The worst blog ever written

WARNING: This blog contains racist language and Wordle strategies that are of no use to any living person.

It started with a Twitter discussion about the best starting word for Wordle, of course.

It was Twitter, so everybody had strong opinions on the subject, of course.

And, of course, of course, of course, I did something in Excel.

I didn’t mean to. We were talking about the best opening words, so I innocently downloaded a list of 5-letter words and pasted it into an Excel column, then wrote a formula to work out, for each letter of the alphabet, what fraction of words it appears in. Once you have that it’s easy to assign each word a score, by adding up the frequency of all its letters (excluding duplicates).

My argument was that the best starting word was the one that scored the highest (i.e. it contained the most frequently used letters). Despite this logic being based on actual, literal, numbers it was not universally accepted.

The thread provided seven loose strategies for the starting word:

  1. Start with AROSE, my highest scoring word.
  2. Actually, you should ignore the letters in AROSE, because you can easily fill them in afterwards, actually.
  3. Rise to the challenge with YEAST, the word I typically use (or rather used) as my starting one
  4. Take into account that S is the most common starting letter for words – STARE was the highest scoring word I had starting with S
  5. Put the S at the end, where it belongs. TEARS (unsurprisingly) scores the same as STARE and was the highest scoring word ending in S in my list
  6. Just start with the first word that comes into your head
  7. Make guesses that you know are wrong, to get extra letters.

I discounted strategy 7 straight away, because you could also get extra letters by guessing answers that might be right. That is one of many things I regret from my youth, 4 days ago.

Anyway, I quickly spotted that with my word scoring list I could add a mask for letters I knew were in the right place. If, for example, you know that the R in AROSE is in the correct place then the mask ?R??? will filter out all of the words that don’t have R as their second letter. Similarly,  if you know that the A and the O are incorrect then you can remove all the words containing either of those letters, and if the S and the E are correct, but in the wrong place then you can remove both the words that don’t have either of those letters and the ones which fit the masks ???S? and ????E.

Then, by having my letters table only count the letters in words that hadn’t been excluded, I could generate new scores for each letter, and then new scores for all the non-excluded words and Excel would be offering me my next guess. I’d accidentally made an Excel sheet that could play Wordle!

Having such a sheet it would be criminal not to use it to prove my AROSE hypothesis, by having it pick answers at random and play Wordle against itself.

It should be said, straight away, that it’s not quick. After every guess it has to evaluate the formula alongside each of my list of 5,756 words and, for example, the one to work out whether each word is a valid guess or not looks like this:

=(COUNTIF(A1,$K$12))*(NOT((OR(ISNUMBER(MATCH(MID(A1,ROW($A$1:$A$5),1),M:M,0))))))*(AND(ISNUMBER(FIND(IFERROR(INDIRECT(“N1:N”&COUNTA(N:N)),A1),A1))))*(IFERROR(SUMPRODUCT(–(COUNTIF(A1,INDIRECT(“O1:O” & COUNTA(O:O))))),0)=0)

This means that the macro I wrote, to make and evaluate guesses and play game after game, has to slow itself down, so that Excel’s formula recalculation can keep up. Even so, it’s much faster than a human player and can play 1,000 games in about an hour…and 1,000 games seemed like a sensible number to generate some statistics.

The first try was with AROSE as the starting point and, an hour later, it returned a win rate of 91%, losing only 90 games in the 1,000 it ran. Of the 910 games it did win, it did so in an average of 4.16 guesses. Both of these results seemed pretty good to me, and my gut feeling was it was better than human player could do.

The next 1,000 games used my starting word, YEAST, and the results were promising. The win rate was slightly lower, at 90.4%, and the average number of guesses was slightly higher, 4.2.

My work was done. AROSE was the best starting word, YEAST was good, but not quite as good, and my little Excel sheet was playing Wordle perfectly.

Really, just as a formality, I ran it against some of the other strategies.

TEARS returned a win rate of 92.9%, the highest yet, and the lowest average number of tries, just 4.06.

This wasn’t too much of an upset. Although 92.9% is undoubtedly higher than my golden boy, AROSE, it’s not significantly so, statistically speaking. In other words, the chance was greater than 5% that the difference between the two win rates was down to random chance, rather than representing a genuine performance difference. TEARS had got lucky.

STARE, however, proved harder to explain. It produced a win rate of 95.4%, which is significantly better than AROSE. My WORLD was crumbling.

Strategy 2 – avoid the common letters – brought it tumbling down. Completely off the top of my head I picked CAMPS as a word that mixed common letters with mid-tier ones, and it produced a score of 95.4%!

If a word that I’d picked at random could do so well then what was the next test, starting with a random word, going to do?

My theory was that picking at random would be a terrible strategy. No-one would, for example, pick LOLLY as a starting word, but my random selector could. Stupid random selector. There was not, therefore, unrestrained joy when the random words strategy returned a win-rate of 92.4%.

Again, this wasn’t statistically significantly higher than the word I’d been asserting, 24 hours earlier, was unbeatable, but it was annoying that all these insignificant differences were insignificantly higher.

Statistics from the first 7,000 games

In a fit of pique, I selected the lowest scoring word, GYPPY, as a starting point.

Here, at last, finally I found a word that performed worse than AROSE. Yes, indeed, out of its 1,000 games it got 3 fewer right than AROSE had. Three! FUCKING THREE!!!

If you’ve been keeping count you’ll know that, by now, I’ve played 7,000 games, which means that there’s about a 70% chance that one of the games would have guessed the answer first try. Well, it did, and it was fucking GYPPY.

GYPPY can fuck right off!

