Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior by Geoffrey Miller, 2009

Our inherited legacy of adaptations is literally precious.  Even the poorest parents give their children vast riches, in the form of senses, emotions, and mental faculties that have been optimized through millions of years of product development.  They are so reliable, efficient, intricate, self-growing, and self-repairing that no technology comes anywhere close to matching them.  65-6

Amazon Link

Miller argues that in modern consumer societies, we use products to signal our desirable traits and our genetic fitness.  The primary traits we signal include the “big five” personality traits (openness, contentiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism) and intelligence.  These traits are stable throughout the lifetime; are heritable; and are meaningful because we can make useful predictions about people based on these traits.

Unfortunately, Miller argues, demonstrating these traits through purchasing decisions is not effective.  Humans evolved to detect these traits long before the advent of consumer societies, and we detect these traits more effectively merely by interacting and having other speak about our reputations.

Furthermore, the costs of trying to signal our traits through consumerism are high.  Individuals work enormous hours to buy products, and eventually find these products unsatisfying due to the phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill.  Long hours and unfulfilling consumption leads to feelings of loneliness, and alienation.  The costs are also high for families, for similar reasons.  Finally, the environment pays a hefty cost for the production of consumer products.

Miller points to three strategies products may employ to signal their owner’s fitness.  Products may use lots of material, or precious materials (Hummers, mansions, gold).  They exhibit precision or ingenious design (watches, wearable tech, Apple).  Brands may have strong reputations or afford high status (Gucci, BMW).  In lieu of entering into one of these three ineffective consumption traps, Miller advises consumers to borrow and create items, use the things they already own, and buy secondhand goods.

Miller notes that neighborhoods are largely stratified by income brackets and consumption choices—the lowest common denominator for making a decision about whom you group with.  If people were able to group according to the big six traits, they would be better able to affiliate and signal, find community among like-minded people, and avoid wasteful status games brought about when they try to keep up with the Joneses.  People should self-segregate into communities where values are shared, instead of tax bracket of consumption habits.

Miller also advocates for a consumption tax that would target wasteful and conspicuous consumption, to skim some broader social benefits from zero-sum status games of the wealthy.  He thinks this could be accomplished without complicated oversight, via simple rules demarcating which items would merit a luxury tax.

The sections on personality traits and the way people display them were quite entertaining (especially the bumper stickers people use to advertise their traits).  His plan to have people segregate according to their traits seemed a bit idealistic.  It could go very well; consider how the internet has allowed sub-cultures to grow and flourish, and for people to find community.  It could go very badly: look what it’s done for ISIS and for people trapped in ethnic ghettos.

In any case, I think it’s important to compare other possibilities to the actual status quo—money as the main factor in segregation.  Perhaps other Miller’s suggestion about how to segregate would create problems, but maybe problems preferable to financial stratification.

Ideas per Page:1 5/10 (Medium)

Related Books: The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller; Mate by Geoffrey Miller; The Moral Animal by Robert Wright; The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore

Recommend to Others: not broadly, but yes to people interested in consumer culture through an evolutionary lens

Reread Personally:  No

Quotes:

All you have to do is sit in classrooms every day for sixteen years to learn counterintuitive skills and then work and commute fifty hours a week for forty years in tedious jobs for amoral corporations, far away from relatives and friends, without any decent child care, sense of community, political empowerment, or contact with nature.  Oh, and you’ll have to take special medicines to avoid suicidal despair, and avoid having more than two children.  It’s not so bad really.  The shoe swooshes are pretty cool.  5

Human intelligence can be represented with astonishing efficiency and accuracy by just one dimension, called the g factor (a.k.a. general intelligence, general cognitive ability, IQ).  As we’ll see later, if we know how an individual scores on these “Central Six” dimensions (the Big Five personality traits plus general intelligence), we can predict a great deal about his habits, preferences, values, and attitudes—and about the products he may acquire to display those traits to others.  28

Democracy can be seen as the marketing concept applied to government.  … The production-oriented state asked what taxpayers could do for it; the marketing-oriented state asks what it can do for voters.  41

At the evolutionary level, animals are always under selection to survive and reproduce.  But at the subjective level, they are always motivated to understand that natural pleasures are associated with evolutionary success, but because they have been shaped to act as if they understood that association unconsciously.  56

…every ideology seeks power by convincing us that we need something beyond our naked bodies and minds to be socially acceptable and sexually attractive.  84

