Gender Mosaic by Daphna Joel and Luba Vikhanski (Non-fiction)

This book was fantastic — one of the few I’ve read that managed to completely shift the way I thought about something because the clear evidence-based ideas made so much sense in an area that has been utterly confusing to me for a long time.

Beginning with scientific studies on the structure and function of brain components and their correlation with sex, the book proceeded to question our concepts of sex and gender and ended with a discussion of what the world would be like without gender at all. The main message: get rid of the gender binary — it’s artificial and not linked (on a group level) to anything biological. Or as the authors put it — “stop dividing people by their genitals.”

Quick definitions: sex is what you are born with: XX chromosomes (female), XY chromosomes (male), and less than 1% born intersex (a mix). Gender is a social construct — socially acceptable options used to be man and woman, but the latest number of options on Facebook is 58!

Some of the main points (each illustrated with anecdotes and substantiated with solid research findings):
• There is no such thing as a male brain or a female brain — each human brain is a unique mixture — or mosaic — of features traditionally thought of as “male” or “female.”
• While there are some structures and functions in the brain (and hormonal systems) that are on average different for males and females (for example, males on average are better at spatial rotation), individually people fall on a spectrum of values for that aspect of brain function. For example, many females will be better at spatial rotation than the average for a male and the overlap for potential spatial rotation capabilities between males and females may be quite large. Very few individuals have an “all male” or “all female” brain based on those averages.
• Brain systems are not static — many influences such as stress, competition, or even spending time with an infant can shift the level of hormones in the system — including the “big 3”: testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.
• Bias — often unintentional — exists. Most people do not want to be biased, and when it is pointed out to them in a non-confrontational and private way, they may even take steps to correct it.

The text is calm, measured, based on copious (and referenced) research and not political (thank you!). The examples and results from various research projects are absolutely fascinating. It is just technical enough to be interesting and sensical, but not overburdened by technical jargon that can muddy the point. The authors present a balanced view, explaining how gender norms can be problematic for both males and females, and they address many common questions and concerns that have been brought up during lectures. I really appreciated the non-confrontational approach to explaining bias and privilege.

On a personal level, I would be so much happier to get rid of thinking about gender at all rather than take on the cognitive load of trying to remember exactly which category each individual person wants to be part of for that particular day and having to use all the correct pronouns, names, and other associated gender paraphernalia. Wouldn’t it be easier to treat each person as an individual, complete with his or her (or some new pronoun) own preferences, habits, and interests? I know I was born female and never thought twice about it, but I never felt I was a “typical” woman — I hate shopping, don’t wear makeup, always paid my own way, and worked very comfortably in a male dominated field (computer science). I’m lucky that societal pressures never had much of an effect on me, but obviously it could have been much harder.

I underlined just about everything in this book, but here are some good quotes that I think get to the heart of their messages:

“Sex does affect the brain, and there are average differences between females and males in many brain features. But because of the interactions between sex and so many other factors, the effects of sex — that is, of being female or male — mix up in a unique way in the brain of each individual.”

“Even when they don’t find themselves in a shipwreck, men often get a raw deal by virtue of belonging to the group empowered by the patriarchal order. It is mostly men who die in droves in wars, are injured in work-related accidents, and feel compelled to become providers, often at the expense of following their hearts to a career in the arts or other non-bread-winning fields.”

“I hope that in the not-too-distant future, this idea will be taken for granted; that gender studies will be a history course; and that when the topic of gender comes up, children will need to ask their parents (or grandparents) to explain why on earth someone had once thought people had to be grouped by their genitals.”

“On the other hand, many people are happy to discover their own and others’ implicit biases, especially if you point these out to them in private and in a nonjudgemental manner (nasty comments on their Facebook wall are less likely to be welcomed). And if in the course of these revelations you become aware of the power or privileges granted to you by the gender system, why not use this power and these privileges to try to eliminate this system from our lives?”

“One objection that’s been raised at a lecture of mine is that even without gender, women and men would still behave differently because they differ biologically. I see no problem with that. On the contrary, if we believe that biology would drive the behavior of females and males apart, there’s surely no reason to introduce all those gender conventions to achieve the same end.”

