Audiobooks Completed in 2017

Under the Banner of Heaven (Excellent)

The Association of Small Bombs (first half strong, second half weak)

A Deadly Wandering (boring.  Based on a newspaper series, should’ve remained a newspaper series)

What it is Like to Go to War (interesting)

The Power of Less (no new concepts for me)

Escape from camp 14 (North Korea is hell.  Some people there don’t know that money exists)

Between the world and me (second listen. Still confused.  Still think he’s advocating a bad message)

Shoe Dog (excellent)

The Unwinding (excellent)

A Mother’s Reckoning (interesting)

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The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, 2007

Amazon Link

Klein documents the global spread of neoliberalism from the end of the Second World War through 2006, when the book was published. Backed by the United States, as well as the World Bank and IMF, neoliberalism was pushed upon South America, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Lebanon, and Iraq following severe shocks, including war, inflation, drastic political change, and natural disaster.  Similar policies appeared in the United States following 9-11 and hurricane Katrina.  Klein describes the neoliberal plan as having three core components:

First, governments must remove all rules and regulations standing in the way of the accumulation of profits. Second, they should sell off any assets they own that corporations could be running at a profit. And third, they should dramatically cut back funding of social programs. —56

In general, Klein argues, people would dismiss these types of pro-corporate/pro-austerity programs out of hand under normal circumstance; the elites who push these measures are opportunists who use (and sometimes deliberately cause or prolong) shocks in order to promote policies that would never be accepted in a “typical” political or economic atmosphere.

Sadly, there are hundreds of pages documenting horrible political, economic, and environmental shocks, resulting in all manner of misery.  Many of these were, Klein argues, fueled, deliberately exacerbated, or allowed to fester in order to implant or cement neoliberal policy.

Klein certainly documents many shocks followed by moves toward neoliberal economic policy, but I’m not so sure she’s on to some particularly new dynamic. It seems more likely that elites are pursuing power as they always have.  But perhaps the form it’s taking has been uniquely shaped by current economic system in a globalized world.

In a perverse way, what pisses me off the most in this book are not the blatant horrors (i.e., the US supporting an Argentine regime that tortured and murdered) but the more subtle government-corporate alliances.  There are many people involved who were not murders or torturers, but nevertheless stole a great amount from society.  But they remained members of the elite! They walked around as though they were respectable.  Some examples:

The president of Argentina’s central bank announced that the state would absorb the debts of large multinational and domestic firms that had, like Chile’s piranhas, borrowed themselves to the verge of bankruptcy. The tidy arrangement meant that these companies continued to own their assets and profits, but the public had to pay off between $15 and $20 billion of their debts; among the companies to receive this generous treatment were Ford Motor Argentina, Chase Manhattan, Citibank, IBM and Mercedes-Benz. –158

… Argentina’s entire early – 90s shock therapy program was written in secret by J.P. Morgan and Citibank, two of Argentina’s largest private creditors. In the course of a lawsuit against the Argentine government, the noted historian Alejandro almost got Noah uncovered a jaw-dropping 1,400 – page document written by the two US banks for Cavallo in which “the policies carried out by the government from ‘92 on are drawn up… The privatization of utilities, the labor law reform, the privatization of the pension system. It’s all laid out with great attention to detail… –167

How can that kind of thing happen? How can these people not be laughed out of the office when they make that type of suggestion? “Yes—we get to keep all the money, and they take all the debt.” Sound familiar? It’s the same bullshit that happened during the financial bailout after the 2007 crisis.  It’s infuriating. Everyone knows it’s beyond the pale to capture and torture political opponents. Why doesn’t that apply to outsourcing all of your risk to the populace while you reap huge rewards?

A more accurate term for a system that erases the boundaries between big government and big business is not liberal, conservative, or capitalist, but corporatist. Its main characteristics are huge transfers of public wealth to private hands, often accompanied by exploding debt, an ever-widening chasm in between the dazzling rich in the disposable poor and an aggressive nationalism that justifies bottomless spending on security. –15

Especially within the US, this is the type of situation I am most worried and frustrated about.  But I’m not sure that corporatism (especially in the US) is caused by neoliberalism.  It seem more like a special case of corruption, a failure of the rule of law, instead of the result of disaster capitalism per se.