If a product appeals to everyone, it cannot signal anything about the consumer, so consumers will simply comparison shop for it on the basis of features and/or price.  … In actual capitalism, corporations strive mightily to avoid competition based on mere objective performance.    Instead, they use advertising to create signaling systems—psychological links between brands and the aspirational traits that consumers would like to display.  97

Thus, all ads effectively have two audiences: potential product buyers, and potential product viewers who will credit the product owners with various desirable traits.  99

Thus, arguments about consumerist capitalism can go far astray when we do not recognize that there are many different forms of reliable signaling—and our own favored tactics are the ones least likely to be recognized as signaling at all.  120

…they found that people from territories with the highest parasite load indeed had substantially lower openness and extraversion scores on average.  210-1

Joshua Tybur argues … There is antiparasite disgust, which protects us from contagious disease.  There is sexual disgust, which protects us from mating with individuals who are too closely related or whose genetic quality is too low.  Finally, there is moral disgust, with protects us from selfish individuals who would undermine local social norms and social contracts.  214

Also, for some indulgences, it’s worth considering how much you would pay not to own the item.  For example, Costco sells M&M candies in sixty-four-ounce bags for $8.  I like M&Ms, so that seems like a great impulse purchase if I think I deserve a treat.  However, at 142 calories per ounce, that bag contains 9,000 calories of milk chocolate, which, knowing myself, I would eventually eat.  … For many products, the long-term net costs of ownership and consumption far outweigh the short-term benefits.  259

So, while modern multicultural communities may be very free at the level of the individual lifestyle choice, they are very unfree at the level of allowing people to create and sustain distinctive local community norms and values.  This is actually a bad thing, liberal ideologies notwithstanding.   It means that the only way to have any influence over who your neighbors are, and how they behave, is to rent or buy at a particular price point, to achieve economic stratification.  Antidiscrimination laws apply, de facto, to everything except income, with the result that we have low-income ghettos, working-class tract houses, professional exurbs: a form of assortative living by income, which correlates only moderately with intelligence and conscientiousness.  299


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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Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, 2010

A great deal of research from primatology, anthropology, anatomy, and psychology points to the same fundamental conclusion: human beings and our hominid ancestors have spent almost all of the past few millions years or so in small, intimate bands in which most adults had several sexual relationships at any given time.  This approach to sexuality probably persisted until the rise of agriculture and private property no more than ten thousand years ago.  In addition to voluminous scientific evidence, many explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists support this view, having penned accounts rich with tales of orgiastic rituals, unflinching mate sharing, and an open sexuality unencumbered by guilt or shame.  12

Amazon Link

I became interested in this book after viewing a conversation between Christopher Ryan—one of the authors—and Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, on Bloggingheads.tv.  They discussed their views of how human sexuality has been shaped by evolutionary forces, and how evolutionary forces have shaped human sexuality.

Their primary difference of opinion revolves around how monogamous or polygamous or ancestors may have been, and how that’s effected our psychology.  Wright endorses a more traditional ev-psych perspective; males are very concerned about paternity certain (i.e. are their children really their children?), and are jealous and controlling of their mates in order to ensure that they are providing resources to their offspring only.

Ryan and Jetha believe that early hominid and hunter-gatherer males were more polygamous, much less concerned with paternity certainty, and much less possessive of their mates.  He believes that paternity became more important only after the dawn of agriculture, where material wealth, land, and status could be better stored and passed along to offspring.

Ryan and Jetha muster biological and anthropological evidence in support of his claims of historical non-monogamy.  This evidence (body dimorphism, concealed ovulation, penis shape, testicular mass relative to body size, overwhelming evidence of polygamy across the globe), he believes, suggests that many sexual mores, and sexual jealousy, are not necessarily deep-seated features of our evolved psychology.

The traditional parental investment model (as presented in The Moral Animal) appears to be an extremely parsimonious explanation for many observed practices, so I’m not totally convinced that we can jettison that model as completely as Ryan and Jetha would like.

My favorite aspect of this book is how Ryan and Jetha critique stand ev-psych models while still accepting that the discipline as a whole is useful.  Other criticisms of ev-psych I’ve read are mostly along the lines of: ev-psych is politically incorrect; it’s immoral; or it’s a just-so story.

As for the politically incorrect or immoral criticisms—so what.  But the just-so accusation is more serious.  The rebuttal (not mine—can’t remember the source) is that everything in the past that can’t be tested experimentally is a just-so story until you go out and gather evidence, and present arguments about it.  This book is an example of a conversation about different evidence and differing interpretations of that evidence.

