How many trans people?

Are 3% of Belgians really trans or nonbinary?

Eva Van Caenegem, Katrien Wierckx and others asked about 4600 people from Flanders whether they agreed with the statements “I feel like a woman” and “I feel like a man”. 1832 answered on a five point scale from 1, totally agree, to 5, totally disagree. They considered a person gender ambivalent if they gave equal responses to both, and gender incongruent if they gave a higher score for the opposite sex. They found 2.2% of men to be gender ambivalent and 0.9% gender incongruent, and 1.9% of women ambivalent, 0.6% incongruent.

The research team tried to find LGB people who did not identify as lesbian, gay or bi, by asking who people had sex with, and about whom they fantasised.

When 2472 lesbian, gay and bisexual people answered the same questions, 1.8% of men were ambivalent, 0.9% incongruent, and 4.1% of women ambivalent, 2.1% incongruent.

Unfortunately the question can mean totally different things to different people. If you think gender stereotypes are merely oppressive, you might totally agree that you feel like your assigned sex, because you belong to that sex, even though you don’t fit the stereotypes. Alternatively you might totally disagree, asserting that you simply are of one sex or the other, and feelings are irrelevant. If you do not fit stereotypes at all, you might transition, or you might assert your sex and campaign against stereotypes- or you might pretend to conform, try to fit in, because the challenge was too difficult.

Some who are gender incongruent might be in denial. Many trans women have fought to make men of ourselves before accepting we are trans, and transitioning. When in the Army, my friend might have claimed to completely agree that she felt like a man. Now transitioned, she would say the opposite.

I want the question to find out how many people have a trans or gender nonconforming nature. Finding those in denial, or who conform because of social pressure, is difficult. They are the most oppressed by the stereotypes.

The figures for gay and lesbian people seem low. In my experience they fit the stereotypes less than straight people do, but fewer gay men presented as ambivalent than straight men. This could be the gay men feeling more oppressed, and less willing to admit to ambivalence.

I wonder why more than twice as many queer women as queer men were ambivalent or incongruent. It could be different effects on men and women of the stereotypes. Male privilege is desirable. You lose it if you present as unmasculine. In Britain, gay men who were camp had precarious acceptance, in times of worse homophobia. Amused contempt is a better reaction from your community than widely condoned violence. Some feminists find feminine gender stereotypes merely oppressive and don’t believe anyone fits them comfortably.

A small minority of those incongruent people might transition. It is a great effort, and takes courage. I found the social rejection terribly painful, and my own internalised transphobia made it far worse. Others might cross-dress. Some might find partners and social groups where they could be gender nonconforming.

Science and politics

What can science tell us about Covid? What should politicians decide, and what else should influence them? How are politicians helping, and how making the situation worse?

When the first casualties were dying of a new kind of pneumonia in Wuhan, science had a body of settled knowledge which would help humanity through the pandemic. This included knowledge about the immune, circulatory and respiratory systems, an understanding of what a virus was, how epidemiology could track an illness, how studies could give evidence of the effectiveness of treatments, how to assess evidence, and how to create and test vaccines, including a new kind of vaccine first used on covid. There was engineering knowledge of how to build ventilators and PPE, and medical knowledge of how to treat patients. There was behavioural science on how people might respond to the disease and to rules to combat it, and economic theory on how to mitigate the economic effects. By contrast the virus that caused the 1918 influenza pandemic was not discovered until the 1930s.

Scientists then began amassing useful knowledge about the pandemic. The virus’ genome was sequenced, and mutations have been sequenced since. Precise mutations can help show whence the virus is spreading. Studies showed how long viral DNA might last on particular surfaces, but also that infection via surfaces was rare, unlike with rhinoviruses. Infection was more likely through virions in aerosols or droplets exhaled. Tests were developed to test for current infection, or for past infection by testing for antibodies.

Common symptoms were found early: a fever, and a continual cough. Less common symptoms were documented later. Knowledge of how covid can affect people is growing.

Apps could show where people had been and when they might have had contact with an infectious person. There were the phones to run those apps, and the skills to write them.

Whether we should attempt to achieve herd immunity through mass infection is a moral issue. It is not acceptable to infect so many as would be necessary, when 1% of those infected die.

The rest is politics. Whether schools should be closed to restrict the spread of the virus is a matter of weighing different interests against each other. What businesses should close, and which remain open, is a political decision.

In London in December, people could go to the gym or the pub. That seems too risky to me, with people panting for breath, or talking loudly, and so spreading the virus, but it is a political decision to allow dangerous businesses to remain open, rather than compensating them for ordering them to shut, or forcing them to bear that loss. The pubs are shut, now.

It was a political decision whether people could meet in the open air. At one point, people could not meet their parents in their gardens, though it was outside and infection was unlikely.

