Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America: This man can write. This is one of the few nonfiction books I’ve ever gotten invested in like it was a novel. I was on the edge of my seat: were the call-ins going to work? Would Kennedy soothe the ruffled feathers of Insert Bureaucrat Here, or would they end the program forever? Would he ever be able to convince the cops that his idea works?
Unfortunately, the writing style that makes Don’t Shoot suspenseful also makes it light on things like ‘evidence’ and ‘examination of alternate explanations.’ Don’t expect many references to peer-reviewed journal articles here.
Kennedy argues that open-air drug markets and inner-city homicides are the result of perhaps a few dozen men, and literally no one else likes it. The police want to win the drug war, but don’t know how, instead resorting to failed broken-windows policing and arresting small-time drug users; feeling like failures, they blame the black community for encouraging violence and drugs. The black community, noticing how many of its members are incarcerated or harassed by police and yet drugs and violence still run rampant, conclude that police are racist and not trying hard to get rid of the drugs (perhaps even putting the drugs in the community themselves). Even most of the gang members don’t like the violence; after all, who wants to have a life expectancy of less than twenty-five?
Kennedy’s proposal is essentially identifying gangs that kill people and going after them as hard as they can, arresting gang members for everything for public urination to violation of parole, and telling them that the harassment will stop as soon as the killing does. That way, gang members can save face, and everyone can stop shooting at the same time, without any gang having to unilaterally disarm. In addition, he proposes ending open-air drug markets (which he considers to be considerably more damaging than friend-of-a-friend drug markets, since the latter exist in white suburbs as much as black ghettos) through gathering enough information to arrest the dealers, calling a meeting, and saying “we are not going to arrest you unless you decide to deal in public again.” Kennedy’s suggestions appeal to my worldview: people respond to incentives; people are generally not stupid or evil, but instead behaving in ways that make sense to them given their circumstances. However, perhaps I should be even less likely to agree with something so intuitively appealing.
A Manual For Creating Atheists: The author of this book, Peter Boghossian, apparently makes a habit of three or four conversations per day (!), often with strangers, trying to get them to become more rational. You can be minding your own business, checking out at the grocery store, making small talk with the other people in line, and you mention you’re a naturopath and suddenly this guy is asking you to cite peer-reviewed evidence that it works. I mean, his book is full of advice that seems reasonable about how to do this thing, if you wanted to, but why on earth would you want to?
My response to this book was mostly making a mental note not to sit next to Peter Boghossian on an airplane, before I got to his obnoxiously stupid chapters on unreason in the academy and ways to make faith less acceptable in society. He characterizes academic leftism as accretions on classical liberalism– and before you say “well, maybe he doesn’t mean actual classical liberalism”, he specifically traces the academic left’s origin to John Locke. Someone should perhaps tell him that Marxists hate liberals and the Enlightenment.
Boghossian argues against the DSM saying that culturally accepted beliefs aren’t delusions, presumably because he wants religious faith to more routinely qualify as a delusion. I agree that the ‘culturally accepted belief’ heuristic isn’t exactly principled, but there is an obvious difference between the cluster of psychotics and the cluster of Pentecostals. For instance, one would not expect Pentecostals to stop being religious if they are given anti-psychotic medication. Putting Pentecostals and psychotics in the same category makes the DSM useless for psychiatrists, its actual purpose. Besides, the only obvious alternatives to an unprincipled heuristic are the DSM listing out what beliefs are and aren’t reasonable, or relying on clinical judgment. The former seems rather outside its core competency, and the latter opens up every unpopular belief for pathologization. Does Boghossian want a teenage atheist in the Deep South to be diagnosed with a delusion because he doesn’t recognize the obvious truth of God’s love?
Boghossian’s beliefs about ending oppression in the developing world seem to be of the “something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done” variety. He ignores the wide variety of excellent feminist activism in the developing world, from the International Planned Parenthood Federation to Girls Not Brides to postcolonial and Third World feminisms. He pushes for feminist groups to spend more time on condemning Islam, without any examination of whether condemning Islam would actually improve the lives of Muslim and ex-Muslim women in any way (or, indeed, whether it would make them worse). Such feel-good, non-evidence-based activism does not belong in a book that claims to be about skepticism.
Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make A Difference: The best introduction to effective altruism I have ever read. In an engaging and readable style, MacAskill covers standard effective altruist concepts, such as replaceabilty and expected value; the last set of chapters explain clearly what actions you should and should not take, in light of effective altruism. Crucially, there is little to no normative ethics; instead of fussing around with children in ponds, MacAskill assumes that you have at least a little altruistic motivation, and instead focuses on teaching the skills of thinking like an effective altruist.
Even committed EAs can learn a lot from this book. I mostly stopped feeling vaguely guilty about things I wasn’t doing anyway. Buying fair trade has little to no effect on people in the developing world, and may even lower their wages. It doesn’t really matter whether you turn your lights off or unplug your TV; the best methods of reducing your carbon output are flying less, eating less meat, purchasing a mysterious kind of magic called ‘loft insulation’, and buying offsets. Voting, however, is surprisingly important, for much the same reason being vegetarian is (it isn’t that likely that you make the difference between a desired outcome and an undesired outcome, but when you do you get all the credit, so it works out as positive expected value).
My husband is mentioned in this book! And he is in the acknowledgements! My husband is famous.
The Drug Wars In America, 1940-1973: Essential history for libertarians and anyone who’s interested in the operation of American state power or the reasons behind America’s failed drug war. The Drug Wars in America follows how America transitioned from a tax-and-regulation-based model that focused on narcotics to the modern war on drugs. The thesis is essentially that the drug war has never been about eliminating the drug trade, because someone would notice that it wasn’t working. Instead, the drug war serves other purposes of state power: for instance, American foreign policy goals, maintaining the discretion of police even after their professionalization, increasing the profits of drug companies, and policing inner cities. Detailed and well-researched.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing: Why is this classified in ‘Zen Spirituality’ on Amazon? Is it because the author is Japanese? While it does have a spiritual element, the element is clearly Shinto. It’s not the “Japanese art” of anything, also! It’s Marie Kondo’s art of decluttering and organizing! She made it up.
I love this book! Essentially, it’s a reframe of decluttering. Most decluttering defaults to assuming things should be kept and then comes up with rules about what you should discard (e.g. things you don’t use for six months). Konmari, on the other hand, defaults to assuming things should be discarded, and then comes up with rules about what you should keep (e.g. things that ‘spark joy’). You don’t keep things because they’re a present, or they were expensive, or you might use them someday, or you want to be the sort of person who uses them, or because you’re too lazy to throw them out. But on the other hand if you like something and it makes you happy, you get to keep it, even if other people would think it was excessive.
Konmari has a certain animist element which I loved, but which some people might dislike. For instance, she suggests thanking the items you discard for their service to you, greeting your house each day, emptying out your bag each evening so that it gets a chance to rest, and folding your clothes in a way that will make the clothes happy; she talks about how whenever she goes to declutter a house she introduces herself to the house and asks permission first.
Many of the negative reviews seem to be from people who don’t want to declutter. That is an absolutely fine life choice which I do not judge, but I rather wonder why they’re reading a book subtitled ‘The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing’ then. I don’t read books about how to cook meat and then go “ugh, zero stars, it was constantly telling me to eat meat and I’m vegetarian.”
Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children: I love this book! Definitely on my list of top books about parenting.
Teenagers are notoriously moody, disengaged, and impulsive; as a person goes through puberty, their sleep schedule shifts later, so that they usually want to go to bed around midnight; in spite of this, high schools begin earlier than elementary and middle schools; moodiness, disengagement, and impulsivity are symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation. And then we punish kids for sleeping in class! I think this argument is, in and of itself, enough reason for a person who is capable of doing so to homeschool their teenagers.