“Gender is one of the prisons within which we live. It divides the world into things for males and things for females. And if we want things that are not on “our” side, we are punished by society.”

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger (Non Fiction)

A fascinating and thought provoking read. Guendelsberger — an unemployed journalist and previous editor of The Onion — goes “under cover” in three low-paying, highly monitored positions — all designed to handle massive amounts of personnel churn. She tries an Amazon fulfillment center at “Peak” (December), a Convergys call center, and a McDonald’s (located at the corner of Tourist and Homeless in downtown San Francisco).

This is part investigative journalism and part humorous memoir — Emily is FUNNY. I particularly valued the actual description of each job — the processes, the training, the working environment were fascinating — and her personal reflections on how each job made her feel and what coping strategies she personally had to put in place to last as long as she did. Each section included some background context (Frederick Winslow Taylor and the birth of management consultants, Henry Ford and the birth of the assembly line, the effects of long term stress on the human body, etc.) and a few interviews with co-workers.

I was less enamored of her conclusions on the “future of work” — jobs like these that are dehumanizing and “suck.” Techno-Taylorism — she may have coined this phrase — refers to applying technology to increase industrial efficiency — usually by monitoring employees’ every movement and issuing warnings, alarms, and omnipresent progress widgets to spur faster, more efficient work (and massively stressful and draining for the employee). According to Guendelsberger, the stress resulting from this externally sourced drive to suppress our humanity is the thing that is causing the American masses to spiral into depression, anger, and drug abuse. I was hoping for more of an “expose and propose” approach to the issues, but instead I got a “complain and throw up our hands” approach — suggesting that everyone simply go home and think about how to make this world a better place. I did find a lot to think about from reading this book, but I think the issues run a lot deeper than corporate greed and the stress of constant technological surveillance.

Overall a fast and completely absorbing read. Guendelsberger is an excellent writer and made the material easy to absorb. The writing was unapologetically personal. She was quite up front about knowing that she could (and would) quit any time, not having a family to support as many of her colleagues did, and admitting how personally unsuited she was for many of these tasks. There were times when I found myself thinking “ugh — another whining Millenial,” but I’m sure I would have been whining even more loudly, and although I wish there had been a few more interviews with colleagues, those that she included did present a broader and sometimes contradictory perspective to her own.

Her writing is my favorite part — I can hear The Onion in it. Some quotes:

“Right now though, exhaustion has shrunk my circle of empathy to the point that it’s barely big enough for myself. I didn’t know that could happen, and it’s not pleasant.”

“As a culture, we put far too much blind trust in data and technology. Math and logic are beautiful languages. But it’s so pretentious to pretend that they have adequate vocabulary to accurately describe a human, much less whether a human is happy or miserable. Our brains are the most complicated things in the known universe, with a hundred billion neurons making connections in a mind-bogglingly complex web that constantly changes. Our levels of technology aren’t remotely close to being able to accurately describe that mess, and they won’t be for a very long time. Numbers and statistics just aren’t up to communicating how something feels, even though that’s often extremely important information.”

“The constant monitoring I found so stressful doesn’t bother these women. I felt like someone was always watching in case I screwed up; they feel like someone’s taking note of the good work they do. All three have had to pick up slack from deadbeat coworkers at other jobs; when it’s obvious who’s working and who isn’t, you never end up doing someone else’s job on top of your own…”

“Why is the country ready to riot over jobs — immigrants taking them, trade deals killing them, Wall Street destroying them? Because these jobs suck donkey balls.”

“I frequently fantasize about MBAs from the F. Kafka School of Management cackling as they designed this system for maximum alienation, frustration and existential anxiety. I’m sure the reality is mundane, though — I’m guessing some rep figures out how to use Telegence to steal customer information, so upper management isn’t willing to risk letting any reps officially use it despite the lack of a functional replacements.”

