Casual trans-erasure

Yesterday, the House of Lords had a debate, among other things, on ‘Populism and Nationalism’. (Such a vague title should already smell of bullshit.) The transcript of the debate is at Hansard (and the relevant section can also be heard on iPlayer here). Among other speakers, Lord Blencathra (Conservative) gave a critical view of Obama:

Tomorrow, we will be rid of the most useless American President I have ever seen in my entire lifetime, whose only legacy is rhetoric. He has withdrawn America from the world stage and left a disastrous vacuum that has been filled by Putin and China. […] But never mind, he has his place in history: the next time I visit the United States, I will be able to use the transgender toilets.

I quote President Obama because I consider him to be a perfect example of the liberal international order which is now being routed around the world. […] Mr Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the Guardian on 13 October, says:

“Liberal internationalists have to own up: we left too many people behind”.

The phrase ‘transgender toilets’ was a reference to the North Carolina bill, whose passage now grants transgender people the right to use whichever public toilet they feel more comfortable using.

It really struck me that Lord Blencathra chose to use the issue of transgender toilets as an example of a trivial, unimportant piece of legislation pushed by ‘liberal internationalists’. Indeed the number of transgender people is relatively small, but for some reason this is taken to imply that transgender people form a sort of elite (unlike, say, Ministers of State, Members of the House of Lords, or Tory Party Chief Whips). Perhaps most worryingly, he views a civil rights victory for a discriminated-against group not as a step towards a more equal society to be celebrated, but instead, ironically, as an example of everybody else being left behind.

The legal battle for transgender rights is nowhere near won (and not to mention the cultural and social changes that will need to take place). A new bill being tabled in Texas will require transgender people to use the toilets corresponding to their birth sex, in the name of ‘common sense, common decency and public safety’. It remains to be seen what stance the new President will take, but given that the bill comes from his heartland supporters, I am not optimistic.

People need homes, and empty spaces need people

I read in the Independent about a group of Oxford students and activists who have occupied one of the many unused buildings around the city to house the city’s rough sleepers:

(Incidentally, the Independent website runs rather a lot of third-party Javascript programs, so you may want to use NoScript or somesuch when using it. More on this in the future…)

I think there is plenty of scope for a similar project at Cambridge. There are sites owned by university or colleges which lie unused. These include the former site of the Mahal and Dojo’s, next to the Mill Lane lecture theatres, which a consortium of colleges (including, I am ashamed to say, Queens’) bought four years ago with the intention of turning it into student accommodation. The existing businesses, which had been part of the fabric of Cambridge’s culture, were evicted while the colleges knew that they did not have the finances to actually build their accommodation blocks. Other sites include prime locations on Market Square, including the former pasty shop which was forced out of business by a rent increase two years ago, and has since lain dormant.

These are good examples of market failure, but a deeper fallacy is to think that these unwise decisions are bad for the owners of the buildings but hurt nobody else. An unused or abandoned building brings social costs. Homelessness is not an economic choice, but a situation of having no choice. When we remember that being housed is a human right, perhaps we will stop referring to buildings as ‘properties’ and treating them as investments.

A monopoly on communication

I came across this article by Salim Virani which describes some of the transgressions that Facebook makes. This goes well with Richard Stallman’s Reasons not to be used by Facebook.

It is more convincing, however, to read the list, prepared by Facebook itself, of a subset of the data that it collects (and saves permanently). Every search, every message, every defriending, every poke. They let you download and view a subset of this subset. For me, this download comes to around 80MB (of which around 31MB is ‘private’ messages).

xkcd: Infrastructures

xkcd: Infrastructures

A few months ago, Facebook disabled Messages on its mobile website in an attempt to get people to download the Messenger app. I refuse to do that, and because of that, I now mostly use SMS messages and emails to contact most of my friends or contacts. (There is a workaround by using the ‘basic mobile’ website, which offers limited (but sufficient) functionality.) Completely leaving Facebook has proved difficult because (a) there isn’t an adequate substitute for group chat, and (b) there are some people for whom I have no other means of contacting. When we meet new people, we no longer share contact details such as our email (or physical) addresses or phone numbers: The default is to add newly-met people on Facebook and to conduct all communication there (and asking for other contact details is seen, ironically, as too personal).