Children learning through imitation goes beyond the famous ‘violence in media’. In an experiment in which some children read books about why sibling rivalry is bad for several weeks and some didn’t, the former group had more sibling rivalry. The reason is that to convey the moral ‘sibling rivalry is bad,’ the books of course had to depict siblings arguing with each other– and children learn behaviors through modeling and imitation! If a preschooler sees ten pages of bickering and two of making up, there’s five times as much bickering for them to model themselves after. This suggests a truly wearying task for the parent who wishes to censor their children’s media, because it’s not like Common Sense Media screens for People Behaving In A Non-Violent Yet Annoying To Parents Fashion.
If you’d like to keep children from lying, the best strategy is to model telling the truth yourself (and remember that preschoolers think that being mistaken is the same thing as telling a lie, so apologize if you’re mistaken!), to not teach children to tell social lies, and to make sure that it’s always a better idea to tell the truth than to lie. If they might get punished if they lie, and they will definitely get punished if they tell the truth, then they will of course lie. Your kid is probably good enough at lying that you can’t tell whether they’re lying a lot. All teenagers lie to their parents; the teenagers who lie to their parents the least are the ones who argue with them the most, which the parents find stressful and upsetting. I wonder if reframing the arguments as ‘my teenager trusts me enough to tell me about things they want’ makes that better?
The Three Body Problem: I clearly have an inaccurate model of the censorship opinions of the Chinese government. I would have expected them to heavily censor information about the Cultural Revolution, but literally the first third of this book is a very stirring, evocative argument that the Cultural Revolution is bad. Apparently I am mistaken about Chinese politics! Which makes sense because I don’t know anything about it.
Anyway, this book is great, completely deserving of its Hugo for Best Novel, precisely the sort of richly imagined, well-written, well-worldbuilt, suspenseful, sense-of-wonder science fiction that is the genre at its best. The science is hard as fuck, at least from my position as a non-physicist, and the characters are well-done without distracting from the shiny neat ideas we came here for.
Don’t read the back. It spoils. Actually, avoid the reviews of it too. I don’t know why everyone decided to summarize this story using the shocking twist, but they did, and knowing it made my experience of the book a lot worse.
The Hatred of Poetry: Literary criticism is fun. Lerner argues that poetry is widely disliked because the goals it sets itself (being both a universal song that anyone can relate to and a personal expression of the poet’s soul) are impossible individually, much less together, and thus poetry is disliked because it is never capable of doing the thing it’s trying to do– even though its failures may be beautiful in their very failure. Mostly great as an excuse to read William McGonagall to Topher, who got to the fourth line of The Tay Bridge Disaster before threatening to divorce me to make it stop.
Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder For Blacks To Succeed: Please Stop Helping Us appears to be under the impression that a large amount of black violence is caused by use of the n word, gangsta rap, use of non-standard English, and sagging pants. As someone who reclaims slurs that apply to myself, listens to music that glorifies violence, occasionally speaks non-standard English, and sometimes shows people their underwear, and who has never felt the slightest desire to shoot anybody, I suspect there are other causes here.
Please Stop Helping Us claims that parts of the prison-industrial complex such as the crack/powder sentencing disparity aren’t racist because they weren’t originally created for racist reasons, and then turns around and discovers “just because your policy wasn’t intended to be racist doesn’t mean it doesn’t disproportionately negatively affect black people” as soon as they’re talking about the minimum wage. And he talks about how historically black colleges and universities have a very high dropout rate and therefore are failing their students and should be closed, and not three pages later quotes someone who mentions that historically black colleges and universities disproportionately educate poor people who probably wouldn’t have gone to college at all otherwise. Like, gee, maybe that’s relevant in the assessment of whether they’re failing their students? In short, sufficiently dishonest that I do not update my beliefs based on its conclusions.
I Will Fear No Evil: Well, now I suppose I know what transformation fetishists read before the existence of transformation fetish porn. Also, Heinlein’s dirty old man character is obnoxious– I have literally zero desire to be inside the head of one of the men who has sexually harassed me– and he isn’t much better when he’s a trans woman instead.