The book is pretty clearly written and easy to follow.  Some of the jokes and banter and perhaps not as entertaining as they were intended to be.

Ideas per Page:1 5/10 (medium)

Related Books: The Moral Animal by Robert Wright; How The Mind Works by Steven Pinker; Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite by Robert Kurzban

Recommend to Others: Moral Animal first

Reread Personally:  No

Quotes:

And yet, despite repeated assurances that women aren’t particularly sexual creatures, in cultures and the world men have gone to extraordinary lengths to control female libido: female genital mutilation, head-to-toe chadors, medieval witch burnings, chastity belt, suffocating corsets, muttered insults about “insatiable” whores, pathologizing, paternalistic medical diagnosis of nymphomania or hysteria, the debilitating scorn heaped on any female who chooses to be generous with her sexuality… all parts of a worldwide campaign to keep the supposedly low-key female libido under control.  Why the electrified high-security razor-wire fence to contain a kitty-cat? 39

[two theories of why human females conceal ovulation]

…“the classic explanation” goes like this: both concealed ovulation and extended (or, more accurately, constant) sexual receptivity evolved among early human females as a way of developing and cementing the pair bond by holding the attention of a constantly horny male mate.  …there was no reason for him to seek other females for sexual pleasure.  …maximize his own probability of impregnating her and to ensure that no other males mated with her at any time 59

…extended receptivity in early hominids may have evolved not to reassure males, but to confuse them.  …The female would have sex with several males so that none of them could be certain of paternity, thus reducing the likelihood that the next alpha male would kill offspring who could be his.  60

The animal world is full of species that have sex only during widely spaced intervals when the female is ovulating.  Only two species can do it week in and week out for nonreproductive reasons: one human, the other very humanlike.  Sex for pleasure with various partners is therefore more “human” than animal.  85

Institutionalized sharing of resources and sexuality spreads and minimizes risk, assures food won’t be wasted in a world without refrigeration, eliminates the effects of male infertility, promotes the genetic health of individuals, and assures a more secure environment for children and adults alike.  Far from utopian romanticism, foragers insist on egalitarianism because it works on the most practical levels.  100-101

Paternity certainty, far from being the universal and overriding obsession of all men everywhere and always, as the standard narrative insists, was likely a nonissue to men who lived before agriculture and resulting concerns with passing property through lines of paternal descent.  104

A Mosuo girl … She can have a different lover the following night—or later that same night—if she chooses.  There is no expectation of commitment, and any child she conceives is raised in her mother’s house, with the help of the girl’s brothers and the rest of the community.  128

Among the Mosuo, a man’s sister’s children are considered his paternal responsibility—not those who may (or may not) be the fruit of his own nocturnal visits to various flower rooms.  Here we see another society in which male parental investment is unrelated to [his] biological paternity.  128

How would the prevalence and experience of jealousy be affected in Western societies if the economic dependence trapping most women and their children didn’t exist, leading female sexual access to be a tightly controlled commodity?  What if economic security and guilt-free sexual friendships were easily available to almost all men and women, as they are in many of the societies we’ve discussed, as well as among our closest primate cousins?  What if no woman had to worry that a ruptured relationship would leave her and her children destitute and vulnerable?  What if average guys knew they’d never have to worry about finding someone to love?  What if we didn’t all grow up hearing that true love is obsessive and possessive?

Basic human reproductive biology in a foraging context made rapid population growth unlikely, if not impossible.  Women rarely conceive while breastfeeding, and without milk from domesticated animals, hunter-gatherer women typically breastfeed each child for five or six years.  Furthermore, the demands of a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle make carrying more than one small child at a time unreasonable for a mother—even assuming lots of help from others.  Finally, low body-fat level result in later menarche for hunter-gatherer females than for their post-agricultural sisters.  Most foragers don’t start ovulating until their late teens, resulting in a shorter reproductive lifespan.  159

We need to confront the tragedies of the open seas, skies, rivers, and forests.  Fisheries around the world are collapsing because no one has the authority, power, and motivation to stop international fleets from strip-mining waters everybody (and thus, nobody) owns.  Toxins from Chinese smokestacks burning illegally mined Russian coal lodge in Korean lungs, which American cars burning Venezuelan petroleum melt glaciers in Greenland.

