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Non-Fiction

The Origins of Happiness: A book about the various things that are correlated with life satisfaction scales. In and of itself, this is an interesting topic. However, the author fancies themself a person who is Reforming Public Policy in order to Bring About A New Focus On Happiness, which makes the entire book epistemically dubious. Here are some criticisms not addressed by the author at any point:

  1. A life satisfaction scale involves rating your life on a scale of 1 to 10. While this metric has some advantages (it lets people decide for themselves what factors they want to incorporate into their life satisfaction assessment), at no point does the author provide evidence that this metric is correlated with a common-sense definition of happiness. They also provide no reason to choose life satisfaction over other metrics, such as experiential happiness or “how happy are you?” questions, which often have correlations of different strength or even direction.
  2. Correlation does not equal causation. People tend to report higher life satisfaction if they are married, but that doesn’t mean marriage increases life satisfaction. Perhaps happier people stay married for longer and miserable people are more likely to divorce, or perhaps both marriage and happiness are caused by some other factor, such as religiosity.
  3. Life satisfaction may be compared against a reference class. If you mostly know people with very very good lives, you might consider your life mediocre, while if you mostly know people with terrible lives, you might consider your life very good– even if your life is the same in every way.
  4. In particular, the author’s data suggests that being around richer people lowers life satisfaction, holding income constant. In fact, all the life satisfaction you gain from increasing your income a certain amount is exactly balanced by the amount of life satisfaction lost by the people around you. But this is a strange result: it implies that no one gains any life satisfaction at all from any of the things you can purchase with money, such as education, vacations, nice food, entertainment, health care, or financial security. Life satisfaction is only gained by having more than other people. All goods are zero-sum positional games. The author suggests deprioritizing increasing GDP, but does not suggest any of the more radical policies that are implied by this point of view. If life satisfaction is an accurate measure of wellbeing and nothing you can purchase with money affects wellbeing, why not ban vacations? They cost a lot of resources (e.g. flying planes spews a lot of carbon) and don’t actually make anyone any happier.
  5. Depression is highly correlated with low life satisfaction ratings. But standard depression inventories ask many questions that are, essentially, life satisfaction questions, like whether you’re unhappy all the time and whether you think you’re a failure. Does this mean that the mental health condition of depression causes low life satisfaction (and thus that the best way to improve life satisfaction is to treat depression), or does it mean that if you define a mental health condition as “people who have low life satisfaction” it will turn out they all have low life satisfaction?

Addicted to Lust: A fascinating ethnography of porn use in the conservative Protestant subculture.

Conservative Protestants are less likely to use porn than the general population, although (like the general population) their use of porn is rising because the Internet is improving porn access. However, conservative Protestants who use porn face much more severe mental health consequences than people of other denominations or religions who use porn.

They face overwhelming shame, guilt, and stigma. Some are socially isolated because they can’t admit their porn use; this particularly affects women, who are believed not to be visual and not to be tempted by porn, and therefore have a hard time finding support and are often stigmatized as ‘unfeminine’ for needing it. Others find their entire moral life reduced to porn use: male ‘accountability groups’ often discuss only porn, masturbation, and lust without ever thinking about any of the other sins that men commit; some people even have difficulty thinking about anything they might do wrong that isn’t porn use. Porn users avoid volunteering, service, missionary work, or helping out at church because they think they’re too broken to be allowed to participate in Christian life. Many even avoid praying, reading the Bible, or participating in church services. One interviewee says:

[D]uring that time I become a burden to god, too. It’s like ‘yeah, I love you. And you know, I died for you. But really I’m just tolerating you right now because I made a commitment to myself and I have to.'”

Because porn use is conceived of within conservative Protestant culture as a form of cheating, spouses experience tremendous jealousy and betrayal when they find out. People can’t talk to their spouses about their porn use and get support in quitting, because it is perceived as such a betrayal; the deception can poison a relationship. The discovery of a spouse’s porn use often leads to threats or even the reality of divorce, even when the marriage is otherwise happy.

My takeaways from this ethnography are twofold.

First, the corrosive effects of purity culture are hard to overstate. When you make a single common sin a litmus test of how a person is doing morally, it is really bad for people. People experience feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness. They are isolated from friends and loved ones. It doesn’t even serve to make the person more ethical. Purity culture takes away your ability to see the moral life holistically. While you’re struggling with the fact that you jerk off to porn for fifteen minutes once a week, you might ignore the fact that you shout at your wife, or that you’re lazy at work, or that you go on luxurious vacations instead of helping the poor– all of which may very well be more serious sins. You can feel like you “don’t deserve” to do the things that give you strength to be a better person: the Christian avoids praying and reading the Bible, but a secular person might avoid therapy, journaling, meditation, reading inspiring books, going to meetups of people who share their values, etc.

Effective altruism has (so far) put a lot of thought into avoiding creating a purity culture, although often not in those terms. However, I think this is something well worth thinking about more.

Second, I have often had a hard time harmonizing my positive personal experience of porn with the research that suggests negative effects of porn use. Addicted to Love’s model, I think, explains this very well. The thing that causes negative effects of porn is not the porn itself; it’s the context and the use to which you put porn. Addicted to Love finds that porn use is correlated with depression if and only if you believe that pornography use is morally wrong. Doing things that go against your values makes you feel guilt and shame. If your partner feels betrayed by your pornography use or worries that it means you don’t find them attractive anymore, it is likely to make your relationship worse; watching porn together and using it as a springboard to discuss your sexual fantasies is likely to make it better.