“I often picture Crowley as the original designer of modern scheduling software, because it frequently feels like we’ve been understaffed at the precise levels that will maximize human misery on both sides of the counter.” (referring to the demon from Good Omens)

“I’ve been developing a sort of callus over the earnest part of myself that genuinely cares about the customers and wants to do a good job for them. It thickens every time someone says something terrible to me. As it gets tougher, I’ve become increasingly numb to my customer interactions, good and bad. It’s harder for angry people to upset me, but I get much less pleasure from making people happy. This dead muted feeling reminds me a lot of depression, and it worries me.”

“But at this moment, techno-Taylorism, the decline of organized labor, automation, and the ongoing destruction of the shark-cage worker protections have tipped the balance of power in the workplace way, way in favor of employers. It’s gotten so out of balance that even many workers seem to truly believe that the things that make them less efficient than sharks or robots are weaknesses — moral failings, like original sin.”

“Bezos then brainstormed a list of traits that make the public think of a company as “cool” or “uncool”. Uncool things: defeating tiny guys, rudeness, conquerors, hypocrisy, mercenaries, pandering. Cool things: the young, explorers, inventing, being polite, taking risks, empowering others, thinking big, authenticity, and winning — especially when you’re defeating bigger, unsympathetic guys.”

Generation Friends by Saul Austerlitz (Entertainment Industry)

A fun read for those of us who are big Friends fans (and apparently there are a lot of us). I’m not a big TV person — I don’t have cable, and usually just watch a single movie on DVD at night — but I loved Friends, owned all the DVDs, and it was definitely my go to in times of stress. I just never realized how popular it was with everyone else.

The book tracks the show from concept through the ten seasons to the offshoots, residuals, and “where are they now” recaps. Decent (and sometimes excellent) writing, a good structure, and comprehensive in scope, it has just the right amount of gossip and mixes plenty of pleasant recognition with surprisingly fresh insights. I also learned a lot about the making of TV — scheduling, showrunners, production companies vs networks, bidding wars, contract negotiations and some fascinating explanations of what went into the set and costume design.

I liked the first half better — the second half included a lot of bits that needed to be included to be complete but weren’t terribly interesting to me — one female writer’s hostile workplace suit, Matthew Perry’s addiction issues, etc. I didn’t always agree with the author’s conclusions, and sometimes felt there was too much episode recap, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed myself and learned a lot about how things work in an industry far away from my own.

Some fun quotes:
“Chase and Ungerleider had emerged from the same bookish East Coast Jewish milieu as Kauffman and Crane. Chase knew he could instantly summon that overly caffeinated, verbose, linguistically tricky voice.”

“Journalists pored over the results with the nuance of elderly Talmudists, intent on parsing the meaning of the message being sent by the American moviegoing populace.”

“Neither Crane nor Kauffman was familiar with the term going commando, but when the entire staff urged them to include it, asserting that their audience would instantly understand the reference, they acceded. (Eventually, the Oxford English Dictionary would credit Friends with one of the earliest recorded usages of the term.)”

“The world of Friends is notable, to modern eyes,” wrote New York’s Sternergh, “for what it encompasses about being young and single and carefree in the city but also for what it doesn’t encompass: social media, smartphones, student debt the sexual politics of Tinder, moving back in with your parents as a matter of course, and a national mood that vacillates between anxiety and defeatism.”

Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (Non-fiction)

A blow by blow depiction of the sensational rise and fall of Theranos — the health technology startup founded by 19-year old Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes in 2003. Her compelling vision: small devices that could perform hundreds of blood tests on a single drop within a short amount of time. For over fifteen years, she was able to convert this vision into big money (over $400 million raised) and big political connections (her board boasted big-name political enthusiasts such as Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and Sam Nunn) without any real breakthrough technology.  The scandalous story included strong-arm intimidation techniques on recalcitrant employees, drastic legal actions and threats against just about everyone, and general lying, cheating, and gross incompetence.

