Sunday, September 24, 2023

One Month On T

I'll begin with some context-setting. If you want to skip to the main event, start at "It's now been about one month."

First, a caveat: I did not start with a baseline female endocrine profile when I began taking testosterone. I'd given birth two and a half months earlier, so my most recent memories of what it was like to inhabit a female body were of a postpartum body, and before that a pregnant body. I suspect that if I'd started T at a different time, some of the contrasts would not have seemed so stark. Still, pregnancy and postpartum felt to me like they turned up certain parts of my experience, not like they added something completely new. I do think that from baseline, I would have noticed the same things, just to a lesser degree.

Second, what was my relationship with HRT, going in?

I have in my head a sort of caricature of a pre-T trans man. The character I have in mind thinks of himself as a man, suffers so much from being trapped in the wrong body that he's constantly depressed and anxious over it, can't stand being misgendered by other people, and is confident that "medically transitioning" will solve his biggest problem. When it does turn out to solve his biggest problem, and his life is dramatically better, and he's transformed from a miserable wreck into a self-actualized and flourishing version of himself, he is not at all surprised, and neither is anyone who knows him.

I worry that I've described this person in a way that's somehow trivializing; I don't mean to. I think many such people actually exist. What I'm trying to do here is point at one extreme end of a spectrum, where the other end is "cis by default"—someone who really just doesn't care about their sex or gender, either from the inside or with respect to how others treat them.

I have never been at either extreme end of this spectrum.

I was sure about enough things that HRT seemed like it was the right choice for me, on net. But very little seemed obvious or straightforward. I made my decision largely through reference class forecasting: Changes I'd previously made to my body and social situation that tend to help transmasculine people turned out to help me as well, and starting T was the next obvious thing to try. I wasn't sure that I "am a man", or that I'd feel more like myself on testosterone, and I had some pretty big concerns.

I was hesitant for three reasons. First, I was afraid of having a higher sex drive. Depending on my mood, I either see sexuality as a somewhat nice diversion, like popcorn at a movie, or as a tragic distraction from the things that actually matter to me.

Secondly, I'm not the best at coping with change, in general. For example, I have sometimes cried after getting a haircut, even when it was exactly the haircut I wanted and I thought it looked really good, just because it was so rough for me to suddenly look different.

And third, maybe I'd miss biological femininity! Although my money was actually on feeling freer to openly express the feminine aspects of myself once my masculinity felt more secure, it was only a guess. For example, I was once a stripper, someone who performs feminine sexuality professionally, and I loved it. Not everything about it—any job has its downsides—but I enjoyed playing those characters on stage, and I enjoyed the way people responded to me when I did. Seems like at least some evidence that T would make my life worse instead of better, no?

So overall, my attitude going in was that the situation was complicated and uncertain, but it seemed likely that I'd be better off with a male endocrine profile than with a female one, even though the change probably wouldn't solve any big problems immediately and might cause some new ones. By sticking with the female endocrine profile indefinitely, I'd be failing the reversal test.

It's now been about one month. I've been injecting 80mg of testosterone cypionate intramuscularly once a week for four weeks. What has resulted so far? Lol um well, it immediately solved my biggest problems, actually, and suddenly my life is dramatically better.

I am surprised. This was in my hypothesis space, but I definitely did not expect it, especially not so quickly.

What exactly have I noticed? What has changed?

1. The very first thing I noticed was something I've described as "heat" in my body. I gave myself my first injection in the morning, and by that night, I was feeling something emanating from my torso that reminded me of gently glowing embers. It was strongest for the first couple of days, and then it subsided, but has not completely gone away.

It seems closely tied with my experience of "having more energy". I've been enjoying exercise more, feeling more motivated, more eager to go places and do things. It's not an uncomfortable restlessness; just a pleasant internal fire that drives me forward toward action.

2. The second thing I noticed was a cognitive change away from neuroticism and toward clarity. This was apparent by day three.

When thinking through a problem, reading, studying, or considering a project for work, my cognition seemed far more direct. It's not that there was an addition of directness, no impatient craving for a clear answer or anything like that. There was just an absence of many obstacles I'd previously spend at least half of my thinking time contending with. Obstacles like self criticism, considerations about how other people might perceive my thoughts/beliefs/preferences/emotions, a constant meta-level weighing of whether what I was doing was any good and whether I should continue, and what sort of evidence my thoughts were about whether I'd succeed or fail.

With testosterone, I immediately found that I could just... think. On the object level, directly, without paranoia diverting me at every step, without spending a lot of cycles ameliorating and mitigating all those protective filters.

It's a quantitative difference more than a qualitative one. My brain is still doing all of the same things. I still seem to care about what my thoughts mean about my future and so forth, and I'm still sometimes distracted by that sort of thing when I'd like to focus completely on something else; but it's mostly only when I'm tired, very hungry, or sick. By default, my thinking feels so much more clear, engaged, uncomplicated, quick, focused, decisive. No more weird twisty mazes of intrusive neuroticism.