[Apologies, by the way, for using that word. I didn’t vet the list of words, which wouldn’t have helped anyway, because I didn’t know what it meant, and it was selected for use by an algorithm. I’ll not mention it again]

Those first 7 games also gave me a list of “hard” words –387 answers that one or more of the runs had failed on. Just for comparison I tried all the start words I’d used so far against that list of words.

AROSE, you will not by now be surprised to hear, stunk; solving just 32.6% of them. Even YEAST did better, with 35.9%. Both were well behind TEARS’ 42.1%, STARE and starting with a random word both managed to crack 48.1% of them, and CAMPS got 60.7%!

Why was CAMPS so good? In an effort to explain I picked the exact mid-point of the league table of words, PEAKY, and tried that. In results that are blindingly obvious in hindsight, it scored almost exactly the same as starting with a random word.

More than ten thousand games of Wordle had so far taught me:

  1. My “best possible” starting word was worse than pretty much everything else I’d tried
  2. CAMPS was a supernaturally good starting word, but I had no idea why
  3. Ergo, I had no idea what a good strategy was any more

A wise friend suggested I should move to a two-word strategy. The one she uses starts with ATONE and then, unless she gets 2 green letters or 3 yellows (or, presumably, a green and 2 yellows) she moves on to SHIRK.

This was the discounted strategy 7, selecting a word that you know is wrong, to get more letters (which Wordle doesn’t allow, if you play in hard mode, but nobody does, so screw that).

The wise friend also mentioned she was thinking of moving to using STONE then HAIRY and I, being in the slow-learners class at school, suggested that DOLES and TRAIN would be better, because they use all 10 of the most common letters in 5-letter words.

Just for completeness I paired up the unbeatable CAMPS with another mid-tier word that I’d pulled out of my arse, DOUGH (the word, not the arse), and ran that as well.

The STONE/HAIRY combo managed to equal CAMPS’ 95.4% record, and with a slightly lower average number of guesses (4.06 vs 4.12). ATONE/SHIRK managed a practically-the-same result of 95.2%, CAMPS/DOUGH was nearly a whole percentage point worse than CAMPS by itself and, of course, my DOLES/TRAIN was bottom of the pack, with only 93.2% of games won.

The results of the two-word strategy

I now, finally, realised the problem was the BEARS-trap, which is this; if you get to a point where you know the word is in the form ?EARS then there are a bunch of letters that could go first, B, D, F, G, etc. My algorithm was very good at getting to that point but would then go through the possible answers alphabetically. This was not a winning strategy, but no worse than simply guessing a first letter.

What was needed was to eliminate as many letters as possible before you get to your final guess, so that if you arrive there knowing the word looks like ?EARS then you’ve as few remaining answers as possible to test.

This will never be perfect, not least of all because you can’t eliminate 26 letters in 5 x 5-letter guesses but also because SEARS and REARS are also valid answers, so even if you had eliminated every other letter, it would still be a 50/50 chance.

My first line of attack was to extend the two-word strategy to a four-word strategy, QUICK/BROWN/FATLY/HEMP, with those being the first 4 guesses unless all the letters were discovered earlier.

Here, at last, I managed to topple the unexpected CAMPS from its top spot, with a win rate of 97.4%, higher at a p <0.01 rate of significance, i.e. there’s less than a 1% chance that the difference in scores was just luck. The trade off for this was the average number of guesses taken to win leaping up to 5.16.

At this point I did quite a lot of experimenting with a way to make the 4-word strategy more dynamic. My initial impulse was to value wrong guesses near the start of the game and then home in on an answer in the final couple of guesses.

Of course, if you find yourself in the BEARS-trap after guess 4 then what you need for guess 5 is a word that tests as many of the remaining possibilities as it can. Your 5th guess shouldn’t be anything like ?EARS, it should be testing possible first letters.

I realised that ‘possible’ was the key word in that sentence. At the start of the game you can guess words that will give you extra letters, willy-nilly, but as the answer takes shape you need to restrict yourself to words that will give you additional letters that could possibly be in the answer. If you have ?EARS then there’s no point guessing QUICK, even if you haven’t yet checked any of those 5 letters, because none of them can be right.

I adapted my formula, which were now also counting how many untried letters were in each word, to only count untried letters that appeared in words that fitted into possible answers and tested this solution with both AROSE and CAMPS as the starting word.

Final algorithm results

I’ve still no idea why CAMPS is so much better. Maybe it’s not the best starting word, but as it would take 240 days of continuous playing to try all the start words, I’m not about to check the lot.

Just for completeness I also ran AROSE and CAMPS against my list of ‘hard’ words. AROSE won in 86.3% of those games, CAMPS in 93.3%

Now, after more than 20,000 games of Wordle, I’m confident that I have a system that (a) works as near as dammit all the time and (b) is absolutely no use to anybody not using a computer to play for them, unless they can mentally tally up valid, untried letters and words containing them.

Oh, yes, and I was dead wrong about everything I said in that Twitter thread. Further tests are necessary to determine if this is generally true of all Twitter threads I post in.

Happy Wordle-ing.

A loan again

This blog continues on from the events detailed in my previous blog, where a scammer applied for a loan in my wife’s name and then tried to convince her to “repay” the loan from her bank account to one of their choosing.

Their scheme was foiled before it ever really took off, as my wife happened to spot the money, £4,500, in her account before the scammers ever got in contact with her, so by the time they emailed and called she’d already spoken to the loan company’s fraud team.

Their fraud team were very helpful (although completely puzzled as to the point of a scam that involved getting money paid into an account the scammer had no access to). They gave her a fraud reference number, told her to cancel the direct debit that had been set up to repay the loan, said that they would add her to the Cifas voluntary registration scheme (which requires enhanced proof of ID for any credit applications), and that they would contact her bank directly, to reverse the transfer. This all happened on August 11th, and we expected it to be the last we’d hear about it. She’d dodged the scam and done everything right to sort it out. It was all over.