Easy to read and well-researched — the story is all based on interviews and depositions — and written by the man who first broke the story in the Wall Street Journal. While interesting, it’s not as cohesive or complete as it could have been and was completely one-sided. While that side is probably the correct side, I would have liked to at least hear what the other side said. However, what I’d really like to know is probably unknowable: Was Theranos always a scam or did the over-confident and over-encouraged Holmes really think she could do it, only falling into abhorrent behavior when things did pan out as expected? How did big partners such as Safeway and Walgreens agree to invest millions without any due diligence? What were people thinking as they got suckered in or were they thinking at all?  Why did Channing Robertson,  Stanford Professor of Engineering,  keep advocating for her when he of all people should have known better? (It’s just possible the 500k annual consulting fee might have something to do with that.)  The author does suggest a few answers. My favorite: “Like her idol Steve Jobs, she emitted a reality distortion field that momentarily forced people to suspend disbelief.”

For those wanting to know where Holmes is now: https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a26810723/elizabeth-holmes-now/.

The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan (Non-fiction)

I was surprised at how much I loved this book. I’m a fiction reader and get easily bored (or horrified) by drawn out descriptions of battles, strategies, and political maneuvers. This book was fantastic because it focused on the “why.” The eponymous war (World War I) is literally the epilogue of this book. The first 600+ pages is on what happened in the 30+ years before that made the war possible … though not inevitable.

That is what really fascinated me about the story. MacMillan brings out the details of the individuals involved, the context of the time, the recent events, and the crises averted, to show that so many small things — had they gone just a little differently — might have averted the war that cost 8.5 million lives, with 8 million others missing, and 21 million wounded. Her style is ideal — every detail relevant, a cohesive structure that brings elements to light at the right time and a narrative style that brings the details together to make a coherent story. And no rambling! I don’t know why, but so many non-fiction writers seem to ramble endlessly!

In many places, the book read like a giant game of Risk. Large empires — some new (e.g. Germany had just unified in 1871), some dying (e.g. the Ottoman empire), some struggling to maintain the status quo (e.g. Austria Hungary) — each vying for status in the International community (largely by bickering over colonies and building up impressive militaries) while simultaneously dealing with internal strife in the form of nationalist movements from conquered peoples and new socialist / workers parties demanding rights. Philosophically, social Darwinism concepts had been introduced. Conrad, Austria Hungary’s chief of staff had the core belief (as did many others) that “existence was about struggle and that nations rose and fell depending on their ability to adapt.” MacMillan presents in-depth and well-documented character studies of all the players from the volatile and unpredictable Kaiser Wilhelm II, to his cousins, Britain’s Edward VII and the weak and unprepared Tsar Nicholas II (and his wife Alexandra — “a will of iron linked to not much brain and no knowledge”) to the spartan Franz Joseph of Austria Hungary as well as a panoply of prime ministers, ambassadors, military personnel and socialist leaders.

But my favorite line of all: “Finally…we should never underestimate the part played in human affairs by mistakes, muddles, or simply poor timing.”

As I read I kept having what I call my Gone With the Wind moments — I knew what was going to happen but I somehow kept hoping it would work out differently. With only verified quotes and actual events as material, MacMillan manages to convey the absolute desperation of many as the world drew closer and closer to war and the slow unraveling of the Concert of Europe. The description of this was chilling — rail and telegraph lines were cut, bank reserves were frozen, currency exchange stopped, trade stopped. “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life.” (attributed to Sir Edward Grey, Britain Foreign Secretary in 1914). Although written in 2013 (pre-Trump), she often draws unnerving parallels between the situations in 1914 and those of our current time.

Some advice for reading — if you’re like me and find 600 pages of dense history overwhelming and off putting — read one chapter at a time and take as long as you like. The contents are so memorable that you can pick it up days later and not have forgotten a thing.

Our Women on the Ground by Zahra Hankir (Non Fiction)

This is a hard book to read, but will open your eyes to whole worlds that exist just across the ocean. These 19 female journalists write about the stories they cover across the countries in the Middle East. From Syria to Iraq to Lebanon to Yemen (and more), they describe the world behind the political and military statistics — the civilian individuals (often women and children) trying to survive in a world gone crazy. From years without power, to the random and constant acts of violence, to the impact of a single car bomb on the rest of the community, these women bring to life a whole realm of existence that is hard for a Westerner to imagine. In many cases, we are reminded of how “normal” life was in the very recent past. It’s a harsh reminder that yes, no place or system or way of life is immune to the possibilities of sudden and violent destruction.