A first step towards society moving away from Facebook should be that we start sharing our contact details properly, as we used to. Mine are available on the home page of this website, and I invite you to tell me yours as well.


  • For group chat, WhatsApp and Skype are problematic for the same reasons. Regretfully, IRC and XMPP are not so widely used, even though they have good merits as open and decentralised protocols. Part of the reason is that Windows and OS X do not ship with an IRC client.
  • This is not primarily about privacy or security. Like any other form of communication, emails, SMS messages and IRC may be intercepted. The advantage of these systems is that they are decentralised, in the sense that your communications are not controlled by a single company. You can switch between email and mobile providers quite easily.
    • Unfortunately, many people’s personal emails are from Google Mail or Yahoo! Mail, which means their email address–that is, part of their identity–is tied to Google or Yahoo!.
    • Although WhatsApp and Skype promise end-to-end encryption, they are closed-source, centralised systems and you have no guarantee of it.
    • Encrypting emails is relatively straightforward using tools such as Enigmail.
  • While they are useful as soapboxes, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and such are vulnerable to censorship (as discussed in Virani’s post) and therefore should not be exclusively relied upon.
    • An article such as this one (written to, stored on and displayed from my personal website) is at the mercy of only my ISP (currently the SRCF at the University of Cambridge), which would have no motive in taking down this website, and even then I could switch to a different ISP. (Unless, for example, my ISP receives a court order for a takedown, for example if I write hate speech.)
  • On either privacy or censorship, there is little that you can do against a sufficiently determined eavesdropper or adversary. Courts can order takedowns and intelligence services and police have the technical capability to tap lines and crack passwords. Whether they should use these privileges is a subject for policymakers, but there is no reason to give Facebook these privileges as well.

Fractal awfulness

The mathematical justification for the adage ‘never read the comments’ is the notion of ‘fractal awfulness’. This says that there exist arbitrarily petty people that have misguided or bigoted views about decreasingly small communities, and that their inflammatory language and style are all self-similar to each other.

It would be interesting to look for a scaling law between ‘number of people who have/identify as X’ and ‘number of people who have a negative view of people who have/identify as X’.


I read this article in The Economist a few weeks ago, and it said what I’d thought for a while, but didn’t yet have the words to say: However, with Donald Trump’s recent interactions with Taiwan, and the One-China policy coming to international attention, it seems like an apt time to bring it up (and in fact I agree with him to some extent).

The People’s Republic of China discriminates heavily against ethnic minorities within its borders, but it also claims power over people whom it decides should be Chinese, based on ethnic lines and with no regard for nationality laws. This includes Han Chinese people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and to a lesser extent the west (including people such as Priscilla Chan, philanthropist and wife of Mark Zuckerberg). According to Wikipedia, there are around 50 million overseas Chinese, many of whose families emigrated before the founding of the PRC in 1949. My grandparents’ generation settled in British Hong Kong in the late ’30s, around the time of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and most of us have not ever held a PRC passport.

The One-China policy was originally a concept of the Civil War and later the Cold War, but then it was a matter of political control: Which party should have power over these lands, and should they be run as a right-wing dictatorship or a communist dictatorship? But it has since been perverted into a notion of ethnic nationalism, with the help of Mao’s policy of discouraging localism in favour of national loyalty. Many Mainland Chinese today are blind to the idea that a member of the diaspora might not speak any form of Chinese, might not know anybody in China, and might have no loyalty to the PRC.

Part of the problem is terminology: The English term ‘Chinese’ does not distinguish between the different terms of ‘華人’, ‘唐人’, ‘漢人’ and ‘中國人’, although these terms are also used sloppily, and the term ‘Chinese language’ usually refers to Mandarin and simplified characters (a bias that is then increasingly reinforced).