3. The increased stability isn't limited to intellectual tasks. By the end of the first week, emotional regulation had become quicker and easier in general.

On September 2 (day 6 of T), I wrote, "Today I was emotionally rattled by something in a way and to an extent that I think would have caused a lot of prolonged distress in any other period of my life. I would have been unable to sleep, and it might have dominated my thoughts and made it really difficult to accomplish anything for at least a day. Instead, after half an hour and a bit of yoga, I was pretty much emotionally re-centered, I had a game plan for how to deal with things practically, and I was ok. And on the first day of my period, no less."

I've been taking a depression test called the "Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale" every week since the middle of pregnancy. The test says, "A score of more than 10 suggests minor or major depression may be present. Further evaluation is recommended." Before T, I'd never seen a number below 5, and I considered 5 to be "as good as things can actually get". My scores for the past month have been 1, 1, 2, and 1.

4. Over the course of the month, something has changed about my experience of pleasure.

This cluster of perceptions is a little tricky to untangle, perhaps because it seems to have something to do with sexuality, but not in an obvious way. I'll describe it as three separate things, but I'm strongly inclined to claim that it's really all one thing.

4.1 Eudemonia. By the end of the first week, I'd noticed a general sense of wellbeing that subtly (and sometimes overtly) permeated my experiences. I just felt... good. Sometimes there was happiness, joy, excitement. But mostly it's more subtle than that.

I feel it right now, so I'll pay attention to it and try to describe it to you.

There's a gentle, pleasant buzzing in my body. I feel it in my head, my lips and mouth, the front of my chest, my arms, my lower abdomen, my legs, and my feet. It's a sunny grounded feeling. It resonates with phrases like, "Things are ok," "Life is good," "I like being here, now, doing exactly what I'm doing."

I've been happy before. I've even been elated, triumphant, lovesick. I've been physically healthy, I've been vibrant and generative, I've been pleased with the way my life is going. But I don't think I've ever felt a persistent sense of wellbeing. I've never just felt good, in general, for weeks on end.

I mean, it's not like every experience I've had all month has been great. I had a period, I got a stomach bug, I spent most of my time at a caloric deficit because I'm trying to lose pregnancy weight, I slept poorly for most of last week while over-socializing and felt exhausted and pretty much like crap.

But all of that stuff seemed to go on top of "being ok". And whenever the crappy stuff dissipated, eudemonia shone through like the sky behind parting clouds.

4.2 Enjoyment. During weeks two and three, I'd started to notice a change in what it's like for me to enjoy things.

You can see some of it in that description of my immediate experience of wellbeing above. Did you notice how much I talked about my body? I've always been an exceptionally embodied person, but testosterone seems to have turned that up even more.

This month, I enjoy things more acutely than I have at any other point in the previous year. For the most part, I don't enjoy different things—it's still poetry, music, working out, learning, sunshine, leaves, excellent writing, chocolate, etc.—but I enjoy them both more and differently. How is my enjoyment "different"? There's more "excitement" in it, it's more embodied, and "pleasure" is a more apt description of one of the central components of enjoyment than it's ever been before. My enjoyment of things used to be relatively distant and intellectual. More like "appreciation". Now it is very often visceral, physical, embodied.

Take for example "Snow" by Louis Macneice. This is a brilliant free verse poem I encountered for the first time during the past month. When I read it, my chest flutters and leaps. The words drop into my lower abdomen and smoulder there. The buzzing of wellbeing that I described earlier intensifies until I feel almost like I must have been drugged. The delight is in my chest, in my stomach, in my genitals, in my legs and arms and head. My appreciation of poetry has taken on a blazing full-body power.

4.3 Sex drive.

It did not become apparent until the fourth week that my desire for and enjoyment of literal physical two-person sex had increased. It was a gradual dawning. First there were the changes to enjoyment generally, which I suspected were somehow tied to sexuality. Then I noticed a greater interest in some of my kinks, and a larger impact from thinking about them.

I noticed that I was masturbating more often, a change from a couple times a week to one or two times a day. I was doing this with an exploratoratory attitude, and it wasn't until week four that it became clear to me I was in fact craving sexual experience, and that some of it even took the form of a desire to have sex with specific other people.

I would not have described myself as asexual before. I do sometimes experience sexual attraction to people. But most of the parts of attraction that have to do with sex in particular seem to largely go away by the end of the infatuation period for me; and even at the best of times, it's not really been clear that I enjoy sex itself. During pregnancy, I hated almost everything about sex, and it didn't feel like all that big of a change from baseline. I was mostly just less able to tolerate sex. Usually sex has been an instrumental goal for me, something I do in order to accomplish something else (such as the BDSM components of the experience, or social power, or intimacy with my partner).

Now I straightforwardly desire sex with at least some of the people I'm attracted to, and I straightforwardly enjoy it when it happens. I still have sensory sensitivities to contend with, and I have to keep track of that and communicate about it in order to have a good time. But having a good time during sex is actually possible now.

