Levels of queer representation in media franchises


Warning: spoilers for Star Trek Discovery season 1 in the table.

A few days ago, I wrote a short post about “steps” that media franchises take toward queer representation in media. I got a few requests for clarification, so I have expanded it into a table with examples and explanations.

The impulse behind the post was that resistance to representation of queers in media franchises is very predictable, falling into well-known and discrete categories, and that those categories can be ordered from worst to best. I absolutely do not take credit for being the first observer of these dynamics, as many people much smarter than me have commented on them all before. But this is how I see them, on a sort of a continuum.

I originally phrased it in terms of “steps,” although now I don’t think that’s the best way to think about it, so I call them “levels” here. There’s certainly a gradation from 1-7, but of course, not every media franchise goes one by one. Each successive step is better in some sense than the one previous (although you could probably haggle over the ordering in some cases). Levels 1-3 are refusals to represent queers and levels 5-7 are (decreasingly begrudging) attempts at queer representation. Level 4 is, or is not queer representation, depending on your reading of it.

Level Snarky paraphrase, explanation and examples
1. Refusal without any attempt at justification “No queers because writers get the squicks”

Naked hate for queers, while surprisingly common, is the least interesting case, and nobody needs help identifying it. But most people are more sophisticated because they know they’ll (rightly) get in trouble if they’re openly hateful toward queers, so usually they dress up their hate by progressing to one of the subsequent steps.

I’ve included this one because you do still see it from time to time, and it’s interesting to note how often as a sort of proxy measure for how friendly our culture is to queers.

2. Refusal with some ostensibly principled reason given “No queers, but it’s for your own good or something”

A justification that is often given for refusal to include queer characters in a story, TV show, movie or whatever is that it would be “pandering,” and that this would be bad somehow. Straight people love to project onto queers a very strong desire that we not be included in something if it is just for the sake of inclusion, and that doing so would be much worse than the default, namely, pretending that queers don’t exist.

This is of course nonsense. The only people who don’t like queers being included just for the sake of including queers are straight people, and this is a feeble excuse for bigotry. But there’s nothing conservative people like better than telling someone No, and having it be For Their Own Good.

3. Refusal, but with a vague promise of future representation “No queers, but just because we haven’t had a story that demands a queer”

Star Wars is at this point right now. They know there have been calls for queer characters, and they know they can’t just say “No we hate queers,” so they’re kicking the can down the road by saying “not now, but we’re not opposed to the idea,” and trusting we’ll take them at their word when they claim that it’s just “artistic reasons” that have kept them from doing so already.

It’s disingenuous and a double-standard of course. When these writers come up with characters to put into their stories, nobody demands that there be a compelling reason demanded by the plot for why some character is straight. And if they think they can get away with it, they will continue forever to promise to include queers someday, but no sooner than the story absolutely demands it.

4. Strongly implied but ultimately deniable queer representation “Okay maybe this secondary character is queer? We didn’t say they’re not!”

Harry Potter is an excellent example of this level. JK Rowling famously made Dumbledore gay retroactively after all the book sales were in the bag, and justified it with the condescending Twitter one-liner that gay people just look like … people! So why write them any differently or provide any explicit representation?

The problem with the JK Rowling-type response is the extremely “everything is already perfect so stop complaining” vibe here. The line that we queers are supposed to believe is that the writer is just so progressive that queer representation is unnecessary.

The Star Trek reboot films are also at this level. Everyone got excited about Sulu being gay in Star Trek Beyond (2016), but what we got was 2.5 seconds of Sulu side-hugging some guy, who we’re supposed to take as his civilian husband or partner or something. No kiss. No dialogue. It’s so casual that a straight viewer could miss it entirely or see it and argue that Sulu is meeting his brother or something. And truthfully, there isn’t enough on-screen to settle the matter conclusively.

Reboot Sulu

It is both erasure of queers and it is a not-so-subtle assertion of control that can be read as a disapproval of any queer who isn’t indistinguishable from straights. Also, because this generally flies under their radar, this is a cowardly concession to the sensibilities of outright bigots.

Many Disney villains are also in this category. Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989) was even based on a drag queen. Straight people love to include queer-coded villains, because they love queer aesthetics, but they refuse to actually provide representation, because they hate queers.

5. Tragic queer representation “Okay there’s a queer but oops we killed it lol oops”

“Bury your gays” is a well-known and troubling mode of queer representation that has a long history, and it can be summed up as the trope that queers are not allowed a happy ending.

Sometimes, this is done to send a very specific “you get what you deserve, you dirty queers” message. Read Goldfinger if you want a really clear example of that. (Click the Project Gutenberg link and control-F for “Poor little bitch” to read about what happened to Tilly Masterton because she was a capital-L lesbian.)

Goldfinger is an extreme case and most of the time, it’s not an attempt to send an “if you’re gay you deserve a violent death” message. Usually, this happens just because the main character Has To Be Straight, and so if there’s going to be a character who dies, it’s going to be the queer one, and so we end up with a preponderance of media representation in which queers are killed just to raise the stakes for the main characters, just because we’re less important.