Left wing politics is best for counteracting a pandemic. We need common action for the common good. It is unconscionable for the extremely rich to make money from such a natural disaster. People who lose wages should be supported, up to a certain level. Left wing politicians are better able to see how people will act for the common good: left wing politicians imposed a requirement to wear masks earlier, knowing that people would comply, for their own good and the good of the whole community.

The hard right Nationalist government in Britain was too selfish to govern well. When Dominic Cummings broke the lockdown rules, the Prime Minister should have sacked him, in order to preserve respect for the rules. They also had a craven desire for popularity, so promised we could celebrate Christmas together from about July, and kept making that increasingly dangerous promise until Saturday 19th December. As a result our borders are closed, and supermarkets are showing shortages in some goods, even before their catastrophic Brexit would have achieved the same result on 1 January. Their ideological desire that all testing should be done by private companies rather than public employees, and their corrupt enrichment of their chums, made the situation worse.

The sociopathic President Trump was only capable of seeing his own short-term interests, and Paul Krugman suggests he delayed action hoping the stock exchange index would reach the magic figure of 30,000, improving his re-election chances. His suggestions of injecting bleach may have been to get attention. Republicans used the pandemic to stoke a culture war, on the new Republican doctrine that doing anything which is not entirely selfish is Socialism, and Un-American. Their science denial, developed for so long, on Creationism, acid rain, the ozone hole, and the climate catastrophe, continued on Covid. The result is 300,000 deaths. This is the result of politics. Science can only achieve so much.

Puberty blockers for trans children

Do puberty blockers for trans children work? What would success look like?

Dr Polly Carmichael, director of the GIDS, started a study on PB in trans children in 2011. The Bell judgment reports that a paper was being finalised, but one of the authors had not yet responded to issues raised by the peer-reviewers. A sociologist, Michael Biggs, has published a critique of the study which anti-trans campaigners would find devastating.

Ideally, a critique would have psychological and medical expertise Biggs lacks. He appeared transphobic before he started digging: he reports that three MSc students, whom he mocks as “woke”, told him to educate himself on trans children. He quibbles about the word “study”, preferring to call it an “experiment”, because PB has not been licensed, as if he has never heard of a “drug trial”. He quibbles that “it was not a proper randomized trial”, even though such a trial would not be possible: you notice when you undergo puberty, and people around you notice too. He acknowledges that parents were going abroad for PB when it was not available in the UK. Disingenuously, in one railing against PB in children, he says the sample was too small. However, he has found at least part of the results, from newspaper articles, comments by Dr Carmichael, and from Freedom of Information requests. He says the data show no psychological benefit from PB.

GIDS does not follow up its patients after they turn 18. Well, it’s a young people’s service, and a medical service providing treatment rather than a service studying trans teenagers. Medical intervention (including follow-up) should be for the good of the patient, not primarily to increase knowledge. However, if we are to justify PB, we need success stories.

The Court in Bell heard evidence from a trans man, now 20, who wished that PB were started earlier, as that would have prevented the need for breast surgery.

Biggs comments on the first person to get PB because he was trans, who at 35, Biggs says, was depressed and “could not sustain a romantic relationship”. The report is here. It says “He was functioning well psychologically”, and that “At age 29, he had a serious relationship with a woman, which lasted for 5 years.” Five years is more sustained than some 35 year olds might have managed. It notes bone mineral density was within normal range, yet Biggs chooses to highlight that as a risk of PB.

I found Biggs’ pdf linked from the “Bayswater Support Group”, which pretends to be for parents “looking for the best support for our children”, yet only gives resources opposing transition. It is the same old stuff, from the same old anti-trans campaigners, repackaged yet again with an irrelevant name. It is attached to “Easyfundraising”, which has recorded £7.70 raised and five supporters as of 7 December.

Whether B’s case is a success or failure might depend on who is looking, and what details they choose to emphasise. I have chosen details to make Biggs’ critique look bad. I am trans. Yet his selective quotation of B’s case shows his bias.

What might success look like? Adolescence can be a horrible time, even if you are heterosexual and more or less fit conventional gender stereotypes. Gays and lesbians find it harder. And then there is trans. The comparator for the trans child is not the more or less happy straight or gay twenty-something, now in a relationship and starting a career, but the child of parents like Mrs A who originated the Keira Bell case. Having had their desire to transition uncompromisingly resisted, are children happier? If they were, would we not hear more from them?

Possibly not. They might not want the attention. But- the only one the new/old hate group can point to is Jessie Maynard, who was 16 in 2016, and wrote then that she was happier than she would have been trying to pass as a boy. However she was never assessed by GIDS. Could they not approach her for her thoughts now?

