Tuesday 28 February 2006

To (GL)B or Not to (GL)B

My first week at ANU - the Australian National University.

A bit of background. The ANU isn't the oldest Uni in Australia (That's Sydney Uni, where I got my BSc). It's not even the best in the field I'm in, that's probably RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, a sort of Oz MIT).

But it is the most prestigious academic institution in the country, well-funded (!) and I have to say, positively luxurious compared to many places I've studied in or taught at.

So, first week, lots of admin stuff, finding out where things are. Including the Equity and Diversity Unit. You've got to remember, I'm still at a very early stage of transition, HRT for 6 months etc.

I rocked on up there - it was just across the road from the Faculty of Engineering and InfoTech , where I have my office in the Department of Computer Science - and did a small recon. After being given a small introduction by the head of the unit, he was most surprised and got very excited when I told him I was TS. He gave me a data pack on the Ally programme.

Ally ProgramI don't know if I qualify though. I'm somewhat homophobic (and struggle against that), have very little knowledge of GLB issues, and am revoltingly straight-laced, conservative, and generally the type of person who needs re-education by the unit, not someone who's a GLBTIQ advocate! No, I'd never dream of discriminating against anyone on the grounds of GLB, race, or Religious status, but even TVs are just so different, I don't know what advice I could give.

Part of the duties include activism in the GLBITQ area. The data pack assumed the "Ally" was straight, non-TS and non-Intersexed, but the usual Lefty fanatically anti-discriminatory academic. I didn't fit the profile, the idea of being a "supportive fellow-traveller" in a Gay Pride parade is most definitely Not Zoe Brain.

But it's the only way I can help young TS boys and girls. Odds are that in a student body of 10,000, there's at least a handful, and probably hundreds of CD'ers and TVs as well. Maybe a hundred who are Intersexed. And although I'm homophobic, I'm even more discrimationphobic. I just feel totally unqualified to help GLBs. I mean, my own sexuality at the moment is best described as "confused". Talk about the blind leading the blind...

First I have to convince the E&D unit that being "closeted" isn't the same as "stealthed", that many TS people just want to blend into heteronormative society, something that the unit considers anathema. How do I explain that many TS girls' fondest wish is just to be considered "normal lesbians" rather than "gay male transvestites"? Especially when the unit is committed to the proposition that there's nothing unusual about being a gay male transvestite, and combatting the attitude that anyone might not desire to be one. That the discrimination faced by GLBs is nothing compared to the transphobia experienced by TS's.

Then there's the matter of losing Stealth. Another part of the duties of an Ally is to festoon your office with large posters proudly proclaiming your support of the great GLBTIQ alliance.

Not exactly condusive to Stealth, even semi-Stealth. A bit of a dead giveaway, unless you're so passable that people think you're just a normal GLB or straight fellow-traveller.

I'd fit in like a Pork chop in a Synagogue. It's not me, and I don't want it to be.

But... if I can help just one TS girl or boy... or show some understanding of the Intersexed students that the unit obviously hasn't got a clue about... how can I not?

I can show that you don't have to be a Leftie, that you can even be mildly homophobic, and still be against discrimination in all its forms. That even a right-wing NeoCon Death Bitch can be TS, that we're as varied as everyone else... maybe I can show an example of true diversity, one that other engineers and members of the hard science groups can be comfy with, rather than the usual post-modernist anti-rationalists that infest the humanities, and who have been the only ones that were willing to help before now.

I'd be most uncomfortable in this position, but again, what can I do? I can't possibly give up a unique opportunity to help, that would make me far more than just uncomfortable. Of course, I have my own problems, I'm just starting my own transition, and oh yes, doing a PhD too, I have enough on my plate just being a parent.

But there were two things that happened that rather comforted me vis-a-vis the Stealth issue. Apart from the fact that I'm sure no-one in the faculty gives a hoot whether I'm TS, GLB, or an Alien Infiltrator from the Planet Arous.

One was the unmistakeable body language of the Unit head. He was not so much shocked as incredibly enthusiastic that here in front of him was a Genooine Bedooine Trans-Sexual, in the flesh, the first he'd ever seen (and been aware of, anyway). One who he hadn't suspected was TS for a second when she came in. He had no idea how many there were on Campus, no-one had ever asked that question before. Very Validating for him - and for the Unit, which coincidentally is under review at the moment.

Then there was a colleague, a member of staff. She'd been told by Shayne, one of the staff members who'd known me for over 20 years that an ex-colleague of his, Zoe Brain, was transitioning. She'd even been told that there was a possibility that this person was going to be studying a PhD at the ANU. But it was only when we were together in Shayne's office, discussing tutoring arrangements, and Shayne accidentally referred to me as "he" TWICE (grrrr), that the penny dropped. She just hadn't connected new PhD student Zoe with transsexual Zoe.

I can't blame Shayne. He's known me as for over 20 years, old habits are hard to break, he's still new at this, and is trying his hardest.

As for her - well, it was Girl talk, she opened up enough to me to admit what happened as soon as I opened up enough to her to reveal that I was TS. She's co-ordinating the tutorials, and I didn't want to disadvantage students by being a distraction. She had "Need to Know" if you like.

So it looks as if I blend, not just with my 45+ year old girlfriends, but even amongst the 18-to-25's that make up the undergrads and postgrads, and the 30-something staff nembers.

At the great monthly gabfest of all the Postgrads in the DCS (Department of Computer Science) I caused a few raised eyebrows and jaws to drop. But only when I mentioned I'd written my first FORTRAN in 1967, they took me as being in my mid to late 30's.

I wonder how much evidence I'm going to have to get before I start believing this? I guess that in Canberra, no-one has anything remotely resembling Transdar. They see what they expect to see, even when they've been told the situation, it just doesn't click.

It has to be poetic justice, a rabid neocon and homophobe like me having to carry the banner for GLBITQ equality. But as a conservative, I believe strongly in the concepts of Duty and personal responsibility, and much as I hate to say it, I'm the only person who can help, it's my duty.