We saw this with Lt Stamets in the most recent episode of Star Trek Discovery (S01E09). I thought Discovery was at level 6, but actually it’s looking like it’s here. Maybe they’ll save him? Reserving judgement on this one.

6. Queer representation designed for straight comfort “Okay there’s a queer but you can’t really tell they’re queer—Super respectable! Very comfortable for straights!”

Often queer representation that is designed for the comfort of straight people is done with the justification that it’s an attempt to “move past bad gay stereotypes.” Again, this is a more subtle example of straight people denying us actual representation and doing it For Our Own Good.

The idea is that there are, according to the straights, way too many flamboyant or promiscuous gay characters perpetuating bad stereotypes and what the world really needs is to see queer people being “good” and that will make all those bigots understand that you can be a good person even if you’re gay. What a progressive message, and who could be upset about that? Right?

The problem is that this has built into it the not-so-subtle assertion of a) control of straight people over queer lives and lifestyles, and b) implied inferiority of queers to straights.

When straights insist that queer representation include only the “good kind” of queer, there’s an implication that there’s a bad kind, and that our acceptance and inclusion hinges on which kind we are. It is tacitly agreeing that queers should be ashamed of who they are and doing their best to hide it.

This often goes hand-in-hand with a denial of the very existence of queer culture. For anything that isn’t literally gay sex, a Respectable-Gays-Only advocate can say “well, that’s not gay per se, so it’s non-homophobic for me to continue to hate it.”

7. Actual queer representation This does actually happen sometimes. Here’s a couple examples:

Pretty much everyone in Sense8 counts. Even the straight dude is not all that straight.

Orphan Black also started at this level. Felix is an excellent example of queer representation. Felix is a nuanced and well-developed character that is undeniably gay, and also unambiguously morally good despite him having a number of the traits that Respectable-Gays-Only advocates would probably categorise as being gay stereotypes.


    title = {Levels of queer representation in media franchises},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2017-12-18,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2017/12/18/levels-of-queer-representation-in-media-franchises/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Levels of queer representation in media franchises" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 18 Dec 2017. Web. 23 Jun 2018. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2017/12/18/levels-of-queer-representation-in-media-franchises/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2017, Dec 18). Levels of queer representation in media franchises [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2017/12/18/levels-of-queer-representation-in-media-franchises/

Introducing Serlingbot


My boyfriend and I were watching an episode of The Twilight Zone this week, in which a newly-minted revolutionary dictator is told by a departing member of the overthrown government that a particular mirror would show him his assassins. Of course, this leads him to kill his closest friends.

Sorry, should have said “spoilers” or something. Although really, you’ve had 56 years to see this episode. If you’re not caught up, that’s on you.

At the end of the episode, my first thought was: Trump would probably have fallen for that line too.

Inspired by that episode and of course by a Scottish newspaper immediately prior to Trump’s inauguration, I had an idea: A Twitter bot that downloads photos tweeted by the White House, turns them greyscale, overlays them with Rod Serling and tweets them again.

On my first Google search, I found a transparent PNG of Rod Serling. The Internet had also prepared a repository of json-formatted Rod Serling monologues. All I had to do was find a PHP library to connect to the Twitter API, and I was good to go!

You can follow @serlingbot on Twitter, and it will regularly send you photos from a few selected Twitter accounts that have been Serling-ed.

But that’s not all!

If you tweet a photo to @serling on Twitter, it will reply to you—with your photo Serling-ed.

And if you don’t have Twitter, I have made a non-Twitter web version of Serlingbot, where you can enter a link to an image on the web, and it will Serling your photo for your own private use.

I like to think that Rod Serling himself would have appreciated the idea of being resurrected as a post-apocalyptic robot, doomed to condemn a totalitarian government from beyond the grave. It’s something that might have happened … in the Twilight Zone.


    title = {Introducing Serlingbot},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2017-04-21,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2017/04/21/introducing-serlingbot/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Introducing Serlingbot" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 21 Apr 2017. Web. 23 Jun 2018. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2017/04/21/introducing-serlingbot/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2017, Apr 21). Introducing Serlingbot [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2017/04/21/introducing-serlingbot/

Media literacy for the Trump era


I have compiled and explained a list of four five common fallacies that I have noticed while consuming news media in the age of Trump. These aren’t new since Trump was made president, but I feel like they are exacerbated by the current administration. They’re meant to be taken in the spirit of the “laws of the internet” that dictate “if you can imagine it, there’s porn of it,” or “any sufficiently long internet argument will eventually invoke Hitler,” etc.

The law of imputed 12 dimensional chess

No matter how demonstrably stupid Trump’s action, it will always be depicted by some as a part of an inscrutable master plan.

Every time Trump does or says something bad, it will be followed up by a series of hot takes, tweets or op-ed pieces in which we all try to guess what his real goal is. E.g. “He’s banned Muslims from entering the United States. But what is his endgame here? What is he trying to distract us from?”