In particular, the corruption and corporatism that has entered the military was shocking to me.  The scale of it is truly disconcerting:

At the start of the occupation, there were an estimated 10,000 private soldiers in Iraq, already far more than during the first Gulf War. Three years later, a report by the US Government accountability office found that there were 48,000 private soldiers, from around the world, deployed in Iraq.  Mercenaries represented the largest contingent of soldiers after the US military–more than all the other members of the “coalition of the willing” combined –378

Of course Klein didn’t have the hindsight that we do in 2017, but her choice to hold up Venezuela as an example of an alternative economy obviously seems absurd and purely ideological, given the state of Venezuela’s government and economy.

She also points to countries of South America bartering to fill their needs (Cuba sending doctors in exchange for oil, for example) as a model for escaping or improving upon a neoliberal model, but barter (as opposed to a credit/debit/finance/cash system) is the last resort for economic exchange (see David Graber’s Debt—The First 5,000 Years).

And then, for the cherry on top, she discusses Hamas filling a governmental void in an ambivalent light, as if she’s suggesting that they’re a workable alternative to neoliberalism, instead of an extortionist, terrorist group.

Finally, Klein discusses shock therapy itself, describing the procedure as it was used when it was being developed in the medical dark ages, and using the therapy as it was practiced before evidence-based medicine, as a metaphor for the shock doctrine.

This brought electroshock therapy full circle to its earliest incarnation as an exorcism technique. The first recorded use of medical electrocution was biased with doctor practicing in the 1700s. Believing that mental illness was caused by the devil, he had a patient hold onto a wire that he powered with a static electricity machine: one jolt of electricity was given for each demon. The patient was then pronounce cured. 112

This is very unfortunate, because it discredits this shock therapy and paints it as a barbaric and ineffective intervention for mental illness.  However, in the modern-day shock therapy is a safe and effective treatment for major depression, that is administered to patients in a human and controlled manner.  Shock therapy has already been stigmatized by its portrayal in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and it’s sad that the treatment is still getting this type of coverage as late as 2007 (see Shrinks by Jeffery A. Lieberman).

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (lower, lots of supporting data for her thesis, but all largely within a similar paradigm)

Related Books:  ??

Recommend to Others: If you are looking for an openly biased (not a criticism) work on the topic, perhaps.  Don’t’ know enough about the topic to really say.  Also watch the youtube documentary of the same name.

Reread Personally:  No

Quotes:

Where leftists promised freedom for workers from bosses, citizens from dictatorship, countries from colonialism, Friedman promised “individual freedom,” a project that elevated atomized citizens about any collective enterprise and liberated them to express their absolute free will through their consumer choices. 52

In March 1972, in the midst of Letelier’s tense negotiations with ITT, Jack Anderson, a syndicated newspaper columnist, published an explosive series of articles based on documents that showed that the telephone company had secretly plotted with the CIA and the State Department to block Allende from being inaugurated two years earlier. 65

After several false starts, the opportunity came in October 1965, when General Suharto, backed by the CIA, began the process of seizing power and eradicating the left. The CIA had been quietly compiling a list of the country’s leading leftists, a document that fell into Suharto’s hands, while the Pentagon helped out by supplying extra weapons and field radios so Indonesian forces could communicate in the remotest parts of the archipelago. 67 [the same horrific massacre documented in “The Act Of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”]

Mercedes-Benz (a subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler) is facing a similar investigation stemming from allegations that the company collaborated with the military during the 1970s to purge one of its plants of union leaders, allegedly giving names and addresses of 16 workers who were later disappeared, fourteen of them permanently. 109