The exclusionary statements ‘You are not truly one of us’ or ‘Go back to where you came from’ are widely-known prototypes of racism, but the inclusionary ‘You should be one of us’, ‘Come back to where you came from’ and ‘You should be loyal to us’ are less often thought about, yet possibly more insidious. Firstly, it shows a lack of respect for international law and allows them to justify, amongst themselves, the kidnapping of foreign citizens such as the Hong Kong booksellers. More harmfully, it can cause other nations to become suspicious of, or hostile towards, the diaspora populations who live there.

Seat assignment at Portland airport

I am currently waiting at Portland airport for the first of my flights back to Britain, after the APS DFD conference (which may be the subject of a future post).

One strange aspect of this airport is the way that seats will be assigned. At all other instances of flying, I have always been able to select a seat while checking in, before waiting at the gate. Here (and perhaps it’s specific to the airline Delta), people have not had their seats assigned to them yet; the gate staff is calling people up to the desk, one by one, to give us our seats.

This system is slow and inefficient. Moreover, calling people up by publicly announcing the names on our passports has questionable privacy implications: In particular, for transgender people who do not necessarily go by the names on their passports. (This provides another counterexample to the ‘nothing to hide’ argument.)

Voter turnout for student elections and referenda

After the summer’s referendum on the EU which had the whole nation in discussion (even if the level of discourse was rather poor), the recent CUSU referendum has been much more low-profile and somewhat of a climbdown. The topic in question was the class lists, Cambridge’s traditional (and unique) practice of publishing lists of all students’ examination results, both physically outside the Senate House and in print and online, in the Reporter. The question put forward was: ‘Should CUSU campaign to keep the Class Lists with an easier opt- out process?’. Proponents argued that publishing results is useful for combating impostor syndrome, and that class lists are a Cambridge tradition that should not be allowed to die, while an unconditional opt-out procedure would make participation voluntary. Opponents argued that having one’s results published causes stress and that an opt-out system would still allow the best to boast about themselves, and that the most stressed students could find it hard to request an opt-out, even if the procedure was unconditional.

I found about about the referendum only four hours before voting closed, thanks to an email from the Trinity Maths Society’s president. The referendum was not advertised by CUSU, except being mentioned in passing in two newsletters. I therefore suspected that the turnout would be rather low, and that the legitimacy of the referendum would be questionable. I was quite surprised by the turnout: 4,758 votes cast, out of an electorate of 23,615, or 20%. (The proponents won by a margin of around 500 votes.)

For comparison, the referendum to disaffiliate from the NUS, back in May 2016, had a turnout of 6,178 out of 21,479, or 29%. Queens’ JCR’s referenda in Michaelmas 2011, one motion being ‘Queens’ College JCR should oppose the current government changes to higher education’, had a turnout of 34%.

It would be interesting to study voter turnouts at different colleges’ JCR and MCR elections. In which colleges are students most keen to take part in the way their college is run?

The ‘Prevent’ strategy in practice

I took a look at my primary school’s website today, out of nostalgia. I had generally remembered it rather fondly as a fairly diverse and laid-back environment (to be contrasted against my secondary school, with its strict uniform policies, school prayers and extremely heavy workload). Therefore, it was a little alarming (but also amusing) to look at the website’s description of the school’s values. They include:

‘How British values are promoted at Broomgrove Junior School.’

‘Our curriculum is designed to ensure that our children have the opportunity to learn and reflect on the British values that underpin our lives.’

‘The School Council ensures that all children can influence decision making through the democratic processes.’

‘through promoting British values, our children will become responsible citizens for the future’

You might spot a theme here. Even though only a couple of teachers from my own time are still around, I doubt the entire ethos of the school will have changed particularly heavily over fifteen years: There haven’t been huge changes in local demographics, even if the local university has expanded.

While the ‘Prevent’ strategy, in which David Cameron and Theresa May have tried to prevent radicalisation by encouraging schools to promote ‘British values’ (and to report suspicious children, and those who don’t speak English at home), I’m beginning to suspect that all it served to do was to force teachers to spend their precious time and effort in updating their schools’ websites and vision statements.