Britain’s High Court restricts medical treatment of teenagers who identify as transsexual

Lately we’ve been talking about several issues related to transsexual people, in particular the senses in which they can or should be distinguished from people of their biological sex, including their participation in sports; possible effects (or lack thereof) of hormone treatment; and recent books that call for caution in supporting and medically treating gender-dysphoric teenagers who may later regret actions taken when they weren’t capable of informed consent. While I think the discussion has been rational and certainly not “transphobic”, I’ve nevertheless been the recipient of a spate of emails, often nasty ones, excoriating me for promoting an “anti-trans” agenda. I’ve resisted the temptation to respond with recommendations for self-copulation.

The last issue, treatment of young children (mostly girls), is the subject of today’s post. It turns out that yesterday Britain’s High Court ruled that children under 16—and perhaps those between 16 and 18—might have to have a court ruling before they’re allowed to take “puberty blockers”, a somewhat reversible treatment that stops puberty in its tracks. Taking these blockers is usually the first step in further transitioning involving irreversible treatments like cross-sex hormone treatment or surgery. The court ruled that under-16s are largely incapable of giving “informed consent.” You can read about this case in the three article below from the BBC, The Guardian, and The Times of London (click on screenshots to access articles).

From the BBC:

From The Guardian:

From the Times (paywalled):

The High Court decision came in a case brought by two people against the Tavistock and Portman National Heath Service Trust, the clinic in England that counsels and treats those who consider themselves transsexual. One of the cases was brought by Keira Bell, 23, shown in the pictures above. She was treated with puberty blockers at Tavistock after she was referred there at 16, and regrets it. (I’m not implying that most teenagers later regret such treatment, as I have no data on that, but I suspect most of them have no regrets. Nevertheless, if an appreciable number do, that’s a reason for caution.)

The other person bringing the case was “Mrs. A”, the mother of a 15-year-old autistic girl who is awaiting treatment at Tavistock “Mrs. A.” is worried that her daughter will “get it wrong” before she can make a mature decision.

There are a fair number of young girls who have sought and received treatment at Tavistock: the paper reports that, in the last year, 161 children were referred to the Gender Identity Development Services (GIDS), and of these three were 10 or 11 years old and 95—nearly 60%—were under 16. The Times notes that those seeking treatment involve “a disproportionate amount of girls and young women.”  These numbers have been growing rapidly, from 97 children and young people referred to the clinic compared to 2,591 in 2018. Here’s a plot I showed recently:

Here’s a plot from a paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior showing the number of people referred each year to the UK’s Gender Identity Development Service. It shows the strong rise in referrals of adolescent females compared to males, and some rise in children as well. In the last 7 years it seems to have gone from fewer then 40 to over 1700 in adolescent females—a roughly 43-fold increase!

We don’t know the reason for this rapid increase: among suggested causes are a freer climate that allows children to express their gender identities, or a faddishness that turns troubled or confused children to a form of treatment that is heavily supported and often makes them into a type of hero.

Regardless, here’s the papers’ summary of the High Court ruling (you can read the full ruling here); this is from The Guardian:

In their decision, Dame Victoria Sharp, president of the Queen’s bench division, Lord Justice Lewis and Mrs Justice Lieven, said a child under the age of 16 may only consent to the use of medication intended to suppress puberty “where he or she is competent to understand the nature of the treatment”.

Such an understanding must include “the immediate and long-term consequences of the treatment, the limited evidence available as to its efficacy or purpose, the fact that the vast majority of patients proceed to the use of cross-sex hormones, and its potential life-changing consequences for a child”.

The judges said there would be enormous difficulties for young children weighing up this information and deciding whether to consent to the use of puberty blocking medication.

“It is highly unlikely that a child aged 13 or under would be competent to give consent to the administration of puberty blockers,” the judges added. “It is doubtful that a child aged 14 or 15 could understand and weigh the long-term risks and consequences of the administration of puberty blockers.”

For treatment of those over 16 it is normally presumed that they have the ability to give consent. But in gender reassignment cases where puberty blockers may lead to subsequent surgical operations, the judges said: “Given the long-term consequences of the clinical interventions at issue in this case, and given that the treatment is as yet innovative and experimental, we recognise that clinicians may well regard these as cases where the authorisation of the court should be sought prior to commencing the clinical treatment.”

The NHS, which is appealing the judgement, has immediately stopped the inception of puberty-blocking as well as cross-sex hormone treatment, and issued some statements. From the BBC:

An NHS spokesperson said: “We welcome the clarity which the court’s decision brings. The Tavistock have immediately suspended new referrals for puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for the under-16s, which in future will only be permitted where a court specifically authorises it.”

In September, the NHS announced an independent review into gender identity services for children and young people.

The Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust said it was “disappointed by today’s judgment and we understand that the outcome is likely to cause anxiety for patients and their families”.

It added: “Our first duty is to our patients, particularly those currently receiving hormone blocking treatment, and we are working with our partners, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, to provide support for patients concerned about the impact on their care.”

In contrast, groups like the “trans children’s charity Mermaids” decried the decision:

Lui Asquith, from trans children’s charity Mermaids, said the ruling was a “devastating blow” and “a potential catastrophe for trans young people across the country”.

The charity said: “We believe very strongly that every young person has the right to make their own decisions about their body and that should not differ because somebody is trans.”

You can see more about Mermaids’ reaction here. But their last statement skirts the question that the Court was asked to decide: How old must you be before you are capable of making a medical decision that may be irreversible?  And it’s not just trans people to whom this applies: what if a 13-year-old boy wanted his penis removed because he didn’t like it? Should he be able to make “his own decision about his body”?

