Stumbling on Happiness: Daniel Gilbert’s writing style is super-fun; I recommend reading Stumbling on Happiness if you like Slate Star Codex’s characteristic snark, because there’s a lot of it here.
Neurotypical people are very strange. I spent a large portion of this book going “wait, when most people experience something really really bad, they come up with reasons why it wasn’t so bad after all? They don’t think of a bunch of reasons about why it was actually worse than they thought and means they are doomed to eternal misery? Are you sure?” This just sounds incredibly fake. #DepressiveRealism
I am not sure how accurate this book is. I noticed several citations of things (priming!) that turned out to fail to replicate, but I don’t actually know off the top of my head everything that failed to replicate. Someone should write me a program that automatically highlights citations of papers that failed to replicate so I don’t believe them.
Deep Work: I have rarely read a book that was as useful for solving my particular problems that didn’t have “for borderline personality disorder” on the cover. Even then, half the stuff in the borderline personality disorder books are for people who have violent rages or substance abuse issues, which is not a problem Deep Work particularly has. So this is likely to be a fairly useless review for people who aren’t Ozy.
Deep Work is about cultivating deep work: distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to its limit. As a heuristic for separating deep work from shallow work, Deep Work suggests thinking about how long it would take to train a bright undergraduate to do the task. For instance, writing a good book is deep work because it takes years of expertise to become a good author, while scheduling a coffee date or creating a PowerPoint with the latest sales figures is shallow work. While not everyone needs to do deep work– entry-level positions are full of shallow work, and high-level executives hire other people to do deep work and are selected for their ability to make good snap decisions– Deep Work argues that our current economy has a high demand for deep work and a low supply. The current economy favors people who are superstars in their field and those who are really good at using computers, both deep-work-heavy skills; however, because of the rise of the Internet, we’re more distracted and prone to hyper-connectivity at the expense of deep thought and focus.
Deep Work emphasizes a sense of craftsmanship. Through cultivating a sense of craftmanship, you get into flow state, which is linked to overall happiness and pleasure. And through creating work that you can feel proud of– instead of frittering your life away going to meetings and answering emails– you can find a sense of meaning in your work, which allows you to be more satisfied.
Newport’s single biggest piece of advice, which he returns to hit on again and again, is that excessive use of the Internet kills deep work. If you don’t ever let yourself get bored, you’re not going to let your mind wander and have interesting new ideas for what you’re working on. (I personally have all my best ideas in the shower, probably because that’s the only place I can’t bring my laptop.) And if you’re constantly distracted and multitasking, you’re not developing the powers of focused concentration which are necessary for work. Work-related Internet use, like email, is actually even more evil than recreational Internet use, because it gives you the feeling you’re doing something productive. Newport’s advice is as follows: Don’t schedule time away from the Internet; schedule time where you are allowed to use the Internet. (I actually disagree with him about the evils of All Internet Browsing; fact-checking a blog post or researching Kuznets curves on Google Scholar are obviously different from Twitter, and I’ve found it’s nigh-impossible to do deep work without an Internet connection.) Quit social media for thirty days and only add back in services that caused a concrete improvement in your life. Pick up a hobby or form of entertainment other than reading Buzzfeed articles about the 33 Dogs That Look Most Like Presidents.
Other advice: Create a ritual to begin your deep work and transition your mind into a flow state; this might include stretching, setting up your workspace, or making a cup of tea. Write down what you’re doing for every half-hour of the day, and when you notice you’ve gotten off track revise the schedule. Alternate time spent alone and concentrating with time spent in serendipitous encounters (he gives the example of Bell Labs, in which people in a bunch of different disciplines encountered each other in the hallways and at lunch and talked about their work), which can prompt creative insight. Keep track of your daily hours spent in deep work; aim for about four. At the end of the workday (he recommends five-thirty), check your email a final time, prepare your to-do list for tomorrow, and then shut it down and don’t think about work until tomorrow morning; this gives you the idleness to recharge your energy and have insights, and since at the end of the day you’re tired enough to only do shallow work, the work you were doing probably isn’t that important anyway.
The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Resource For Your Child’s First Four Years: Amazon.com has discovered my weakness and is now solely recommending me parenting books with ‘science’ in the title.
This book makes an argument which I think is very reasonable about the alcohol/pregnancy connection: it seems plausible that alcohol has a dose-dependent effect on fetuses, so that light drinking has similarly light effects, which are outweighed by women who drink lightly in pregnancy typically being more educated and wealthier. (Of course, since the effect is quite small, there is no reason to freak out about drinks you had before you knew you were pregnant, nor even much reason to cancel that trip to Napa Valley you were looking forward to, as long as you only sip the wine and alternate it with lots of food.)
Studies about the safety of homebirth in other countries don’t necessarily generalize to the US because other countries have a lot more medical licensing. In the US, a person calling themself a midwife is not guaranteed to have any medical training whatsoever.
