Future Sex by Emily Witt, 2016

…the most pressing questions in life were left to choice.  … There was limited ancient guidance on such historically preposterous questions.  The difficulty of actually choosing which rules to live by invited extensive self-examination.  68

Amazon Link

In a mix of essay, reporting, and memoir, Witt discusses changing sexual norms in American society, primarily among educated, affluent coastal dwellers.  She explores topics such as pornography, technology and online dating, and polyamory.

The book is well-written, funny, and relatable for someone of my age, though I think other age groups would also be entertained and/or offended by it.

One of the main themes of the book seems to be a constant self-questioning: What do I want?  Am I making the most of my relationship options?  What other options are available that I haven’t considered?  In a landscape of overwhelming choice and freedom, with little guidance (or at least it isn’t sought or is rejected as tradition), nothing ever seems settled.

I think the book was meant as an exploration of the pros and cons of noncommittal or nontraditional relationships, but it seems that her discontent with the situation is what comes through the most.  There’s enough analysis and self-analysis to fill a book, and if that’s the case it probably isn’t a good sign.

Perhaps I’m misreading the authors, but it also seems that many of her choices are driven largely by an ideology of freedom, some string of feminism, and a contrarian streak, instead of a pragmatic view of what is satisfying or intuitive for her.  Her analysis and discussion of new dating and sexual norms is through a lens of politics and/or identity politics, where I’ve found an evolutionary psychology perspective interesting in other works.

The book is very well written, and quite interesting.  I think it would be interesting for the author to do a follow-up or sequel in five or ten years.

Ideas per Page:1 4/10 (medium)

Related Books: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg; The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

Recommend to Others: If interested in the topic

Reread Personally: No

Quotes:

60 Of all the things that Nicole Daedone said to me, however, the idea of acknowledging and accepting the sexuality in the room, feeling it, naming it, and inhabiting it, was a kernel of a thing that I kept trying to dismiss but found I was unable to stop thinking about.  To walk into a room and concentrate on the way my body responded to the people in it was a sexual inquiry I could conduct privately without any risk.  …I had carefully excised my sexual awareness of other people from the naming of my experiences and pretended my own physical responses had not happened.

69 ..the women who saw promise in pursuing sexual openness often found themselves battling their own feelings: trying to control attachment, pretending to enjoy something that hurt or annoyed them, defining sexiness by images they had seen rather than knowing what they wanted.

156 The rise of “partner” over “husband” or “wife” was increasingly mainstream, a successful linguistic flattening of hierarchies of sexual orientation, gender, and marital status.  This made lots of sense in a business or professional context, but less sense, perhaps, with family and friends, where it begged the question of what marriage is worth, if not a public declaration of the nature of one’s relationship to another person and what equality is worth, if it demands the total obfuscation of the differences between humans.

165 His friends were not libertarians, but the way they approached sex had roots in a libertarian idea that if the right dynamics were set up every problem would work itself out.

179 I still did not feel as free as I wanted to.  Sometimes I could not cross the barriers that keep people from expressing their desires.  Rejection did not hurt any less, although it did not hurt more, and I knew better now how to work through it, by trying to accept the rejection as an honest expression of the other person’s feelings, not as a negative verdict on who I was or had failed to be, and that pursuing sex with other people really could help me reconnect with the world after heartbreak.

200 …this futurism would recognize that marriage and babies have no necessary link.  It would consider how to ungender reproduction and child care but ensure that children have masculine and feminine influences in their lives; how to make workplaces and schedules more amenable to caretaking; how to legally establish co-parenting commitments outside the framework of marriage.  This experiment is already underway: 40 percent of births in the United States are to unwed parents.

203-4   …I had greater affirmation from my family when we acted as if I hadn’t chosen to be alone, we spoke as if I was simply waiting (maybe for decades) for the right person to come along.  It was easier to see my circumstances as the result of unluckiness, rather than deliberate sabotage from a willful declaration not to pursue lifelong partnership.  And then there was always the possibility that I was just an undesirable woman trying to cast a more flattering light on my circumstances, or that I was naïve and would learn another lesson about the pursuit of sexual freedom being emotionally destructive.


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

 

 

 

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The Spoils of War by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, 2016

If a politician can form a winning coalition of supporters who are immune from the human and financial costs of the war, then these supporters provide little impediment to the leader’s conduct of the war.  Those groups of people outside of the coalition might suffer greatly as a result of the war and protest the war vigorously, but their suffering is no impediment to a leader kept in office by others.  212

Amazon Link

The authors argue that leaders make important decisions with their own political futures and legacies at the top of their priorities.  Their duty to serve the interests of the people they lead or represent comes second, especially if it’s a group that didn’t help them come to power, or won’t be offering support when it’s time for reelection.

