outcome of that strategic decision.

For me it's the Democratic party, of course. The policy positions of the party have been determined by (or possibly reflected in) Obama for the last 8 years, more or less. Now it's a new election year and my desired outcome is that the winner of the primary satisfy two conditions: i) be as close as possible to my policy preferences ii) have a reasonably high chance of getting elected. (There are other less important ones like 'is not a horrible human like John Edwards' but stay with me.)
Now, those are extremely difficult things to balance just for me. Sanders is *probably* closer to my preferences, though I think the most significant differences between he and Clinton are rhetorical. The consensus is that Sanders would be less likely to win the general election. How much less likely? Under what conditions? Will that still be true if he wins the primary for a major party? How reliable is that consensus? Who knows. My point is that the decision is chiefly one of strategy and not an easy one at that. I would need to spend much more time studying Political Science and related areas to feel reasonably sure about the decision just for me. Now, think about making that same decision for the entire nebulous group of 'people who identify with the Democratic Party'.

The process we use is a Rube-Goldberg machine designed to give (certain) people the sense that they have some say in this strategic decision while keeping much of the control in the hands of party elites. It seems to me that party elites are *likely* to be better at making this strategic decision but how much so (if at all), I'm not sure. And the contraption we call the primaries has a lot of problems, i.e. small white states that do not represent the country have the earliest and most significant say in the outcome.

It's also worth noting that other countries do this entirely differently. In a parliamentary system, it's more important that each party have a relatively stable platform. And in the better systems, voters are rarely put in a situation where there are no party options that closely represent their preferences (in bad ones like Canada and the UK, voters often have to make the sorts of strategic decisions we're familiar with in the US). So in most wealthy foreign countries, it seems like the party (often just those elected to parliament, iirc) decide on the platform and party leadership and that system works exceedingly well.

So, I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying that there's *yet another* reason I prefer a parliament-style system of government to the US presidential system. And that my feelings about the Democratic primary are complicated (I probably sit closer to Sanders but probably would prefer for Clinton to win).

(I posted this elsewhere using my old—but still in use—name. Hopefully that doesn't bite me in the ass.)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

How To: Love Me (now that you know I'm trans)

I plan for this to be a post that I refer to in the future. At some point I plan to come out to various friends and family. It will be a new experience for most of us, as I've obviously never come out as trans before and most of those close to me know few or no people who have. I totally understand if it seems difficult or scary at first but I don't expect things to be so difficult in the long run. I actually expect things to be quite an improvement!

Below, I'm going to try to write a simple instruction manual for "how to love me now that you know I'm trans". This is specific to me, Sophie, and I don't expect my wishes to generalize to every trans person.

You can love me by following three extremely easy steps:
  1. Remember that I'm still me.
  2. Refer to me as me.
  3. Don't out me to others.
And now in more detail.

Remember that I'm still me

A whole lot of trans people seem to have a list of childhood memories that demonstrate that they've been trans all along. That's not exactly true for me. For reasons unknown, I have a very weak memory of my early childhood. I remember almost nothing before about age 5 and my memories pre-adolescence are also quite fuzzy. Beginning in adolescence, though, there's absolutely no mistaking the fact that I was trans (no mistaking it looking back, I mean). The important thing to understand is that I have been this way for a very long time, whether I or anyone else appreciated that fact.

And that's what I want to get at here. Just like everyone else, there are things about me that have always been true: I love pizza, I love the feeling of fixing something, I seek to impress and please people. And just like everyone else, there are things about me that are best described as phases: when I couldn't help but respond to every statement with "ACTUALLY...", when I thought extremely baggy pants were cool, when I was Dale Earnhart's biggest fan (yes, that was a thing that happened). 

One of the things that is fully, continuously me is my gender. I imagine it's going to be very difficult for some who have been close to me when I was younger to appreciate this. Hell, it was difficult for me to appreciate it. I can try to document the many ways in which my life just makes more sense now that I have realized that I am a woman—and I probably will, because I think it will make things easier for me and I find it interesting—but I shouldn't and don't have to do so in order to validate this part of me.