It was in this loaded context that Amnesty International developed its doctrine of strict impartiality: its financing would come exclusively from members, and it would remain rigorously “independent of any government, political faction, ideology, economic interest or religious creed.”  … Since human rights violations were a universal evil, wrong in and of themselves, it was not necessary to determine why abuses were taking place but to document them as meticulously and credibly as possible. 118 – 9

… Torture is an indicator species of a regime that is engaged in a deeply anti-– democratic project, even if that regime happens to have come to power through elections. 125

The remainder of the national debt was mostly spent on interest payments, as well as shady bailouts for private firms in 1982, just before Argentina has dictatorship collapsed, the who did it one last favor for the corporate sector. Domingo Cavallo, president of Argentina’s central bank, announced that the state would absorb the debts of large multinational and domestic firms that had, like Chile’s piranhas, borrow themselves to the verge of bankruptcy the tidy arrangement meant that these companies continued to own their assets and profits, but the public had to pay off between $15 and $20 billion of their debts; among the companies to receive this generous treatment were Ford Motor Argentina, Chase Manhattan, Citibank, IBM and Mercedes-Benz. 158

Sooka said… “ I would do it completely differently. I would look at the systems of apartheid – I would look at the question of land, I would certainly look at the role of multinationals, I would look at the role of the mining industry very, very closely because I think that’s the real sickness of South Africa… I would look at the systematic effects of the policies of apartheid, and I would devote only one hearing to torture because I think when you focus on torture and you don’t look at what it was serving, that’s when you start to do a real revision of the history.” 211

…he [Yeltsin] issued a decree 1400, announcing that the Constitution was abolished in parliament dissolved. Two days later, a special session of Parliament voted 636 – 2 to impeach Yeltsin for this outrageous act (the equivalent of the US president unilaterally dissolving Congress” .… Clinton continued to back him, and Congress voted to give Yeltsin $2.5 billion in aid.  227

When Yeltsin abolished the Soviet Union, the “loaded gun” that had forced the development of the original [Marshall] plan was disarmed. Without it, capitalism was suddenly free to lapse into its most savage form, not just in Russia but around the world. With the Soviet collapse, the free market now had a global monopoly, which meant all the “distortions” that had been interfering with its perfect equilibrium were no longer required.  …. Those normal European countries (with their strong social safety nets, workers protections, powerful trade unions and socialized healthcare) emerged as a compromise between communism and capitalism. Now that there was no need for compromise, all those moderating social policies were under siege in Western Europe… 253

In South Korea, the IMF subversion of democracy was even more overt. There, the end of the IMF negotiations coincided with scheduled presidential elections in which two of the candidates were running on anti-IMF platforms. In an extraordinary act of interference with the sovereign nation’s political process, the IMF refused to release the money until it had commitments from all four main candidates that they would stick to the new rules if they want. With the country effectively held at Ransom, the IMF was triumphant: each candidate pledged his support in writing. 270

Beneath the jargon, it was simply an attempt to bring the revolution in outsourcing and branding that he [Rumsfeld] had been part of in the corporate world into the heart of the US military. 284

Anyone can be blocked from flying, denied an entry visa to the US or even arrested and named as an “enemy combatants” based on evidence from these dubious technologies-a blurry image identified through facial recognition software, a misspelled name, a misunderstood snippet of a conversation. If “enemy combatants” are not US citizens, they will probably never even know what it was that convicted them because the Bush administration has stripped them of habeas corpus, the right to see the evidence in court, as well as the right to a fair trial in a vigorous defense 304

In other words, you have corporatism: big business and big government combining their formidable powers to regulate and control the citizenry. 307

Wherever it has emerged over the past thirty-five years, from Santiago to Moscow to Beijing to Bush’s Washington, the alliance between a small corporate elite and a right-wing government has been written off as some sort of aberration – Mafia capitalism, oligarchy capitalism and now, under Bush, “crony capitalism.” But it’s not an aberration; it is where the entire Chicago school Crusade – with its triple obsessions – privatization, deregulation and union-busting – has been leading. 316