Some detransitioners write blogs, tweet, and campaign. That is brave of them. More are getting together. Soon they may be seeking damages from GIDS.

If everything really is wonderful, might some who transitioned as teenagers come forward now? The bravery would be even greater. They may pass and be living in stealth, and not want to come out as members of a hated and stigmatised group. But without their stories, it may prove impossible for any more teenagers to benefit from the treatment they had.

If someone is trans, there are only bad choices. You can muddle along in the assigned gender. This is painful and uncomfortable. You can transition. It’s a choice of denying your true self, or being your true self and exposing yourself to all the hate and prejudice.

If you transition, you can take hormones and have surgery, and make your body approximate to that of the acquired gender. It’s a problem that too much hope is attached to this. It takes years, and during the process people tend to think that it will sort all their problems, only to find at the end that it has not. We need realistic expectations of what such treatment can achieve. So, again, we need the stories of transitioned people.

That of the actor Elliot Page is not enough. He/they is particularly talented, and has enjoyed success. Compare him to other actors with similar prominence at the time of his announcement. More ordinary teens are unlikely to have similar careers. Still, it’s good for him to come out, as part of a process of normalising trans, and I am glad he feels able to transition.

“Truth in Science”

A group calling itself “Truth in Science” has sent DVDs to schools across the country, claiming that “professionals” (unnamed) have “concern” that vulnerable children are being confused about gender identity, and instead of growing out of it naturally at puberty they change sex. The usual nutters, I thought- some name unconnected to trans, which mysteriously only campaigns to reduce trans rights, and attempts to frame the issue as anything but trans rights. Some nutters are part of four “separate organisations”, some will sign their name to any transphobic rubbish going.

But no. This lot are “Christians”!

I went to their website, and found their one other concern is Creationism. They claim that “the existence of superbly engineered birds remains a significant challenge to neo-darwinian evolution”. Totally barmy (I have decided not to use the other British word, “Batty”, because it may be misunderstood). That writer, Dr Marc Surtees, works in pharmaceuticals, but appears not to be attached to any university.

Surtees’ article is interesting as a specimen. It gives references to real scientists, and discusses their evidence at length. I cannot be bothered looking up the minutiae, but Surtees has not addressed all the evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs, and the article is obviously rubbish if you have any concept of how evidence may add up to become convincing. Birds descend from therapods, which are saurischian, lizard-hipped; confusingly not ornithischian, bird-hipped. The resemblance of ornithischians to birds was only superficial.

Professor Andy McIntosh, who signed the letter to schools about “The Transgender Agenda”, is a meretricious professor of thermodynamics at the University of Leeds. Sorry, “Emeritus,” which means that he is retired, but holds the title as an honour. He has done serious scientific work. I used to wonder- do Creationist scientists actually believe the rot they peddle, or do they lie for money? Who could tell. It’s the old “Are they fools, or knaves?” question. The answer is usually “both”: fools not because they are stupid but because they have huge blind spots preventing them seeing reality.

The video has experts, though again the ones with most screen time are propagandists. Peter Saunders is chief executive of the ICMDA- that’s the International Christian Medical and Dental Association. I had a look at their website, found nothing in a search for “transgender” or “homosexuality”, and found their “Coronavirus resources” were unobjectionable links to the BMJ, Lancet and WHO. Their aims are to discuss “Christian faith and ethics” in the context of medicine. The Christian Medical Fellowship, a linked British organisation, has the usual propaganda against gay people.

So what of the DVD? Over a doomy ostinato more suited to a horror film, Julie Maxwell, a paediatrician, says “We are losing our parental rights to teach children according to our family values”. Dr Carys Moseley says children are “traumatised and terrified” by LGBT lessons in primary schools.

“We know from anecdotal evidence” says Carys. Huh. Only the strongest evidence could show how birds evolve, and these people will always quibble about it. “What my mate said” is good enough for them to attack LGBT+ people.

Peter scaremongers about reverters. They will come back to doctors and demand justification for hormones and surgery! That scaremongering is better addressed to doctors than teachers, I suppose, but fling it at the wall anyway.

Should trans people bother about it? Probably not. Schools get a lot of rubbish sent to them. Teachers have no time to waste on it. We should be worried about Department for Education guidelines, which show dangerously right-wing views, but not this stuff. “Teachers will ignore it,” says my nonbinary teacher friend- anecdotal evidence you can trust!

The Anti-maskers

I wear a face mask, because mask-wearing protects people from covid. I could not evaluate it for myself, I have to take that on trust, and here are two articles which persuade me to wear one. Cloth masks are imperfect but make a difference, I say, even if I could not explain perfectly what that difference was. It’s also the law, and public expectation, to wear a mask. I see a few face shields, and I imagine they are useless, as aerosol droplets small enough to float in air will go past them. I am aware of reasons not to wear a mask including lip reading, or the fear some will have with something covering their face. Masks are not perfect protection, but I think it’s on balance better to wear one.