About 5% of women can’t breastfeed, and 10% can’t produce sufficient milk to feed their babies. If you are in this group, it is not because you are a bad mother, and there is nothing wrong with feeding your children formula, which is perfectly safe; the benefits of breastfeeding are fairly small and the costs of babies not being sufficiently fed are very high.
Effective ways to soothe a baby: white noise; skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding; giving the baby something to suck; swaddling the baby; rocking the baby.
Shaken baby syndrome is most often caused by parents who aren’t bad or abusive but who are overwhelmed and sleep deprived because their baby won’t stop crying and who do what humans naturally do with something that won’t work– they shake it. It can help to know that colic is normal and common and will pass, and to notice when you’re getting overwhelmed and take a break before you do something you’ll regret.
Children do not understand that guns are not toys. Studies repeatedly suggest that children– even children that receive gun safety instruction– will pick up and play with handguns. If you have guns, store them locked and unloaded, with the ammunition in a separate place, until your child is a teenager.
Exposure to print and books is tightly correlated with reading ability as an older child and teenager (a result that is, of course, completely unconfounded); eating books is therefore an important pre-literacy skill that parents should encourage.
Science of Mom: Unlike The Informed Parent, which takes a somewhat encyclopedic approach, Science of Mom explores a few issues in more depth. I particularly appreciate the first chapter, which is a good and accurate explanation of which pieces of parenting advice are worth listening to (whenever Cochrane says something other than ‘more research is needed’) and which pieces are not (anything that primarily focuses on rats, which is mostly useful in the event that you happen to be parenting a rat).
Another thing I really liked about Science of Mom is its focus on tradeoffs. The decision that’s right for some people isn’t right for others. The breastfeeding chapter can be basically summed up as “breastfeeding has health benefits, but many people can’t breastfeed and that’s totally fine and they should not feel guilty about it, and the benefits of breastfeeding are not large enough to be worth making you feel miserable.” And the bedsharing chapter explains how conflicted the research is on bedsharing and SIDS/suffocation, then encourages the reader to make their own decision based on their own values and assessment of the evidence.
Anti-anti-vaxxing is too mainstream, so fortunately Science of Mom has enlightened me about the possibilities of getting pissed off at parents who don’t get the Vitamin K shot. It is not dangerous! It is literally a vitamin that all babies are deficient in! Do you want your baby to have brain bleeding? I don’t think so! Those are two words that do not belong together! (And, yeah, babies are deficient in Vitamin K. Humans are very poorly designed.)
Delayed cord clamping is surprisingly important: because breastmilk is not very rich in iron, babies often experience iron deficiency, and a few minutes of iron-rich blood from the placenta can prevent iron deficiency and anemia. (For the biodeterminists in the crowd: adequate iron as a baby reduces the risk of lead poisoning.) Iron is also important in feeding your child solids; omnivores should consider starting their child on meat, while vegetarians/vegans should begin with iron- and zinc-fortified infant cereal.
The Birth Partner: The Birth Partner is primarily aimed at birth partners (i.e. non-medical people who support the pregnant person during labor). However, it is still useful for the pregnant person to read, as the book clearly explains the process of labor and provides guidance for figuring out what you want out of labor.
The Birth Partner is a wonderfully nonjudgmental book about giving birth. It lays out the evidence for and against medical interventions, as well as the available alternatives, then encourages the mother and birth partner to consider their values about birth and come to the decision that is right for them. It’s a rare book that is equally nonjudgmental about homebirth and elective C-sections (while acknowledging the dangers of both). Another thing I liked is that it didn’t assume that birth partners are the pregnant person’s life partner or the biological father of the baby; when it had advice for one of those groups it always says “if you are the X.”
I particularly appreciated the clear explanation of various non-painkiller pain relief techniques; a lot of books tend to just have “breathing” and “meditating” as your only options, while The Birth Partner gives a lot of different strategies for reducing your pain. (I particularly appreciated the woman who chanted “epidural epidural epidural” and, when asked if she wanted one, said “if I get to chant it I don’t need it!”)
Apparently it is recommended that if you’re doing natural childbirth you use a safeword. They called it a “code word” but it’s definitely a safeword. I am so amused. My safewords are, as always, “red”, “safeword” and “I forgot the safeword.”
Gender Dysphoria Rating: 0/10. This book is sufficiently inclusive that its use of “the mother” as the term for the pregnant person actually stuck out to me, instead of being something I glance over as normal boring societal cissexism. But it’s not exactly fair to take points away from a book because it’s great on every issue except this one.
The Danish Way of Parenting: This is a weird book for me to read because my friend Ilzolende fucking hated living in Denmark, and so whenever it is like “the Danish way of parenting is so great!” I am like “if Denmark is so great how come ILZO didn’t like it???” which I admit is not the best objection.
I have been spoiled by Science of Mom and The Informed Parent and am now sulky about parenting books that don’t include proper citations. This book’s evidence was mostly “Danish people are very happy, and therefore they must be happy because of the parenting techniques they use, so if you use the parenting techniques then your children will be happy! What’s a confounding variable?” Also they don’t cite any studies that show that people in Denmark actually parent the way they are claimed to parent in this book. I mean, I don’t know anything about how Danish people parent, they very well might, but how do I know that this person wasn’t just in Danish Berkeley?