When the war moved inside the jails, the military was so short on trained interrogators and Arabic translators that it couldn’t get information out of its new prisoners. Desperate for more interrogators and translators, it turned to the defense contractor CACI International Inc.… whose workers did not need to meet the rigorous training and security clearances required of government employees, [it] was it easy as ordering new office supplies; dozens of new interrogators arrived in a flash. 378-9

In July 2006, Boeing, the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, issued a report on “lessons learned” from the various contractor debacles. It concluded that the problem stemmed from insufficient plan and call for the creation of a “a deployable reserve Corps of contracting personnel who are trained to execute rapid relief and reconstruction contracting during contingency operations” and to “pre–qualify a diverse pool of contractors with expertise and specialized reconstruction areas” – in other words, the standing contractor army. In his 2007 state of the union address, Bush championed the idea, announcing the creation of a brand-new civilian reserve Corps. “Such a core would function much like our military reserve. It would ease the burden on the Armed Forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad in America needs them,” he said. 381

The emergence of this parallel privatized infrastructure reaches far beyond policing. When the contractor infrastructure built up during the Bush years is looked at as a whole, what is seen as a fully articulated state within a state that is as muscular and capable as the actual state is frail and feeble. This corporate shadow state has been built almost exclusively with public resources (90% of Blackwater’s revenues come from state contracts), including the training of its staff (overwhelmingly former civil servants, politicians and soldiers”). Yet the vast infrastructure is all privately owned and controlled. The citizens who have funded it have absolutely no claim to this parallel economy or its resources. 417

The actual state, meanwhile, has lost the ability to perform its core functions without the help of contractors. Its own equipment is out of date and the best experts have flooded the private sector. When Katrina hit, FEMA had to hire a contractor to award contracts to contractors similarly, when it came time to update the Army manual on the rules for dealing with contractors, the Army contracted out the job to one of its major contractors, and PRI – it no longer had the no-how in-house. 417

Perhaps part of the reason why so many of our elites, both political and corporate, are so sanguine about climate change is that they are confident they will be able to buy their way out of the worst of it. This may also partially explain why so many Bush supporters are Christian and-timers. It’s not just that they need to believe there is an escape hatch from the world they are creating. It’s that the rapture is a parable for what they are building down here… 419

In Venezuela, Chavez has made the co–ops a top political priority, giving them first refusal on government contracts and offering them economic incentives to trade with one another. By 2006, there were roughly 100,000 cooperatives in the country, employing more than 700,000 workers. Many are pieces of state infrastructure – tollbooths, highway maintenance, health clinics – handed over to the communities to run. 455

So Bolivia provides gas at stable discounted prices; Venezuela offers heavily subsidized oil to poorer countries and share his expertise in developing reserves; and Cuba sends thousands of doctors to deliver free healthcare all over the continent, while training students from other countries at its medical schools.… The major benefit is that ALBA is essentially a barter system, in which countries decide for themselves what any given commodity or server service is worth, rather than letting traders in New York, Chicago or London set the prices for them. 456

To the outside world, Solidere was the shining symbol of Lebanon’s postwar rebirth, but for many Lebanese and has always been a kind of holograph. Outside the ultramodern downtown core, much of Beirut lacked basic infrastructure, from electricity to public transit, and the bullet holes inflicted during the Civil War were never repaired on the façades of many buildings. It was in those neglected slums surrounding the gleaming center that has the law built its loyal base, rigging up generators and transmitters, organizing trash removal, providing security – becoming the much vilified “state within a state.” 461


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.

 

 

 

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright, 2017

For more than two millennia, Buddhism has been studying how the human mind is programmed to react to its environment, how exactly the “conditioning” works. Now, with Darwin’s theory, we understood what had done the programming. 224

Amazon Link

Wright provides evidence from psychology, evolutionary psychology, and the experience of meditators (including his own), that the Buddhist doctrines of not-self and emptiness are accurate.  Not only are these claims accurate, by but seeing and experiencing their truth first-hand through meditation, we can become happier, more moral people.