Muslims being banned is the real crisis. Just because us white people aren’t directly affected doesn’t mean that the real evil is coming later. It’s not a feint to make us look the wrong way. That was it. This is not a drill. Real people are being hurt.

I think there’s a few reasons that this fallacy occurs so often. It’s hard to admit, but Trump isn’t a genius who beat the political system by being some calculating mastermind. That would be easier to take in some ways. (He’s profoundly stupid,1 but he’s wealthy and the system is just not set up to protect us from people like him.) As best I can guess, the “12 dimensional chess” theories are appealing due to: 1. simple self-centredness and latent racism (i.e. “It’s bad, but it doesn’t affect me, so the badness must be something else”), 2. a desire to avoid admitting that the left was beaten by an idiot or 3. a McCarthy-like impulse to cast the villain as omnipotent.2 Take your pick.

The law of sacrificing marginalised communities

Marginalised communities will be the ones most negatively affected by Trump’s policies, but they will also be the ones blamed for it, directly or indirectly.

Here is an example of what I mean: The February 2017 cover of The Economist3 features the profiles of Trump and Putin facing each other. Trump is wearing lipstick and there’s a kiss mark on Putin’s cheek. The implication is that Trump and Putin are gay.

The LGBTQ+ community has been betrayed by Trump’s recent executive order that rolled back protections for trans people.4 Gay men are now being turned back at the US border after being interrogated and humiliated over the private contents of their phones.5 Things are bad and I don’t know if they’re going to get better.

But of course, the joke that’s currently in vogue is that Trump is gay. (Ooh! Burn!)

Now, I get it. I’ve made jokes like this in the past, but I’ve had a change of heart on the subject. It would certainly bruise the egos of Trump and Putin to be called gay, but then they’re not going to be reading my Twitter feed. Other people will read my messages though, and they will be getting the message that it’s okay to use “gay” as an insult, or to throw marginalised communities under the bus to make a cheap shot at a world leader who honestly doesn’t care.

This is just one example of a marginalised community that’s being indirectly blamed for their own oppression, but I guarantee you that for every similar issue that comes up, there will be self-styled “centrists” or “moderates” who tell the more progressive elements of society that it’s “their own damn fault” for getting uppity and demanding something that the mainstream has had all along. You’ll often see this happen along with the phrase “This is why Trump won,” blaming progressives, women, LGBTQ+, whatever for the rise of Trump.

Watch for it. Any protest or statement with a progressive bent will be met by an opportunistic “centrist” who wants to shut you up by telling you that they agree with your general goal, but that you must be nicer about it and accept a glacially slow pace of progress, and that anything other than that “is why Trump won.”

The law of conservative victimhood

No matter how empowered conservatives become, they will always find a way to make their own victimhood the focus.

This is also an impulse I can sympathise with. I grew up in a super-conservative community, and so I was taught from a young age to believe that it is Christians and conservative Christians especially who are a marginalised minority in Canada. I was taught—and I fully believed—that Christianity was persecuted, and indeed if you define Christian orthodoxy narrowly enough, one can certainly maintain that delusion for quite some time. So I understand where they’re coming from.

But it’s still stupid.

Conservatives always have the upper hand. They aren’t a persecuted minority. That’s just what conservatism is—it’s the political inclination to support the status quo. It’s the people who have power working to support the institutions that got them there. The highest office in the United States has just been awarded to a conservative. The House and the Senate both have Republican majorities. Conservatives are not victims. Not in any sense. In fact, they hold a disproportionately large amount of power over the machinery of government.

And yet, conservatives will defend their victimhood as if that were their very essence.

If there comes a day when there is a shortage of foreign workers to pick the vegetables that Americans want to eat, the tragic hero of the story when it is told will be the poor hard-working American who can’t afford how expensive vegetables have become, and not the foreign workers who were deported. Count on it. Or if a queer person is beaten, the biggest controversy will be whether or not it’s fair to label the aggressor as “homophobic.” And we’re already seeing the beginning of what I expect will be a steady stream of op-ed pieces about how people who supported Trump are the real victims of liberals who are being big meanies about the fact that their choice for President is a fascist.6

It shouldn’t have to be said, but if you supported a fascist by voting for him, and that fascist’s policies mean that your friend is the victim of hate somehow, you should have the perspective to understand that you are not the victim in this situation. You are closer to being the aggressor.

This dynamic is probably strongest along racial lines, but you also see it along the queer-straight axis as well. (E.g. “They excluded police officers from Pride? That’s the greatest injustice in the history of the queer rights struggle!”)

C.f. The “Liberal bubble”

The law of false centrism

No matter how far the political centre is pulled to the right by extremists, anyone who questions “centrism” by advocating policies to the left of where the new political centre has been pulled will be dismissed as insane.

To make a facetious example, if Trump is saying that we need death camps for Muslims at every border crossing and his opponents are saying we shouldn’t have any, the fallacy of centrism would be to say that we only need death camps at certain major border crossings.