It would help if we had a decent government. In the US, Trump is more concerned to stir division and win on 3 November than to save lives. In Britain, the government seems too concerned with image, its testing never matching its boasting, its rules seeming careless and arbitrary, also too concerned with appearance, not concerned enough to keep people’s livelihoods, sometimes too concerned with preserving capital values, intent on a damaging Brexit and turning Kent into a lorry park.

Ach, I am concerned with appearances too. I think we have an unpatriotic government, not concerned with the good of the British people, wanting to tear down regulation protecting us, damaging the bonds that bring society together, and I want to persuade others of that.

I need to trust, and the hard Right works against that. The febrile atmosphere they and social media create makes trust hard. And mask wearing is nuanced, as not seeing faces is sadness, even if you smile with your eyes, and they are not perfect protection.

In my spiritual, wisdom seeking, milieu, anti-vaxxers predate, and opponents of “Big Pharma”. I have given reiki myself, and it does people good. It’s OK to take a bit of reiki along with your chemotherapy, not OK to take reiki instead, and though again there is nuance- chemo may merely slow the growth of a cancer rather than shrinking it- I would prefer an oncologist’s advice to an aromatherapist’s.

So there we were, sharing feelings and wisdom, sharing ourselves, and in comes an anti-masker. She says she has a relevant degree, and resents being told she does not know what she’s talking about by people who have just read a few magazine articles (like me). Zoom chat lets her spread her arguments. She said mask wearing is a “Pantomime”, and that’s a wonderful word to dismiss it. Five say they agree. Two make comments which could be read either way. Three of us strongly challenge her.

for those who have been silenced or had anything held over their mouth then masks are about death

anyone who has ever been assaulted will know what it feels like to have masked strangers all around them and be unable to see their intent in the facial expressions

Er, um. I have been silenced, and assaulted. I get by, walking in the street, by not noticing others much. This makes sense, but she puts it too strongly. I would rather accept that some people are mask exempt. I don’t know if that person without one is exempt or an anti-masker- or has just forgotten to bring one.

one of the best things we can do for ourself and each other and the whole population is to support our own immune system.  Masks do not do that, mainly because they block our ability to expel infective agents.  All of us have Staph aureus in our systems – if that gets over grown, then it will make us very ill.  Many of us carry Streptococcus and if anyone has ever experienced what folks call ‘Strep throat’ you will know that it’s no fun.  If we interrupt these balances then we have problems – these are naturally occurring bacteria that will cause problems if we push them out of balance

I don’t believe, on balance, that bacteria I would usually expel will multiply on my mask and then be much stronger in my airways. If anyone can refer me to something authoritative on this, please do. I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand-

Even the woman who writes “We can’t let misinformation undermine science” takes herbal tea and ginger root for her immune system.

Yeats, again. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Anti-maskers can rile each other up in their web enclaves, and try to persuade others.

Also in that group an Indian woman talked of the poetry of Mirza Ghalib, “To Urdu what Shakespeare is to English”. I was sad that she felt the need to ask our permission, white people don’t. I found some in this ancient-looking website. He is really good:

On the subject of mystic philosophy, Ghalib,
your words might have struck us as deeply profound
and we might have pronounced you a saint …
Yes, if only we hadn’t found
you drunk
as a skunk!

Not the blossomings of songs nor the adornments of music:
I am the voice of my own heart breaking.

You toy with your long, dark curls
while I remain captive to my dark, pensive thoughts.

We congratulate ourselves that we two are different:
that this weakness has not burdened us both with inchoate grief.

Now you are here, and I find myself bowing—
as if sadness is a blessing, and longing a sacrament.

I am a fragment of sound rebounding;
you are the walls impounding my echoes.

All your life, O Ghalib,
You kept repeating the same mistake:
Your face was dirty
But you were obsessed with cleaning the mirror!

I want a nice, safe consensus on mask wearing, and that appears not to be available, though I heard of people shouting angrily at maskless strangers when I last went to the Swanston supermarket. Some of the propaganda sheets in the UK seem to be pro-mask for now. In Meeting, I had my wayward and disturbing thoughts, and they merged and mingled with my Awareness, stretching it, because it is not “My God”, but ours. Strange and disturbing things are part of how the world is.

1929.6.68 002

Born that way

99% of the human genome is the same in everyone. Less than 1% differs. The genes that differ make us who we are, says Robert Plomin, our mental illnesses, our personalities and our mental abilities. He is a psychologist, who works on how genes help us understand who we are as individuals and predict what we will become.