I’ve watched enough of Wright’s discussions on this topic on Blogginghead.tv, and read and listened to enough discussion of vipassana meditation, that none of the content of the book really came as a surprise.  I think he does a good job of presenting the arguments and constructing a narrative; especially like how he draws parallels to the Buddhist view of reality and The Matrix early in the book.

I feel there’s a little too much trademark self-deprecation and couching in his descriptions of his own meditative experience and their influence on his person, as well as his arguments about how broadly Buddhist doctrine can be considered valid.  I also wish the appendix of which specific claims he believes are true was at the beginning of the book.

Ideas per Page:1 4.10 (medium)

 Related Books: On Having No Head by Douglas Harding; Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn; The Dhammapada translated by Gil Fronsdal; Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana; Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite by Robert Kurzban

Recommend to Others: maybe as an intro

Reread Personally:        no

Quotes:

Both our natural view of the world “out there” and our natural view of the world “in here” – the world inside our heads – are deeply misleading. What’s more, failing to see these two worlds clearly does lead, as Buddhism holds, to a lot of suffering. And meditation can help us see them more clearly. 25

It’s in the nature of feelings to make it hard to tell the valuable ones from the hard ones, the reliable from the misleading. One thing all feelings have in common is that they were originally “designed” to convince you to follow them. They feel right and true almost by definition. They actively discourage you from viewing them objectively. 42

… I – that is, my “self,” the thing I thought was in control – don’t readily control the most fundamental aspect of my mental life: what I’m thinking ab out. 57

But once I followed that logic – quit seeing these things I couldn’t control as part of myself – I was liberated from them and, in a certain sense, back in control. Or maybe it would be better to put it this way: my lack of control over them ceased to be a problem. 71

[quoting Gazzaniga] While hierarchical processing takes place within the modules, it is looking like there is no hierarchy among the modules. All these modules are not reporting to a department head—it is a free-for-all, self-organizing system. 88, 89

Feelings aren’t just little parts of the things you have thought of as the self; they are closer to its core; they are doing what you had thought “you” were doing: calling the shots. It’s feelings that “decide” which module will be in charge for the time being, and it’s modules that then decide what you’ll actually do during that time. 96

… The conscious self doesn’t create thoughts; it receives them. 112

“My guess,” said Kurzban , is that the reason your conscious mind observes the debate, including the winning rationale, is so that “if someone ever challenges you or asks you why you did x, y, or z,” you’ll be able to cite a plausible rationale. 129

Either way, one virtue of your conscious mind being in touch with the reasons generated by competing modules is that you can share the reason with others, and get their feedback, before making your decision. Strictly speaking, though, the way I should put it is this: You can share the reasons with others, and then their feedback will recalibrate how good or bad the two options feel. 130

The point is just that it makes sense that natural selection would design a modular mind is way – that “winning” modules would amass more power when their judgment is vindicated. And note that the form vindication takes, in at least some cases, is sensual gratification. 133

Tables exist, buzz saws exist. After a few minutes of conversation I felt I got her just. I asked, “So the idea is that everything meaningful about the world is something we impose on?” She answered, “Exactly.” 151

As a result, the perceptual landscape – the landscape of things that we are paying attention to, the things that dominate our consciousness – will tend to be infused, however subtly, with feeling. If there’s something you don’t have any feelings at all about, you probably won’t notice it much in the first place. It may be only a slight exaggeration to say there’s no such thing as an immaculate perception. 162

Certainly the world as I saw it had a new tenor. I had shed so much of my usual self-absorption that I could take a new kind of delight in the people and things around me. I was more open, suddenly inclined to strike up conversations with strangers. 221

So what “not making judgments” ultimately means is not letting your feelings make judgments for you. And what “getting in touch with your feelings” ultimately means is not being so oblivious to them that you get pushed around by them. And all of this means informing your responses to the world with the clearest possible view of the world. 223