Karma's biting me in the, um , fundament, good and proper. Hilarious, really.

Saturday 25 February 2006

Quantum Computing Weirdness

File this one under Interesting URL's, plus software too.

From New Scientist :
Even for the crazy world of quantum mechanics, this one is twisted. A quantum computer program has produced an answer without actually running.

The idea behind the feat, first proposed in 1998, is to put a quantum computer into a “superposition”, a state in which it is both running and not running. It is as if you asked Schrödinger's cat to hit "Run".

With the right set-up, the theory suggested, the computer would sometimes get an answer out of the computer even though the program did not run. And now researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have improved on the original design and built a non-running quantum computer that really works.

They send a photon into a system of mirrors and other optical devices, which included a set of components that run a simple database search by changing the properties of the photon.

The new design includes a quantum trick called the Zeno effect. Repeated measurements stop the photon from entering the actual program, but allow its quantum nature to flirt with the program's components - so it can become gradually altered even though it never actually passes through.

"It is very bizarre that you know your computer has not run but you also know what the answer is," says team member Onur Hosten.

This scheme could have an advantage over straightforward quantum computing. "A non-running computer produces fewer errors," says Hosten. That sentiment should have technophobes nodding enthusiastically.

Journal reference: Nature (vol 439, p 949)

The Zeno effect? How paradoxical.

It's said "a watched pot never boils". Well, in the world of quantum physics, watch it often enough, and it can't. Every time you look at an unstable particle, you collapse its wavefunction for a bit.

I'm not sure of the large-scale ramifications of this one, but it proves once more that Reality, if you look very closely, is not so much Real as Surreal.

Friday 24 February 2006

Space Force MisMinagement

Not just a recipe for disaster, a complete banquet. That describes the way the US military space programme has been mismanaged. The sad story of the System Program Office (SPO) managemnet fiascos is described in The Space Review :
The SPOs relied on a specialized advisory contractor, Aerospace Corp., for much of their detailed technical expertise. In the early 1990s Congress mandated a reduction in funding for the company, which was forced to conduct its first reduction in force. Then Vice President Gore’s “Reinventing Government” initiative forced a 30% reduction in Air Force civilian personnel, and more experience went out the door. If that wasn’t enough, later in the ’90s the Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition directed that no SPO would have more than 50 people, regardless of the complexity of the task.

The impact of this draconian and largely arbitrary pruning activity was telling, but was not felt by just the SPOs. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) had depended on transfers of the most experienced personnel from the SPOs and launch bases to staff its own engineering, acquisition, and even operations efforts. By the late ’90s everyone was puzzling over the mysterious disappearance of the NRO’s once-legendary systems engineering capabilities. Then there was industry, which had always eagerly recruited experienced Air Force personnel, both the younger people and highly experienced retirees. One senior engineer with a major firm recently expressed his disappointment with the resumes he had been reviewing. One applicant might boast a series of impressive-sounding Air Force space launch assignments—all leading back to a liberal arts degree and no program office experience.

And lots more, regardless of administration, the only constant is change, and ever greater screw-ups. And yet more failed launches.

Rocket Science very often isn't just technically challenging, the management issues more often are the ones that lead to disasters. This appears to be true for all complex engineering tasks.

More Brain Insights via MRI

From ZDNet :
Why are we able to follow a complex conversation while even apes can only understand individual words? German researchers from the Max Planck Institute have used the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technique to discover that our brains are hard-wired for grammar. They found that simple language structures are processed by an area of our brain that we share with apes. On the contrary, complex language structures are processed by a 'younger' part or our brains that apes don't have.

And from the University of Wisconsin :
s the prism of our senses, the human brain has ways of refracting sensory input in defiance of reality.

This is seen, for example, in the placebo effect, when simple sugar pills or inert salves taken by unwitting subjects are seen to ease pain or have some other beneficial physiological effect. How the brain processes this faked input and prompts the body to respond is largely a mystery of neuroscience.

Now, however, scientists have begun to peel back some of the neurological secrets of this remarkable phenomenon and show how the brain can be rewired in anticipation of sensory input to respond in prescribed ways. Writing in the current issue (March 1, 2006) of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists reports the results of experiments that portray the brain in action as it is duped.

The new work, conducted by a team led by UW-Madison assistant professor of psychology and psychiatry Jack B. Nitschke, tested the ability of the human brain to mitigate foul taste through a ruse of anticipation. The work, conducted at the UW-Madison Waisman Center using state-of-the-art brain imaging techniques and distasteful concoctions of quinine on a cohort of college students, reveals in detail how the brain responds to a manipulation intended to mitigate an unpleasant experience.

"There is a potent impact to expectancy," says Nitschke, who, with his colleagues, exposed 43 undergraduate subjects to potions of quinine, sugar water or distilled water while undergoing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The subjects, Nitschke explains, were asked beforehand to associate a prescribed set of cues with a taste. A "minus sign" flashed through fiber optic goggles to subjects undergoing MRI, for instance, was to be an anticipatory signal that a liquid subsequently dripped into the mouth would have a very bitter taste. A "zero "cue corresponded with a neutral taste, and a "plus sign" with a pleasant, sugary taste.

The cues, according to Nitschke, were flashed to subjects just prior to the administration of a few drops of liquid. But in the study, the cues would not always match the taste they were said to presage.

His group observed that when subjects were given a cue that suggested the taste they were about to experience would be less bitter, the taste was perceived as such, and the regions of the brain that code tastes were activated less.

"When the subject sees the warning signal, portions of the brain activated by the misleading cue predict the decreased brain response to the awful taste," Nitschke says. What's more, "the (brain's) response to the misleading cue will predict the subject's perception of what the taste is going to be. The subject anticipates that the taste won't be that bad, and indeed that's what they report."

In short, the new study shows how expectancy affects how humans perceive sensory input, and how events in the brain are directly related to those perceptions.