Ha!

In fact, it was the last we heard of it until October 12th, when a letter dropped on our mat, telling my wife that she was in arrears on her loan payments, with an outstanding balance of £7,490.88 (£4,500+interest). This seemed a little unfair, on the grounds that (a) it was the loan company’s own finance team who had said to cancel the direct debit, (b) the money transfer had been reversed, and (c) she’d never taken out a loan in the first place.

The thing was, we realised, that we had no proof of our conversation with the fraud team, no proof that they’d accepted it was fraud, and no proof that they’d advised my wife to cancel the direct debit. If they were going to get heavy, with thing like arrears notices then that raised the possibility that this would end up in court, with us trying to get her to repay money that she’d never asked for and which had already been taken back. Hilarious as that court case would be, it would still be nice to be able to prove our side of the story. For this reason we decided that everything from here on in was going to written.

We emailed the loan company’s customer services team, explaining the whole situation again, and asking three key questions:

  1. Would they please confirm that my wife didn’t owe them any money and stop sending her arrears notices
  2. Would they also confirm that they had add my wife to the Cifas scheme
  3. Would they let her know what details of hers the scammers had used (they wouldn’t do this on her phone call with them in August “for data protection reasons”)

We also said that as the scammers had tried to contact her by phone and by email we’d prefer any response to be via snail mail.

The first thing we were going to learn is that all communications with the loan company have to age for 10 days before anybody sends a response. The second thing was that nobody was spending those 10 days reading what was written. Here’s the first response…

Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the full beauty of that response. In reply to an email saying that scammers applied for a loan in her name, using a false email address, the loan company are saying that they can’t respond, because the email hasn’t come from the email address they have on record.

The one the scammers setup and operate.

The one they wouldn’t tell us, for data protection reasons.

Marvellous.

Still, there was the possibility of contacting them through their secure online portal. That seemed to be an avenue worth exploring.

The initial page of the online portal requires three pieces of information, (i) the loan agreement number, (ii) your postcode, (iii) your date of birth. Once you’ve put those in it gives you a message saying that the information does not match that held on record, and won’t proceed any further. What’s more, as the arrears notice contains both the loan agreement number and our postcode we could be sure that we were in-step with the loan company on those two items, so the erroneous piece of information must be the date of birth used.

The scammers hadn’t even used my wife’s correct date of birth. We emailed back, explaining this, and adding to our list of questions for some sort of explanation as to how even an incorrect DoB hadn’t raised some sort of red flag. Once again, we made it clear that we’d prefer to receive a response by post.

The 10 days to their next reply simply flew by. This one said that as our case sounded like fraud the case details had been passed to the fraud team.

All that happened for the next 3 weeks was that the loan company added another missed payment to my wife’s credit report. We decided to raise a complaint with the loan company and sent them all the details, and our list of questions, again.

This time it only took 4 days for us to get another reply from the customer services team, telling us that, As you have explained in your email that you have had suspicious emails from others in relation to this, we will contact you by letter with any updates.

Woo-hoo! Now we only had to wait 10 days (+2 days to allow for postage) to get an actual physical letter through the post. It acknowledged that we’d raised a complaint, told us it was being investigated, and reminding us that whatever our complaint we must continue to make repayments.

My wife, a defeated woman by this point, left drafting the reply to me.

My wife, perhaps wisely, refused to put her name to this, and we cut it down to a rather boring 2-liner, asking them not to add any more late payments to her credit report.

This time somebody competent seems to have been involved, as inside a week the loan was flagged as “Disputed” on my wife’s credit record, and no further late payment was added.

Then, finally, a flurry of activity, and two letters from the loan company in the space of a couple of days. The first was a baffling one, both address to my wife and also referring to her in the third-person. Dear Mrs R, it opens, We’re writing about your request to cancel the agreement with Mrs Lisa R. In case that wasn’t confusing enough, it continues, I’m happy to say that Mrs Lisa R has given their permission to cancel the agreement.

Mrs Lisa R, who has never had an agreement with the loan company, was delighted to hear that Mrs Lisa R has kindly agreed to cancel that agreement, and agrees that the agreement was most disagreeable.

The second letter was more understandable and informed my wife that the investigation had concluded and, more than 2 months after the arrears notice landed, and a full 5 months after her initial contact with the loan company, had decided that fraud had taken place.

There was a certain finality to that letter. A real feeling that things are sorted now, so let’s just draw a line under the whole experience.

My wife, who had contacted the loan company at 9am the day after the money appeared in her account still has 2 missed payments on her credit record for a loan she never took out.

The loan company have not answered a single one of the questions she raised.

If they don’t soon then this blog will be edited, to name them.

Loan stranger

What would you do if you received an email tomorrow morning, telling you that your £4,500 loan has gone through, the money would be in your account today, and that somebody from the customer care team would be in touch shortly to check that the process had been smooth and hassle free?

You might think of it as a nice customer services touch. After all, you’ve probably got plans for that money; a new car, a family holiday, home improvements, or just filling a bin-bag with Haribo and eating until you die of Insulin, whatever.

What, though, if you hadn’t applied for a loan, and this was the first you were hearing about it?

In that case you’d probably just write the email off as spam, especially if you looked at the reply-to address and noticed it was from a domain called protonmail.com, which provides secure, end-to-end encrypted, and untraceable email accounts. Into the trash, spammer!