You could even view mindfulness meditation itself as in some sense a part of the natural unfolding of life, part of the ongoing co–evolutionary process. Maybe, given the constraints under which this universe operates, the only way for complex consciousness to arise on this planet was for it to be warped in the process, distorted by the exultation of self. And maybe, once social organization approaches the global level, the only way for complex consciousness to flourish on this planet – or even to survive – is for it now to be unwarped, or at least partly unwarped.  245

Note how profound – or at least incrementally profound – these experiences are. To see less essence-of-jerk in a credit-card fumbler is to experience, in very small measure, emptiness. And to see your anxiety or fear as not being part of you is to experience a tiny bit of not-self. 255


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 Three Languages of Politics by Arnold Kling, 2017

I call this the three-axes model of political communication. A progressive will communicate along the oppressor-oppressed access, framing issues in terms of the (P) dichotomy. A conservative will communicate along the civilization-barbarism axis, framing issues in terms of the (C) dichotomy. A Libertarian will communicate along the liberty-coercion axis, framing issues in terms of the (L) dichotomy.  5

Amazon Link

In an extended essay, Kling outlines his framework for understanding how politically engaged Americans discuss social and political events and policies.  Progressives look to protect the oppressed; conservatives look to protect civilization; libertarians look to protect citizens from government overreach.

Kling believes that by framing issues along these axes, we are able to see the logic of another group’s position within their own frame of reference.  Perhaps most importantly, we can recognize when we are framing issues within our own preferred axis, which greatly increases the probability that discussions with others will prove fruitless.

The book stays on message from start to finish.  Great examples of people speaking their chosen political language, so you can see what it looks like in the media.  Of course this book will gain little traction, though it’s an easy read and widely relevant.

The only point of confusion I have is Kling’s claim that we are not in a position to judge whether another person is being unreasonable.  I guess his argument is that we might by willfully (or unconsciously) keeping ourselves away from observing an opponent’s reasons, even though they do exist.  But the framework he’s provide, of three political languages that can presumably be learned—or at least translated into a language you understand—seems to be a tool allowing us to better examine others’ reasoning from within their own framework, which would seemingly put us in a better position to judge someone as unreasonable.

Ideas per Page:1 9/10 (very good—no fluff)

Related Books: ?

Recommend to Others: yes

Reread Personally:   other related books first

Quotes:

I would like to see political discussion conducted with less tribal animosity and instead with more mutual respect and reason deliberation. This book can help you recognize when someone is making a political argument that is divisive and serves no constructive purpose. That person could easily be someone who agrees with you or me on the issues. 3

In politics, I claim that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians are like tribes speaking different languages. The language that resonates with one tribe does not connect with the others. As a result, political discussions do not lead to agreements. Instead, most political commentary serves to increase polarization. 4

The main prescriptive theme of this book is that you should hesitate when you find yourself inclined to frame an issue in terms of your preferred political language. Instead, try to switch over to slow political thinking. 22

Few pundits of any persuasion attempt to be charitable. Instead, they play this game of “Gotcha.”  The net result for most people is that reading their favorite pundits actually reduces and narrows their understanding of issues. 33

 

[All below are taken from 69, 70, with italics in the original:]

Progressives believe in human betterment. They see nearly unlimited potential for humans to improve materially and, more importantly, morally.

Conservatives believe in human weakness. In biblical terms, man is “fallen.” The dark side of human nature will never be eradicated….

Libertarians believe in human rationality. People pursue Ann’s, and they act as they do for good reasons

Progressives are inclined to revere science.

Conservatives are inclined to revere the past, including religious tradition.

Libertarians are inclined to revere technology.

Progressives view markets as unfair.

Conservatives view markets as promoting virtue.

Libertarians view markets as promoting peaceful cooperation.

 

… No one seems to be able to be objective when analyzing the mortgage meltdown. An implication is that it is very unlikely that and the one who is objective and that those who disagree with me are unreasonable. And yet my sense of self is that I am objective. It is very difficult to reconcile logic and intuition in this regard.