The essays are very personal, in many cases exposing the difficulties of being a female journalist, the impact on her life, the hopelessness of covering what feels like endless stupidity and ritualized anger. Some are heartfelt but rambling, others provide clear, coherent overviews and analyses of the situations, many expose details that enable the reader to understand a little more about how things evolved, and almost all stimulate a compassion that unfortunately have no real place to go.

Definitely worth reading, though give yourself time and take some breaks to keep from sinking into a useless despair.

Thank you to Penguin Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 6, 2019.

 

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis (Non Fiction)

Fascinating book about the birth of the field now known as Behavioral Economics. Part biography, part history, part research summary, this is the story both of the evolution of a friendship and collaboration as well as the melding of two previously disconnected fields: Economics and Psychology.

After their first meeting around 1968, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were rarely apart. The decades long tight collaboration that resulted produced a stunning number of key insights and seminal papers on the psychology of Judgement and Decision Making. The primary idea: there is systematic bias in the way people make decisions. Their work was responsible for the fall of the concept of the “rational man.”

They studied the cognitive basis for common human errors and elaborated on a set of heuristics (simple rules) and cognitive biases that subconsciously influenced the way people formed judgements or made decisions. Many of the resulting concepts — such as Anchoring, Framing, Hindsight, and the Halo Effect — have become household terms. Their “Prospect Theory,” created in 1979 and developed in 1992, was a “psychologically more accurate” description of how people made decisions, replacing the previously accepted Utility Theory which claimed that people made decisions by rationally calculating the utility (or value) of all potential outcomes. Applications of this work are widespread, ranging across medicine (evidence based medicine), sports, finance, and military uses.

Some of the heuristics:
• Representativeness heuristic: the decision making shortcut that determines probability based on how well the subject is representative of a stereotype.
• Availability heuristic: the mental shortcut that makes decisions based on examples that come immediately to mind.
• Anchoring and adjustment heuristic: the influence of a previously suggested reference point (the anchor) on a person’s assessment of probability.
• Simulation heuristic: the shortcut for determining an event based on how easy it is to imagine – or “the power of unrealized possibilities to contaminate people’s minds.”

Some of the biases
• Recency bias: Decision making based on the relative ease of remembering something that happened recently rather than long ago.
• Vividness bias: bias based on the ease with which an option can be recalled.
• Hindsight bias: the tendency of people to overestimate their ability to have predicted an outcome that they could not have possibly predicted.
• Present bias: The tendency of people to undervalue future with respect to present.

The structure of the book follows the story of the two men. Though the closest of friends and collaborators until the last few years of Tversky’s life, their personalities and background were quite different. While both Israeli, Amos came from an aggressive Zionist family, while Danny and his family escaped from Nazi Europe; Danny was an appeaser, Amos a bully; Amos loved theory while Danny liked practical application of psychology, “Amos was built to fight, Danny was built to survive.” The book includes captivating detail about their backgrounds and interactions, and the process by which the work took flight and captured the interest of researchers and practitioners around the world.

The journalistic style of the story makes the personal bits easy to remember, with the research results a little harder to grasp in its entirety. The narrative jumps around a bit and the down side of watching a theory evolve (and not necessarily in a linear order) is that it can be harder to comprehend the whole. I found reading the Wikipedia articles on Kahneman and Tversky helped supplement my understanding of the actual work.

Some great quotes:
Asked if their work was related to AI, Amos said: “We study natural stupidity instead of Artificial Intelligence.”

In response to evolutionary psychology proponents Amos said, “The mind was more like a coping mechanism than it was a perfectly designed tool.”

On “Creeping determinism,” Amos says: “He who sees the past as surprise-free is bound to have a future full of surprises.”

“Economics was meant to be the study of an aspect of human nature, but it had ceased to pay attention to human nature.”

“Theories for Amos were like mental pockets or briefcases, places to put the ideas you wanted to keep.”