Importantly, by mapping how the brain anticipates an event and kicks in a placebo effect, Nitschke argues, scientists can begin to think about ways that knowledge could be used in clinical settings.

MRI and functional MRI in particular are turning out to be very powerful tools to aid our understanding of how we think. And yet, the techniques are still fairly crude, and haven't been used for long. I think many surprising and useful insights will be gained into many aspects of human behaviour and cognition within the next few years, that may well revolutionise our understanding of the nature of Human Intelligence.

Tuesday 21 February 2006

25th Anniversary

On this day, 25 years ago, my partner, the love of my life, and I got married.

I read recently some very wise words : one partner changing sex is the ultimate test of a marriage.

If I had the power to bestow medals, I'd give her the highest decoration possible, for love and devotion above and beyond the call of duty. We're no longer husband and wife, yet we're married, and co-parents of a very special little boy, aged four and a half.

As it is - chocolate, and in industrial quantities.

Monday 20 February 2006

My First Day of School

The first day of full-time study since 1980, anyway.

There was the usual hassles with the University Administration. I still haven't been officially enrolled, I don't have a computer (but do have an account on the network when I get one), I don't have a phone (but at least i have a desk to put it on when I get one), I don't have a student ID card (but do have a student number), and so on.

Unlike other University administrative sections I've had the misfortune to deal with, these people are actually quite friendly. They take the attitude that they're there to support the students and staff, rather than the latter being inconvenient nuisances that they wish would just go away.

I love it. But it has kept me a bit busy, hence the light blogging recently.

Friday 17 February 2006


Our Galaxy is a monster that eats it's neighbours. And a messy eater, at that. From the ABC.
Astronomers have released new evidence to show that a region of stars in our galaxy known as the Arcturus stream is the digested remains of what was once a neighbouring galaxy.

The evidence is among the first to come from the largest star study to date, with data from 25,000 stars just released at a US astrophysics workshop.

Dr Quentin Parker of Sydney's Macquarie University and the Anglo-Australian Observatory is head of data management at the international Radial Velocity Experiment (RAVE), which uses Australia's UK Schmidt telescope.

Dr Parker says the latest results provide a smoking gun for the argument that the Milky Way is a voracious cannibal that devours its neighbours.

"We've confirmed the Arcturus moving group as being a star stream, which indicates a disruptive galaxy spiralled into our own," he said.

"Ours is a large galaxy and it has been eating other galaxies; it's been hungry. We can see what it's eaten by the crumbs that are left over from its meal."

It is another bit of evidence for the now widely accepted cannibal, or accretion, theory of galactic evolution, Dr Parker says.

This theory says the gravitational pull of large galaxies sucks in smaller ones, making large galaxies like our own a sort of cosmic melting pot.

Dr Parker says the RAVE measurements show stars in the Arcturus group are travelling at a similar velocity and in a similar direction through space, indicating they were once part of a coherent system.

One fact not stated : how long ago this dining experience happened. Or when the next one might occur. You see, when you live in an Unfashionable Outer edge of a Spiral Arm, as we do, when Galaxies collide and start merging, things like nebulae and dust clouds can make the local neighbourhood a very lively place. Or rather, deadly.

Without knowing more of the detail, I can't speculate what the likely consequences of such an event are. Galaxies are, for the most part, lots of vacuum after all, and it's possible that the gravitational effects might be un-noticeable except over eons rather than geological ages. But sharing one's personal space with an intruding nebula might be haqzardous to one'e health, and should the one in a bazillion happen and you get a collision anywhere within a few hundred light years, it could be messy.

Call it indigestion.

Tuesday 14 February 2006

Johari Windows

I invite all my readers to give an estimate of the features of my personality via my Johari Window. Picking as many as 5 might be a problem, but I think I deserve that many, if you're flexible with the definitions.

The corresponding negative aspects are on the Nohari Window - stopping at just 6 might be difficult.
From Wikipedia :
A Johari window is a metaphorical tool intended to help people better understand their interpersonal communication and relationships. It is used primarily in self-help groups and corporate settings as a heuristic device to encourage people to open up to another in self-disclosure. The concept was invented by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingram, who combined their first names to create the name of the tool.

The test consists of a list of terms, each of which is an adjective relating to a personality trait. (For example, the list might begin with "accepting", "adaptable", "bold", "brave", "calm", "cheerful", and "complex".) A subject will select a few of these terms which he feels describes himself best. Each of his peers will then select a few terms which that person feels describes the subject best.

Sunday 12 February 2006

Science Blogger Fact Checks Someone's Fundament(alist)

Updating a previous post, from the New York Times :
George C. Deutsch, the young presidential appointee at NASA who told public affairs workers to limit reporters' access to a top climate scientist and told a Web designer to add the word "theory" at every mention of the Big Bang, resigned yesterday, agency officials said.

Mr. Deutsch's resignation came on the same day that officials at Texas A&M University confirmed that he did not graduate from there, as his résumé on file at the agency asserted.

Officials at NASA headquarters declined to discuss the reason for the resignation.

"Under NASA policy, it is inappropriate to discuss personnel matters," said Dean Acosta, the deputy assistant administrator for public affairs and Mr. Deutsch's boss.
Mr. Deutsch, 24, was offered a job as a writer and editor in NASA's public affairs office in Washington last year after working on President Bush's re-election campaign and inaugural committee, according to his résumé. No one has disputed those parts of the document.

According to his résumé, Mr. Deutsch received a "Bachelor of Arts in journalism, Class of 2003."

Yesterday, officials at Texas A&M said that was not the case.

"George Carlton Deutsch III did attend Texas A&M University but has not completed the requirements for a degree," said an e-mail message from Rita Presley, assistant to the registrar at the university, responding to a query from The Times.

Repeated calls and e-mail messages to Mr. Deutsch on Tuesday were not answered.