What allows these chain-linked tragedies is the absence of local, personal shame.  … These tragedies become inevitable only when the group size exceeds our species’ capacity for keeping track of one another, a point that’s come to be known as Dunbar’s number.  170-171

Perhaps for the first time ever, the chimps had something worth fighting over: a concentrated, reliable, yet limited source of food.  Suddenly, they lived in a zero-sum world.

Applying this same reasoning to human societies, we’re left wondering why immediate-return hunter-gatherers would risk their lives to fight wars.  Over what, exactly?  Food?  That’s spread out in the environment.  … Possessions? Foragers have few possessions of any nonsentimental value. Land? Our ancestors evolved on a plant nearly empty of human being for the vast majority of our existence as a species.  Women?  Possibly, but this clam presumes that population growth was important to foragers and that women were commodities to be fought over and traded like the livestock of pastoralists.  190

Why are scientists so reluctant to consider the implications of our two closest primate relatives displaying the same levels of body-size dimorphism we do?  Could it be because neither is remotely monogamous?  219

Moderate body-size dimorphism isn’t the only anatomical suggestion of promiscuity in our species.  The ratio of testicular volume to overall body mass can be used to read the degree of sperm competition in any given species.  222

In sperm competition, the cells fight in there so males don’t have to fight out here.  Instead, males can relax around one another, allowing larger group sizes, enhancing cooperation, and avoiding disruption to the social dynamic.  This helps explain why no primate living in multimale social groups is monogamous.  It just wouldn’t work.  223

We know that many female readers aren’t going to be happy reading this, and some will be enraged by it, but for most men, sexual monogamy leads inexorably to monotony.  It’s important to understand this process has nothing to do with the attractiveness of the man’s long-term partner or the depth and sincerity of his love for her.  Indeed, quoting Symons, “A man’s sexual desire for a woman to whom he is not married is largely the result of her not being his wife.”  Novelty itself is the attraction. Though they’re unlikely to admit it, the long-term partners of the sexiest Hollywood starlets are subject to the same psychosexual process.  Frustrating? Unfair? Infuriating? Humiliating on both sides? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.  But still, true.  295

“Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing,” observed German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  “A confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.”  Indeed.  By insisting upon an ideal vision of marriage founded upon a lifetime of sexual fidelity to one person—a vision most of us eventually learn is highly unrealistic, we invite punishment upon ourselves, upon each other, and upon our children.  303


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.

 

 

 

The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller, 2000

Under natural selection, species adapt to their environments. …. Under sexual selection, species adapt too, but they adapt to themselves.  Females adapt to males, and males adapt to females.  Sexual preferences adapt to the sexual ornaments available, and sexual ornaments adapt to sexual preferences.  68

Amazon Link

Miller argues that the most uniquely human abilities granted to us by our minds—including music, art, humor, and conversation—are sexual ornaments, in the same way that a peacock’s tail is sexual ornament evolved to attract peahens.

Peacock feathers can be used to decorate a home, but their evolutionary purpose was to signal fitness and attract mates.  Similarly, human intelligence and creativity can be turned towards many ends, but Miller believes it originated, and rapidly expanded, as the result of sexual selection.

For me, the most insightful idea contained in the book is captured in this passage:

Sexual selection works, I think, as evolution’s venture capitalist.  It can favor innovations just because they look sexy, long before they show any profitability in the struggle for survival.  It can protect the early stages of innovations by giving them a reproductive advantage that can compensate for their survival costs.  168

Under natural selection, adaptations must be adaptive at every stage of their evolution.  For example, birds don’t suddenly sprout functioning wings, they must slowly adapt proto-wings.  Each iteration of the proto-wing must add survival value, or it will be selected against.

However, sexual selection allows traits to develop and change without the constraint of survival value; an adaptation can pay the bills just by being beautiful to a potential mate, and the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not left to the cold calculation of natural selection.

The thesis is interesting, and some of the arguments he presents are intriguing, but the book felt long in places.  It isn’t as clever or humorous as his book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.  Here he attempts to be humorous and erudite; in Spent he’s funny and hip.