I think that reasonable people should agree that there is an age below which a child isn’t deemed capable of making a medical decision like these, even if they feel strongly that they are transsexual.  Surely 6 is too young and 20 sufficiently old to make a “mature” judgement. But it’s also clear that children differ in the level of “maturity”, so there might be some flexibility (though there isn’t in things like drinking ages). The court, in ruling that 16 is a cut-off point, was surely being subjective, and they realized it, for they affirmed that even older teenagers might require a court judgment to begin puberty blockers. For those younger than 16, it seems reasonable to me to wait until they turn 16 until they can give “informed consent,” or be able to bring their case to legal judgement.

Those who think that 10-year-olds should be able to make their own decisions, and take puberty blockers or cross-sex hormone treatment at will (counseling is surely required), seem to me unreasonable. After all, courts have set age limits for other decisions that require “informed consent”, like age limits for statutory rape (in Illinois, 17 is the legal age of consent for sexual acts). It’s a sign of the valorization of all desires to be transsexual that a charity like Mermaids wants anyone, no matter how old, to have their own decisions not just respected, but acted upon.

Is Cancel Culture coming for you?

Lee Jussim is a professor, social psychologist, and chair of the Psychology Department at Rutgers. We’ve met him spoofing wokeness before, though one spoof was removed by Psychology Today, the place where he blogs.  Cancellation has thus been on his mind, and his latest piece at Psychology Today (click on the title screenshot below) is far more serious, though not without some humor. In part, the humor resides in this Venn diagram, showing Cancel Culture sitting at the intersection of three forms of behavior:

But most of the article is pretty serious, outlining the forms of opprobrium you receive during the Cancellation Experience.  In a future post, Jussim promises to tell us “how to defend against a cancellation attack”. Here I’ll list the ten ways Jussim lists about how to discern your imminent “erasure.” Be sure to read the gloss he gives on each step (I’ll give just two). Jussim’s words are indented; mine are flush left.

1.) You are being denounced, not criticized.

Criticism means someone says “your ideas are factually incorrect or illogical” or “I disagree with you.”  They explain why.  You then can defend your ideas.  A discussion ensues, with or without your critic, perhaps with others.  Everyone gets closer to enlightenment.  Or they don’t.

Lee Jussim

A denunciation is entirely different. Your ideas are not being addressed in any way.  Instead, you are accused of doing something deplorable.  You might be accused of racism, sexism, transphobia, or some other form of bigotry.  You might be accused of causing unidentified flying “harms,” and of making people “unsafe.” For example, David Shor was targeted by a mob of his co-workers, and ultimately fired, after tweeting a link to a political science paper showing that peaceful protests win over more support than do violent ones (he was accused of making his coworkers “unsafe”). For a list of such attacks, go here.

Accusations of “harm” or making people “unsafe” may seem bizarre to most people. And they are right. An idea cannot “harm” someone at least not without some strangely Orwellian twisting of what “harm” means.  BUT, it is a brilliant propaganda and tactical move.

  • By claiming “harm,” your attackers are not disagreeing with you; they are claiming victim status!  And with the rise of victimhood culture, this gives them power.
  • They can now contact Human Resources or your boss to get you fired.  No one can make a case for firing you because they disagree with you.  But if you are causing “harm”? Now HR can get involved, launch an investigation, and may the gods help you if your tracks are anything but pristine.

2.) It’s a mob [JAC: not a single person, and the mob usually uses social media]

3.) Public shaming

4.) Flagrant disregard for truth, evidence, or logic [JAC: more on this later today]

5.) Flagrant rejection of due processes. 

6.) Deplatforming you.

7.) Attempt to isolate you by stigmatizing anyone who might support you.

8.) Moral grandstanding.

 Moral grandstanding refers to publicly taking moral positions to advance one’s self-interest in some way, usually one’s social status (e.g., esteem or respect among peers).  One gets on a soapbox to prove one’s moral worth and gain status by denouncing others’ moral corruption and filth.1

For example, if being antiracist conveys status, people will be incentivized to denounce you as a racist.  They need not necessarily care much whether you are actually racist.  But the louder they denounce you as a racist, the more they show the world their antiracist bona fides, so they win, even if they are wrong about you.  Moral grandstanding can whip a mob into a frenzy:

Denouncer 1: “Joe is a racist!”

Denouncer 2: “Joe is not just a racist, he is the most vicious racist in this company!”

Denouncer 3: “Joe is not just the most vicious racist in the company, he’s a literal Nazi!”

9.) Gaslighting.

10.) They contact your employer or supervisor. 

Many cases of attempted cancellation show nearly all of these features. If the target is famous, like J. K. Rowling, then #10 is out, but she did experience the other nine. Dorian Abbot, a professor targeted at my own university, experienced all ten, but the university refused to truckle to the mob. He’ll surely be shunned by many in his department, which is still a form of cancellation, but university punishment is off the table.


h/t: Greg Mayer, Brian Leiter

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ emotion-based argument

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “deal”, came with the email message, “It’s been a while since they did the X-Factor routine.”  Once again the Divine Duo are hoist with their own petard; for more on motivated reasoning, go here.

And some blurbing for the author’s work:

If you enjoy Jesus & Mo and want to keep them on stage, you can help by becoming a patron here,

The latest J&M collection has a foreword by Jerry Coyne.

The other books are available here. 


Readers’ wildlife photos

I importune you once again: send in your good wildlife photos.

Today Stephen Barnard is back with some lovely bird photos. His narrative is indented; click photos to enlarge.

Here are some Northern Harrier [Circus hudsonius] shots from yesterday afternoon. There were two birds in female plumage “harrying” flocks of mallards in Loving Creek, looking for cripples. The healthy ducks mostly ignore them. They seemed to work as a team, or at least were closely interacting. It’s common to see a male and a female hunting together, but I was a little surprised to see two females apparently cooperating. I may have it all wrong, though. Maybe they were competing. I’ve included an old photo of a male in breeding plumage for comparison.