Philosophers refer to this is the problem of naïve realism, meaning that each of us naïvely believes that our perspective is real, even though different perspectives contradict one another.81,82


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 Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand, 1999

How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare? 2

…the idea is to extend our concept of the present in both directions, making the present longer… 29

Dan Wolf… “A traditional clock depicts time in the context or our lives.  This clock depicts our lives in the context of time.”  48-49

Amazon Link

This book is a manifesto for the Long Now Foundation, a group that tries to promote extreme long-term thinking.  They believe a focus “deep history”, and the manner in which various phenomena work within different time-scales, can help us to plan more effectively and insightfully for the far future.

Caught up in day-to-day and week-to-week thinking, a span of fifty years seems long; broadening our notion of “now” allows us to think more clearly, with a more appropriate frame of reference, about blocks of time far beyond our own lifespans.

A highly-interesting book, which packs a big punch for its size (maybe 170 pages?).  It leaves you wanting more.  There are many big ideas, pithily expressed, woven together into a pretty convincing argument that we should, as people, and—more importantly—as organizations, broaden our conception of “now”, in order to better consider the future.

There’s a tension in the book that is never explicitly addressed or resolved. If the singularity is actually going to occur—as many of the contributor to the organization believe—planning will be useless, as we have no idea what conditions will be like on the other side. On the other hand, Kevin Kelly believes that there are inevitable consequences of the technium, rendering most planning moot or predetermined.  Additionally, it’s possible for things to be predetermined but nevertheless unpredictable, so it could still be impossible to plan for/around technologies that are inevitable.

While the paradigm is extremely interesting, I wish more particular issues have been explored. How could health policy, immigration policy, political dynamics, be analyzed within longer nows?  Maybe asking these kinds of questions is the purpose of the book, and thinking about answers is beyond its scope.

Ideas per Page:1 8/10 (high)

Related Books: What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

Recommend to Others: Yes

Reread Personally:   Yes

Quotes:

According to a rule of thumb among engineers, any tenfold quantitative change is a qualitative change, a fundamentally new situation rather than a simple extrapolation.  14

…the costs of a network system are linear, whereas the growing value of the net is exponential… 15

Now that we have progress so rapid that it can be observed from year to year, no one calls it progress.  People call it change, and rather than yearn for it, they brace themselves against its force.  15-16

Later doublings in an exponential sequence, we come to realize, are absolutely ferocious.  The changes no longer feel quantitative or qualitative but cataclysmic; each new doubling is a new world.  17

Vinge’s characters called the event the Singularity—“a place where extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied.  And those new models are beyond our intelligence.”  20

Ten thousand years is not all that long.  It is only four hundred generations—counting a new generation every twenty-five years, four to a century, for a hundred centuries.  30

Starting anew with a clean slate has been one of the most harmful ideas in history.  74

They [CD-ROMs] have one-tenth the readable lifespan of acid-laced newsprint.  85

…time can be thought of in terms of everything-happening-now-and-last-week-and-next-week (wide) or as a deep-flowing process in which centuries are minor events (long).  107

Futurismists displace themselves forward in time.  One of their appealing-sounding truisms says, “We all have an in interest in the future.  It is where we will spend the rest of our lives.”  No, we won’t.  Like it or not, we will spend the rest of our days in the present, as it unfolds day to day.  113

At any time the several “probable” things that might occur in the future are vastly outnumbered by the countless near-impossible eventualities, which are so many and individually so unlikely that it is not worth the effort of futurists or futurismists to examine and prepare for a fraction of them.  Yet one of those innumerable near-impossibilities is what is most likely to occur.  Reality is thus statistically forced always to be extraordinary.  Fiction is not allowed that freedom.  Fiction has to be plausible; reality doesn’t.  115

“Fast learners tend to track noisy signals too closely and to confuse themselves by making changes before the effects of previous actions are clear,” says decision analyst James March.  139

The very old have experienced enough past to believe in the reality of consequences, while the young will not have been wrong about enough future yet to doubt their own puerile notions.  152


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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.