Most of psychology is based on our environment, and how that affects us. Nurture was thought to make us who we are. Since the 1960s scientists conducting long term studies on separated twins have shown genes contribute hugely to our psychological differences. The most important environmental factors, such as families and schools, account for less than 5% of our difference in mental health, once we control for the impact of genetics. Every psychological trait shows some genetic influence. Even our experience of our parents and our schools is influenced by our genetic personalities.

Nurture is the wrong word: siblings raised in the same family are as different as siblings raised in different families. Plomin uses the word Environmentalism for the idea in psychology that the environment influences us. There are not individual “genes for” psychological traits, rather the weak effects of thousands of small differences aggregate to create powerful predictors of traits. You are 50% different to each parent and sibling. One genetic difference can cause cystic fibrosis, if it occurs in the CFTR gene inherited from each parent, but schizophrenia does not work in that way. Polygenic testing correlates thousands of genes with behavioural differences. The larger the study group, the more accurate the predictions- and more and more people are having their genomes mapped.

Eye colour is 95% heritable, that is, based on the genes we inherit. Breast cancer only 10%. Schizophrenia is 50%, and autism 70%. Reading disabilities, school achievement, verbal ability and the ability to remember faces are all 60% heritable. General intelligence including reasoning is 50% heritable.

Heritability refers to a particular population at a particular time. For example, heritability of body weight is greater in wealthy countries where there is greater access to fast food and high energy snacks, than in poorer countries. There is a difference between group and individual differences: the average height of northern European males has increased by more than 6″ in the last two hundred years, which is clearly due to changes in environment, but the differences in height between individuals is down to genetics.

Average differences between groups could be entirely environmental, perhaps as a result of discrimination.

What would this mean for the good society? Not necessarily eugenics and preventing some people from breeding: remember that our parents’ genes are mixed, not a predictable half from each, and many genes have tiny influences. To me, as a socialist, it would mean that as success in life was to a great extent genetic, society should mitigate against the inequalities it causes, by progressive taxation and a good safety net. It would mean that punishment of crime should be about containment and reform rather than deterrence or retribution. The moral deservingness someone had of their position in society, exalted or miserable, would be less, so it would be moral to mitigate the differences.

It would mean trans women are just as much real women as women with female genes, gonads and genitals. I resisted transition, and the idea that I was transsexual, for many years, but insofar as I made a choice to transition it was a choice between being who I am, or pretending to be male, which was making me miserable.

It would be wrong to deny the truth based on what it implied for humanity. Left wing policy should address the scientific facts. Denial is not an option. However Eric Turkheimer accused Plomin of describing effects as genetic which could just as well have been environmental. This is a dispute over which I am unqualified to judge.

I considered the kindle sample of Plomin’s book Blueprint and this Guardian interview.

Trans women and crime in toilets

Do laws specifically permitting trans women in women’s toilets affect the rates of crime in those toilets? Of course not. The predatory men who might want to attack women have far easier methods than pretending to be trans. However research in Massachusetts in 2018 shows that localities with law protecting trans women have less crime in toilets than localities without, and while there was an increase after the laws were passed, the increase in the comparable localities without law protecting trans women was greater. Massachusetts enacted a state-wide law protecting trans folk from discrimination in 2018, and malicious persons started a ballot measure to get that law vetoed. However the ballot supported the law, 1,806,742 to 857,401. I wish those 857,401 hostiles would learn the error of their ways.

There was an increase. However, as the researchers say, crime rates fluctuate over time, possibly from random variability, and the increase was no greater in localities with anti-discrimination law than without.

Of course, trans women as victims of assault do not bother the likes of State senator Buck Newton, who said the Massachusetts law was a threat to the public safety “of our daughters, of our wives”- of women as they relate to men, rather than to women generally. A 2008 survey of 93 transgender people in Washington, DC found that 9% reported experiencing physical assault in a public restroom.

The researchers found that crime in toilets is extremely rare. There were 4.5 violations of privacy or safety per 100,000 population in the localities studied. In Massachusetts, there were 32.6 rapes reported per 100,000 population. It is estimated that only a third of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police. However the study showed that a Gender Identity Inclusive Public Accommodation Non-Discrimination Ordinance, GIPANDO in their language, trans-accepting law in mine, in “public accommodations”- “public bathroom, public restroom, public locker room, or public changing room” did not alter the number of offences when compared to places without that law. The researchers concluded,

While criminal incidents do, in fact, rarely occur in such spaces, these findings suggest that concerns over the safety in those spaces should be more generally related to community safety and policing, and not related to nondiscrimination laws…

The results show that the passage of such nondiscrimination laws is not related to the number or frequency of criminal incidents in such public spaces. Additionally, the results show that reports of privacy and safety violations in public restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms were exceedingly rare and much lower than statewide rates of reporting violent crimes more generally. This study provides evidence that fears of increased safety and privacy violations as a result of nondiscrimination laws are not empirically grounded.