Wednesday: Hili dialogue

Good morning on the weekly Hump Day: Wednesday, December 2, 2020. Remember that Coynezaa, your proprietor’s personal holiday, begins in only 23 days, and lasts until December 30.

It’s National Fritters Day, and there are few appetizers or side dishes better than a nice corn fritter, especially with syrup. There are other kinds of fritters, but corn is the king:

It’s also Business of Popping Corn Day, Choose Women Wednesday (Biden did!), Safety Razor Day, International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, and Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Day (watch for owls!).

News of the Day:

Good news for Britain! Yesterday the government gave emergency authorization for distribution of the Pfizer vaccine, and Brits could begin getting vaccinated (healthcare workers first, of course) as early as next week. They beat the U.S., but this is a race in which nobody loses, and I urge my friends across the pond to get their jabs as soon as they can. In the U.S., a September Pew poll showed that only 51% of all American adults would “definitely” or “probably” take the Covid-19 shot. I think that’s a foolish decision given that the vaccination will be FDA approved. (Of course, we don’t know the very long-term consequences of the shot, but I, for one, would be glad to risk them.)

More trouble for the Trump administration, potentially involving the Orange Man himself:  the Justice Department is investigating a pay-for-pardons sceme in which undisclosed person may have funneled money to the White House “or related political committees” in return for pardons. Of course pardons can come only from the President. Stay tuned.

Speaking of the Justice Department, its head—attorney general William Barr—severely undercut his close buddy, President-Eject Trump, by affirming that his department found no evidence of voter fraud that would have changed the election results. And Mitch “666” McConnell tacitly admitted that Trump lost:

“After the first of the year, there is likely to be a discussion about some additional package of some size next year, depending upon what the new administration wants to pursue,” Mr. McConnell said at a news conference.

According to the NYT and witnesses who were on the spot, four men appeared to remove the famous and enigmatic metal monolith in the Utah deserts. We still don’t know who they are, nor whether they had anything to do with the monolith’s erection. Nobody is being charged with a crime. Here’s two NYT photos of the removal:

Photos by Michael James Newlands

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 270,627, a big increase of about 2,600 from yesterday’s figure, representing about 1.8 people dying per minute.  The world death toll is 1,488,734, another big increase of about 13,000 over yesterday’s report—about nine deaths per minute. 

Stuff that happened on December 2 includes:

  • 1697 – St Paul’s Cathedral is consecrated in London.
  • 1763 – Dedication of the Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, the first synagogue in what will become the United States.

The synagogue still stands—the oldest in North America. Here are the exterior and interior.

As depicted by Jacques-Louis David:

Joséphine kneels before Napoléon during his coronation at Notre Dame. Behind him sits pope Pius VII.
  • 1823 – Monroe Doctrine: In a State of the Union message, U.S. President James Monroe proclaims American neutrality in future European conflicts, and warns European powers not to interfere in the Americas.
  • 1859 – Militant abolitionist leader John Brown is hanged for his October 16 raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
  • 1865 – Alabama ratifies 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, followed by North Carolina then Georgia, and U.S. slaves were legally free within two weeks
  • 1867 – At Tremont Temple in Boston, British author Charles Dickens gives his first public reading in the United States.

Here’s Dickens in New York on that American tour:

  • 1908 – Puyi becomes Emperor of China at the age of two.

Here he is as a young Emperor; his exploits were depicted in Bertolucci’s film, “The Last Emperor”. Puyi, after being imprisoned for ten years, was freed and died in 1967:

  • 1942 – World War II: During the Manhattan Project, a team led by Enrico Fermi initiates the first artificial self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.
  • 1956 – The Granma reaches the shores of Cuba’s Oriente Province. Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 80 other members of the 26th of July Movement disembark to initiate the Cuban Revolution.
  • 1961 – In a nationally broadcast speech, Cuban leader Fidel Castro declares that he is a Marxist–Leninist and that Cuba is going to adopt Communism.
  • 1970 – The United States Environmental Protection Agency begins operations.
  • 1976 – Fidel Castro becomes President of Cuba, replacing Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado.
  • 1988 – Benazir Bhutto is sworn in as Prime Minister of Pakistan, becoming the first woman to head the government of an Islam-dominated state.
  • 1993 – Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar is shot and killed in Medellín.

Escobar grinning in a 1976 mugshot. He was worth $30 billion at his death (a lot more in today’s dollars). He kept hippos at his estate outside Medellín, and 40 of their descendants live in nearby rivers.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1859 – Georges Seurat, French painter (d. 1891)
  • 1923 – Maria Callas, American-Greek soprano and actress (d. 1977)

Here’s La Callas singing my favorite (and many people’s favorite) opera aria, Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro“. This is in Paris—I believe in 1965.  I still think Dame Kiri’s version is better (especially the recorded one).

  • 1930 – Gary Becker, American economist and academic, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 2014)
  • 1931 – Edwin Meese, American colonel, lawyer, and politician, 75th United States Attorney General
  • 1946 – Gianni Versace, Italian fashion designer, founded Versace (d. 1997)
  • 1981 – Britney Spears, American singer-songwriter, dancer, and actress

Those who became kaput on December 2 include:

  • 1547 – Hernán Cortés, Spanish general and explorer (b. 1485)
  • 1594 – Gerardus Mercator, Flemish mathematician, cartographer, and philosopher (b. 1512)
  • 1859 – John Brown, American abolitionist (b. 1800)
  • 1985 – Philip Larkin, English poet, author, and librarian (b. 1922)
  • 1986 – Desi Arnaz, Cuban-American actor, singer, businessman, and television producer (b. 1917)

Educational note: Ricky Ricardo never said, “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do!”