Then, an hour later your phone rings, and it’s the customer services guy from the loan company, all preppy and cheerful, asking how the loan process went and could you answer a few questions, for their customer feedback survey. “What?”, “Who the fuck are you?”, and “I didn’t ask for a loan, why are you calling me?” might be among your first questions. The preppy loan guy is shocked by your potty mouth, but is a pro, and calmly tells you that the £4,500 was paid into your bank account in the last 24 hours. He tells you to go and verify this and gives you a number to call him back on.

You go and check your online banking and, sure enough, last night £4,500 that you weren’t expecting fell into your account, delivered there by a genuine loan company. Your phone rings again, it’s the world’s brightest customer services guy, phoning back because he’s concerned that the loan was news to you. Maybe this is some kind of scam, but he just can’t understand it. Why would someone scam you with a loan paid into your bank account? That makes no sense.

Never mind, if it’s a scam then it’s a stupid one. The loan company are very apologetic, but this is easily sorted. Just repay the loan to the bank account given in the email you received this morning and the whole thing will be cancelled and chalked up to “WTF?” What, you accidentally deleted that email? Never mind, here’s the account details. Repay the money and the loan company will do a thorough investigation into what happened. Tap, tap, tap, sorted. On with the rest of your day.

In case you’re wondering where this story came from, it happened to my wife, back in August.

Her interaction didn’t play out quite as above as, purely by chance, she’d checked her bank account on the evening of 10th August and seen the unexpected £4,500 in there, so by the time the email arrived she’d already spoken to the loan company and established that although they’d had an online application from someone using her name, address and bank account details, and that the mobile number and email address they held for her were not hers (the email was courtesy of our friends at protonmail.com again).

This meant that when the happy customer services guy rang her, and claimed to be calling from a company who she knew didn’t have her mobile number, he got told to fuck off in no uncertain terms. Likewise for the calls that followed – from the same number, from blocked numbers, from Spain, from a hotel in Biarritz (!). As the calls shifted geography they also shifted tone, from happy and helpful through to threatening legal action before reaching their final destination of just threatening.

In case you’re not following how this scam is working, it plays on three factors:

  1. Getting a loan on-line is pretty easy and very low-risk. The details you need about the target aren’t exactly secret; their name, address, email, mobile number and bank account number. With a common factor, like an email address, you can pull these details together from multiple sources fairly easily, but…
  2. Loan companies baulk at paying the loan into an off-shore numbered account, or depositing it as a carrier-bag full of fifties next to a bin in Hyde Park, so you need a way to get the money from the victim’s account to your own, and bank accounts are harder to hack into, but…
  3. Most people, having found themselves the recipient of an expected loan, will want to do the right thing and repay the money. If you can convince them that they are doing this, while they are actually sending the money to where you want it, then you’re home and dry.

Even step 6 here is uncertain. Depending on your circumstances, and how tight a rein you keep on your finances, it might be a while before you even notice that the lender has set up a direct debit on your account, and start asking them why they’re still taking payments for a loan you repaid.

It’s a low-risk crime, with a nice long getaway time built into the back end. The police seemed uncertain what crime had been committed. They doled out a crime number, sent an email saying they’d call me wife back at time she was at work, and then never got in touch again. I think we can safely assume they’re not staking out that Biarritz hotel right now.

What we’ve learned from this is:

  1. If you get an email saying your loan has been approved then do not ignore it.
  2. Be sure that the people you’re talking to are who they say they are. Phone the lender yourself, using the details from their website, don’t trust that anybody claiming to be them is who they say they are.
  3. Let the loan company and your bank sort out the money being reclaimed, don’t go making payments to a bunch of numbers passed to you over the phone.
  4. As we’ll see when I write part 2 of this story, don’t assume that just because you get steps 1-3 right that your problems are anywhere near over.

The story continues here

Metoo mori

Remember #MeToo? How about #BelieveHer? Remember when, for a brief moment, it looked and felt like the world was committed to finally banishing the four horsemen, who have plagued every women to ever try reporting sexual assault?

My, how far we’ve come from there, as the Wi Spa incident shows.

Who’d have thought that in those days when we finally seemed about to let daylight into the murky world of male sexual aggression towards women that we were only a few years away from women being told they were bigots for being made uncomfortable or that they were siding with Nazis in wanting it to stop? Who’d have believed that the people saying that define themselves as feminist, or that they claim, straight-faced, that those who disagree with them are, by definition, not feminists.

Wi Spa has been a tremendous victory for the men who want to women to keep quiet about sexual violence, because it has perfectly demonstrated that all of the old weapons are oiled, loaded and in full working order, and that new arms have been added to the arsenal. Every woman has got to see that, even there, where the case turned out to be as cut and dried as one could hope for in such matters, the cost to the woman at the centre of it was terrible. They can all vividly imagine how things would go if their own case was even a little more marginal.

#MeToo felt like the start of the end of the easy ride for male abusers, instead they can now cite feminist scholars, saying that their accusers are no better than racists. Women were angry then, the best of them – the ones who understand how men have learned to use ideology to not only wound women directly but also to cut them adrift from feminist support – are furious now. Come and see.

Easy way in

Here’s a scenario; you’re woken in the middle of the night by noises elsewhere in your house. Your partner, the only other person in the house, is asleep in bed next you. What do you do? Call the police? Sneak out of bed to investigate? Do what my wife does, and wake me up, arm me with a pool cue, and then send me to deal with it? All valid options (although, unless you’re my wife, sending me personally may be inconvenient and involve quite a lot of travel).

While you decide whether to call for me, and my trusty pool cue of household defence, lets switch to another problem, homelessness. Every night in this country tens of thousands sleep rough. At the same time millions of households go to bed, confining themselves to just a couple of rooms, and leaving the rest of their warm, dry, safe home unused.