This one makes me worried for the future because the main message of the Democratic party from 2016 seems to have been, “If you’re politically to the left of Clinton, we don’t want or need your votes, you dirty Bernie bro. You’re just as bad as Trump.” This message only leads to political victories if everyone is really, really excited about being a political moderate. And only if they’re also okay with the political “centre” being shifted to the right.

From a Canadian perspective, it’s very easy to see how the American political spectrum is shifted. The policies of the centre-right party in Canada (The Liberal Party) would be considered so far left wing in America as to be absolutely unthinkable.

The law of imperfect protests

No matter how despicable the thing that is being protested, if the protest can be criticized—in any way—”moderates” will focus on that.

This mostly goes for student protests, but you see it in other contexts. I’ve seen it a dozen times if I’ve seen it once, and sometimes from people that I would otherwise consider to be very intelligent. Usually you see it shortly after a protest, and often it starts with a somewhat strained observation that the protest is “so ironic.”

E.g. “It’s so ironic,” said the moderate, “They claim to be against death camps, and yet there’s a small amount of litter left after the protest”

This example is really exaggerated, although who knows, we may get there. The fallacy I’m trying to point out is that the violence of white nationalism or fascism or being an outright peodphile apologist is nowhere near the level of violence of a stupid student protester who breaks a window or something while protesting against it. These are absolutely not equivalent, and a protest that doesn’t go 100% perfectly shouldn’t be a reason to throw up one’s hands and say, “Well, I can’t support these protesters because they broke a window. Their position looks just as violent as the white nationalists’.”

“Moderates” love to point out The Irony of this situation, and they also love to ring their hands over how the poor fascist just wanted to speak, and how this protest has somehow damaged Free Expression itself (as if protests weren’t also speech as well).

Like the other fallacies, this is not particular to the Trump era, but it seems much worse now. Watch for it and the others, as well as their themes and variations.

Edit (2017 March 6: Added “The law of imperfect protests”)


  1. https://twitter.com/Kris_Sacrebleu/status/832325609132953604
  2. https://theintercept.com/2017/02/23/the-increasingly-unhinged-russia-rhetoric-comes-from-a-long-standing-u-s-playbook/
  3. http://www.economist.com/printedition/covers/2017-02-09/ap-e-eu-la-me-na-uk
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/us/politics/devos-sessions-transgender-students-rights.html
  5. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/02/22/canadian-man-customs-gay-app_n_14928858.html
  6. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/18/opinion/sunday/are-liberals-helping-trump.html


    title = {Media literacy for the Trump era},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2017-02-27,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2017/02/27/media-literacy-for-the-trump-era/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Media literacy for the Trump era" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 27 Feb 2017. Web. 23 Jun 2018. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2017/02/27/media-literacy-for-the-trump-era/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2017, Feb 27). Media literacy for the Trump era [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2017/02/27/media-literacy-for-the-trump-era/

Are pronouns up for debate or not?


There’s been a lot of ink spilled recently about the use of pronouns and preferred names in academia. At U of T, one professor in particular is kicking up a fuss about having been asked to use students’ preferred names and pronouns. A CBC editorial on the subject by Neil Macdonald recently provided an entertaining example of a baby boomer throwing a sputtering temper tantrum over the fact that he’s being asked to think about other people.

I could begin demanding that my colleagues refer to me as “blort” or “zonge” with the expectation that they would respectfully begin doing so.

(Imagine wanting to be treated with respect! Hilarious! Also, for the record, the singular “they” is not some newfangled invention of “those damn SJW’s.” There’s at least one example of it in Shakespeare. See A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3.)

It’s almost not worth saying that this is a generational thing, and when the boomers have passed on, their faux indignation over being asked to be a decent human being will die with them. In a couple decades, this debate will seem as weird to us as a prof who insists that freedom of expression means that he has the right to use the n-word to refer to students who are people of colour.

But let’s take the question of whether we should debate another person’s pronouns at face value, just for fun. Academia is supposed to be an anything-goes bare-knuckle cage-match of ideas, right? Are there legitimate reasons why we might not want to have a debate over pronouns?

I’ve come up with two.

Intellectual honesty

Let’s start with the example of smoking and lung cancer. I’ll get back to the debate at hand, I promise.

Smoking causes lung cancer. This is a fact.

Yes it’s a probabilistic thing; yes, it’s true that not all smokers get lung cancer; yes, it’s true that not all people with lung cancer smoked. But the causal link between smoking and lung cancer is so well established that it is now beyond doubt.

If, in 1950, there was a formal debate at McGill called “Does smoking cause lung cancer?”, that might have been an appropriate debate to have. There was genuine uncertainty over the issue at the time.

However, if I saw a poster on campus today in 2016 for a debate with the same title, I would take it to be a major failing in terms of either scientific judgement or intellectual honesty on the part of the organisers. I would question either their motives or their competency. For a person who wants an answer to the question of whether smoking causes lung cancer, the appropriate response is to point them toward the library, where there are reams of good data on the subject. A debate would not be appropriate.

The reason for this is that a formal public debate presupposes a certain equipoise between the sides being debated. Just framing certain issues as needing to be discussed by academics in the manner of a debate can be dishonest, like in the smoking/lung cancer debate example.