In Denmark are there books that advise everyone how to parent like an American, or is Raise Your Children As If You Are In A Foreign Country just an American book genre?
I mean, the parenting advice is probably fine. I am totally in support of being authentic with your children and playing with them and family togetherness and positive discipline and the rest. But I do not think this book has good evidence for it.
Age of Em: I had been vaguely under the impression that Emworld was bad because subsistence living, but since making ems have a really nice world is significantly cheaper than running an em in the first place, we’d actually expect ems to have very enjoyable leisure and lots of music and stuff. And anyway most ems would probably be emulations of workaholics who actually want to work twelve hours a day. So it’s a very noncentral example of a subsistence world, and in general sounds like a very nice place that I hope my descendants would manage to experience if they have more conscientiousness than I do.
The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing: Nope, the concept of pitching people still gives me a panic attack. In retrospect, it is probably not this book’s fault that it failed to fix this.
The Gated City: This book informs me that a large number of economic and environmental problems could be solved by the policies which lead me, Ozy, to have lower rent. Since I don’t like having to pay a lot of money in rent, I have obvious reasons to support this thesis. So it seemed pretty convincing to me, but take with many relevant grains of salt. (Unless you happen to live in the SF Bay Area, in which case you should agree with this book 100% and also contact your local Insert County Here Forward for a voter guide.)
[cw: sex trafficking, slavery]
The Slave Next Door: I am impressed by the existence of a book about modern slavery that spends more time talking about agriculture and domestics than it does sex work, and sad that I feel impressed.
One thing I hadn’t realized before I read this book was how fuzzy the definition of ‘slave’ is for people in the modern US. There’s a remarkably thin line between “victim of sex trafficking” and “sex worker in an abusive relationship who gives her boyfriend some of the money she earns working.” There’s a remarkably thin line between “victim of labor trafficking” and “domestic who is being mistreated by her employer but can’t leave because her visa is linked to her employer.”
The impression that I’m getting from The Slave Next Door is that immigration reform would do a lot to reduce slavery in the US. A lot of slaves are either undocumented or have their documents stolen by their employers. Decriminalizing sex work also seems to me to be important for reducing sex trafficking; sex trafficking occasionally involves U.S. citizens who speak the language, while labor trafficking is almost solely immigrants.
Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: The title of this book is ‘Beyond Victims and Villains’, but there is clearly a villain in it! The villain is the child welfare system! False advertising!
Anyway, this is a really amazing book about minors doing sex work. Most of the time, the author argues, it’s not that minors are forced into sex work by pimps: it’s instead that– due to poverty, abuse, neglect, or homelessness– for many minors, sex work is the best way to support themselves. To many minors, street sex work seems like a better option than an often broken child welfare system. If we want to end underage sex work, the solution isn’t criminal: it’s changing the push factors that drive minors into sex work. This book does a really good job of emphasizing the agency of underage sex workers (something that is far too often ignored) while also recognizing how limited their choices are.
Disposable People: Before I read this book, I hadn’t realized how much innumeracy affects someone’s life– even more so than illiteracy. Many of the slaves in this book were kept in debt bondage (that is, they were laboring to pay off a debt to their owners). Their owners often told lies about how much the slaves owed, but the slaves, being innumerate, had no ability to check their owners’ numbers. They just thought “well, I did ask for a loan for my son’s wedding, and there was that one time my daughter got sick, and we had to pay for food that one time the crops failed… I know we’ve harvested a lot of crops for the owner, but I guess it makes sense that we’re still in debt,” because they have no way of comparing the very large number that medicine costs with the very large number that they earned from harvesting crops. If all the slaves knew they were being lied to, the institution would end: you can kidnap and beat up one person who tries to escape, but you can’t kidnap and beat up five hundred people. And also a lot of people stay because they feel honor-bound to pay off their debt, which they wouldn’t do if they knew they already had. Being able to do basic math is really important!
I hadn’t realized quite how much sex work happens in Thailand. The book points out that sex workers aimed at white people, being high-end, are usually not sex slaves; instead, sex slaves usually service middle- and working-class Thai men. While Disposable People does bash the police a little bit (they collect bribes and have no interest in actually preventing sex slavery), I think the book could have used a little more bashing of the sex-slave rescue industry, which is also pretty awful.
Mauritania really sucks as a country. I had known about the force-feeding of girls, but I hadn’t known that it is one of the few countries which still has endemic old-style hereditary slavery (as opposed to debt bondage, etc.). Of course, the Mauritanian government likes it that way, having declared all Mauritanian slaves to be ‘former slaves’ and then magically claimed to have fixed its slavery problem, because now all the people who are working for no pay but rice and a bed are doing it of their own free will! (It gets away with this because the government is totalitarian and censorship-happy.) Mauritania is also very poor, and many people go hungry, which helps preserve the slavery institution– if slaves ran away, they would starve.