A house, pictured yesterday

Obviously there’s a solution here. If everyone just left their doors unlocked at night then anybody in the area without a home could just let themselves in and crash out on the sofa. One of our major social problems could be solved at a stroke, and for no cost at all.

I’m not naïve, I can see that some people from the privileged class (those with a home) might object, but these legitimate concerns are really just punching down against a marginalised community (the homeless).

The concerns aren’t even legitimate. It would still be illegal to steal from your house, illegal to threaten or hurt you or your family, illegal to cause any damage to your property. Your enjoyment of your home wouldn’t be impacted in any way at all.

Let’s face it, burglaries haven’t been stopped by it being illegal to come into your house, have they? And there are already plenty of easy ways to get to you and your stuff. You don’t have steel bars on your doors, or shutters at your windows, but you feel comfortable slamming that door in the face of someone who just wants somewhere to sleep.

Plus, all of the statistics show that homeless people are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators of it. Nobody is going to pretend to be homeless, with all of the stigma that entails, just to steal your shitty telly, Karen!

I think it’s safe to say that anybody objecting to this plan is doing so purely on the ground that they hate the homeless and want to protect their own privilege, in exactly the same way that bigots didn’t want ethnic minorities moving into “their” neighbourhoods. It is literal racism.

Back then to our original scenario.

Heard a noise downstairs? Relax, it’s probably just a member of a marginalised community using their new legal right to find somewhere to sleep.

Voices? Yeah, well you’ve got friends and family, and homeless people are allowed the same.

Sounds like they’re searching around? So what? Perhaps they’re going to make themselves a sandwich. OK, that’s technically theft, but what kind of bitch would you have to be to call the law on someone who maybe hasn’t eaten for days?

Footsteps coming up the stairs? They’re doing nothing wrong and are entitled to be there. They probably just need to use the bathroom. You’re not going to make your visitors go outside to do that, are you?

Your bedroom door is opening? Perhaps they can’t find the bathroom. They don’t have a floorplan of your house, you know.

Someone coming into your bedroom? Could be they just want to ask if it’s OK to make themselves a sandwich. How nice of them, and after you were ready to call the police on them just a few sentences ago. Hope you feel disgusted in yourself now.

Knife against your throat? They’re probably terrified. Remember, they’re at far more risk of violence from you than you are from them. Just be kind and put them at their ease.

Of course, in the very unlikely event that a homeless person (or, more likely, someone pretending to be homeless) does hurt you, then you haven’t lost your right to call the police. In fact, you’ve lost nothing. Nothing at all.

Material Girls: A review

Given the vicious and partisan nature of the debate over trans issues, it was guaranteed that any book on the subject would be lauded by one side and renounced by the other, based almost entirely upon the tribal association of the author.

This seems particularly unjust in the case of Material Girls, by Kathleen Stock, which, despite its sub-title, Why Reality Matters for Feminism, goes out of its way to be both fair-minded and balanced. Indeed, based on the first two chapters, I was wondering if a trans activist had snuck into the printers and quietly substituted a work of their own. Of course, in times of war, attempts at being non-partisan can result in both sides shooting at you, thus the bravery of Dr Stock’s decision not to simply preach to the choir for 300 pages should be recognised.

The book opens with a look at the history of gender identity, the concept of ‘woman’ meaning a performance of womanhood and of sex being a spectrum, rather than a binary. Although I read almost exclusively non-fiction, I have no experience with philosophy (excepting the kind that comes free with pint glasses), and I found this section of the book quite tough going. It’s to the author’s credit that she recognises that these are heavyweight discussions for the lay-person, and explains the concepts involved briefly, but with sufficient clarity to hand-hold the reader through the sections that follow. The issue is more that it’s difficult to read at a steady pace, rather the reader (or, at least, this reader) has to read a sentence or paragraph and then pause, to take in what has just been said.

From chapter 2 – What is sex? – onwards this problem intensifies, as scientific and medical terminology are added to the mix. Again, this is all explained well and the amount of details given feels pitched perfectly to give an understanding of what is being discussed. The reader’s progress may be slowed, but you never feel lost. This section of the book is important, as it demonstrates that Dr Stock is not going to waste words knocking down straw men. The various flavours of gender ideology are all treated seriously, their historical origins are explored, and, in several places in the book, the author specifically denounces what might be thought of as typical ‘TERF’ (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) positions.

Indeed, anybody who has bought this book, expecting it to be a non-stop assault against the idea of gender identity is likely to be disappointed, as is anyone in the opposite camp, who was expecting a tome of TERF talking points to pitch into the flames. Instead, it delivers what is part history of how were got to where we are and, almost, a manifesto for compromise (something that is sure to find detractors in both groups).

Dr Stock identifies 4 distinct meanings of ‘gender’, from GENDER1 – a synonym for biological sex – through to GENDER4 an entirely personal and internal experience of gender, that is psychological rather than physiological in nature. None of the meanings are invalidated, and each is fully explained and explored and, with the aid of a simple decision tree (and I do love a good flowchart) evaluated.

This all builds a strong case for using gender identity, whatever it may be, as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, GENDER1 – biological sex. Undoubtedly is this section that will attract the most ire from those opposed to allowing biology to be the determinant of gender, but this is not a work that can be dismissed in a couple of tweets. It is methodical, clearly designed to withstand unfriendly scrutiny. The time taken to precisely and fairly describe what gender identity is pays off when it comes to describing what it isn’t.

The book then moves on to look at immersion; our willingness to suspend disbelief and even become angry at those who puncture our bubble, even though we intellectually know it’s a fantasy, such as actors and the audience glaring at someone whose phone rings during a play. This provides genuinely insightful in explaining so much of the behaviour we see daily on social media. In keeping with the book’s overall tone, the value of immersion is given as much page space as discussion of when it becomes problematic.