Mr. Deutsch's educational record was first challenged on Monday by Nick Anthis, who graduated from Texas A&M last year with a biochemistry degree and has been writing a Web log on science policy, scientificactivist.blogspot.com.

After Mr. Anthis read about the problems at NASA, he said in an interview: "It seemed like political figures had really overstepped the line. I was just going to write some commentary on this when somebody tipped me off that George Deutsch might not have graduated."

He posted a blog entry asserting this after he checked with the university's association of former students. He reported that the association said Mr. Deutsch received no degree.

A copy of Mr. Deutsch's résumé was provided to The Times by someone working in NASA headquarters who, along with many other NASA employees, said Mr. Deutsch played a small but significant role in an intensifying effort at the agency to exert political control over the flow of information to the public.
So between a Science Blogger, and anonymous tipster, and someone in NASA with a quite legitimate axe to grind, a lier and a fundamentalist political hack was caught in his lies and ejected.

Much as I don't like the underhanded way it was done, score one for the Good Guys. Or for those less cynical, one for Investigative Journalism.

The only ones to act with honour in this are the Blogger, who checked the story, and the author of the NYT article, who gave credit where it was due.

Friday 10 February 2006

Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheming

Folowing up from the previous post, it looks like I'm facing a 5-fold increase in the cost of the anti-androgens I'm on.

Why? It's all explained here.

"To reduce drive in sexual deviations in males.", the cost is $28.50 for 100 tablets.

"Moderate to severe androgenisation in non-pregnant women", the cost is $28.50 for 20 tablets.

Of course the full market price is $278.78 for 100 tablets, so it's still being subsidised by my taxes.

Never mind, after November, I can say "goodbye" to all that.

The trouble is, my metabolism isn't following the normal rules. Everyone's making their best efforts to follow the "standards of care" for transsexual transition, and to comply with government regulations on what's allowable, but Reality keeps getting in the way.

Thursday 9 February 2006

More Medical Weirdness

I've just gotten home after my usual 3-monthly trip to Sydney, to see Prof Steinbeck, my endocrinologist.

It was as I feared, the latest blood tests are inexplicable. The SHBG levels and Oestrodiol levels are below pre-therapy levels, and are inconsistent with the results for Follicular Hormone and Lutinising Hormone levels.

So, I'm now on a new course - instead of 100 mcg 17B-oestrodiol by patch, I'm on a whopping 8 mg of Oestrodiol valerate orally, as a prelude to bigger and better things later.

One tiny problem - Medicare has me down as Female now. Back in August, I was prsecribed the powerful Anti-Androgen Androcur for "reduction of sex drive in deviant males", so got put on the list of people undergoing voluntary chemical castration - mainly rapists trying to reduce their sentences.
But now, I'm getting the same thing for "prevention of androgenisation in a non-pregnant female". Usually a smaller dose is used for that, I fear there will be repercussions.

But the Prof wasn't going to allow this bureaucratic snafu to prevent him doing what was in the patient's best interests. He may cop some serious flack about it later though, and he knows it.

I'm very glad he's my endocrinologist.

Wednesday 8 February 2006


"..may be beauiful and yet, what's too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget."

Or so goes the Barbara Steisend Song.

But that may change. We may have help now. Seen via Entirely Madd, this article from the Guardian :
By studying how we lay down our memories, research shows that it is possible to select and alter the way memories are stored in our minds.
The work takes advantage of the way memories - essentially networks of brain cells that each store information on a single event or object - are formed.

"When you form a new memory, it's not immediately stored in the brain," said Karim Nader of McGill University, Montreal. These new memories exist as temporary modifications to already-existing networks of brain cells that, over the course of a few hours, stabilise into networks of their own.

To get into the long-term memory, the temporary modification has to stabilise or fix into a new network of brain cells. The traditional view among neuroscientists has been that, once these memories become fixed, they are difficult to change.

But this view was challenged when Dr Nader carried out experiments on rats. He trained them to be fearful of particular stimuli, such as heat. He later made them remember those fearful memories by exposing them to the stimuli again.

Dr Nader found that calling up a fixed memory from deep in the brain made that memory go back to an unstable state, the same as a new memory, which then has to be re-stabilised if it needs to be stored. "If you block it from being restabilised, then the memory is essentially no longer there," said Dr Nader.

"Each time the synapse is activated, as it is memory, there are processes going on that could result in a strengthening or a weakening," said Dr Pitman.

How memories are fixed also depends critically on any emotional response we might have had at the time of the incident. "We can all better remember things that have emotional meaning to us than things which are neutral, so your first date, the first time you were in love, your first divorce," said Dr Nader. "When something emotional happens, it causes the release of adrenaline in the body. Via a cascade of receptor mechanisms in the brain this is going to turn up the intensity switch on the information that is being stored."

In conditions such as PTSD the emotional part of this fixing process is turned up so high that the memory sears itself deeply into the brain and ends up overwhelming that person for years afterwards.

Dr Pitman carried out a pilot study on humans where he gave patients at the Massachusetts general hospital who had recently undergone trauma a drug called propranolol, a beta-blocker used for decades to treat high blood pressure but which acts on the receptors in the brain involved in storing memories. He gave 19 victims of accident or rape either 10 days of the drug or 10 days of dummy pills.

Three months later, the patients listened to tapes describing their traumatic events. Dr Nader found that the people on propranolol had fewer stress symptoms than those on the dummy pills.

But for many PTSD sufferers the trauma might have occurred years before. "If you reactivate the trauma in somebody who has PTSD and that memory returns back to an [unstable] state, then maybe it means that memory can be manipulated," said Dr Nader.

Dr Pitman and Dr Nader, along with colleague Alain Brunet of McGill University have recruited around 20 people in the Montreal area who were traumatised a long as 20 or 30 years ago by child abuse, sexual assault or accidents. Traumatic memories will be brought to the front of their minds by talking to counsellors. This enables these memories to be modified by drugs before being stored again.