I can’t explain the methodology completely, because I don’t know what a “one-tailed alpha” is. Someone with better statistical skills than I should have a look at the paper. However, the researchers found localities which had enacted non-discrimination laws for trans people, and comparable localities which had not. To find comparable localities, they considered “population size, the percent of the population over the age of 65, the percent of population that is non-Hispanic white, the percent of population earning more than $200,000, median income, the percent of the population living below the poverty line, the percent of the population that identifies as Born Again, percentage of the vote for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election, and a composite crime score based on numerous indices.” They concluded that “the distinguishing factor between these localities is the existence or absence of a public accommodations-specific nondiscrimination law that applied to gender identity.”

They then made public records requests of the localities with anti-discrimination law, and the comparable localities without, for the period of two years before and after the law was enacted. They concluded that anti-discrimination law for trans people did not have an effect on victimization, mainly because there are so few of us: other research shows “The cumulative addition of legal inclusion of marginalized groups may, however, reduce victimization rates.” The more people are protected by law, the less victimisation there is.

They found that in the localities with anti-discrimination law, there was an increase of violations of privacy or safety from 0 to 0.62 per 100,000. However, in the comparable localities without anti-discrimination law, in the same period there was an increase from 2.54 to 4.50 per 100,000.

The hard right whips up hatred to conceal that it does nothing of value for its voters. Buck Newton and Dominic Cummings are concerned to persecute harmless trans women rather than to protect cis women, and that their handmaidens who are anti-trans campaigners assist them to distract from actual threat or harm to women.

I have been reading about Covid

This is my new toy.

It is a pulse oximeter. It shines a light through my fingertip, senses it, and works out my blood oxygen level and pulse. I read about “Happy hypoxia”, so called because one is oblivious to it- because you feel breathless when you cannot expel CO2, but Covid pneumonia allows you to expel CO2 just not to absorb oxygen properly. So you are slowly starved of oxygen, but don’t realise it. I feel “silent hypoxia” is a better word, despite the loss of alliteration. You breathe more and more rapidly, straining your heart and lungs, but are unaware.

I read about that, and instantly ordered the oximeter. I hope I don’t need it- I may not catch the virus at all. But, unless civilisation breaks down, I should be able to give this particular piece of evidence to a doctor, saying my blood oxygen was below normal (normal is 95-100%) and might get into hospital on time. I also bought a thermometer to assess the severity of any fever.

Does vitamin D deficiency cause cytokine storms? There was some research in Trinity College Dublin, I think saying vitamin D might have something to do with them. A cytokine storm is when your immune cells stop recognising which cells are healthy and which infested with the virus, and start ordering them all to self-destruct, viral and healthy alike. So you drown in pus.

All this stuff is really horrible. Still, as long as you don’t overestimate the probability or severity of risk, it is better to know. Many people catch the virus without being intubated, and may recover completely.

In February I had no idea what a cytokine storm was. Vitamin D deficiency was a suggestion: there is evidence of correlation, and an explanation why vitamin D might be relevant is hypothesised, but the link was not proven (as I understand it). White people should spend more time in the sun. Then I read this. If vitamin D is a platitude cast in the faces of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people, as if this is a simple precaution and you’ll be alright, there is a problem.

I am a pretty straight kind of guy (gal, whatever) and depending on what experience you have of me you might decide to trust what I say here. And, it’s all second hand. I read something, I take it in partially, I remember it partially. I have no expertise, just the lay interest of an intelligent person with a lot of time whose friends may die. Like any other social media, it’s at best a less trustworthy source than Google will find.

I learned of hypoxia first in the New York Times, in an article by a doctor. It’s not peer-reviewed, and the evidence was anecdotal, but I felt it a reasonably prestigious source. You may trust others, and the trust is not wholly objective.

This blog has had views from 199 countries and territories. I would like views from Turkmenistan or Tajikistan, Mauritania, Chad or the DRC, to colour in more of the map, but I got fed up waiting for no.200, so I am celebrating with this header photo.

You may have noticed the pulse indicated in that photo was quite low. I googled, found the scary word Brachycardia, phoned my GP, and the next day (Friday 15th) had an ECG and blood tests. I have a normal sinus rhythm, so no need to worry unless I have sudden dizziness or breathlessness. Thank God for the NHS.

Arguably, I was foolish to buy the oximeter, or foolish to use it before the frightening possible moment when I had been feverish and coughing for a week, and was getting no better. I suppose I could have decided to take my pulse at any point, with or without it, but had not, and my feeling is that the low pulse is a sudden discovery rather than a sudden onset. In the event I may have given myself a fright without any reason. Just because 60 is normal pulse, does not mean that in me, in the absence of other symptoms, 47 is healthy enough. Yet, knowing of it, I am pleased at the ease of getting it checked.