  • 1990 – Aaron Copland, American composer and conductor (b. 1900)
  • 1999 – Charlie Byrd, American guitarist (b. 1925)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili gets her picture taken:

Hili: Did you fall?
A: No, I’ve lain down on the floor to take your picture.
In Polish:
Hili: Upadłeś?
Ja: Nie, położyłem się na podłodze, żeby ci zrobić zdjęcie.
And a new photo of Szaron:

From Jesus of the Day:

A cartoon from Jean:From Nicole:

From Titania, a guy who says he “has a little list”. I couldn’t find this on his Twitter feed, so maybe he deleted the 15-tweet list, because I bet John McWhorter would have been on it.

From reader Barry. Now here’s a bear that really enjoys his noms!

Tweets from Matthew. I like this first one—not fake news!

There’s never any end to the new and exciting stuff that happens in evolutionary biology.

One of Matthew’s beloved illusions:

A new genre of Christian rock! (It started with “Angels are coming from Africa right now. . . .”)  Sound must be on to hear a guitar-accompanied Copeland expelling the coronavirus:

Table tennis is much improved!

. . . and an ostrich cat:


Has the problem of protein folding been solved?

One of the biggest and hardest problems in biology, which has huge potential payoffs for human welfare, is how to figure out what shape a protein has from the sequence of its constituent amino acids. As you probably know, a lot of DNA codes for proteins (20,000 proteins in our own genome), each protein being a string of amino acids, sometimes connected to other molecules like sugars or hemes. The amino acid sequence is determined by the DNA sequence, in which each three nucleotide bases in the “structural” part of the DNA sequence codes for a single amino acid. The DNA is transcribed into messenger RNA, which goes into the cytoplasm where, connected to structures called ribosomes, and with the help of enzymes, the DNA sequence is translated into proteins, which can be hundreds of amino acids long.

In nearly every case (see below for one exception), the sequence of amino acids itself determines the shape of the resultant protein, for the laws of physics determine how a protein will fold up as its constituent bits attract or repel each other. The shape can involve helixes, flat sheets, and all manner of odd twists and turns.  Here’s one protein, PDB 6C7C: Enoyl-CoA hydratase, an enzyme from a bacterium that causes human skin ulcers.  This isn’t a very complex shape, but may be important in studying how a related bacterium causes tuberculosis, as well as designing drugs against those skin ulcers:

And here’s human hemoglobin, formed by the agglomeration of four protein chains, two copies each from two genes (from Wikipedia):

Knowing protein shape is useful for many reasons, including ones related to health. Drugs, for example, can be designed to bind to and knock out target proteins, but it’s much easier to design a drug if you know the protein’s shape. (We know the shape of only about a quarter of our 20,000 proteins.) Knowing a protein’s shape can also determine how a pathogen causes disease, such as how the “spike protein” or the COVID-19 virus latches onto human cells (this helped in the development of vaccines). Here’s the viral spike protein, with one receptor binding domain depicted as ribbons:

And there are many questions, both physiological and evolutionary, that hinge on knowing protein shapes. When one protein evolves into a different one, how much does that affect shape change, and can that change explain a change of function? (Remember, under Darwinian evolution, gradual changes of sequence must be continually adaptive.) How do different shapes of odorants interact with the olfactory receptor proteins, giving a largely one-to-one relationship between protein shape and odor molecules?

Until now, determining protein shape was one of the most tedious and onerous tasks in biology. It started decades ago with X-ray crystallography, in which a protein had to be crystallized and then bombarded with X-rays, with the scattered particles having to be laboriously interpreted and back-calculated into estimates of shape. (This is how the shape of DNA was determined by Franklin and Wilkins). This often took years for a single protein. There are other ways, too, including nuclear magnetic resonance, and new methods like cryogenic electron microscopy, but these too are painstakingly slow.

Now, as the result of a competition in which different scientific teams are asked to use computer programs to predict the structure of proteins that are already known but not published, one team, DeepMind from Google, has achieved astounding predictive success using artificial intelligence (AI), to the point where other technologies to determine protein structure may eventually become obsolete.

There are two articles below, but dozens on the Internet. The first one below, from Nature, is comprehensive (click on screenshot to read both):

This article, from the Deep Mind blog itself (click on screenshot), is shorter but has a lot of useful information, as well as a visual that shows how closely their AI program predicted protein structure.


In a yearly contest called CASP (Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction), a hundred competing teams were asked to guess the three-dimensional structure of about a hundred sections of proteins (“domains”). The 3D structure of these domains were already known to those who worked on them, but was unknown to the researchers, as the structures hadn’t been published.

The method for how Deep Mind’s AI program did this is above my pay grade, but involved “training” the “AlphaFold” program to predict protein structures by training the program with amino-acid sequences of proteins whose 3-D structure was already known. They began a couple of years ago in the contest by training the program to predict the distance between any pair of amino acids in a protein (if you know the distances between all pairs of amino acids, you have the 3D structure). This year they used a more sophisticated program, called AlphaFold2, that, according to the Nature article, “incorporate[s] additional information about the physical and geometric constraints that determine how a protein folds.” (I have no idea what these constraints are; the procedure hasn’t yet been published but will be early next year.)

It turns out that AlphaFold2 predicts protein structure with remarkable accuracy—often as good as the more complex laboratory methods that take months—and does so within a couple of hours, and without any lab expenses! In fact, the accuracy of shape prediction wound up being about 1.6 angstroms—about the width of a single atom! AlphaFold2 also predicted the shape of four protein domains that hadn’t yet been finished by researchers.  Before this year’s contest, it was thought that it would take at least ten years before AI could be improved to the point where it was about as good as experimental methods. It took less than two years.

Here’s a gif from the DeepMind post that shows how accurately DeepFold 2 predicted two protein structures. The congruence of the green (experimental) and blue (AI-predicted) shape is remarkable.