"The thing we're working on now is to have people who already have PTSD recall their memories and thereafter give them propranolol to reduce the re-storing of those memories, so the memory gets stored in a weaker version than it was originally stored in," said Dr Pitman.

But deleting memories is not the aim of this particular project because, for many PTSD sufferers, the bad memories are part of their identity. "What we want to do is turn it down a bit so it's not so overwhelming and bring them into a range where they're responsive to the traditional ways of treatment - therapy and psychiatric treatment," said Dr Nader.
This would be a great boon to people whose lives have been blighted by incidents in their past.

But it's one area which I'd like to see very carefully monitored by Ethics committees. The potential for abuse is enormous.

Church and State (and NASA)

From the New York Times :
A week after NASA's top climate scientist complained that the space agency's public-affairs office was trying to silence his statements on global warming, the agency's administrator, Michael D. Griffin, issued a sharply worded statement yesterday calling for "scientific openness" throughout the agency.

"It is not the job of public-affairs officers," Dr. Griffin wrote in an e-mail message to the agency's 19,000 employees, "to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA's technical staff."
In October, for example, George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters, told a Web designer working for the agency to add the word "theory" after every mention of the Big Bang, according to an e-mail message from Mr. Deutsch that another NASA employee forwarded to The Times.
The Big Bang memo came from Mr. Deutsch, a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the "war room" of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. A 2003 journalism graduate of Texas A&M, he was also the public-affairs officer who sought more control over Dr. Hansen's public statements.

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word "theory" needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."

The memo also noted that The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual specified the phrasing "Big Bang theory." Mr. Acosta, Mr. Deutsch's boss, said in an interview yesterday that for that reason, it should be used in all NASA documents.

The Deutsch memo was provided by an official at NASA headquarters who said he was upset with the effort to justify changes to descriptions of science by referring to politically charged issues like intelligent design. Senior NASA officials did not dispute the message's authenticity.

Mr. Wild declined to be interviewed; Mr. Deutsch did not respond to e-mail or phone messages. On Friday evening, repeated queries were made to the White House about how a young presidential appointee with no science background came to be supervising Web presentations on cosmology and interview requests to senior NASA scientists.

The only response came from Donald Tighe of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "Science is respected and protected and highly valued by the administration," he said.

Permit me to have my doubts on that.
This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue.

Tuesday 7 February 2006

Mark Steyn Nails It

From the Sun Times :
Very few societies are genuinely multicultural. Most are bicultural: On the one hand, there are folks who are black, white, gay, straight, pre-op transsexual, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, worshippers of global-warming doom-mongers, and they rub along as best they can. And on the other hand are folks who do not accept the give-and-take, the rough-and-tumble of a "diverse" "tolerant" society, and, when one gently raises the matter of their intolerance, they threaten to kill you, which makes the question somewhat moot.
Perhaps we're getting a little more acceptance as "just folks".
There aren't many pre-op transsexual Right Wing Death B*tches out there, but my readership isn't exactly huge, so it's probably just a coincidence.

Monday 6 February 2006

On My Way

I just received it on Friday, and am making arrangements to start work on the 13th.

Dear Ms Brain

I am pleased to offer you admission to a program of study at The Australian National University.

Program : Doctor of Philosophy, College of Engineering and Computer Science
Annual Program Fee : RTS place allocated

In addition, you have been awarded:
An Australian National University Miscellaneous Scholarship of $28,000 per annum, funded by the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

"RTS place allocated" means I won't have to pay any tuition, it's funded by the Research Training Scheme.

It does mean putting on hold certain contingency plans I had for surgery - the earliest I could qualify for it under the rather relaxed rules of my chosen surgeon in Thailand meant that I could have had it today. But there's a 3-month healing time, so the date I'm booked in for surgery is November 15th. Any facial feminisation surgery - assuming I can afford it, a big assumption, would have to wait till November 2007.

Transition is something that takes years, the same order of time as going through a "normal" puberty. Some somatic changes can still be expected after 7 years or more. But the majority of the change, 80% or so, takes about 2-3 years on hormones. So both projects - my doctorate, and my transition - should, providing nothing goes spectacularly wrong, be complete in about 3 years.

When I was 10 years old, in 1968, I had a number of ambitions, things I wanted to achieve in my life, if I could.

I'd seen "2001: A Space Odyssey", and I believed that that was what the future was probably going to look like in 2001. I wanted to be working on a space programme by then. Probably on a Lunar base, but maybe groundside, I wasn't fussy about the details.

I wanted to be a Geek Girl, an Engineer or Scientist, Probably an Astrophysicist, but I rather liked working with computers too. I figured that the silly mistake, me being streamed with the boys, would get itself corrected when I hit my teens, and it was obvious I was a girl. I'd even picked my new name, Zoe, after the Dr Who character who was something of a role model.

Naturally, I liked the sound of "Dr Brain", so a PhD was de rigeur one day.

I wanted children, and a family. I wasn't too clear on this "sex" business, I figured I'd have to somehow acquire a husband along the way. But again, I thought it would all become clear in due course.

I wanted to travel the world, and ever since I did a school project on the place when I was 7, I'd wanted to live in Australia.

Those were my ambitions, at age 10. Now just a few years later, I found out a few fundamental biological truths, that rather put the kibosh on a number of important items that I'd actually thought were the easiest bits. I took the news rather well considering, which is to say, I was devastated. Puberty is always difficult, for me it was just all wrong. I buried myself in studies, in reading, in anything I could, just to avoid thinking about it. And then I picked myself up by the bootstraps, and tried to do the best I could with what I had. I figured I wasn't a girl after all, I was a slightly screwed-up male, so I better start behaving like one. Motherhood was denied me, but Fatherhood was a good second best.

How many of my ambitions did I achieve? Pretty much all. One disappointment, I was infertile, so have only got one child, when I would have liked more. But he's such a wonderful little boy, he makes up in quality what he lacks in quantity. My best friend, my partner, co-parent and love of my life turned out to be female, so my having a male body was for the best after all, I have no complaints.

