Epic Measures: A book about the creation of the global burden of disease studies. The author thinks that he’s Michael Lewis but is not, so we have to put up with pages and pages of tedious “characterization” in order to “make the people involved feel real” when actually I just want them to get back to the part about how all the statistics are bad and Christopher Murray made them better.

Epic Measures brings home to me how difficult effective altruism would have been before relatively recently. Before the global burden of disease studies, for example:

  • There were at least nine different commonly used models for estimating life expectancy, which varied by as much as fifteen years.
  • If you added together the estimates of child deaths by various causes by the WHO groups that specialized in various illnesses, 30 million children died every year. (This excluded, for example, car accidents, which didn’t have a WHO group.) UN demographers, however, estimated 20 million children died every year.
    • In fact, just the estimated deaths from diarrhea, pneunomia, malaria, and measles outnumbered the estimated number of dead children.
  • If UN and World Bank estimators had no new information about life expectancy, they assumed that the life expectancy improved by two to three years every five years up to a life expectancy of 62.5, at which point it stopped improving.
  • The Demographic Yearbook sometimes used life expectancy estimates from governments and sometimes from the UN Population Division, which means that life expectancies sometimes rose or dropped by an entire decade from one year to another.
  • Countries that didn’t collect vital statistics or that didn’t like the vital statistics they collected often just made up their data.
  • Even countries that collected vital statistics had inconsistent ways of measuring it: for example, the percentage of French deaths due to cancer was 10% higher than it would have been if the reporting standards of the US were applied, which means it looked like French people were more likely than Americans to die of cancer when actually they were less likely.
  • Countries regularly recorded “garbage codes” as causes of death, which either made no medical sense (“senility,” which is not a thing people die of) or were so vague as to be useless (“brain trauma” instead of “car accident” or “fall”). In some cases, as many as 40% of a country’s official causes of death were garbage.
  • The number of people who died of malaria in Nigeria every year was five times the number of people who were reported to contract malaria every year, suggesting the estimate was a thousand times off.
  • For more than twenty years, it was believed the number of women who died annually from pregnancy or childbirth hadn’t changed. In reality, it had dropped by a third.

I literally have no idea how GiveWell would be able to work in that environment. (Well, actually, I do– it would be ACE.) I think an underexplored reason for effective altruism existing now, instead of earlier, is that only relatively recently have we had enough data to be able to say conclusively what the best global-poverty interventions are.

Best anecdote: North Korea complained that their country’s healthy life expectancy was wrong because “healthy life expectancy in North Korea is the same as life expectancy, because nobody is sick.”

Best reason to have complicated feelings about George W Bush: apparently in Uganda people were terrified when George W Bush left office because they were afraid Obama would defund PEPFAR, since it was a Bush project, and hundreds of thousands of people with HIV would die.

Pure: Definitely one of my favorite books about evangelical purity culture. Each chapter summarizes the experiences of a particular woman (or, in one case, a trans man) with evangelical purity culture; the author’s experiences are woven throughout. A thoughtful, nuanced exploration of the lifelong sexual trauma that evangelical purity culture can cause.

I particularly enjoyed Katie’s chapter. While older evangelical women “dating Jesus” is often mocked, Katie’s chapter sensitively explores how conceptualizing Jesus as the loving partner she otherwise doesn’t have empowers Katie to take care of herself and follow her passions. After all, Jesus loves her, and therefore Jesus wants her to take herself out on a dinner date with Him when she’s had a bad week and to go back to college to pursue a degree in science. Her chapter also includes the appalling declaration that she tries to separate masturbation from anything “dark and horrible,” such as imagining about people she finds attractive being with her, touching her, and saying things that make her excited. (Seriously. Man, fuck evangelical purity culture.)

Opening Up: A Guide To Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships: This book is fine, I guess, but I feel somewhat deceived. I bought it because I was informed it was a polyamory book. Whatever it is the people in this book are doing, it’s not any form of polyamory I recognize. For example, there’s this checklist where you and your partner can talk about what kinds of sexual partners they are forbidden to date (?!), which includes sections for gender, sexual orientation, D/s orientation, coupled status (?!), and appearance (?!?!). And then there’s a section about sex with a list of specific sex acts your partner can rule out you doing with other people.

Look, I’m not judging you or anything, but if one of your partners can say to you “I don’t want you to date any brunettes or eat any ass” and expect you not to laugh in their face, you are clearly doing a different thing than the thing I am doing and it is confusing to call them the same thing. If I wanted my husband to be able to decide who I had sex with I’d just be monogamous.