There aren’t many cases where computers can make a whole experimental program obsolete, but this appears to be what’s happening here.

There is one bug in the method, though it’s a small one. As Matthew Cobb pointed out to me, in a few cases the sequence of amino acids doesn’t absolutely predict a protein’s shape. As he noted, “Sometimes the same AA [amino acid] sequence can have different isoforms [shapes that can shift back and forth], which can have Very Bad consequences—think of prions, in which the sequence is the same but the structure is different.” Prions are shape-shifting proteins that, in one of their shapes, can cause fatal neurodegenerative diseases like “Mad cow disease”. These are fortunately rare, but do show that the one-to-one relationship between protein sequence and protein shape does have exceptions.

Here’s a very nice video put out by DeepMinds that explains the issue in eight minutes:

We’ll have to wait until the paper comes out to see the details, but the fact that the computer program predicted the shapes of proteins so very well means that they’re doing something right, and we’re all the beneficiaries.

Trump administration rushes to kill federal prisoners before Inauguration Day, now allowing firing squads, gas, and electrocution

As CNN reports, the federal government has already executed eight inmates in federal prisons in 2020, a big number. But it gets worse, as now there are five more prisoners scheduled to be executed by the feds before Inauguration Day. This is all since Attorney General William Barr order federal killings to be resumed in July 2019—following a 17-year moratorium on killing federal prisoners. As I’ve said before, Trump has the authority to stay the executions, and that would allow the Biden administration, with Joe opposed to capital punishment, to determine the fate of the prisoners.

That would be the charitable thing to do, but, as the article reports, “”What is clear is that this administration wants these prisoners dead before Joe Biden takes office,” Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center Robert Dunham told CNN on Monday.”  To Trump, I suspect, these men—and one woman—are simply pawns that he can sweep off the board to curry favor with his acolytes. But they are human lives. 

If you’re opposed to the death penalty as barbaric, non-deterrent (why not televise executions if you want a deterrent?), useful only to satisfy feelings of retribution, and, above all, a penalty that can’t be undone if the convicted person is exonerated (there have been many), then this is bad enough. But it gets worse. As reader Ken informed me, the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a a proposed rule change, effective on Christmas Eve, that would add three other forms of execution to the presently mandated lethal injection: suffocation by nitrogen gas (never before used), electrocution, and firing squads Some of these are already legal for state executions.

Why the change? The Federal Register link above says this (my emphasis):

Execution by lethal injection is authorized in all States that have capital punishment. . . . However, some States also authorize execution by other means in certain circumstances. . . . Some States also provide by law that a prisoner may choose the manner of execution from among several options, in at least some circumstances. . . States may authorize execution by other means in the future, and it is possible that a State in the future will provide that a manner other than lethal injection is the only authorized means of execution. Section 3596(a) would then require execution in that manner for a Federal offender sentenced in the State.

The current regulations also provide that a Federal execution shall occur “[a]t a federal penal or correctional institution designated by the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.”. . . Section 3597(a), however, provides that State and local facilities and personnel may be used in carrying out Federal executions. As discussed above, future situations may arise in which it is necessary to carry out an execution by some means other than lethal injection. However, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) facility for carrying out executions, located at the Terre Haute correctional complex in Indiana, is equipped for carrying out executions only by lethal injection. If cases arise in which the Department is required to execute a Federal inmate according to the law of a State that uses a method other than lethal injection, the most expedient means of carrying out the execution may be to arrange for State assistance.

Since most states—and the federal government—have hit on lethal injection as (presumably) the most humane way of killing prisoners, why would “a situation arise in which it is necessary to carry out an execution by some other means”? Well, American pharmaceutical companies now refuse to provide the requisite drugs to prisons, so they have to obtain the unconsciousness-inducing drug from suppliers in other countries, or by other means that they don’t specify including having pharmacists mix up the requisite barbiturates themselves (pentobarbital is used most often, having replaced sodium thiopental). The result is that quality control isn’t guaranteed, and some lethal injections have gone badly wrong.

Further, the rules have been that prescriptions for fatal drugs must be issued and signed by a physician prescribing for the condemned person. This is against the American Medical Association’s ethics rules, and this stipulation now appears to have been overturned by the Supreme Court.

There are other questions about how humane executions are, with reports that the patients are tortured, with extreme pain that isn’t evident to observers. If you simply want to cause death, isn’t dying and the thought of it punishment enough without making it painful and horrible? (Disgustingly, some advocates of capital punishment are gleeful at the thought of such torture.)

If these five are executed before Biden takes office, that will still leave 49 people on death row. The fair thing to do is to halt all federal executions pending the new administration. But who ever said that Trump was fair?

As for the other methods of execution, well, electrocution is surely grossly inhumane.  Execution with bullets is quick but surely painful, and execution with nitrogen gas has never been tried before; there are doubts about its efficacy and painlessness.  But none of this matters to me, as none of the methods should be used.

Here’s the gurney that the state of Arkansas uses for its executions by lethal injection:

Readers’ wildlife photos

Bring out your photos, please: I go through seven sets a week from generous readers, and I always need more. Thank you!

Today’s photos come from regular contributor Tony Eales, who hails from Queensland.  His notes are indented.

Spring has really taken hold now and the colours of nature are showing. We just recently took a trip a few hundred kms to the north of my city of Brisbane to a lovely coastal spot. The nearby national park is mainly a dense coastal heathland called “Wallum” named after the dominant tree the Wallum Banksia (Banksia aemula). This is a very diverse habitat with much of the diversity on a tiny scale, which for me is perfect.