Then the impossible happened, and I started transitioning to myself, Zoe. And am now starting a doctorate. There's plenty that can go wrong of course, from me screwing up my thesis to drawing any one of a number of short-straws healthwise. But it's just possible that one 10-year-old girl's ambitions might actually come to fruition.

Time then for some new impossible dreams, starting at age 50. The first half of my life has been extraordinarily interesting and rather unusual. Hopefully the second half will be similar, perhaps even more interesting. And it promises to be even happier, though that was something I never really sought in the first half. Sorry to end on a down note, but for a transsexual, "happy" is not a state that they really know too much about. "Joy" , yes, they get that sometimes, but "contentment", "peace", and well, "happiness", no. They don't even know it exists - until and unless they transition.

You learn something new every day.

Sunday 5 February 2006

Offensive Behaviour

I haven't posted the "infamous 12" cartoons that originally appeared in a Danish Newspaper simply because I found a few of them mildly offensive, and I believe in good manners. I don't know many muslims, but some of those I do know would have cause to be mildly offended, and I don't want to do that.

But there has been such a grossly offensive reaction from even moderate Muslims that, in the interests of showing any reading this what the cartoons actually say, I'm posting them.

Here's one that has turned out to be woefully inaccurate.

Inaccurate because rather than the cartoon's point, that this is "no big deal" and that only completely a bigotted, fanatic and psychopathic tiny minority could over-react, it seems most Muslims are in that category after all. At least, that's what the objective evidence is pointing to.

Now some stuff that I find offensive.

The Blood Libel promulgated by Palestinians that Jews are butchering muslims for blood for religious sacrifices, and selling their organs overseas.

But we permit that in the name of "free speech" here, we don't go ape and threaten to disembowel or behead people. We figure that the truth will out in the end, with the Moonbats who shrilly shout the Big Lie revealed for what they are.

The propensity for everything Arabs and Muslims happen not to like at the moment is all the fault of the Jews. From Earthquakes in the Indian Ocean to Cartoons in Danish Newspapers, it's all a Zionist Jew plot. I find the insanity, hatred and denial of reality very offensive indeed, but again, there's a matter of Freedom of Speech.

I can't say I'm real keen when a "moderate" Islamic Cleric utters what could be interpreted by the uncharitable as a veiled threat :

A SENIOR Islamic cleric has called on Australia's media not to publish the cartoons which have sparked riots across the Muslim world.
Sheikh Fehmi El-Imam, the general secretary of the Board of Imams of Victoria, warned reprinting the cartoons here could "disturb people who can do things that we don't want them to do".

"In some parts of the world there is rioting against the Danish and the Dutch, we don't want that in Australia," the sheikh said today.

"Unfortunately, New Zealand has (published the cartoons) ... I'm trying to avoid, to put far away, any possibility of disturbing the peace in Australia."
Now if the cartoons had been really deliberately offensive, then maybe he would have a point. But it's gone beyond a question of "keeping the peace" now, it's a matter of submission to Bullying.

But still, "Freedom of Speech" means tolerating things that offend me. It's only when speech turns to offensive action that we call a halt to it.

Hundreds of Syrian demonstrators stormed the Danish Embassy in Damascus Saturday and set fire to the building, witnesses said.

The demonstrators were protesting offensive caricatures of Islam's Prophet Mohammed that were first published in a Danish newspaper several months ago.

Witnesses said the demonstrators set fire to the entire building, which also houses the embassies of Chile and Sweden.
And threats of any description go way beyond the bounds of Freedom of Speech.

We've taken this stuff without demur - no bombing of embassies, no death threats against the cartoonists.

Even cartoons depicting the Jews (who else) as being responsible for 9-11.

This has been interpreted by many Muslims as signs of weakness, or even agreement with the views expressed. Well enough is enough, and it's time to say to some that yes, this time we mean to be offensive, because you've offended us far too much, far too often, and you're showing signs of getting worse as time goes by.

If things like this:

Showing a cartoonist, blinds drawn, sweating in fear of some Crazed Islamic Loon knifing him because he dared draw a picture, offend your sensibilities so much that you want to knife him etc etc, then I cordially invite you to get Bent.

Are we afraid of you? Of course we are. So much so that we may have to do something we really don't want to do if you continue. By all means seeth, whine, froth at the mouth and make a spectacle of yourself. But actually start to implement your threats, and we will react accordingly. Not by waving a white flag, either.

Thursday 2 February 2006

Bush Declares Cold War II

From the State of the Union Address :
Abroad, our Nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal –: we seek the end of tyranny in our world. Some dismiss that goal as misguided idealism. In reality, the future security of America depends on it. On September 11th, 2001, we found that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state seven thousand miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country. Dictatorships shelter terrorists, feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction. Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors, and join the fight against terror. Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer, and so we will act boldly in freedom’s cause.

Far from being a hopeless dream, the advance of freedom is the great story of our time. In 1945, there were about two dozen lonely democracies on Earth. Today, there are 122. And we are writing a new chapter in the story of self-government – with women lining up to vote in Afghanistan … and millions of Iraqis marking their liberty with purple ink … and men and women from Lebanon to Egypt debating the rights of individuals and the necessity of freedom. At the start of 2006, more than half the people of our world live in democratic nations. And we do not forget the other half – in places like Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Iran – because the demands of justice, and the peace of this world, require their freedom as well.

No one can deny the success of freedom, but some men rage and fight against it. And one of the main sources of reaction and opposition is radical Islam – the perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death. Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder – and all of us must take their declared intentions seriously. They seek to impose a heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East, and arm themselves with weapons of mass murder. Their aim is to seize power in Iraq, and use it as a safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world. Lacking the military strength to challenge us directly, the terrorists have chosen the weapon of fear. When they murder children at a school in Beslan … or blow up commuters in London … or behead a bound captive … the terrorists hope these horrors will break our will, allowing the violent to inherit the Earth. But they have miscalculated: We love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it.