I am also extremely confused by this book’s insistence that “not allowed to fall in love with other people” is a reasonable agreement. I can imagine circumstances where this is the case– only seeing sex workers? only having one-night stands? grandfathering in a particular fuckbuddy you’ve been fucking for years and haven’t fallen in love with yet? monoromantic bisexual? aromantic person?– but in most situations it just seems impossible to enforce. When you go out on dates with people and have sex with them sometimes you are going to fall in love. That is how people work.

It’s Okay Not To Share: This is one of my favorite parenting books I’ve read so far!

If I had to sum it up in a single phrase, it would be “non-aggression principle parenting.” If a behavior hurts people or property, you might want to forbid it. (For a broad sense of “hurts people or property,” where the child themself is a person and “your parents’ ears hurt from all the screaming” or “your parent is really annoyed about having to clean up after your mess” counts as harm.) But if a behavior doesn’t hurt people or property– if it’s climbing trees, saying “I HATE the baby!”, refusing to share a toy, putting up a “no girls allowed” sign, running, swearing, poking dead birds with a stick, playing with toy guns, or crossdressing– you should almost always allow it.

One particularly insightful point was that if children don’t get practice resolving conflicts then they will be worse at resolving conflicts– just like with any other skill. Many parents want their children to be peaceful, so they interrupt at any sign of conflict and resolve the problem themselves. But that actually doesn’t teach your kid to be peaceful, any more than stopping your child every time they scribble on a piece of paper and drawing the tree for them teaches them art. If you want kids to be good at coming to a solution that works for everyone, you should let them practice resolving conflicts themselves (within reasonable limits), even if they’re bad at it at first

One thing that annoyed me in this book was all the unnecessary gender. Maybe I shouldn’t hold the gender against it, because it did have a chapter about how boys can wear dresses and be ballerinas if they want to, and I appreciate that. But they were continually like “it’s especially important to let boys run around, because boys tend to be more energetic than girls” or “it’s especially important to let boys do ‘big’ art projects, because boys tend to have worse fine motor skills than girls.” Why not just say “this is particularly important for energetic children” and leave the gender out of it? It’s not like there aren’t any energetic girls.

Legal Systems Very Different From Ours: Strongly recommended for any worldbuilder or person who wants to share interesting facts at parties. Legal Systems Very Different From Ours is an explanation of various historical legal systems and their unusual traits. A handful of interesting facts:

  • Among the Roma, violations of Roma law are sometimes punished by reporting the perpetrator to the gadje authorities for the crimes or welfare fraud everyone already knew the person was doing.
  • In classical Athens, you could search someone else’s house for your stolen property, but only if you did it naked.
  • In Imperial China, it was a criminal offense for a child to report to the authorities that their parent committed a crime, even if the parent is guilty.
  • In medieval Iceland, you could buy and sell the legal status of being a victim of a crime.
  • Maimonides wrote that a wife has a right to expect sex no more than once a week from a scholar, because “the study of Torah weakens their strength.”
  • In eighteenth-century England, criminals were sometimes transported to America as indentured servants; to earn money, the government chose to sell them to merchants. The government did not actually make a profit because of the number of young, old, alcoholic, female, etc. criminals they wound up holding indefinitely waiting for a merchant to pay for them.
  • The Comanche considered killing a man’s favorite horse to be murder.
  • In medieval Ireland, if a lord broke a contract, you were supposed to go on a hunger strike in front of his house; if a lord eats while someone is hunger-striking in front of his house, he owes double damages. For non-lords, you are supposed to break into the contract-breaker’s house with witnesses to complain about it, and the fourth time you are allowed to steal all of his cows.
  • Multiple feud systems don’t consider killing someone to be murder if you immediately confess to witnesses. (It is still a killing, which has a smaller penalty.)

Good to Go: An interesting and evidence-based review of the science behind exercise recovery. If you’re just interested in the advice, it is as follows:

  • Drink water when you’re thirsty and don’t when you’re not.
  • Take rest days; listen to your body about how much rest you need.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Eat enough protein and calories, but don’t worry about eating within a particular window after your workout.
  • Do specialized “recovery” things if you enjoy them and they make you relax, but otherwise don’t bother. Anything that helps you relax will probably work equally well.

If you enjoy a trip around the world of pseudoscience, as I do, it’s a really fun and engaging read.

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