The focus then moves to institutional capture, how it was done, and the extreme perils of whole branches of public life becoming immersed in fantasy. This will be more familiar territory for those used to following the online battles, and is the only part of the book to really stand out as scathing of those involved in peddling the end of sex to public and private institutions. It’s refreshing to see all of the classics – misused suicide statistics, misrepresented figures on hate crime and violence towards trans people, etc – neatly laid out in one place and well-referenced, it’s just a little jarring that this comes before the book’s conclusion, a call for better activism, including finding common group between the two camps.

Material Girls is, then, a challenging, often surprising and thought-provoking read. It’s a record of where we are now, and how we got here, a suggestion of a path forwards, a look at the philosophical underpinnings of one of the bitterest disputes going, and, in places, a line in the sand for rights that women cannot be expected to concede. Throughout, Dr Stock pitches the book just right, for the non-specialist reader (I’ll put my hand up to owning exactly zero other books on either philosophy or feminism) and has been brave enough to make the work, in places, very personal to her. It’s a book to be read with an open mind, and I sincerely hope that those who read it do more than just judge it on the basis of only two words, the author’s name.

An open letter in the style of the last bunch of yahoos to write an open letter

Somebody, sooner or later, must speak up. So sad that it was us – whoever we are – and now, and that our chosen topic was, among other things, the distinction between a petty anxiety and the horror that arises when you become aware that you are witnessing persecution…apparently.

Topic change! In olden times, a letter that anybody could read was called a postcard. On one side it had a picture of some landscape and, on the other, 3 or 4 bland and formulaic statements. “Wish you were here”, “Having a lovely time”, “It has pissed down for 8 solid days”, etc. Now that we’re modern, it takes 3 pages of bland and formulaic statements to paint a picture of an entirely fictional landscape. We’re calling that progress.

“When we consider the paradox of tolerance – that is that in order to be inclusive we must intolerant of some ideas – we soon see that… (postcard 1 of 517)”

Topic change! Only by completely refusing to allow some people a voice can we make things more inclusive of everyone. That sounded better in my head. The important thing is that, at the moment, everyone has a voice, but things would clearly be fairer, apparently, if the anonymous people who wrote our letter decided who was allowed to speak and who wasn’t. To quote Ernest Hemingway, “Fuck literature!” Now that we think about it, that quote doesn’t entirely support any of the 47 points we were trying to make, but this is a letter about the book industry, so we need a couple of quotes in, don’t we? As William Shakespeare said, “Yes.”

There is no cancel culture, but there really should be. Once again, that sounded better before we wrote it down. The point is, if we don’t cancel people then the people we don’t cancel may use their un-cancelled status to cancel others, and the people they’ll be cancelling are a tiny minority. By cancelling the people we want to cancel, which is quite a lot, then we’ll be protecting the very small number of people from cancelling, which means that, on the whole, more people will not be cancelled. Hang on, we might have forgotten to carry the 3.

Topic change! When you think about it, the real damage is done by those who stay silent in all of this. Those people are tacitly supporting the people we don’t like, possibly because they think they don’t know enough about the subject to comment. Hopefully this open letter will show them that needn’t be a bar.

Topic change! Stereotypes, eh? Maybe when women think about allowing trans men into women’s spaces their silly girl brains picture a huge man invading their spaces. What they’ve done – bless their feeble minds – is mistake being trans for wearing some kind of costume. There’s not space here to discuss how a transwoman might look a lot like a regular man wearing some kind of costume, or might look like a regular man not wearing a costume, who says they’re trans anyway, or to discuss the hundreds of objective and fool-proof ways to tell these groups apart. No, indeed, women are silly and we’ve got another 3 pages of open letter to write. Onwards!

Topic change! The things people are saying now sound very much like hateful incidents from the past, if you change some of the words they’re using, and ignore the context, and make up your own facts. Dear god, all the injustices in the world, and the one we’ve decided to write an open letter about is the one that only stands up if you prop it against an actual civil rights issue and then blur the language, until they sound like they’re sort of about the same thing.

If you just change “meek” to “Anglo-Saxons” then you’ll see that the bit about them inheriting the Earth was straight-up white supremacy. That’s how this works!

Anyway, the point is, some things that happened in the past are now seen as bad, and we’ve decided to use the spectre of history’s judgement as a stick to beat you with, because if the open letter isn’t the format to have a free-form, footnote free, reckon about the future course of humanity, and why it should turn out the way we want, then nothing is.

Topic change! As Blake said, “All right, Avon. You were right and I was wrong. You said persuasion wouldn’t work and it didn’t. So now we use force.” Again, not really our point, but it’s a great line.

Topic change! As creative people, the idea of gender being more than pink or blue has always been with us. Writers have created stories about people who weren’t men or women, male or female…some of them were robots. Because literature always describes absolute reality, and dictates how society should be organised, we can infer books should only exist if they support whatever we believe in, and are written, published and sold by people who also believe in whatever we tell them to, or are are at least prepared to make statements to that effect.

Topic change! Also, some cultures have more than two genders. We didn’t bother learning about them, so we’re just assuming that they’re great. Go them!

Topic change! The time to repeat history is past. Let’s not do any harm, or in any way consider that what we’re proposing could do harm! Just do what we want! Send!

Getting to the bottom of it.

I spent the early to mid 90s working for a multinational corporation. At around the same time the Daily Telegraph, the newspaper my parents read, started to syndicate Scott Adams’ Dilbert strip, a cartoon about a techie working for a large corporation.

