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Eros and Thanatos: A pair of philosophical dialogues about love and sex, starring a family of Roman reconstructionist pagans. If this sounds like your sort of thing, it probably is. In the first, Catullus (a closeted gay man who believes that Love Conquers All) debates homosexuality with Germanicus (a Stoic who believes sex is only for procreation), Lydia (a Catholic), Sheila (a basically normal person), Ali (a postmodernist feminist) and Juvenal (the sort of edgelord who goes about saying that everything is violence and power). In the second, Juvenal, Germanicus, and Catullus debate whether murder is ever morally acceptable, along with Caligula (an atheist) and Brutus (a Buddhist).

Motel of the Mysteries: From the Body Ritual Among The Nacirema school of parody, the premise is that two thousand years from now an archaeologist finds a buried motel and concludes that this was a place of sacred mysteries. The book discusses The Great Altar (a television), the ceremonial burial cap (a shower cap), and the sacred collar (a toilet seat). Funny and pointed.

Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism: This is a very frustrating book. I thought I would really enjoy it because I love her blog– even when I disagree she’s always insightful– but this book occasionally veered towards something I agree with and then felt like it came from Cloudcuckooland. People who have casual sex are all sex addicts! You can tell, because they deny that they’re sex addicts, and addicts always deny their addiction. Obviously. Nevertheless, Selmys’s conversion story is really interesting. She gets catechized early on by a Druid.

Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections: I find this book much less frustrating than the former book, and even agree with it in some places.

Selmys uses the Roman emperors as a framing to talk about the etiology of homosexuality. Of the first fifteen Roman emperors, only one was completely heterosexual. Even assuming that some were slandered by their detractors, at least half the emperors had some level of same-sex attraction. This seems strange from a perspective in which only three percent of the population is LGB, and startling even if you assume Roman emperors carried the gay gene, since many early Emperors were not related. She uses it as a framework to talk about different causes of homosexuality: for instance, Julius Caesar might have been an opportunistic bisexual, Tiberius a sex addict, Caligula a sexual assault victim, Nero a very feminine man forced into an ultra-masculine role in an ultra-masculine society by an overbearing mother, Hadrian a normal well-balanced person who happened to be in love with a man, Elegabalus a trans woman. Even given the many similarities between Roman emperors, there’s a lot of diversity in sexual behavior and motivation and what it means to call someone gay or bisexual.

Selmys’s observations on ex-gays seem to match up with my own observations of bihacking. Some people experience a sudden change in sexuality, but it’s not common and there’s no way to cause it; most people can, with a lot of hard work, transform themselves from Kinsey 0s and 6s to Kinsey 1s and 5s, but this does not actually offer a realistic hope of a relationship. Selmys claims that sudden orientation shifts are often caused by falling in love, which isn’t true in my experience, and I am curious what the difference is.

Selmys had a really interesting perspective on how having a lot of kids affects the experience of a parent of a disabled child. If you have one kid, all your hopes and dreams are on that kid. When your child is diagnosed with a disability, you have to grieve all the experiences you won’t have: if your child uses a wheelchair, it’s going to be a lot harder for them to play football; if your child is intellectually disabled, it’s harder to share the pleasures of science with them. But if you have more than one kid, then you can still have those experiences with your other kids, and it’s easier to recognize how good your disabled child is as themselves. I am not sure if I agree, but I think it’s interesting to think about.

Interim Errantry: Three Tales of the Young Wizards: An excellent three-novella collection. It’s nice to get a little breather and see what Kit and Nita are up to when they aren’t saving Earth. Interim Errantry is as weird as any other Young Wizards book: my attempts to explain the plots to Topher involved a lot of “Jack O’Lanterns are apparently sapient”, “and then the tree alien decides to become a Christmas tree”, and “and then through a series of misunderstandings an alien concludes that Nita and Kit are going to engage in the Impregnation Ritual on Valentine’s Day and the prelude to this involves eating one candy heart each day.”

Science fantasy is a genre close to my heart. I love urban fantasy that takes full advantage of the fact that it takes place in our reality and therefore has moons and aliens.

Also, I’m not sure if this is just me, but there were definitely more references to boners and porn than I’m used to in the Young Wizards series. The freedom of self-publishing? Changing standards in YA books?

Borderline (The Arcadia Project Book 1): The fey exist. All genius artwork comes from collaborations between humans and their fey soulmates, called “Echoes”. (The soulmate does not have to be a romantic soulmate.) The Arcadia Project, which employs solely crazy people, manages the fey/human interactions.