The bottom line is that if you care for me, then you care for all of me. You care for me, today, Sophia, the girl who works in a data science lab in the NYC area and misses home but loves The City. And you care for the little, confused girl who played the part of a boy for so many years. And in the case where someone cannot find it in themselves to continue caring for me, it will be because they have never cared for me. Period. No one gets to care only for the 'old me' or the 'new me'. They might miss the time when I felt like I had to be someone I wasn't but, if that's the case, they miss the act, the situation that made life worse for me in ways that I'm only beginning to recognize. If that's the case they never really loved me.

Refer to me as me

Hi, my name is Sophie. Feel free to talk about me when I'm not around exactly as you do other women: "She's just so funny and helpful!", "I find her research to be a little complicated but still quite interesting.", etc., etc. You should already be accustomed to using people's preferred pronouns, anyway. Unless you have already been told that this step is more complicated for you, it is not.

This isn't even the first time my name has changed. I was given a certain name when I was born. People met me and learned that name. Then when I was 5 years old, that name actually changed (long story, not getting into it now). New people met me and learned that name. People who already knew me began the process of calling me something different. Some legal and official papers were updated and others weren't and nobody was weird or nosy about it (to me, at least). An essentially identical process happened to my wife when we married and she took my last name.

I realize this might be difficult at first for people who learned to call be by a different name and use different pronouns. There are a few things that might make it easier. Go ahead and change my name in your phone. If you think you'll have trouble unlearning my old name or pronouns, go ahead and practice using my real name and pronouns in your head for a bit. 

Finally, let's briefly talk about misgendering and deadnaming. This is how many trans people refer to cases where someone intentionally uses the incorrect pronouns or name. Deadnaming is not something you need to worry about if you care about me. If you've just met me, there's no way to do so without actively trying. If you've already known me, you may slip up occasionally but it's going to sound and look a lot different from deadnaming. There's a chance I might be annoyed at slip ups (have you ever been sir'd or maam'd the wrong way over the phone? it can be annoying!) but if you're trying, I'm not going to be upset. 

That being said, deadnaming/misgendering is an intentional act and, as far as I'm concerned, the maximum amount of hateful and rude someone can be toward me.  Don't ever do this to anyone and don't ever do it to me.

Don't out me to others

 In nearly every way that matters, there is no difference between a trans woman and any other woman or between a trans man and any other man. One  major exception is that to be recognized as trans, or to be labelled as trans carries some significant implications. People have been fired, assaulted, and worse for being trans or for being with someone who is. So, for my sake and the sake of those around me, it's up to me when I share the fact that I am trans. You may know me as a trans woman, and I'm actually quite proud to be trans. I have this website out in the internet ether where I am clearly and openly trans. But that doesn't mean I'm required to walk around outside the internet with a "trans" sign on my back... unless I choose to, that is ;)

So, please do not share the fact of my trans-ness without my consent. The one complication here is when talking to others who know me by an older name (or gender). If you could kindly tell them something like "Oh, she goes by Sophie now" that would be fantastic. Thanks for understanding :)

The extra mile

For me, those are the basics. But maybe you want to do more. I think everyone could benefit from having a better, more authentic understanding of trans people. I've put together a list of things you can check out if you want to learn more: Trans 101. I'm also going to write periodically here so feel free to check back for other things.

Another thing that friends and family can do that would mean a lot to me is to be vocally and visibly supportive of the lgbt community at large. Sometimes, my rights and the rights of others get put up to a vote. That's not how things should work, of course, but because that happens, it's important to me that people vote to protect my rights. Even more so, it's important to me that everyone knows that there are tons of (perhaps) non-lgbt people who care about our rights. So fly that rainbow flag. Come to your local pride festival (just be mindful of the fact that you're a spectator). It really means a lot to me.


One thing about being trans is that I get to come up with my own name. Plenty of non-trans people do this, sure, but to me it sort of feels like a rite of passage for trans folk. I've chosen "Sophia" for myself. I wanted to go through my thought process in choosing this name, both for myself and for others, as I found reading other people's accounts of choosing their name to be quite helpful in choosing mine.