Many of these photos are from one misty evening when I went spot-lighting in the national park, and the subjects are covered in a fine layer of dew, as with this St Andrew’s Cross Spider (Argiope keyserlingi) and the less common Argiope probata (second photo). These will look familiar but different to most people as the genus Argiope occurs on every continent except Antarctica and are common garden orb-weaving spiders.

If there is such a thing as a beautiful cockroach, it is these ones in the genus Balta. Their transparent edges and fine lined patterns are really worth seeing up close. They occur only in intact native habitats and don’t invade our homes like the introduced cockroaches.

The small shiny green scarabs of the genus Diphucephala appear in great numbers in spring time to feed on flower pollen and new growth. Some species are even commonly known as green spring beetles. I don’t think I’ve seen this particular species before. Its iridescence is more uniform—like metallic paint—than most of the ones I’ve seen.

The delicious coastal pigface (Carpobrotus sp.) were all in flower, attracting hundreds of small native sweat bees like this Lasioglossum (Homalictus) sp.

I finally managed to photograph the very fast and flighty beach tiger beetles (Hypaetha upsilon). I couldn’t get close enough to use the macro lens, and so had to take the photos with a cheap telephoto lens. This lost some detail, but they are beautifully iridescent and shine in the sun.

Speaking of beautifully iridescent beetles, I just had to show this one I found in a local park. It is a species of leaf beetle (Johannica gemellata). I’ve seen beautiful leaf beetles before, but this one takes the prize. I can’t find much info on these beetles. They appear to be endemic only to my little corner of the world with records from only a couple of hundred km north and south of my city. I wonder what use they have for those remarkable antennae?

Also from my night walk was this colourful and probably undescribed katydid (sp.). I actually found a number of remarkable orthopterans that night, which I’ll send in a separate email. This one was by far the most colourful.

And lastly the beach, with thousands of Greater Crested Terns (Thalasseus bergii) roosting on sand bars waiting for the right tide to go hunting. The colours of the water here are so many shades of magical blue that I really didn’t want to go back to work.


Tuesday: Hili dialogue

Good morning on Tuesday, December 1, the beginning of the last month of this wretched year. Tuesday is, of course, the cruelest day, and I hope you know where that phrase comes from. It’s three food months in one:

National Pear Month
National Egg Nog Month
National Fruit Cake Month

Today’s Google Doodle (click on screenshot) goes to a search for “December around the world, though they neglected Coynezaa (celebrated Dec 25-Dec. 30):

It’s National Fried Pie Day, a staple much beloved in the American South, especially in the peach version. And let’s not forget the non-fried pies, as it’s National Pie Day, as well as Eat a Red Apple Day (Boo to American red apples, which are mushy and without flavor: give me a tart Granny Smith). It’s Giving Tuesday, when we’re supposed to donate to charity instead of buying more online stuff (you can do both at our charity auction), World AIDS Day, and Rosa Parks Day, celebrating the day in 1955 when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, starting the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

News of the Day:

Beavers have been extinct in England since the 16th century due to trapping, but they’re making a comeback as they get reintroduced. Today the BBC reported that beavers released in Exmoor (in west Somerset) have build the first dam seen in that region in the last 400 years! It’s a modest dam, to be sure, but a dam nonetheless, and here’s a photo:

Source: National Trust/PA wire

Hard to believe, but Garry Trudeau’s strip “Doonesbury” is 50 years old this year. (It was the first comic strip to win the Pulitzer Prize.) Over at the Washington Post, you can see ten strips that Trudeau says “have proved defining and enduringly meaningful to him.” You’ll want to see them as well as his comments.

Here’s a Doonesbury oldie that I well remember. It’s from 2012, when Texas passed a law requiring that any woman seeking an abortion get a sonogram (click to enlarge):

Richard Frishmann has some heartbreaking photos (and text) at the New York Times showing remnants of segregation still around in the South. They include once-segregated drive-ins and restaurants, hotels that catered to only blacks, and “colored” entrances to theaters. When I first arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1967 to attend college, I was puzzled at the presence of two men’s rooms, two ladies rooms, and two water fountains in the small Greyhound bus station. Only later did I realize what they meant.

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 268,023, an increase of about 1,300 from yesterday’s figure.  The world death toll is 1,475,636, a big increase of about 8,900 over yesterday’s report. 

Stuff that happened on December 1 includes:

  • 1640 – End of the Iberian Union: Portugal acclaims as King João IV of Portugal, ending 59 years of personal union of the crowns of Portugal and Spain and the end of the rule of the Philippine Dynasty.

You think this election was a mess? Read about the one in 1824:

  • 1824 – United States presidential election: Since no candidate received a majority of the total electoral college votes in the election, the United States House of Representatives is given the task of deciding the winner in accordance with the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
  • 1862 – In his State of the Union Address President Abraham Lincoln reaffirms the necessity of ending slavery as ordered ten weeks earlier in the Emancipation Proclamation.

You can see Lincoln’s full speech here.

  • 1913 – Ford Motor Company introduces the first moving assembly line.

Here’s a photo of that first line, photographed in 1913. The caption notes “Ford assembly line, 1913. The magneto assembly line was the first.

  • 1919 – Lady Astor becomes the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. (She had been elected to that position on November 28.)

Here’s Lady Astor in 1919 canvassing the electorate:

  • 1941 – World War II: Emperor Hirohito of Japan gives the final approval to initiate war against the United States.

Six days later, the Japanese airstrike on Pearl Harbor took place, and the next day we were at war.

  • 1955 – American Civil Rights Movement: In Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat to a white man and is arrested for violating the city’s racial segregation laws, an incident which leads to that city’s bus boycott.

Here’s Rosa Parks with her mugshot after the bus arrest:

  • 1969 – Vietnam War: The first draft lottery in the United States is held since World War II.

Oy, do I remember that! I was number 3, which guaranteed (at the time) that I’d be drafted into the Army. Circumstances, though, dictated otherwise, but that’s another tale.