Our protagonist has borderline personality disorder and it’s amazing. Nothing I love more than a book about a borderline who totally has insight into the awful things she does and keeps doing them anyway. I liked how it realistically wrote her both as sympathetic and as kind of an awful person, but not as some kind of chaotic evil monster– just someone who has the same empathy and compassion as anyone else, but who sometimes does bad things on impulse. I really liked how the protagonist had recovered from suicidality but was still obviously mentally ill and had a life that sucked because, yeah, not being suicidal anymore doesn’t necessarily mean your life is great. And there was DBT in the book! The protagonist talks about her reason mind and her emotion mind, and one of the other characters is someone who literally severed her reason mind from her emotion mind with magic! I would have appreciated more use of skills, but then the protagonist is (canonically) not very cooperative with therapy. So I guess it makes sense.

 

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High: Wow, it’s like the book Nonviolent Communication, but without the weird and creepy implication that if you do everything right then people will do what you want.

The key piece of advice is that you should focus on what you actually want and doing things that will achieve the goal you actually want, instead of giving into the temptation to instead achieve the goals “no one ever criticizes me” or “the person I’m talking to is punished” or “my sense of self-righteousness is justified” or similar. Do not assume that it’s impossible to get a deal both sides will be okay with: this is often possible!

Before you can succeed at a crucial conversation, you have to separate out what’s actually going on from the story you’re telling yourself is going on about how you are an innocent victim, or the other person is a horrible monster, or you are completely incapable of improving the situation. Try looking at the objective facts of the situation and separating them from your interpretations of what’s going on. Ask yourself about your role in the problem, why a reasonable and rational person would do what the other person is doing, and what you should do to move towards what you want.

The first step in a crucial conversation is to notice when people feel unsafe. When people feel unsafe, they will usually turn to silence or violence: on one hand, selectively showing your true opinions, avoiding important issues, or even withdrawing from the conversation altogether; on the other hand, forcing your views on others, labeling and stereotyping people, or insulting and threatening people. When these happen, the conversation has gone off the rails. Even noticing unsafe conversations can be a huge step towards improving conversations, but you can also work on making it safer. You do that through: apologizing when appropriate; using a contrast statement which addresses others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or have a malicious intent and then clarifies your respectfulness and intent; and finding a mutual purpose, a goal both sides share. You do that through CRIB (this book is as fond of acronyms as DBT is): committing to find a mutual purpose; recognizing why the person you’re talking to wants the things they want; inventing a mutual purpose, perhaps by agreeing that everyone wants the relationship to be strong or the business to succeed; and brainstorming new strategies that serve everyone.

Once everyone is safe, you want to find out other people’s perspectives and share your own. To share your own perspectives, use STATE: share a factual description of the situation from your perspective; tell the story you’ve told yourself about those facts; and ask for the other person’s perspective. While doing this, talk tentatively, saying things softly and in a way that implies you want other people to correct you, and encourage other people to share their own views, no matter how controversial. To encourage other people to share their perspectives, use AMPP: ask to hear people’s concerns; mirror other people’s feelings; paraphrase what you’re hearing; and if they really won’t share their opinions with you at all, prime by saying tentatively what you think the other person’s perspective might be. If it turns out you and the other person disagree, start with an area of agreementbuild on what the other person is saying by suggesting that they might have overlooked something; and compare positions, suggesting that you differ and not that one of you is wrong, when you really can’t reach consensus.

When it comes time to make the decision, you should follow an appropriate decision-making procedure: for instance, the boss has the final say in a corporation, but in most marriages decisions are made by consensus. When decisions are made, you should always be clear about who is responsible, what exactly they’re supposed to do, when they’re supposed to do it by, and what the followup will be.

The Myth of the Rational Voter: Voters are systematically biased: for instance, compared to the consensus of economists, they tend to underestimate the usefulness of markets and the economic benefits of trade with foreigners. Voters are wrong even about obvious empirical issues: for instance, voters tend to vastly overestimate the percentage of the budget devoted to foreign aid. Voters care about trivia about politicians (Dan Quayle’s feud with a television character) at the expense of practical issues (who is their senator); while voters swiftly punish transgressions they hear about, these transgressions are generally things like “said a racist slur” or “cheated on his dying wife” rather than things like “caused the incarceration of millions of people for relatively small crimes” or “destroyed the entire economy”. The worst part is that voters are altruistic, so instead of voting based on their pocketbooks (which, presumably, would incentivize politicians to have a good economy for most of their voters) they vote based on what they think is good for the country (which incentivizes politicians to give voters things the voters think are a good idea, whether it is or not).  All this means that voters vote for and receive terrible policy.

Honestly, it’s kind of remarkable to me how democratic governments wind up with their current level of low-variance mediocrity. This happens every time I read something about society. Like, it’s really remarkable how well our society works given that every individual element of it is a constantly-falling-apart shitshow. I have no explanation for this state of affairs.