I became a big Dilbert fan. I cut out the cartoons and pinned them to the wall of my cubicle, I bought the collections of strips that were released, I bought the hardback books written by Adams. Then I read The Dilbert Future, and never bought another thing of his.

This was the best part of two decades before Adams became a supporter of, or at least an apologist for, President Trump, so what did he do to upset me?

He proposed a new theory of gravity. Or, rather, he postulated that there was no gravity and that, rather, everything in the universe was constantly doubling in size, creating an illusion of gravity. The example he used was a person jumping into the air. This creates a gap between them and the planet, but then both the jumper and the planet double in size, which brings them back together again.

Adams seemed be seriously proposing this as a theory. In the introduction to it he said that he’d mentioned it on his emailing list, and nobody had raised any serious objections. Remember, this was back before the world was full of people who would happily spend their days arguing with what, they must have assumed, was a joke.

What annoyed me about this theory was that it has so many obvious little thought-experiments that would invalidate it immediately. The very first one that came to mind for me was asking why, under this theory of gravity, a child’s helium-filled balloon would float, but a melon with a piece of string taped to its bum wouldn’t. If you think for a few minutes beyond that, even with no specialist scientific knowledge, then you can come up with hundreds more. How would planets orbit a star? What is happening to the speed of light? Why wouldn’t big objects fall faster than small ones? How do clouds work?

As much as I hate Adams for putting this stupid, quarter-baked, idea into a book, which I paid actual money for, it is at least a scientific theory. It can be tested. It can be falsified.

DISPROVED!

Falsification isn’t a particularly high bar to clear. Even the pre-Newton theory of gravity – that objects fell to Earth because Earth was at the centre of the universe, and everything naturally fell towards the centre – is testable. If we’d still been wondering if this was true by the late 1960s then Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface, rather than beginning a quarter-million mile plummet towards Earth, would have shown us the error. This is one small arrrrrrrrrrrrrg!

This is why I was so delighted to see a thread and blog post from Jordan Levi, which introduced falsification into the trans debate…

This, for me, is one of the key questions that I have yet to see asked in the constant to and fro. If the statement Trans women are women is supported by the science, as its advocates claim, and is not a religious belief, then what evidence would they accept to falsify it?

I’ve no intention of answering on behalf of the trans ideology supporters and, as we already see them willing to peer over mountains of evidence, to throw pebbles of pseudoscience at non-believers, I don’t think they’ll be prepared to answer on their own behalf either. Plus, of course, we already know that there is no testable definition or quantifiable metric of trans that will produce groupings that place women and transwomen together, but exclude men, while also identifying a group which is men and transmen, but not women.

So, don’t hold your breath weighting (see what I did there) for an answer, but however much you see claims that trans ideology is based on science, just remember that without a claim that is falsifiable…well, everything falls down.

Fringe benefits

Every group has its wild outer fringes; those who subscribe to the central doctrines of the group as a whole, but add their own madness on top. Christians have young-Earth creationists, who assert that the Bible is word-for-word literal truth, and deriving from there that the Earth was created in its current form, and with all of its life as it is now, fairly recently.

These days a tiny minority of Christians are young-Earth creationists. Subscribing to that view means arguing that evolution, geology, cosmology, physics and countless other scientific disciplines are wrong, which is an increasingly hard position to defend. They do still turn up every so often, mainly in America, demanding that children are taught their latest mishmash of pseudoscience.

The Earth, pictured in 4005BC

No matter how vocal they are, it would be unfair to treat the Young-Earthers as representative of all of Christianity. Indeed, the Vatican itself, having been on the wrong side of both heliocentrism and evolution, was so keen to salvage its reputation that Pope Pius XII had announced that the Big Bang theory was correct well before there was anything like scientific consensus that this was the case.

Christianity, of course, has had a couple of thousand years to pull together its central doctrines and define itself, and it’s something that most Westerners have a reasonable familiarity with. This means that when we see the Westboro Baptist Church protesting, saying that dead US soldiers are God’s punishment for America endorsing homosexuality, we know that they’re the fringe and not the main body.

What happens, though, when we’re dealing with a much newer group, which doesn’t have such a codified dogma and is more of a mystery to the general public?

I was lucky enough, a couple of weeks ago, to have a civilised debate with someone on the other side of the trans issue to myself. They are not a vocal trans-rights activist, but a firm believer in the mantra that transwomen are women (which, at least, we can all agree is core ideology, even if it’s considerably less likely that we’d all be able to agree what it means).

What I discovered, over 2 hours of discussion, is that they held many views that would see them denounced as a TERF, if they were to express them in public. They believe that sex is real, that self-ID alone is not sufficient to grant someone access to female spaces, and a host of other little heresies.

I was reminded of that conversation this morning, when I read Nicky Clark’s thoughts on the trans debate.

What really rang a bell was this tweet.

No trans woman I know claims to be biologically female, is the key sentence here. While this may be true, it’s also true that many transwomen do claim to be biologically female, including some very high-profile figures.

What happened in my real-life discussion was that, several times, the person I was talking to made similar sweeping claims, such as, Nobody is saying that sex isn’t real. Presented with contrary evidence, those views were then ascribed to a fringe group, “Nutters”.

As gender ideology is, currently, a religion without a church, nobody is really sure which prayers they should be chanting or which hymns to sing. Instead, every person is free to adhere to whatever parts of scripture speak to them, and assume that any views they can’t condone, or haven’t seen personally, are fringe views.

This creates a problem and an opportunity.

The problem is that while the majority are always quick to claim that the fringe don’t represent them, the fringe never have a problem claiming that they represent the majority. Christianity’s young-Earthers and gay-bashers are always willing to portray any dismissal of their views as a dismissal of all of Christianity. Similarly, there’s no demand made on behalf of trans rights that those doing the demanding won’t claim it’s transphobic to refuse.