In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores. There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat. By allowing radical Islam to work its will – by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself – we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals, or even in our own courage. But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil.

America rejects the false comfort of isolationism. We are the Nation that saved liberty in Europe, and liberated death camps, and helped raise up democracies, and faced down an evil empire. Once again, we accept the call of history to deliver the oppressed, and move this world toward peace.

This is no less than a formal declaration of intent - the world isn't big enough for both Dictatorships and the US, as it stands.

Now it's buried in a "State of the Union" address, with a lot of verbiage. Yet it's a declaration of intent to overthrow the governments of other nations, in the name of "Self-Defence".

"Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Iran" are specifically named.

For those who believe in the total sanctity of the current world order, where no atrocity or barbarity is too great to be tolerated, as long as it doesn't spill over national borders, this should be very worrying indeed.

To those who are afraid that the US Military will run rough-shod over everyone, then they can relax. It's a declaration of intent, just that. Any opportunity that presents itself will be taken up, but right now, no-one in the US Government has the foggiest idea how to implement the intent in detail. Military intervention in most of the places named would, today, be "counter-productive", to say the least. Military intervention should never be the first resort anyway, you always end up with innocents slain, though often not nearly as many as if you do nothing.

But it's not clear if President Bush is speaking for the US, for the US Republican Party, or just for his current Administration. Cold Wars last decades, generations, over many administrations. Even if he does elucidate a broadly bipartisan policy that may have to last 50 years or more, it's not certain that the war will be actively prosecuted throughout this period. There will be "Hudnas", "Armistices", "Periods of Detente", where one or both sides seek to reduce disadvantages or just to have a pause in the conflict, with a view to a longer-term peaceful co-existence.

The lesson of 9-11 may have to be re-learnt, just as the lesson of Pearl Harbor - that Isolationism is Not An Option - had to be re-learnt.

But as far as I know, this is the first time that US aims have been exlicity stated : to make the world safe for Democracy, not by erecting a mighty fortress that no Dictatorships can breach, but by venturing into their lairs, no matter where they are, and exterminating them. How, they don't know, and can't know. But over time, in dribs and drabs, by subversion, by diplomacy, by military action, or just by waiting till they collapse under their own weight, the US has signalled its intent.

Interesting Times.

Cultural Meaning and Meaninglessness

Your data suggest a moderate automatic identification with Asian compared to White.

That was the reply I got from the Project Implicit test to see if I identified more strongly with "Asian" or "White".

The trouble is, that in my view, these two aren't orthogonal. Oh I know it's supposed to be about the great bugaboo of US society, "Race".


But I see "Asian" as being a geographical, rather than cultural (and certainly not racial) category. "White" is just a colour, like "Cerise", or "Duck-Egg Blue".

I Identify as Asian because Australia is the bit that's stuck at the SE corner of Asia, the way that the UK is the bit in the NW of Europe. I'm more likely to know people called "Nguyen" than I am "Miller", for example, because "Nguyen" is such a very common Vietnamese name, whereas "Miller" is nowhere near as common as "Smith" or even "Jones", alas.

"White"? No, somatically I'm caucasian. No-one who's been exposed to the Australian sun is "white", cauucasians are all various shades of light brown-pink. I just don't see the big deal here.

Now in Thailand, I'm a Farang, short for Farang-say, Francais, French. As are all people with big noses and round eyes. It's not a term of opporobrium, just a shorthand form for people who aren't the normal run-of-the-mill Thai, Khmer, Hmong, Mao, Karen, Burmese, or any of the other racial groups found in that very diverse, polyglot and multicultural society.

As for the questions about "The country needs a strong leader to get us out of this mess" Puh Leez. I mean, I identify as "moderately conservative", not "Fascist Jack-booted".

The test says far more about the prejudices and unspoken assumptions about the tester, than the subjects.

Wednesday 1 February 2006

Left, Right, Male and Female Brains

Another one from the New Scientist :
Men and women's brains use different strategies to remember highly emotional images, according to a new brain imaging study. The discovery helps explain how women manage to remember emotional events better than men, something psychologists have known for years.

"It's hard evidence that there are differences in the brains of men and women," says Stephen Maren, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, commenting on the research.

He thinks that evolution may explain the differences. Women tend to be caregivers, more empathetic and more verbal: "Those traits are reflected in brain mechanisms."

In the study, Turhan Canli, at the State University of New York at Stony brook, and his colleagues asked 12 women and 12 men to view a selection of images while their brains were being scanned by functional MRI.

Some were neutral pictures of things such as fire hydrants and bookshelves. But others were disturbing - of mutilated bodies and autopsies. Volunteers had to rate each image on a four-point scale for emotional intensity.
Without warning

Three weeks later, without warning, the volunteers were shown all the images again, plus 48 previously unseen images. They were asked to say whether they remembered the images clearly, only vaguely, or not at all.

One hypothesis for why women remember emotional events better than men is that they experience it more deeply - that is, they have the same brain activation but it is stronger. Another theory is that men and women experience and encode emotional memories in completely different ways.

The researchers found that even when both sexes rated an image as "highly emotionally intense", women were better at remembering it three weeks later. They also discovered that men and women really do recruit different parts of their brains during emotional experiences. Women had more activation in their left brains, and men in their right.

More importantly, for women the experiencing and the encoding used many of the same brain regions; in men it did not. "For whatever reason, it seems that integration of emotional experiences and encoding to memory is much tighter in women than in men," says Canli. "But it's unclear what could produce this phenomenon."

Maren also wonders if men and women just find different things arousing. This study used "disgust" to arouse emotions -- but what if they had used rage or aggression or pornography? "Are men worse across the board, or just in this type of arousing images?" he asks.

No bet.

The trouble with all of these studies is that the sample size is so small - double figures.

Such studies are indicative, useful for deciding which lines of research to pursue further, yet follow-ups are rare.