  • 1990 – Channel Tunnel sections started from the United Kingdom and France meet 40 metres beneath the seabed.

Here’s the tunnel joining with diggers Robert ‘Graham’ Fagg and Philippe Cozette. Fagg, the Brit, later voted for Brexit (see here).

  • 2019 – First known case of COVID-19 appears.

Within just one year from this case, we now have several effective vaccines that work in different ways—a testimony to the power of science.

Notables born on this day include:

Moore, also called “The Sweet Singer of Michigan”, is the American counterpart of William McGonagall, both famous for writing godawful poems. You can see a selection of her works here (I recommend “Little Libbie,” which contains these deathless verses:

. . . One morning in April, a short time ago,
Libbie was active and gay;
Her Saviour called her, she had to go,
E’re the close of that pleasant day.

While eating dinner, this dear little child
Was choked on a piece of beef.
Doctors came, tried their skill awhile,
But none could give relief.

She was ten years of age, I am told,
And in school stood very high.
Her little form now the earth enfolds,
In her embrace it must ever lie.

  • 1933 – Lou Rawls, American singer-songwriter, producer, and actor (d. 2006)
  • 1935 – Woody Allen, American actor, director, and screenwriter
  • 1940 – Richard Pryor, American comedian, actor, producer, and screenwriter (d. 2005)
  • 1945 – Bette Midler, American singer-songwriter, actress and producer
  • 1949 – Pablo Escobar, Colombian drug lord and narcoterrorist (d. 1993)
  • 1970 – Sarah Silverman, American comedian, actress, and singer.

Sarah is fifty today, and my offer of marriage still stands though she spurns connubial bliss. Yes, I know she wets her bed.

Those who dropped dead on this day include:

  • 1866 – George Everest, Welsh geographer and surveyor (b. 1790)
  • 1947 – Aleister Crowley, English magician, poet, and mountaineer (b. 1875)
  • 1947 – G. H. Hardy, English mathematician and theorist (b. 1877)
  • 1964 – J. B. S. Haldane, English-Indian geneticist and biologist (b. 1892)

Here’s a cartoon of Haldane (an evolutionary geneticist) from 1949; he was a communist but renounced it when the Soviet Union, under the charlatan Lysenko, repudiated “western” genetics:

  • 1987 – James Baldwin, American novelist, poet, and critic (b. 1924)
  • 1989 – Alvin Ailey, American dancer and choreographer (b. 1931)
  • 1997 – Stéphane Grappelli, French violinist (b. 1908)

Here’s Grapelli with his famous accompanist, Django Reinhardt, in a rare video. The song gets hot about 1:30, when they show the Quintette of the Hot Club of France. Note that Reinhardt plays with just two fingers on the frets, as he injured his hand in a fire when he was young.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, there was a kerfuffle on Sunday when Hili couldn’t abide the presence of both Szaron and Kulka in the same room, and pandemonium ensued.

Hili: Everybody is hissing at each other.
A: Not at all—Kulka and Szaron want to be your friends.
Hili: And that’s why I’m hissing at them.
In Polish:
Hili: Wszyscy na siebie syczą.
Ja: Wcale nie, Kulka i Szaron chcą się z tobą zaprzyjaźnić.
Hili: Właśnie dlatego na nie syczę.

Here are Kulka and Szaron on the kitchen windowsill, where Kulka gets some noms:

I posted this classic meme on my Facebook page 12 years ago (Facebook reminded me):

From Gregory James: God’s Grifters:

From Jesus of the Day:

Titania suggests a replacement neologism:

From reader Paul. This vigorous kid apparently has COVID-19, which has killed his sense of taste and smell. I gather it returns, but I’m still puzzled about why the hot sauce didn’t make his taste buds tingle:

From reader Enrico, about Biden’s d*g-induced foot fracture. BUT: a.) Biden’s dogs are German Shepherds, and b.) THE BIDENS HAVEN’T GOTTEN A CAT YET!

From reader Ken, who agrees that the kids are alright:

Tweets from Matthew. For crying out loud, everyone knows you shouldn’t feed donuts to a horse!

Matthew critically analyzes a piece of “Trump fan art”:

Matthew called attention to the Bilby’s ears, but he hardly had to. I love these adorable marsupials.  At Easter in Oz, they eat chocolate bilbies instead of chocolate rabbits, and part of the proceeds has gone to help bring back the bilby. (Rabbits, which have wrecked much of Australia, should not be celebrated there at Easter!)

A chocolate bilby:

And this has to be the Tweet of the Month, even though the month just started:


Once again: transgender women in women’s sports

Reader Steve called my attention to an article I wouldn’t have otherwise seen, as it appeared at The Daily Maverick, a South African news website. It’s about the recurrent and polarizing problem of what to do about transgender women, born as biological men, who want to compete in women’s sports. The piece seems quite fair to me, certainly not demonizing transsexuals, but also calling attention to the conflicting issues of fairness in sports towards transsexual women on one hand and towards biological women who haven’t undergone medical transition on the other.

Click on the screenshot to read.

I’ve written a lot about this issue before. I’ve arrived at only one firm conclusion, and that’s that biological men who declare that they’re women, but haven’t undergone any hormonal or medical treatment, should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports. Given the average sex differences in bone and muscle mass, and in strength and speed, this simply wouldn’t be fair to the competing women. But several places, including the state of Connecticut, do allow that, so that unaltered biological men who identify as women are allowed to compete in women’s sports. The results are predictable—the women-identifying men clean up the prizes. I doubt that there are many people who think this is fair, though the ACLU has defended those men when women’s athletes brought a lawsuit.