And so sometimes when a person says that something is “not a matter of debate,” it’s not because that the person is some insecure authority whose policies cannot bear scrutiny and they wish to stifle dissent by barring discussion. Sometimes when a person says that something is “not a matter of debate,” they just mean that it would be irresponsible and dishonest to use the machinery of academic “debate” to introduce unwarranted uncertainty where the issue has already legitimately been settled.

As academics, of course we need to be ready to defend any position we take. If there is anywhere that debates should happen over difficult, offensive or extremely technical subjects, it’s within a university. And yet, not all debates are intellectually honest ones to have. Sometimes when a person says, “Let me play devil’s advocate,” the correct response is, “The devil has enough advocates.”

Yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre

Not all speech is benign. The famous example is that if you falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, you could kill people.

The same goes for other forms of speech, including academic or political “debates.” After Harper dredged up the niqab debate in the 2015 election, there were violent physical attacks on Muslims in Montreal. The Brexit and Trump campaigns also both arguably brought about spikes in hate crimes in the UK and the US. If you have debates like, “Should we ban Muslims from our country?” those can—and we have seen recently that they do—incite violence against Muslims.

Other sorts of speech can cause harm even more directly. Let’s imagine the example of a trans student in a small class who doesn’t want to be outed as trans to her peers. Imagine that the student goes to the teacher on the first day of class and says, “I know the class list has my name as ‘John,’ but I go by ‘Jane,’ and I’d like you to use ‘she/her’ when referring to me.”

Let’s further imagine that the professor is of the type who refuses to respect a student’s preferred name and pronouns on principle. Just by exercising their “right to freedom of expression,” this professor could out the student to their peers against the student’s will, which could directly put them at risk of harm. This student might be threatened or harmed, but even if the student is lucky and nothing bad happens, she might just feel threatened by this behaviour, which is a harm in itself.

Part of the problem is that discussions that can cause harm or risk of harm to others are often initiated by people who don’t bear any of that risk themselves. So for example, when Harper decided to “have a debate” on the niqab for his own narrow political ends, he did so knowing that he would never be the target of the anti-Muslim violence that followed. Similarly, a cis prof who refuses to use preferred names and pronouns will never be on the receiving end of violence against trans people, and they aren’t even in a good place to evaluate the level of risk that they may be imposing on other people against their will.

The prof at U of T wants to paint himself as the brave intellectual, bucking the orthodoxy and asking questions that no one else has the courage to ask, while his opponents won’t even meet him for an honest discussion. All I see is a guy who doesn’t have any skin in the game, who can afford to debate the level of respect owed to other humans because it will never affect him personally.

What does it mean when someone says their pronouns aren’t up for debate, then?

When a person says their pronouns “aren’t up for debate,” they are not saying that there is no defense for the position they’re taking. There is a field of study that has considered, among other things, the question of pronouns and preferred names. In a lot of academic institutions, it’s called “Gender Studies.” You’ve probably made fun of it. But the fact that you’re ignorant of an entire academic discipline and decades worth of research doesn’t mean that there is a genuine question to be considered. It might just mean that you need to go to the library.

And when a person says their pronouns “aren’t up for debate,” they might mean that what seems like an abstract, academic discussion to you could mean harm or the risk of harm to them. They’re not saying, “My position cannot stand up to criticism.” They’re saying, “I don’t want to be a casualty of this discussion.”


Everything should be open for debate—in principle—but not all debates come from a place of intellectual honesty, and not all debates are benign.


    title = {Are pronouns up for debate or not?},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2016-11-20,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2016/11/20/are-pronouns-up-for-debate-or-not/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Are pronouns up for debate or not?" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 20 Nov 2016. Web. 23 Jun 2018. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2016/11/20/are-pronouns-up-for-debate-or-not/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2016, Nov 20). Are pronouns up for debate or not? [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2016/11/20/are-pronouns-up-for-debate-or-not/

A gift of the fae folk, I assume?


What is this thing?

What is this thing?

I tried to go to the Snowden talk at McGill a couple weeks ago. The lineup was too crazy huge for us to get in, so we went to Thomson House, the McGill grad students’ pub, and hooked a laptop into a TV there to watch.

Seriously, what?

Seriously, what?

On the way back, in a pile of stones upturned by the construction between the Leacock and Brown buildings on the McGill campus, I found a little medallion marked with strange symbols. It has a pentagram on one side and Death on the other.

I don’t know what to make of it. I assume it was left for me by the fairy folk, and that it’s a good omen?


    title = {A gift of the fae folk, I assume?},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2016-11-14,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2016/11/14/a-gift-of-the-fae-folk-i-assume/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "A gift of the fae folk, I assume?" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 14 Nov 2016. Web. 23 Jun 2018. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2016/11/14/a-gift-of-the-fae-folk-i-assume/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2016, Nov 14). A gift of the fae folk, I assume? [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2016/11/14/a-gift-of-the-fae-folk-i-assume/

Break-in data from the SPVM


Montreal Break-ins Week-by-Week

Montreal Break-ins Week-by-Week

Just today, the SPVM released some crime statistics for the island of Montreal.