Weirdly, Caplan models the situation as “there are benefits to having biased opinions (less effort researching right opinions, signalling group membership, not having to admit you’re wrong), there are costs to having biased opinions (you are wrong about things and that hurts you), since any voter has an astronomically small chance of flipping the election it is rational for them to buy way more bias than they would for things affecting their personal life.” While I think that’s correct for some situations, other biases, such as the availability heuristic, clearly don’t seem to fit this model. Like, I really don’t think parents are hysterical about children playing outside because they’re obtaining a certain amount of signalling that they’re good parents at the cost of a certain amount of parenting effort, I think they’re legitimately just mistaken about the chance their children will be kidnapped. And I suspect similar arguments apply to voters as well.

Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction: I am impressed by the consistent high quality of the “very short introduction” series and wish I could subscribe to a program where they mail me a random one each month and then I get to learn about mathematics or nothingness or logic or something each month.

The most interesting thing I learned from this book is that some people, including Flynn himself, believe the Flynn effect is due to increased familiarity with standardized tests in general and intelligence tests in specific. For instance, in the 1930s, an IQ test was probably the first standardized test a person had ever taken, while I took about two standardized tests a year for twelve years while attending a school system which was widely criticized for primarily teaching me how to be good at taking tests. It’s no wonder that I’d have a higher IQ score. In this case, the Flynn effect means that changing IQ scores provide us little to no information about whether and how people’s IQ scores are changing over time.

The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think: This is a pretty good introduction to the YIMBY position on housing. Various regulations– including rent control and zoning– make it more difficult and less profitable to build more homes, so we have fewer homes than we need. The idea that homes are an “investment” which always increases in price also increases the price of housing for people who don’t own their own homes. As a result, people live further from work (leading to unpleasant commutes and lots of pollution) or move to cities with cheaper housing but fewer jobs. This is bad, because dense locations provide a lot of benefits to people– ranging from higher productivity to a cleaner environment to better restaurants.

With Liberty and Justice for Some: How The Law Is Used To Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful: I originally thought I was a ooey-gooey soft-on-crime liberal, and then I read this book, and discovered I was an ooey-gooey soft-on-crime liberal except for crimes committed by presidents. When Glenn Greenwald remarked that under international law torture is punished with the death penalty, I thought “yep, actually, I totally support executing George W Bush.”

Unfortunately, my tough-on-crime stance is not shared by most people. In fact, under the name of “unifying the country” and “looking forward not backward”, presidents have managed to get away with absurd violations of national and international law: from Nixon’s multiple felonies to Bush’s surveillance and torture. Of course, this is not actually how the rule of law ought to work: the most basic principle of our government is that it is a government of laws not men, which is to say that if you commit a crime you should be punished, even if you are the president. (Especially if you are the president!) Claims that “public policy takes precedence over the rule of law”. Of course, there are many incentives for any given president to pull this shit: if they punish their predecessors for felonies and war crimes, maybe they’ll be punished for their own felonies and war crimes! All this is combined with a massive expansion of incarceration, meaning a poor black person gets more time in jail for smoking pot than a president does for violating international law.

Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk: The real lesson of this book is that Margo St. James, the founder of COYOTE and the St. James Infirmary, is a stone-cold badass. Margo St. James became a sex worker after she was accused of doing sex work because she was a beatnik and hosted lots of different men in her apartment, and obviously the only reason one would have men stay over is doing sex work. Her conviction meant that she couldn’t find a job other than doing sex work. She founded COYOTE, one of the first sex workers’ rights organizations, a year after J Edgar Hoover died “because we wanted to make sure he was really dead”. COYOTE’s shenanigans included awarding a giant keyhole to the Vice Cop of the Year and holding loiter-ins at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Their largest victory was when Judge Marie-Victoire dismissed almost forty sex workers’ cases on the grounds of sex discrimination, since the police had not arrested the clients. (The assistant district attorney for vice crimes said there was no reason to arrest men because “the customer is not involved with the commercial exploitation of sex, at least not on an ongoing basis.”) St. James also climbed Pike’s Peak to prove that sex workers aren’t diseased. Today, he St. James Infirmary commits to doing research that sex workers feel matters to them: for instance, it performed the first medical research on the foot problems caused by working all night in hooker heels.

I also appreciated the following slogans from a protest of Playboy Bunny clubs which only paid their workers in tips, without any salary: “don’t be a bunny, work for money” and “women should be obscene and not heard.”

In 34 states, doing full service sex work while being HIV positive is a felony, regardless of whether transmission occurred or what the actual risk profile of the sex act is. No HIV-positive client has ever been prosecuted.

The unsung heroes of this book are public health workers and activists, many of whom regularly break laws to help their sex worker clients: from giving out clean needles and crack kits, breaking trafficking laws to help underage sex workers find shelter and necessities, giving out birth control and post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV without prescriptions, or letting people know when the police are a few blocks away.

[content warning: rape]

Bang: The advice in this book is mostly reasonable. The author, however, is a goddamn misogynist.