Ideally, an experiment like this should have an order of magnitude more subjects. Also, in an ideal world, once baseline data had been accumulated, people who identify as "transsexual", or with misgendered brains, should also be invited to take part. This might, once and for all, pin down TS as a biological "birth defect", or aklternatively, provide strong evidence that it isn't.

The trouble with doing such research is that there's strong opposition to it. There's a strong Feminist subgroup who holds as an article of Faith that any experiment designed to highlight differences in the way males and females think will be used as yet another tool of Male Oppression. I wish I could say they were totally, rather than almost totally, wrong.

As for Transsexuals, many quite understandably rebel against the notion that they may somehow be "defective". Some just believe in the Glories of Human Diversity, and that any attempt at understanding or ascertaining a biological cause would be used as a tool to discriminate against anyone who feels transgendered, but who doesn't "pass the test". Ultimately, they say that the only way of telling someone's gender is to ask them, and they have a point.

The GLBITQ lobby is also unenthused : for them, Transsexuality is a matter of choice, a choice and a right they defend. Anything that contradicts this thesis is not something they want any part of. And parenthetically, that's why I've had little to do with them. I don't identify as "Queer" or "Transgendered", just a human being with a Female brain and a formerly-male body. A woman who should by her genes have been born with a male mind, but wasn't. In short, a woman.

Me? I say the more we know, the better, and let the cards fall as they may. I personally am convinced from the existing evidence that most, if not all transsexuality is adequately explained by the Dorner Hypothesis, dating back 15 years now.
The Dorner hypothesis proposed that transsexualism is the result of this imprinting in utero. Contrary variation in the testosterone-estrogen ratio causes contrary differentiation of the hypothalamus and related structures in the brain. This results in gender identity and later body-image opposite to gonadal sex. As the sex hormone ratio influences errors of genital dimorphism, transsexualism appears to be a sex error at the level of brain dimorphism. A transsexual's neurological pathways have been laid down opposite to the vector of gonadal differentiation. Once the neuro-endocrine critical period is closed, the pathways reify and it is impossible to change them. Many professionals have noted that transsexuals are notoriously refractory to psycho-therapy. They pursue their cross-gender drives in snow-ball fashion to the point of sex reassignment with a motivation and determination that is hard to explain as other than a biological imperative.

To summarize so far, transsexualism probably is a sex error of the body at the level of brain dimorphism. It is not a matter of choice. It is probably caused by previous stages of neurosexual differentiation; at the level of fetal hormones, testosterone-estrogen ratio is imbalanced due to a defect in fetal gonadal development at the molecular level. This may be determined by the absence or presence of certain genes in the TDF cascade.

Each gene produces an enzyme responsible for correct genetic transcription of instructions for gonadal, hormonal, and neurosexual pathways. When these are disturbed, a small change at the level of the genes can have devastating consequences at the level of the person in society. Correct understanding of this phenomenon will probably be at the molecular genetic level.
That from an article (C) 1991 - before the Dutch experimental results showing differences in BSTc layers bvetween males and females, with MtoF transsexuals having Female patterns. We've had nothing but confirmatory evidence since then, though as I said, the individual sample sizes are far too small for confidence. In aggregate though, there are so many pieces of evidence that the brain is sexually dimorphic, and so many other pieces of evidence that suggest that Intersex is certain to happen in some proportion of neurological development, that I'm convinced.

And yet the most powerful opposition appears to be from religious groups, in an unholy alliance with some psychiatrists who have little understanding of biology, but are fanatic disciples of one or more popular psychiatric cults, such as Freudians or Jungians. I use the word "cult" advisedly : for they have taken some useful core truths, observations and insights, and constructed quite amazingly convoluted intellectual theories from them, backed up with little or no scientific evidence, and not even a lot of anecdote. They aren't to be blamed overmuch though : they're in the same position mainstream medicine was in before the discovery of the germ theory of disease, or even the human circulatory system.

It's ironic that a lot of the opposition to mainstream psychiatry comes from another, far more pernicious and scientifically dubious cult : that of Scientology. So no matter how much superstition is in psychiatry, I prefer the Bad to the Worse.

The Conspiracy Theorist Chemical

From New Scientist :
Whether or not you believe in the paranormal may depend entirely on your brain chemistry. People with high levels of dopamine are more likely to find significance in coincidences, and pick out meaning and patterns where there are none.

Peter Brugger, a neurologist from the University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, has suggested before that people who believe in the paranormal often seem to be more willing to see patterns or relationships between events where sceptics perceive nothing.

To find out what could be triggering these thoughts, Brugger persuaded 20 self-confessed believers and 20 sceptics to take part in an experiment.

Brugger and his colleagues asked the two groups to distinguish real faces from scrambled faces as the images were flashed up briefly on a screen. The volunteers then did a similar task, this time identifying real words from made-up ones.

Believers were much more likely than sceptics to see a word or face when there was not one, Brugger revealed last week at a meeting of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies in Paris. However, sceptics were more likely to miss real faces and words when they appeared on the screen.

The researchers then gave the volunteers a drug called L-dopa, which is usually used to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson's disease by increasing levels of dopamine in the brain.

Both groups made more mistakes under the influence of the drug, but the sceptics became more likely to interpret scrambled words or faces as the real thing.

That suggests that paranormal thoughts are associated with high levels of dopamine in the brain, and the L-dopa makes sceptics less sceptical. "Dopamine seems to help people see patterns," says Brugger.

However, the single dose of the drug did not seem to increase the tendency of believers to see coincidences or relationships between the words and images.

That could mean that there is a plateau effect for them, with more dopamine having relatively little effect above a certain threshold, says Peter Krummenacher, one of Brugger's colleagues.

Dopamine is an important chemical involved in the brain's reward and motivation system, and in addiction. Its role in the reward system may be to help us decide whether information is relevant or irrelevant, says Franهoise Schenk from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.