You can expand this model further. A culture around porn which clearly discusses which aspects of porn are reality and which fantasy leads to accurate beliefs about sex; in the absence of such a culture, people might try unlubed anal sex. (Ouch.) In a sex-positive culture of experimentation and open communication, being interested in more sexual acts means you have more sexual variety; in a more sex-negative culture, it can lead to frustration and even sexual coercion. Isolating yourself in your bedroom to jerk off for four hours is different from writing a porny giftfic for a friend. Saying what effects porn has in the abstract is like saying what effects Marvel movies have in the abstract; you have to consider the individual, the culture, and their relationship to porn.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing: At some point Ursula K. Le Guin is going to really truly publish her last book, but apparently not yet. Conversations on Writing is an interview with Le Guin about writing; like all Le Guin’s writing, her compassion and wisdom is palpable, even when I disagree with her. By far the most delightful part of the book is a short story Le Guin wrote about Zombie Michael Chabon infecting literary writers with genre, but the rest is well worth your time.

An Informal History of the Hugos: This book is baffling. I have no idea what the target audience is. Jo Walton briefly talks about her opinions of the Hugo nominees for each year, lists off the titles of various books that might otherwise be nominated, and says whether she thinks the right one won. Since I have usually heard of half of the nominees and very few of the non-nominated books each year, this is incredibly boring.

Fiction 

Space Opera: This is… an incredibly weird book. It’s a Douglas Adams pastiche where aliens decide which newly contacted species are sapient by having them compete in galactic Eurovision; if they come in last place, they’ll get destroyed. Unfortunately, the list of musicians who might have a chance of not coming in last was generated by a time traveling alien who got confused, so only one of them is alive: a washed-up, drunken David Bowie/Freddie Mercury expy who hasn’t had a hit in a decade and has to get the band back together to save humanity.

Cat Valente is one of the best prose stylists in modern science fiction, and she uses all her talent to make Space Opera’s twee whimsy, with a core of jaded cynicism. This is the sort of book that drives me to metaphor. Reading the book is like eating twenty pounds of cupcake frosting: you enjoy the individual bites, but you eventually want something more substantial, and the whole experience makes you kind of sick. The book itself is like building the Statue of Liberty out of cheese: you set a goal and you accomplished it and it’s hard to come up with criticisms that aren’t ‘instead of doing this you should have done a different thing,’ but… maybe instead of this you should have done a different thing.

That said, I’m probably going to vote it #1 for the Hugos this year. I didn’t particularly like Space Opera, I don’t recommend it, but there’s something about “I thought the surprise mpreg reveal in the climax was superfluous” that captures the anarchic spirit of science fiction, and I think that’s what we should honor with our awards. And if it’s the sort of book you like you’ll really like it.

Trail of Lightning: Meh. I don’t like action heroes who are brooding and violent and angry and never talk about their feelings and you have to be SYMPATHETIC to them because they are TRAUMATIZED. Manpain bores me. It does not actually bore me any less if the person experiencing manpain is a Native American woman.

The Calculating Stars: I gave up in disgust after the first part, so take this review with a grain of salt, but: UGH. The author wants to write an alternate history where a giant meteorite landed on Washington D. C. in the 1950s, which kicked off catastrophic global warming, and the only way to save humanity is to go to a moon colony. Fine. Okay. I am willing to suspend disbelief about ‘moon colony’ being a better option than ‘geoengineering’ if only because of the Rule of Cool.

But the author clearly fails to think about the internal life of her villains for even a second. The president’s advisers respond to the protagonist’s report that catastrophic global warming is going to happen with spontaneous climate-change denialist tropes literally five minutes after she delivers it, even though this makes zero sense. No one would think it’s absurd and laughable that a meteorite that destroyed DC would have other catastrophic effects, and climate change denialism is a thing because fossil fuel companies have spent tons of money spreading doubt, a thing which they would have no reason to do in setting and which they could not possibly have pulled off in five minutes.

The protagonist, a former member of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in WWII, is forbidden to fly a plane to rescue refugees because “nursing is more feminine,” despite the fact that this is literally the sort of thing the WASPs did in WWII and a meteorite just destroyed Washington DC. Women are forbidden from becoming astronauts because they will become hysterical in space; a female character points out that you can’t have a self-sustaining moon colony without women, but it is never discussed what the fuck the villains think about this obvious objection.

Look, I’m not saying that the villains’ behavior is completely unreasonable. (Okay, the climate change denialism is unreasonable and clearly just put in to make a political point.) Maybe the protagonist is forbidden from rescuing refugees by one guy, who’s not very competent at running a military and is only doing it because the entire hierarchy fell apart because DC got a meteor dropped on it, and who’s clinging desperately to normality in the wake of an abnormal situation. Maybe they’re planning to include women in later flights but don’t want to include them right away because they’re concerned about not having developed the safety equipment to deal with their hysteria. But you have to justify this! You can’t just be like “sexists are sexist because they are sexist, this is completely causeless behavior totally unaffected by circumstances or incentives.” That’s not how people work.

Record of A Spaceborn Few: Record of a Spaceborn Few is set on a former generation ship, a few generations after first contact, which currently orbits around a star. The sociological worldbuilding is rich and complex. A great deal of care and thought has been put into the sort of society a generation ship would have: the religious beliefs, the tensions, the economics, the leisure activities, the social arrangements.

It would be misleading to say nothing happens. Many things happen. But there is not very much in the way of plot. It is essentially the events that happen over the course of a particularly interesting few months in the lives of a dozen ordinary people on the generation ship. It is a slice-of-life story; it is as interested in parenting struggles and teenagers fighting with their best friends as it is in starship accidents or the alien ethnographer studying the human colony.

I have literally been craving this book for the past fifteen years. (I really really want it in post-apocalyptic, but you can’t have everything.) If slice-of-life SF with rich sociological worldbuilding is your thing, you’ll really love it.