For intersex people, or for those who have undergone surgery and/or hormone treatment, the issue is much stickier.  For one thing, even with those treatments you don’t lose all of the differential muscle mass that a male gains at puberty. Further, the testosterone titers of a transsexual woman below which she is allowed to compete, as in the Olympics, are purely guesswork, with no research behind them affirming that such titers completely remove the physiological differences that result in different sports performances of men and women.

What is new about this article, which is largely about rugby, is its claim that there is research on the effects of hormones and surgery, but that it doesn’t show what the advocates want. Rather, it shows that the male/female differences are not effaced by hormones. (World Rugby has banned all transsexual women from competing in women’s rugby, with their rationale being safety, since, as they claim, one can hurt someone quite badly with a more robust physique.)

The article first highlights the differences that justify keeping men’s and women’s sports as separate categories:

Simply, [World Rugby’s policy’ argues that a women’s category “protects” the integrity of the result for biological females and in some instances, the safety of its participants. Biological females do not possess the same physical attributes as males and many of these male-bodied attributes have profound implications for sports performance.

So, while the women who win Olympic medals and world titles would outperform most men in most sports, they are vastly outperformed by the males who win the equivalent Olympic medals and world titles.

In the comparison group that matters, there is literally no contest. Take for instance the fact that the best women runners in history are outperformed every year by hundreds of boys younger than 18, and by many thousands of adult men.

The gap between the respective champions in most track and field disciplines is 10% to 12%, and thousands of biological males fit into that space. As a result, if women’s sport did not exist as a category, women would vanish entirely from elite track and field.

Consider next that a 10% to 12% difference is actually relatively small. In weightlifting, the difference is 30% to 40%. For tasks like serving in tennis, it is 20% and for punching power, the male advantage has been measured at 160%.

These differences are enormous and within a relevant comparison group (like Olympic athletes, or high school athletes competing for scholarships), they are insurmountable.

This is not to say that female athletes do not possess extraordinary abilities, as well as technical and mental skills that are necessary in champions. But male-bodied physiological advantages are so large that all attributes unrelated to biological sex, the ones that should actually matter, are drowned out by things like muscle mass, strength, power, body shape and speed.

This creates the moral dilemma of conflicting fairness:

Now, with all those principles and concepts in mind, consider the dilemma for sport. There are individuals whose biological sex does not match their gender identity. Biological males undergo puberty driven by testosterone, but identify as female. What is their place in sport?

A decent and progressive society accepts them. But can sport accept them into the protected, closed category for women? Given the biological realities, if self-identification or gender identity were the sole criteria, women’s sport would become “open”, and its purpose negated.

This then sets up what is basically a “colliding rights” issue, where the rights of females to have a sporting space of their own collides with the rights of other individuals to identify as they wish. Sport finds itself in the middle of that collision. It becomes, effectively, a question of how various priorities are balanced. Those priorities are inclusion, fairness and, in some sports, safety.

Historically, the approach to this issue has been relatively simple – it tried to “fix” the problem by relying on medication or surgical intervention to lower the testosterone levels in trans women.

Given what we described above regarding testosterone’s crucial role in creating the male-female sporting divide, the premise is that if testosterone is lowered or removed, so is the sporting advantage.

The lowering of testosterone can be achieved either through surgical removal of the testes that produce it, or, as per the most recent Olympic transgender policy, medication that lowers the testosterone below a target level for a period of 12 months.

But this approach is controversial for obvious reasons. Compelling an otherwise healthy individual to use drugs as a requirement to participate, which may have serious side effects, is straddling an uncomfortable ethical line.

Even if the athlete accepts this approach, the acid test, then, is whether the outcome is true. Does the suppression of testosterone take away those differences that women’s sport excludes?

It then summarizes the scientific data, of which I was unaware. It appears that these data apply to body differences related to rugby success, but they must also relate to many sports:

The sport then has to make a choice and prioritise them. It can choose inclusion at the expense of fairness and safety, or it can choose safety and fairness, with a resultant compromise on inclusion.

That is the situation World Rugby found itself in during an expert consultation process early in 2020. The scientific evidence, while limited, is consistent and relatively clear. There are no studies that have shown that suppressing testosterone for 12 months makes a meaningful dent in male physiological advantages relevant to rugby.

All the studies that do exist strongly suggest a retained advantage that makes the testosterone suppression policy ineffective at achieving its objective of fairness.

A dozen such studies have found that strength, muscle mass, and muscle volume decrease by between 5% and 10% when testosterone is lowered. Given that the original male vs female difference is between 30% and 50%, the implication is that a significant part of the original advantage remains when trans women are compared to a matched group of biological females.

There is one study suggesting that male endurance advantages in distance runners are removed entirely, which might allow some sports to balance inclusion and fairness, but for sports where mass, size, strength, power and speed matter, the evidence all points one way, in the direction of retained advantage and the necessity of a prioritisation of those imperatives.

Now I wish I had a list of such studies, as it’s usually claimed that we know very little about the effects of hormone treatment on sports performance. (To be sure, this is based on physiological effects supposedly related to success, not what we really want to know—the effects of treatment on sports performance itself.) Apparently, though, we do know some things. The lack of endurance in distance running is interesting, but again, I’d like to see the data. If there’s no effect of testosterone treatment on performance, one might, say, combine men’s and women’s marathons, though the world’s record times for that distance are still about 15 minutes lower for men than for women.

The only solution, if you wish transsexual women to compete in women’s sports, is first to only consider people who have been treated to reduce testosterone, and THEN you must find out what reduction of testosterone can equalize the average performance of transsexual women and of biological women. Doing that experiment seems nearly impossible since it involves measuring not physiology, but actual performance, and correlating that with testosterone level. It may be that no reduction after puberty can equalize performance, and in that case we must do what World Rugby did.

Finally, there’s the option of creating a third category of competition for transsexual men and sex-intermediate people. I can see many people would object to that, too.