CBC already did an interactive map, so I took the data set and made a histogram of break-ins by date!

It’s a PDF and you can download it and look at it RIGHT NOW. There’s also a version where it’s lumped by month, which is also instructive.

And then, I made a week-by-week animated GIF of the locations of the break-ins! (Click the image attached to this post to see.)


    title = {Break-in data from the SPVM},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2016-04-27,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2016/04/27/break-in-data-from-the-spvm/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Break-in data from the SPVM" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 27 Apr 2016. Web. 23 Jun 2018. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2016/04/27/break-in-data-from-the-spvm/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2016, Apr 27). Break-in data from the SPVM [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2016/04/27/break-in-data-from-the-spvm/

It’s Valentine’s Day! Time to review Bayes Theorem.


Figure 1

Figure 1

It’s Valentine’s Day! Time to review your knowledge of Bayes Theorem. Here’s a fun exercise to do: Calculate the probability that a gay man is HIV-negative, given that he tells you he’s HIV-negative.


First, let’s define our terms.

h: Does not have HIV
~h: Does have HIV
e: Says he does not have HIV
~e: Says he does have HIV


So let’s imagine that you’re a gay man, and you’re going to hook up with a guy for Valentine’s Day. You might be interested in calculating the following: P(h|e)

This expression, P(h|e) represents the probability that a gay man does not have HIV given that he says he does not have HIV.


The base rate of HIV infection among gay men who have sex with men is 19%.1

Hence: P(~h) = 0.19; or P(h) = 0.81

See Figure 1 for a graphical representation. The entire square represents all gay men who have sex with men. The blue rectangle takes up 81% of the square, which is proportional to the CDC’s best estimate for the number of gay men who are actually HIV-negative.

From the same source, we can also determine that the probability that a person says he does not have HIV given that he does have HIV to be 44%.1

Hence: P(e|~h) = 0.44

In Figure 1, this is represented by the green rectangle. Given that a person is HIV-positive, there’s a 44% that they don’t know, and so they would likely say that they are “negative.”

The remainder, the yellow rectangle, is the proportion of gay men who are HIV-positive and who know that they are HIV-positive.


I am considering only the population of gay men who have sex with men.

Built into this is the assumption that men who have HIV and don’t know it would report themselves as HIV-negative, or that there wouldn’t be anyone who just says “I don’t know.”

I am also assuming here that 100% of gay men who don’t have HIV will say that they don’t have HIV. Put another way, there is a 0% chance that someone will say he has HIV if, in fact he does not have HIV. This is a simplification, It’s possible that someone is confused about his status, but very unlikely. Hence:

P(e|h) = 1; or P(~e|h) = 0

Bayes Theorem

To calculate our desired value, P(h|e), we should use Bayes Theorem.

P(h|e) = P(h) / ( P(h) + P(e|~h) * P(~h) / P(e|h) )

P(h|e) = 0.81 / ( 0.81 + 0.44 * 0.19 / 1 )

P(h|e) = 0.81 / ( 0.81 + 0.44 * 0.19 )

P(h|e) = 0.91

To illustrate this graphically, in Figure 1, this would represent the chance of your prospective hook-up being in the blue area, given that the only thing you know about him is that he’s either in the blue area or the green area.


Your risk of HIV exposure can be informed by your prospective sexual partner’s response to whether or not he is HIV-negative.

If a person tells you that he’s HIV-positive, he knows his status. No one goes around claiming to be HIV-positive unless they’ve been tested and got a positive result. The best evidence we have indicates that HIV-positive people with an undetectable viral load do not transmit HIV.2 So with a sexual partner who’s HIV-positive, you’re not getting any surprises.

If you don’t even ask about your prospective sex partner’s HIV status, you can be 81% certain that he’s HIV-negative, just because of the base rate of HIV prevalence. If you do ask and he tells you that he’s negative, that is a useful piece of information—it allows you to update your estimation of the probability that your prospective sexual partner is HIV-negative to 91%, but there’s still about a 1 in 10 chance that he’s HIV-positive, has no idea, and is not being treated for it.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!


  1. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5937a2.htm?s_cid=mm5937a2_w
  2. Attia S et al. Sexual transmission of HIV according to viral load and antiretroviral therapy: systematic review and meta-analysis. AIDS. 23(11): 1397–1404, 2009.


    title = {It’s Valentine’s Day! Time to review Bayes Theorem.},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2016-02-14,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2016/02/14/bayes/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "It’s Valentine’s Day! Time to review Bayes Theorem." Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 14 Feb 2016. Web. 23 Jun 2018. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2016/02/14/bayes/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2016, Feb 14). It’s Valentine’s Day! Time to review Bayes Theorem. [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2016/02/14/bayes/

It’s Movember! Review your knowledge of Bayes’ theorem before getting your PSA test.