In support of this argument, the authors examine a number of US presidents, and the decisions they made to enter or avoid war—the costliest decision a president can make.  They examine Washington and the revolutionary war, the war of 1812, Lincoln and the Civil War, FDR and the Second World War, Johnson and Vietnam, and Bush and Iraq/Afghanistan.

In each of these cases, they analyze factors that went into their decisions to pursue or avoid war—electoral prospects, holding wealth and maintaining business prospects, ascending to the presidency, shifting costs from states who provide political support to opposition states.

Many of the points they raise require a lot of specific knowledge of the political landscape and political alliances that wouldn’t be known to the general population, and therefore wouldn’t appear as Machiavellian to the untutored eye (i.e., I had no idea of the dynamics that influenced major decisions).  But once they put the pieces in place, it’s quite convincing that the politicians were looking out for themselves, and their aspirations.

The authors close by suggesting ways that society could guide leaders away from pursing their selfish interests, as humans naturally will.  Their recommendations are summarized in the passages quoted below.

The book was interesting, especially reading about Washington and Lincoln and their rather bold pursuit of wealth and power, at great expense to other citizens.  National heroes are certainly forgiven for their flaws, and their flaws are eventually forgotten.  Some of the minutiae about the politics of long-ago parties was dry, but I would imagine necessary for professional historians.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Recommend to Others: If you enjoy history, are a big fan of the “great” presidents, or like contrarian points of view

Reread Personally:       no

Quotes:

We have to realize that talk of nations and their policies is metaphor.  Nations don’t have policies; nations don’t wage war; nations don’t pay a price for failure: people do! 7

Yet these account of peace-loving presidents plunged into war against their will are inadequate.  They attribute too much power to the flow of history and not enough to the individual choices of men who, after all, were so skilled in political competition that they succeeded in defeating one political rival after another, placing themselves in a position to become president of the United States.  9

Surrogates for then vice president Thomas Jefferson, campaigning against the sitting president, John Adams, in 1800, described Adams as a “blind, bald, crippled, toothless man,” who “is a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Not to be out-done, Adams’s backers described Jefferson as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”  10

Congress, for instance, did not declare war, or was not called upon to do so, in the vast majority of American foreign military engagements ranging from two expeditions against Samoa to the massive wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.  14

Sadly, as we are about to see, the more US deaths occurred in a war overseen by a president, the greater that president’s odds of reelection and the greater esteem in which he is held in the hindsight of history.  As that fact is, it is even sadder that advancing the welfare of the average US citizen by improving prosperity has had no beneficial bearing on a president’s legacy or, indeed, his reelection prospects.    14

till, the same George Washington also signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, making it lawful for slave owners to recover their “property” even if the slave had escaped to an area where slavery was banned.  Indeed, he pursued one of his own runaway slaves during his presidency.  98

So, on the one hand, Lincoln, the extremist, rather courageously argued that the Declaration of Independence referred to all people and that therefore slavery was an abomination.  On the other hand, being a pragmatist, he chose to remain silent before the Dred Scott decision promised the spread of slavery throughout the territories and future states of the United States.  107

To diminish needless war as well as costly reticence to fact the occasional necessity of using force, we touch on the following topics: (a) eliminate the electoral college; (b) establish independent commissions to set electoral boundaries; (c) create independent agencies to estimate the expected financial costs of war and peace; (d) create an independent panel to estimate the expected human costs of war and peace; and (e) levy war taxes that ensure that all citizens pay at least some of the cost of conflict if a nation goes to war.  244

Clear estimates of the likely costs of war provide many advantages.  Most obviously, they provide a basis for Congress to assess whether it wants to declare war or authorize funds for a conflict.  Well-publicized estimates also provide performance targets for executives.  Leaders who bring a war to a successful conclusion more quickly, at lower cost, and with the loss fewer American lives than anticipated will be highly regarded as truly competent and deserving of our praise.  In contrast, the leader who overshoots predictions on these dimensions is likely to be seen as incompetent.  Faced with such prospects, leaders are incentivized to both provide realistic assessments of the costs and to fight wars a efficiently as possible.  249-250

If in 2002 Congress had committed to wartime tax surcharges, that is to say, it actualized the “we will pay” that Bush spoke of in his 2002 State of the Union Address, then it would have sent a powerful message both home and abroad.  The American people would have heard that both the president and the Congress perceived the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to vital US interests as serious and grave.  This clear, powerful message would also have been heard loud and clear overseas.  Allies would be reassured that the United States had real evidence that security was threatened and enemies would know that it meant business.   253


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

 

Open-minded and Judgmental

Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?

-George Carlin

Often, “closed-minded” and “judgmental” are labels applied only to people or positions you disagree with.