Dinosaurs II

What could be better to distract us from covid woes- fear of infection, economic uncertainty, the difficulties of being trans- than dinosaurs? Palaeontology is a field of rapid discovery and theorising, with endless fascinating details, completely divorced from the modern world, with lots to ooh and aah at. Our guide is Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh, whom you can hear here. I love his enthusiasm, though I bridle a bit at his patronising- you can find dinosaurs everywhere, “Even in Scahtland”. I did not like him referring to “a beautiful island off the West Coast of Scotland called the Isle of Skye”, rather than as I would call it, “Skye” as I expect people to have heard of it. However there he found footprints about the size of a car tyre, several sets of tracks 170m years old, of sauropods fifty feet long weighing several tons.

His description of sauropods is fascinating. How did they grow to be fifty tons like the Argentinosaurus? Well, they would need to eat about 100lbs of vegetation a day, standing still and using their long necks to strip the forest around them from tree tops to ground level, some of it no other animal could reach, using little energy. They grew to the size of an aeroplane in about 30-40 years. They had lungs like birds, with a series of balloonlike air sacs connected to the lung, which store air taken in during exhalation then pass it across the lung in exhalation. The bones of the chest cavity have big openings for these sacs, like in birds, which made the skeleton lighter so more manoeuvrable, and have a large surface area so the animal could dissipate excess heat in its breath.

Weight is estimated from the observation that it is related in living animals to the width of the thigh bone in bipeds, thigh bone and upper arm in quadrupeds.

Brusatte has written a popular science book, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, in part based on his own research. He made a classification of carcharodontosaurs (shark-toothed), when he was an undergraduate. He made a spreadsheet of features that varied among species, such as deep sinuses surrounding the brain, or the kinds of teeth: 99 different characteristics. He used a computer program that uses algorithms to search through the data and generate a family tree, from which species share which features and when they were developed. This is a cladistic analysis. From that it clarified where these carnivores came from in the late Jurassic, around 150mya. They began as Pangaea was breaking up, so could spread across the world, and lasted fifty million years. The structure of their family tree reflects the motion of the continents. But they were superseded by the Tyrannosaurs, which were much cleverer.

Did you know T Rex was roughly as smart as a chimp, and cleverer than dogs? This is found from the “Encephalization Quotient”- the ratio between body size and brain size is a good indicator of intelligence. That is smarter than the dinosaurs of stereotype, who were big and stupid and became extinct to be replaced by us clever mammals. This may be colonialist thinking: just as the Imperial invaders mocked and belittled the complex agricultural economy of the Australian indigenous peoples, so the Victorian scholars saw animals less related to themselves as naturally inferior.

But what is a dinosaur? In the 1840s, it was named as all descendants of the common ancestor of the herbivorous Iguanodon and the carnivorous Megalosaurus. Before the dinosaurs, in the early Triassic around 250m years ago, there were “dinosauromorphs”, like dinosaurs but without the small changes of that common ancestor: a long scar on the upper arm that anchored muscles to move the arms sideways, and some flanges on the neck vertebrae that supported stronger muscles and ligaments. The dinosauromorphs were already more active and dynamic than the amphibians and reptiles of their time, with high metabolisms. From fossils it can be hard to tell if a species is a true dinosaur or another dinosauromorph.

Dinosauromorphs continued alongside true dinosaurs for another 20m years, with contemporaneous relatives of modern crocodiles called pseudosuchians. Brusatte studied their “morphological disparity”- how varied they were, how many different variations of each and so how varied were their ecological niches. After a year of work as a young postgraduate, he had a database of 76 Triassic species, each assessed for 470 features of the skeleton, and found that throughout the Triassic pseudosuchians were more diverse than dinosaurs. Yet with climate change at the end of the Triassic, the dinosaurs became more diverse, more abundant, and larger, and pseudosuchians nearly all died out, leaving only a few primitive crocodiles.

Why is a mystery. Dinosaurs and pseudosuchians looked and behaved similarly. Perhaps it was simple luck, perhaps palaeontologists will figure it out.

I have been reading about arcane facts, and large numbers which are not infection rates. It is a relief.

Dinosaurs

What is a dinosaur?

A child could answer that question. It’s a huge animal that died out millions of years ago. As a child I could have named brontosaurus, triceratops, stegasaurus and, of course, Tyrannosaurus Rex, just as I could name nine planets in order. I would have included pteranodon. Then I read the “very basic concept” that “pterosaurs are not dinosaurs”, but birds are, so decided to look up a more scientific answer. Much of this comes from Wikipedia, which I will call Wrong.