Background info

There are 3 million in the U.S. currently living with prostate cancer. There are approximately 320 million people in the US today, roughly half of whom will have prostates. Hence, let us take the prevalence of prostate cancer among those who have prostates to be approximately 3 in 160, or just under 2%.

The false positive (type I error) rate is reported at 33% for PSA velocity screening, or as high as 75%. The false negative (type II error) rate is reported as between 10-20%. For the purpose of this analysis, let’s give the PSA test the benefit of the doubt, and attribute to it the lowest type I and type II error rates, namely 33% and 10%.

Skill testing question

If some random person with a prostate from the United States, where the prevalence of prostate cancer is 2%, receives a positive PSA test result, where that test has a false positive rate of 33% and a false negative rate of 10%, what is the chance that this person actually has prostate cancer?

Bayes’ theorem

Recall Bayes’ theorem from your undergraduate Philosophy of Science class. Let us define the hypothesis we’re interested in testing and the evidence we are considering as follows:

P(h): The prior probability that this person has cancer
P(e|¬h): The false positive (type I error) rate
P(¬e|h): The false negative (type II error) rate

P(h) = 3/160
P(e|¬h) = 0.33
P(¬e|h) = 0.10

Given these definitions, the quantity we are interested in calculating is P(h|e), the probability that the person has prostate cancer, given that he returns a positive PSA test result. We can calculate this value using the following formulation of Bayes’ theorem:

P(h|e) = P(h) / [ P(h) + ( P(e|¬h) P(¬h) ) / ( P(e|h) ) ]

From the above probabilities and the laws of probability, we can derive the following missing quantities.

P(¬h) = 1 – 3/160
P(e|h) = 0.90

These can be inserted into the formula above. The answer to the skill-testing question is that there is a 4.95% chance that the randomly selected person in question will have prostate cancer, given a positive PSA test result.

What if we know more about the person in question?

Let’s imagine that the person is not selected at random. Say that this person is a man with a prostate and he is over 60 years old.

According to Zlotta et al, the prevalence of prostate cancer rises to over 40% in men over age 60. If we redo the above calculation with this base rate, P(h) = 0.40, we find that P(h|e) rises to 64.5%.

Take-home messages

  1. Humans are very bad at intuiting probabilities. See Wikipedia for recommended reading on the Base Rate Fallacy.
  2. Having a prostate is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being a man. Just FYI.
  3. Don’t get tested for prostate cancer unless you’re in a higher-risk group, because the base rate of prostate cancer is so low in the general population that if you get a positive result, it’s likely to be a false positive.


    title = {It’s Movember! Review your knowledge of Bayes’ theorem before getting your PSA test.},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2015-11-18,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2015/11/18/its-movember-review-your-knowledge-of-bayes-theorem-before-getting-your-psa-test/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "It’s Movember! Review your knowledge of Bayes’ theorem before getting your PSA test." Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 18 Nov 2015. Web. 23 Jun 2018. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2015/11/18/its-movember-review-your-knowledge-of-bayes-theorem-before-getting-your-psa-test/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2015, Nov 18). It’s Movember! Review your knowledge of Bayes’ theorem before getting your PSA test. [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2015/11/18/its-movember-review-your-knowledge-of-bayes-theorem-before-getting-your-psa-test/

Short story prompt for Lojban enthusiasts: la cizra mensi


Short story prompt: la cizra mensi

The hero of your short story has found a way to summon the Weird Sisters of Macbeth fame to inquire after the future. Worried that the witches will try to trick your hero by giving a prophesy that can be favourably and plausibly read one way, but that also has an alternate, surprising and terrible interpretation that is consistent with the words of the prophesy, your hero finds a way to force the witches to speak in Lojban.

Unfortunately for the hero of your story, a witch’s prophesy can backfire in unexpected ways that still respect the letter of the prophesy itself, even if it’s delivered in a language that’s syntactically unambiguous.

Macbeth 1.3

In the spirit of this short story prompt, I have rendered the first part of Macbeth, act 1 scene 3 into Lojban for your enjoyment. Corrections and suggestions welcome. :)

termafyfe’i 1: [1] .i doi lo mensi do pu zvati ma

termafyfe’i 2 .i lo jai bu’u lo nu catra lo xarju

termafyfe’i 3 .i doi lo mensi do zvati ma

termafyfe’i 1 .i lo fetspe be lo blopre pu cpana be lo galtupcra ku ralte lo narge

[5] gi’e omnomo gi’e omnomo gi’e omnomo .i lu ko dunda fi mi li’u se cusku mi .i lu ko cliva doi lo termafyfe’i li’u lo zargu citka cagna cu se krixa .i lo nakspe be lo se go’i pu klama la .alepos. gi’e bloja’a la .tirxu. .i ku’i ne’i lo julne mi lo te go’i fankla

[10] .ije mi simsa be lo ratcu poi claxu lo rebla ku co’e gi’e co’e gi’e co’e

termafyfe’i 2: .i mi dunda do pa lo brife

termafyfe’i 1 .i do xendo

termafyfe’i 3 .i mi co’e pa lo drata

termafyfe’i 1: [15] .i mi ralte ro da poi drata .i je’a lo blotcana cu bifca’e ro da poi farna be fi lo makfartci pe lo blopre ku’o zi’e poi se djuno .i mi ba simsa be lo sudysrasu bei lo ka sudga ku rincygau