This means that the “Nutter” edge of the trans rights movement does most of the deciding who is transphobic. Here, for example, is another vocal transwoman being rounded on by her own side, for suggesting that it’s too much to ask people to re-learn what kind of genitals they’re attracted to.

Gender critical people on Twitter are fond of sharing #PeakTrans moments, when people who were previously supportive of, or neutral to, trans rights finally encounter a bridge too far for them.

However, being able to ascribe these moments to the fringes of the movement negates this effect. The lunatic fringe, which should be damaging the TRA cause, protects the core ideology, because they carry the can for outlandish ideas, the unreasonable demands and the abuse and threats.

The opportunity is that there is a body of people who, if asked, would say that they support trans rights, but who also support positions that are core to the gender critical side; that sex is real and immutable, that self ID may not be the answer to everything, that women should still exist as their own class.

If these people get lambasted for saying that transwomen are women, or for defending high profile figures, like Eddie Izzard, from ‘misgendering’, and get worse treatment still, from our own fringe, then they feel attacked.

It then comes down to us calling them handmaids and idiots, for not being 100% gender critical, while the other side called them TERFs, for not being behind 100% of gender ideology. They’re being forced to pick a side, and if they already see themselves as a trans ally, and presumably had their own reasons for being so, and believe that the rhetoric against them from that side is just a fringe, then they’re likely to stick with that side.

We have the opportunity to gain allies amongst people who are, perhaps, 60/40 on the GC side, but see themselves as being on the TR side. Not by yelling about them about how wrong they are about the 40%, but by being supportive when they speak about the 60%.

Ultimately, settling the disputed ground between what transwomen want, and what women are willing to give, will come down to a numbers game, through voting, through polling, through protesting, fundraising, lobbying and grass-roots support, and it would be terrible to lose the numbers game because we made the mistake of demanding total ideological purity. Let the other side follow that path.

We’ve all come to hate the phrase Just be kind, but maybe, when we’re talking about those stranded in no-man’s land, shelled from both sides, there is, after all, some value to it.

And Gxd created womxn

When Dictionary.com added Womxn to its lexicon, early in 2019, it described it as term used especially by intersectional feminists to be inclusive of trans and nonbinary women.

Of course, if you live by intersectional sword then you die by the intersectional sword and, on Monday night, the Twitch streaming service was forced to take down a tweet and issue an apology after try to celebrate Womxn’s History Month.

What they quickly learned is that Dictionary.com had it all arse-about-face. Womxn wasn’t created by the good intersectional feminists, but by their evil rivals, the trans-exclusionary radical feminists! And it was never about inclusivity, rather it was maliciously designed to exclude transwomen, and shunt them from womanhood into mere womxnhood. Or possibly womxnhxxd.

By the time you read this the retroactive application of this etymology will probably be nearly complete. Trans-supporting social media accounts will be purging their history of womxn, university societies will be hurriedly pulping fliers about getting more womxn into science, and the LGBTQI+ activists, who gave interviews saying how great it was to see womxn in the dictionary, will have been hunted down and metaphorically nailed to a X.

As the gender-critical feminists always hated the word, womxn will be left unloved by all. A word nobody takes credit for creating, nobody wants to use, and which describes nobody. Given that it’s impossible to pronounce, it can’t even look forward to rap-music revival, like the slightly less hated n-word.

Sometimes it’s hard to be a wom-ex-en, giving all your vowels to just please men

The demise of womxn was preceded by the embargo on transwomen (without a space) which, unlike trans women (with a space), does not convey the connotation that trans women are a kind of woman, and comes long after the denouncings of female, natal women, biological women, or even (sotto voce) real women. The language to distinguish between those who were born into a class that has experienced centuries of oppression, and those born into the class that has been doing the oppressing, is being eroded.

This creates something of a linguistical problem. Referring to transwomen as trans women, rather than just women, continues the distinction. To identify transwomen as trans is to suggest, even using the currently acceptable terms, that they are not part of the same class. If saying womxn reminds transwomen that they are not women, then the same argument can be applied to every trans-identifying term. Even the mantra, trans women are women, is either exclusionary or redundant. Yet some sort of term is still required. One cannot claim, for example, that trans women are more oppressed than cis women, if you lose the terms to separate them.

Speaking of cis women, elsewhere there is less inclusion to be seen. As the term woman is being widened, to include anybody who fancies a swing at it, the terms deemed acceptable for referring to biological women are being narrowed. Women, once a well-defined and cohesive group, is now a mish-mash of overlapping groups; people who have periods, uterus-owners, pregnant people, cervix users, vagina monoliths. The potential for women to identify themselves as a political group, with its own needs, is being deliberately removed. It’s hard to present a unified political force when you need a medical dictionary to discover what you have in common.

Stock photo of the three ages of woman, (left to right) Bleeder, Tavistock-fodder and HRT thief

The fallen womxn is a lesson in how important it is to protect the trans community from any reminder of reality, while allowing women to define themselves only in ways which reduce them to basic biological functions, and exclude women not at the same stage of their reproductive lifecycle. The chances are that in the next few years we’ll see trans women, and trans itself, go the way of womxn, and be denounced as exclusionary terms. Maybe even cis will go, although it hits all the important targets of being unappealing to women, sounding scientific, even though it’s being used incorrectly, and carrying an air of undesirability and wrongness.

Ultimately, the masters of gaslighting will redefine woman. It will turn out that it’s always been a term for everyone who identified as a women and that only TERFs think that it ever had some other meaning, and then we’ll have lost something.

Women, for a start.