It’s not closed-mindedness per se that’s the problem—it’s just that someone’s mind is closed to the correct view, perspective, or opinion.  I’ve never heard someone sincerely accuse another person of being too open-minded—it’s just about agreement on a particular issue.

If you label a person or action “judgmental”, you are passing judgment on the person or action.  If you label someone as “close-minded”, you are closing your mind to their views and perspectives.

Take the example of gay marriage.  People who disapprove of gay marriage are labeled “judgmental”.  But of course, approval of gay marriage is itself a judgement.  Unless you never consider an issue or form an opinion about it, there is no escaping judgement.

Opponents of gay marriage are criticized for being “closed-minded”.  However, supporting gay marriage is necessarily closing your mind to conflicting perspectives, to some degree or another.  Should supporters of gay marriage “open their minds” to the possibility that the Old Testament is correct about the immorality of gay marriage (Leviticus 20:13)—that god himself spoke out against homosexuality?

The use of these terms sets up a false continuum.  The incorrect position (judgmental, closed-minded) is at one extreme, and the correct position (non-judgmental, open-minded) is at the other.

Labeling a position as closed-minded or judgmental is not an argument against that position; it’s just a label, like “bad”. When people use these terms they are simply stating that you are on the wrong spot on this continuum, instead of arguing why their place on the continuum is justified.  They are, in Carlin’s wording, calling you a maniac or an idiot, without saying why.

Open-mindedness means seeking to understand positions you don’t hold, accept, or understand, in spite of the fact that you don’t hold, accept, or understand them.

Of course there are people who are closed-minded: they have not sought to understand another’s position, considered an issue, or heard the other side’s evidence.  But because “closed-minded” is so often used as a synonym for “wrong”, it’s more useful to say that directly.  For instance, “They are unfamiliar with the other side’s position and their supporting reasoning.” Or “They’re not familiar with the latest evidence”, etc.

Non-judgement in some Buddhist sense may also be a virtue (a topic for another discussion), but that’s not the sense in which people use the term.  Everyone is judgmental about everything, and pretending that your judgement isn’t a judgement is unhelpful.  Maybe “That judgement is incorrect because….”.

Ambient Findability by Peter Morville, 2005

…ambient findability, a realm in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime.  p. 65

Date Completed: 7-22-17

Amazon Link

New technology allows information to be discovered, stored, and disseminated at an incredible pace.  It allows us locate information and objects in their digital and physical locations.  But there is so much information available that it’s hard to know what to look for, and to find something once you know you want it.

Morville believes that new devices, as well as new methods of organizing information that librarians and information architects can implement, will help to overcome the challenge of finding things.

Information, and physical objects that are being connected to the web, surrounds us almost like fog.  We are inside of it, with many pieces of information nearby, enveloping us.  But it can be hard to see where we’re going and to find what we hope to find.  This is where we stand now, in the fog.

It’s possible that our tools and information architecture will, in some sense, allow the information we are searching for to manifest itself out of the cloud surrounding us.  The right information will sort of bubble up, to give us what we need, almost like Amazon recommendations taken to the next level.

I enjoyed the book, especially the beginning where he talks about navigation/findability in the physical world.  The discussion of how information could be curated in such a way as to foster ambient findability was pretty difficult for me to follow, and in some ways I feel I’ve missed the meat of the book.  I feel like I understand the outcome he’s seeking, but the method is opaque.

There are many similarities to Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger, but Weinberger’s story arc was easier for me to follow.  The works do complement each other well, but I would recommend starting with Miscellaneous.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (lower)

Related Books: Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger; What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

Recommend to Others: see above

Reread Personally:   no

Quotes:

First, ants possess the biological equivalent of an odometer that tells them not just how many steps they have taken but the ground-level distance traveled during each segment of the journey.  Second, ants possess a skylight compass that relies on the position of the sun as indicated by polarized light to compute direction.  By combining knowledge of distance and direction, ants have a basic ability to retrace their steps independent of landmarks.  18-19

…Norwegian seafaring hackers learned to bring ravens on long voyages.  When they thought land was near, the sailors released the birds, which had been deliberately starved.  The ravenous ravens often headed “as the crow flies” directly toward land.  22

Libraries exist at the very intersection of physical and semantic space. 34

Full text is biased toward description.  Unique identifiers such as ISBNs (and Zip Codes) offer perfect discrimination but no descriptive value.  Metadata fields (e.g., title, author, publisher) and controlled vocabularies (e.g., subject, category, format, audience) hold the middle ground.  52

-RFID tags can be read from a distance through walls, packaging, clothes, and wallets.  There is no minimum requirement for line of sight between label and reader.