As an example: Roosh says that you should do things because you want to do them, not in a desperate attempt to please a particular woman. This is great advice; I agree that if you’re buying someone a drink, it should be because you like them and want them to be happy, not because you’re desperately seeking their approval. His next sentence says that if he buys women drinks, it’s not a form of supplication, it’s to loosen them up so they’ll fuck him.

This is merely one example of a larger problem. Roosh seems to view sex not as something that people do together because it’s fun but as a competition between men and women in which men try to obtain sex and women try to deny it. He views a woman saying no to sex as an ordinary, normal part of the process of having sex with her; his writing clearly seems to imply that he expects a woman to say “no” to sex three or four times the first time he has sex with her. It is nice that he does not suggest physically forcing a woman into sex. He does, however, suggest ignoring her nos (for instance, responding to “we’re going too fast” with “yeah, I agree” but continuing to do whatever you’re doing) and responding to an outright “no” by stopping for a few minutes and then doing the thing again.

Of course, perhaps some women are saying “no” in the hopes that Roosh will override her “no”. (As I’ve always said, I think such ridiculous behavior should be punished by those women not getting to have sex until they learn better.) And of course some people say no to sex and then change their mind and say yes, although early on in a relationship you should probably check in and see if they’re sure. But a lot of the women he’d be using that strategy on are people who are scared, inexperienced, unsure, not good at setting boundaries. They might be frightened that if they don’t comply he will hurt them; he’s given them no reason to think otherwise. It is scary to be alone and naked, often in a house that isn’t your own, with a person who is larger and stronger than you. Is this the sort of thing you’re comfortable doing with a sexual partner?

Even from a purely selfish level, I can’t imagine that this is a great way to obtain sex. Like… surely you want to have sex with someone who wants to have sex with you? What benefit does having sex with a reluctant person have over masturbation? They make very good Fleshlights these days, you know. And it certainly makes the rest of Roosh’s pickup advice questionable. If he’s so good at seducing women, how come he has to pressure people who don’t want sex with him into sex? Surely they should be throwing their dripping panties at his head?

I think a lot of pickup stuff can be really useful for shy men. It can be hard to think of something to say to strangers, so knowing basically what you’re going to say can make it easier to break the ice and come off as charming and fun. A lot of pickup stuff isn’t the Magic Secret To Obtaining Sex, it’s just a basically reasonable thing to say while flirting, and that can serve as a magic feather to build confidence so you actually hit on people. And by relying on other people’s lines for a while you can develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t and eventually learn to flirt without the lines. But there has got to be a book written by a man with less awful and disgusting views about sexuality.

[content warning: rape, suicide]

The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom: A depressing amount of this book is based on word games about the meaning of the word “persecution”. You see, it only counts as persecution if the government intended to oppress Christians. The actual state of affairs was that Christians were widely thought of as very strange and rumored to be incestuous and cannibals, were occasionally oppressed by local governors, and sometimes were executed because the Emperor passed a law that said that everyone had to sacrifice to him or be executed, intended to figure out who his political enemies were, but that accidentally harmed Christians. I found this sort of argument-by-definition extremely pedantic. I also found the tie-ins to current culture war stuff really annoying: I can figure out for myself the connections between Christian ideals of martyrdom and Rick Santorum’s idea that Christians are persecuted today, thank you.

That said, it’s still an interesting read for the historical facts. Many so-called martyrdom stories are, in fact, fiction: there are historical inaccuracies and lurid plotlines that make the most sense if they were popular novels intended to amuse the reader. Many bear a striking similarity to Greek romance novels popular at the time. They have plots like “a Christian who has taken a vow of celibacy is forced to marry a vestal virgin, whom he converts to Christianity; they are arrested for trying to convert people, where the vestal virgin is sentenced to work at a brothel; an escaped lion does not harm her but instead kills the men attempting to rape her.” This is salacious enough that it is probably fiction and not a thing that actually happened.

Voluntary martyrdom was apparently quite common in the early church. We have several early Christian writers condemning it as heresy and the sin of suicide; this was probably political, because the Christians we would today consider non-heretical often escaped or recanted their Christianity, and there was a group of heretics, the Donatists, who had confessed to being Christian but were not executed for one reason or another. The non-Donatists have an obvious reason to condemn voluntary martyrdom. One of the stories we have about early Christians is that they went to a regional governor to try to be martyred, except the governor refused and instead told them that if they wanted to die there were cliffs to throw themselves off and ropes to hang themselves on.

The Christians were really confusing to the Romans. Roman polytheism was syncretic; it literally did not make sense to them that worshipping one god meant not being allowed to worship the emperor either. Many Christians were deliberately stubborn and difficult: for instance, one Christian responded to all questions, including his name, with “I am a Christian.” Many Christians said they respected God alone, which was both incomprehensible and probably seditious from a Roman perspective, since Roman society was based on hierarchies of respect.

 

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