I did not understand the first sentence, Dinosaurs are a diverse group of reptiles of the clade Dinosauria, because I did not know what a “clade” was. A clade is a common ancestor and all its descendants. The ancestor can be an individual, a population, a species, a genus, etc, as recent as you like: mammals, placental mammals, primates and great apes are all clades.

Because dinosaurs, properly and scientifically speaking, are a clade, birds are dinosaurs. To me as a child, the idea that a chirpy little thrush was a dinosaur would have made no sense at all, and as I write now I am wondering whether to still assert that common sense notion. (“Common sense” is what everyone knows, or almost everyone, even if it is wrong.) It makes sense to me to imagine a group of organisms sharing a set of characteristics, and one of those characteristics was Died Out at the end of the Cretaceous period or Mesozoic era. As a child I would have known the names of a few periods or eras, but not like my autistic friend the names of all eras and periods in order. And not the Hadean: the usage was only coined in 1972, and even now the International Commission on Stratigraphy calls it “informal”.

Still, the end of the dinosaurs, definitely the end of the Cretaceous, was the end of Interesting prehuman life for me, when I was a child. Eohippus, or even a sabre-toothed tiger, was not a patch on Tyrannosaurus Rex. I am unsure how widespread such a feeling is. I am interested in everything, but some things more than others. You can easily buy model tyrannosaurs for wee bairns to play with, and the bairns play enthusiastically, going

RWAARRRH!

as loudly as they can. (“Easily buy”- I meant, in shops! How old-fashioned my thinking is!) I only recently learned that Stegosaurs were long extinct before Tyrannosaurs arose, as that fact would not have interested me. As a child they were both creatures of fantasy, and that fantasy continues in adulthood though it is less important to most adults than to children.

When I was a child the theory that the Chicxulub impact had ended the dinosaurs (even excluding birds) had not become widely accepted, and now I understand it is scientific consensus with some sceptics still challenging the evidence and the reasoning. That too, an asteroid almost destroying life on Earth, is a powerful image, widely known outside the scientific community as it speaks to people, a dreadful horror beyond all others.

Are Pterosaurs dinosaurs? If I had had a rubber toy pterosaur it would have flown in my hand over the tyrannosaur attacking the stegosaur, and I would have conceived of them as one class of animal- big, extinct. Pterosaurs were an order existing from 228-66mya. (Million years ago, but you knew that.) Dinosaurs were named by Richard Owen in 1842, after evolution, the changing of species through strata, had been observed, but before Darwin had published the theory explaining evolution by natural selection. I don’t know if Owen was aware of pterosaurs, or whether he would have called them dinosaurs, but now dinosaurs are Ornithischia and Saurischia, not including Ichthyosaurs either.

So, I use the word “dinosaur” much as I would in my childhood, from a vague understanding of time, ending 66mya, starting, I dunno, maybe 200mya. Scientists are researching the exact origin now, of the clade. Clades are clearly more important to them than to me. I find the idea of a “Kingdom” useful: plants, animals and fungi are Kingdoms. There is another Kingdom, Protists, being eukaryotes not fitting in the other three, and Wikipedia tells me Some recent classifications based on modern cladistics have explicitly abandoned the term “kingdom”. I wrongly but belligerently include ichthyosaurs and pterosaurs as dinosaurs, and find “Protist” a useful new word even if it does not describe a clade. I might even (shock!) treat “pterosaur” and “pteranodon” as interchangeable.

Classifications change as people find out more, and the research continues. If Richard Owen returned to life now, I imagine he might support the cladistic definition of dinosaur, to include birds not pterosaurs, after it had been explained to him. Common sense goes from imprecise understandings and old ideas which are now discounted. I am happy with the idea of a dinosaur as a potent myth of a terrible lizard, because I do not systematically follow the latest research. I am delighted with occasional striking ideas, such as scientists examining fossils under the microscope and postulating what colours dinosaurs were.

I take a middle position between common sense and “modern cladistics”, myth and imagery and precise classification. Both are useful at different times. A tomato is a fruit and a vegetable. I see the point of asserting that birds are dinosaurs, but I will stick with the common idea of dinosaurs as Jurassic or Cretaceous reptiles, including pterosaurs, for most purposes.

I am writing about this partly because people were worried when I did not post for four days. I had not posted because I felt a bit down: less interested in posting, and not wanting to write too many “Oh god life is awful” posts like my recent My Life, and Trans Politics, posts seemed to me. I am interested in it. I have now formed a view, that a precise scientific understanding and an imprecise general misunderstanding of the concept “dinosaur” both have value.

I wanted a cheerful Gericault to contrast with yesterday’s picture, but see Gericault was not the most cheerful painter. I notice the wikimedia file looks much better when the screen is too bright for my eyes, so I have brightened it.