Ideas per Page:1 7/10 (higher)

Related Books: Spent by Geoffrey Miller;  Mate, by Geoffrey Miller; The Moral Animal by Robert Wright; The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore

Recommend to Others: I would definitely recommend Spent first, especially to people who don’t have much background or interest in evolutionary processes

Reread Personally:  No

Quotes:

Sexual selection is the professional at sifting between genes.  By comparison, natural selection is a rank amateur.  The evolutionary pressures that result from mate choice can therefore be much more consistent, accurate, efficient, and creative than natural selection.  9

The whole point of having a nervous system is to make important adaptive decisions.  What decision could be more important that with whom to combine one’s inheritance to produce one’s offspring?  44

The healthy brain theory proposes that our minds are clusters of fitness indicators: persuasive salesmen like art, music, and humor, that do their best work in courtship, where the most important deals are made.  105

The wasteful of courtship is what makes it romantic.  The wasteful dancing, the wasteful gift-giving, the wasteful conversation, the wasteful laughter, the wasteful foreplay, the wasteful adventures.  128

If a great deal of human behavior consists of advertising one’s fitness, and if many ways of doing that impose social costs on others, and if moral norms develop to minimize social costs, then a lot of moral norms should be aimed directly against the irresponsible use of fitness indicators.  We value humility precisely because many people are unbearable braggarts who try to flaunt their fitness indicators so relentlessly that we cannot hold a conversation.  We value frugality because so many people embarrass everyone with their ostentatious displays of luxuries, and waste limited resources that others need.  136

Consider the huge Thanksgiving feast that American families organize when a daughter first brings home a potential husband.  The family members are not improving their collective survival chances, they are improving the daughter’s mating prospects by demonstrating their wealth, health, family size, and other aspects of familial fitness.  The prodigious waste of uneaten turkey even follows the predictions of the handicap principle.  Across cultures, marriage rituals serve similar functions, wasting vast resources so that a kin group can display its fitness to a group of possible in-laws.  220-221

Aesthetic significance does not deliver truth about the human condition in general: it delivers truth about the condition of a particular human, the artist.  The aesthetic features of art make sense mainly as displays of the artist’s skill and creativity, not as vehicles of transcendental enlightenment, religious inspiration, social commentary, psycho-analytic revelation, or political revolution  282

Individuals feel social pressure to adopt the beliefs that are conventionally accepted as indicating a “good heart,” even when those beliefs are not rational.  We may even find ourselves saying, “His ideas may be right, but his heart is clearly not in the right place.”  Political correctness is one outcome of such attributions.  For example, if a scientist says, “I have evidence that human intelligence is genetically heritable,” that is usually misinterpreted as proclaiming “I am a disagreeable psychopath unworthy of love.”  332

From a sexual selection viewpoint, moral philosophy and political theory have mostly been attempts to shift male human sexual competitiveness from physical violence to the peaceful accumulation of wealth and status.  The rights to life, liberty, and property are cultural inventions that function, in part, to keep males from killing and stealing from one another while they compete to attract sexual partners.  428

I hope that the sexual choice theory increases your confidence that people can appreciate your mind’s charms directly, in ordinary conversation, unmediated by your ability to work, save, shop, and spend.

Our modern quality of life depends on our ability to benefit from millions of acts of courtship, in which we are neither the producer nor the intended receiver.  One’s life may be save by a side-impact airbag designed by an engineer in Stockholm, striving for local status in a Volvo design team.   …  The signal difference between modern life and Pleistocene life is that we have the social institutions and technologies for benefiting from the courtship efforts of distant strangers.  430


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.

 

 

 

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, 2016

Amazon Link

A mixture of memoir and essay.  The author escapes from deep poverty, familial dysfunction, violence, and addiction to get a college education, escape the cycle of poverty, and develop healthier relationships.

Vance believes that the type of dysfunctional behavior he witnessed as a child is a growing problem throughout the U.S., and is not limited to urban centers or minorities.  A mindset of hopelessness combined with poor habits has sunken entire towns and regions of the country.

In his own life, the author sees the dependable—though still problematic—presence of his grandparents as making the difference that allowed him to escape.  His time in the military, and the opportunity to mature and attend college, were also important forces.

This book is essentially a firsthand account of the types of problems described in Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, which takes a look at these issues from sociological level.  I feel Murray’s book is stronger in both its hypotheses about the causes of such social decay and its recommendations for improving conditions.

Elegy puts a more human face on the problem, which may make it more entertaining for some readers, but it lacks the depth of analysis of Coming Apart.  It’s much easier to become upset or contemptful toward the actual people profiled in Vance’s life than it is to become upset about abstractions, but I’m not sure that’s helpful.

I would recommend people start with Coming Apart, and read The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls for a more vivid and moving description of life in hopeless and dysfunctional Appalachia.

Ideas per Page:12/10 (low)

Related Books: Coming Apart by Charles Murray

Recommend to Others: see above

Reread Personally:  No


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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.