-With barcodes, every can of Coke has the same universal product code (UPC).  With RFID, each can has its own unique number.  It’s classified as a can of Coke but also identified as a unique individual object.

-RFID spills beyond identification into positioning.  The same radiofrequency technologies that support communication (e.g., Wi-Fi, UWB) also enable the precise location and tracking of tagged objects.

As information volume increases, our ability to find any particular item decreases.  86

In 1998, the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a report detailing the prevalence of surveillance cameras in New York City and found 2,397 government and private cameras on the streets of Manhattan.  87 [from Surveillance Camera Project].

In fact, the percentage of information we actively pull toward us is relatively small.  Most of our knowledge is pushed toward us…  116-117

We write, not just to communicate, but to enhance our own findability.  142

Not only is the desired person or document six/nineteen links away, but so are all people or documents.  143 [quoting Linked: The New Science of Neworks by Barabasi]


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

 

 

 

Vantage Point

Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places.

Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.

-Stewart Udall, fmr. Sec. of Interior 1961-1969

Standing on Paintbrush Divide, life was simple.  The decision that led to this moment happened a few months earlier.  In the summer of 2016 I was writing my PhD dissertation and planning a late summer getaway to celebrate the culmination of this effort.  I was putting together logistics, along with my brother David and his fiancée Ashley, for a through-hike of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains.  We planned to stay high, hugging the continental divide as we followed the loose outline of a route described by backpacker and writer Alan Dixon.  On paper our goal was simple; hike the 80+ miles from the Green River lakes in the north to the Big Sandy Campground in the south.  In doing so, we would traverse what Dixon has called, “the finest non-technical Alpine route in North America.”  In practice, this feat wouldn’t be so simple.  The Wind Rivers are some of the most heavily glaciated mountains in the Rockies, and our route was to be largely off-trail.  We’d be carrying 9 days worth of food for three people in bear-resistant containers and spending most of our time above tree line, out of natural shelter and exposed to the elements.  This was exactly what we craved, a test of our mental and physical endurance.

On September 2nd, my 28th birthday, we set up camp in Forest Service land at the southern edge of the Winds, planning to catch an arranged shuttle to our northern start early the next morning.  We had arrived well past dark and hurriedly set up our tents in a thunderstorm.  As it turned out, this wouldn’t be our only night in the rain.  We were repeatedly drenched as we ascended through the early portion of our route.  Our first high pass, through a field strewn with car-sized boulders, was also marked by a violent storm.  We were well above the trees and could see the clouds approaching.  Soon our vision was limited to several feet and the three of us, alone in the mountains, also found ourselves isolated from one another as we each sought a way to maneuver over these rocks.  The snow came first, then the hail.  Next was thunder, like a wave rolling through.  I couldn’t see my brother, but I could hear him yelling instructions.   Remove your pack.  He was right, the lightning was too close, we had to be proactive.  I took off my backpack, slid it away, and sat curled up in a ball.  Hail and snow filled the air, caught in the wind.  Though I couldn’t see the sky, each strike of lightning was obvious as the small visible world around me was suddenly illuminated, like the flash bulb of a camera.  The thunder was instant.  We each sat alone, waiting.  As the storm began to give way, we shouted to one another from our individual perches.  This storm was past, but more would follow.  The rest of our time in the Winds followed suit.  After an overnight snowstorm, our route forward over a talus field was too dangerous.  We were forced to make a decision – wait a day and hope for an improvement in the weather or turn around now and hike out.  With limited food and a tight schedule, we ultimately chose the latter option.

Despite our disappointment at the early turnaround, the Winds were a strikingly beautiful range.  We used our newfound extra days to spend time hiking and camping in Grand Teton and Yellowstone.  This unexpected opportunity has become one of my most cherished memories.  What I took home from this trip was bigger than the stories or the pictures.  It was the recharge that only wilderness can supply.  After hiking up Paintbrush Canyon in the Tetons, where we were forced to wait while a bull moose grazed along a narrow section of trail, I found myself standing atop a large rock on the exposed pass.  We were halfway through a loop that would descend through Cascade Canyon and around Jenny Lake.  The final push up the pass was, as is frequently the case, a grueling ascent over rocky trail.  Snowfields dotted the landscape both above and below our vantage point.  Standing on the pass was euphoric; it was only from within the Tetons that I could feel the true magnitude of these jagged peaks strewn with glaciers and warm green lakes.  On my rock perch the wind relentlessly threatened to knock me over, filling me with a sense of smallness.  Nothing is as grounding as nature, a grand display of geological feats that have formed over a time scale hardly imaginable to the human mind.  There is a comfort to be found in the vastness of the wild, in the realization that nature is both beautiful and harsh.  Millions of years have passed and countless lives have come and gone while these mountains have endured.  Here I am nothing, and that means everything.

-e