[20] .i lo nu sipna ku ba canai lo donri ku .a lo nicte ku dandu za’e lo galtu dinju canko gacri .i zo’e ba dapma renvi .i ba ca lo tatpi jeftu be li so pi’i so cu jdika lo ka stali .e lo ka pacna .e lo ka gleki

[25] .i zu’u lo bloti to’e pu’i se daspo .i zu’unai lo go’i vilti’a se renro .i ko viska lo se ralte be mi

termafyfe’i 2: .i ko jarco fi mi .i ko jarco fi mi

termafyfe’i 1 .i mi nau ralte lo tamji be fi lo blosazri

[30] poi ca lo nu zdani klama ku bloti janli morsi

[.i ne’i damri]

termafyfe’i 3: .i damri .i damri .ua .i la .makbet. je’a tolcliva

ro da poi termafyfe’i: .i lo cizra mensi noi xance jgari simxu zi’e noi klama be fo lo xamsi .e lo tumla be’o sutra

[35] cu klama fi’o tadji tu’a di’e .i ciroi klama lo tu’a do .i ciroi klama lo tu’a mi .i ciroi ji’a klama .iki’ubo krefu fi li so .i ko smaji .i lo makfa cu bredi

[.i nerkla fa la .makbet. .e la bankos.]


    title = {Short story prompt for Lojban enthusiasts: la cizra mensi},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2015-07-1,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2015/07/01/short-story-prompt-for-lojban-enthusiasts-la-cizra-mensi/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Short story prompt for Lojban enthusiasts: la cizra mensi" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 01 Jul 2015. Web. 23 Jun 2018. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2015/07/01/short-story-prompt-for-lojban-enthusiasts-la-cizra-mensi/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2015, Jul 01). Short story prompt for Lojban enthusiasts: la cizra mensi [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2015/07/01/short-story-prompt-for-lojban-enthusiasts-la-cizra-mensi/

Warboy Nux is Gonzo the Great [Mad Max spoilers]


I saw Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) last week. I wasn’t planning on it, but then I heard that a bunch of Men’s Rights-type dudebros hated it for attempting to undermine the patriarchy or something, so I kinda had to. I didn’t remember it until after the fact when my little sister pointed it out, but the vain cry of “liberal brainwashing” also seems to have been the reason I went to see The Muppets (2011). Apparently the ire of conservative loud-mouths is all it takes to get me to go see a movie. Take note, Hollywood.

Warboy Nux and Gonzo the Great

“Oh what a day! What a lovely day!”

This is not the only parallel I found between Mad Max and The Muppets. Warboy Nux is Gonzo the Great, reimagined as a brainwashed member of a post-apocalyptic automobile cult.

Like Nux, it would not be out of character for Gonzo to stand on a moving vehicle, throw an exploding spear at something and cry “Witness me!” as he performs a stunt that is very likely to kill him. Gonzo and Nux are both creatures of the extreme. This is why we like them. They are interesting because their characters feel things so deeply, and the storytellers, in both cases, know that the way to highlight this depth of feeling is by making them care—and care strongly—about things that seem absolutely strange to us.

While Gonzo is less likely to be actively trying to hurt someone with his antics, even Nux seems to be less motivated by malice than by a heartfelt (albeit misguided) desire to live a life that is remarkable and meaningful. These characters both have an exterior of explosions, chrome and spectacle, and it takes barely a scratch to reveal an interior of adorable, sometimes-pathetic, but utterly non-ironic, earnest longing. In The Muppet Movie (1979), the most touching moment is Gonzo’s I’m going to go back there someday. If you’re going to cry during The Muppet Movie, this is when it will happen.1 Nux’s whispered “Witness me” in his final few seconds is similarly and unexpectedly emotional. Nux gets a finale that’s as climactic as he could have ever dreamed of. And most heart-wrenching, after an earlier failure in the eyes of his god, he expresses his redemption among his new friends in the language of the cult he came from.

I think that’s what’s so great about Nux and Gonzo: They feel, believe and act in extreme ways. They don’t do things by half-measures and they don’t try to hide their passions under a layer of irony or sarcasm. This makes them very vulnerable, and this is what makes them great.

1 Recommended reading on the subject of Gonzo the Great: Joey Comeau’s Lockpick Pornography.


    title = {Warboy Nux is Gonzo the Great [Mad Max spoilers]},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2015-06-25,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2015/06/25/warboy-nux-is-gonzo-the-great/}


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Warboy Nux is Gonzo the Great [Mad Max spoilers]" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 25 Jun 2015. Web. 23 Jun 2018. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2015/06/25/warboy-nux-is-gonzo-the-great/>


Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2015, Jun 25). Warboy Nux is Gonzo the Great [Mad Max spoilers] [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2015/06/25/warboy-nux-is-gonzo-the-great/


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