My checklist was something like the following (in approximate order of importance):

  • It had to feel right.
  • It had to feel feminine.
  • I don't know anyone with the name.
  • It doesn't stand out too much.

A common approach would be to feminize my current masculine name. So if my parents had named me Henry at birth, I might use Henrietta. This would have been fine, as I'm not personally bothered by deriving my female name from a male name, but it just doesn't seem to fit. Another common option is to ask my parents what they would have named me if I had arrived as a girl to them. I think my mom has told me I would have been "Lindsey" which, for whatever reason, does not feel right. So back to the drawing board.

Sophia is a name that my wife and I have discussed for years as a potential name for a hypothetical daughter. But since we first started discussing the name, it has become an enormously popular. Rising from around 50th most popular girls name when we were children, to around 10th when we started dating, to between the 1st and 3rd most popular now. We've always wanted to give our children names that fell farther down the list (because of course they will be unique little snowflakes!), so we're not quite as excited about it as a name for a child now.

But for me, this could be a good thing. The popularity of the name means that "Sophia" is very recognizably feminine but, because it was so rare while we were growing up, I know essentially no one who has that name. It thus meets the last three criteria very well. It also has a weird personal connection because we've envisioned a daughter with that name---which I'm not sure if that is good or bad.

But outside of all of these practical considerations, Sophia has a certain importance to me. To explain, let's fire up the flashback machine to 2004 or so. At that time in my life I had just begun to play tabletop role-playing games with friends. It's the kind of thing where you build a character out of the clay of your imagination and a giant rulebook and then roll dice to see what that character is able to do. You do this with friends who have made characters in a similar way, and try to make the voices the characters would make, et cetera. I'd be interested to learn more about how these kinds of games impacted other trans people but for me it presented this strange dilemma: I was quite curious about playing a female character but totally apprehensive of doing so in front of the others I played with (other teenage boys).

Also, around that time, 14 year old me got to play the video game, The Knights of the Old Republic---which remains one of my all time favorite video games. It was a game for Xbox that followed the exact same rules as the pen and paper games I played with my friends. But this was single player on the Xbox. For the first time I got to choose the gender of my character, name her, and play her, all to myself. Sure I might have to explain to my brother or friends why my save game had a chick on it but that was so much less daunting than playing a female character in a pen and paper game (which would entail actually personally performing as a female in front of teenage boys).

Anyway, in this game I chose the character who looked most like me: dark hair, light skin, female. And she was always named Sophia after the character Sophie Neveu in The Da Vinci Code. I've sort of grown out of The Da Vinci Code, though at the time my Dan Brown obsession was burning hot. And, yes, I realize Sophie's character in The Da Vinci code is problematic for several reasons, but let's give 14 year old me a break. The important thing is that it all just felt comfortable. And, props to Bioware, Sophia could do everything that any male character could, including pursuing plot-impacting romances with major female Non-Player-Characters. So adolescent me got to try on the skin of an adult lesbian woman who always saved the day. And I fucking loved it.

For the next decade-plus, Sophia and I (or rather I as Sophia) played *so many role playing games*: KOTOR 2, Mass Effect 1-3, Jade Empire, Dragon Age, ... the list goes on (and certainly includes non-Bioware games, though those are my favorites). By the time, at 27, I began to appreciate the fact that I am and have always been trans, I've already been trying on Sophia for nearly half of my life. After looking back and just realizing that fact, there is no way I can "choose" anything else. It doesn't even feel like choosing at that point. I am Sophia and I have been for longer than even I realized.

Saluton, Mondo!

Hey, everyone!

It’s me, Sophia. That may not be what you know me as or what you’re used to calling me but it’s who I am. So, thanks in advance for being patient and giving this your best effort.

Right now I’m just a trans girl who is out to almost no one. But I enjoy making things and thinking about the future so I’m grabbing up “sophiaray” handles and domains and mostly talking to myself here. Who knows, maybe this will be useful one day.

<3 Sophia