Having a higher sex drive is really different from how I imagined it would be. Sexuality has never felt integrated for me before. There are things I enjoy greatly, and there is sexual stimulation and orgasm and so forth, and I've never really been clear on what those two things have to do with each other. So I think that when I imagined having a higher sex drive, I mostly imagined turning up a certain kind of discomfort. The discomfort of physically craving orgasm.

Instead, it's been something that doesn't really come apart from my ability to enjoy art, and learning, and the excitement and satisfaction of engaging with the world as myself. I do crave physical sexual stimulation more strongly and more frequently than before. But so far, it feels like just another part of being more brightly on fire. If this is the kind of sexuality I'm turning up by taking testosterone, I think I'm ok with that.

Overall, it so far seems likely that taking T will turn out to have been literally the best decision I have ever made. I completely love it.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

The Birth of Cadence

Hey guess what I have a kid now! Yes really. Their name is Cadence, and they were born on June 20th, 2023. It was rad.

There's a whole bunch of stuff about it on my website, including a birth story, lots of other writing below that under Q&A, photos, and videos. (If you only click on the "writings" button, you won't see any naked people.)

I'm crossposting the birth story here.


The day before labor began, I laid mulch around the sunflower seedlings and the raspberries in the raised beds. It was chilly out, despite being late June. I felt exhausted after gardening, but also satisfied for having done something physical. I spent most of the rest of the day watching British Bakeoff. "Bit of a rough day," I wrote in my journal. "Really tired and pretty physically uncomfortable. Grateful that pregnancy is almost over." I took a bath before bed, and then Duncan and I did a Spinning Babies exercise called The Three Sisters of Balance. For a few hours, I slept well.

I went into labor at about 1:30AM on June 20th, 2023. Right on time: June 20th was exactly my due date.

I called Duncan to my room once I was sure I’d had a few strong contractions. I was feeling pretty calm, but I was also shaking off and on. I wanted him to hold my hand.

I’ve heard that shaking is a common response to labor hormones. It was a big part of the labor experience for me, especially in early labor. The contractions that were accompanied by shaking felt like “hormone dumps” to me, and I described them that way to Duncan. They were more satisfying than the other contractions. I didn't like the shaking; it's difficult to relax through a contraction when you can't control your muscles. But I did like the psychological changes that went with it. I felt like I was moving into a different state of mind, like I’d taken a drug.

What state of mind did they move me into? Words I associate with the state include: Raw, toppled, stripped away, naked, open, riding, receptive, internal, trembling, alive, real, body-focused, quiet, present, and timeless. In that state, I wanted to be near the ground, to touch the floor with my hands and feel its stability. Everything outside of me became dim in my awareness as I let myself be taken by the waves. I barely felt time passing; there was only what was happening inside of me right then. I've never been more acutely aware of my animal instincts.

I felt a little bit like I’d been poisoned, but I wasn’t scared. I felt ready for it.

I asked Duncan to call our doula, Shalin, after about an hour and a half. She’d said it might take her an hour to get to our house, and I thought if things continued to progress as they had been, I’d probably want her support and guidance after another hour. She arrived at 3:50AM.

I used several positions early that morning. Some Shalin suggested, some were inspired by her suggestions, and some were spontaneous responses to what I was feeling. I spent time on hands and knees, sometimes tilting my pelvis or moving my torso in big circles. Sometimes I sat on the toilet, usually with a robe worn backward to keep me warm. For a while I sat on an exercise ball while leaning forward over my desk. I walked up and down the stairs sideways a few times, did a little bit of lunging in place with one foot up on the ottoman, walked around doing abdominal lift-and-tucks during contractions, and danced to music in my bedroom. But I think I spent the majority of my time kneeling and leaning forward over either an exercise ball, the ottoman, or a bean bag.

My focus was mainly on staying relaxed and integrating the sensations. I especially kept my hands, jaw, face, and pelvic floor relaxed. I breathed deeply and moaned to release the tension. Rain and thunder sounds usually calm me, so I kept those on in the background when I wasn’t playing music. I used mantras and visualization to guide my mind in the direction my physiology seemed to suggest. Aided by the endorphins and hormones, I deliberately put myself into a hypnotic state, moving deeper or nearer the surface as circumstances required, and I stayed that way for all 18hrs of labor.

I threw up at 5:37. It was quite a lot of liquid.

As the sun rose, my contractions started to space out. They had been about four minutes apart, lasting for one minute, but then they spread out to about eight minutes apart. I started to get a little worried that labor was going to stop again, like it had a week and a half before. I’d been through a lot already, and I would have found that pretty discouraging. There was still no bloody show when I went to the bathroom, and very little mucus. I was also feeling more “normal”, not so deep in labor space.

Shalin texted my midwife, Mackenzie, who suggested I take 50mg of benadryl and get some rest if possible. I took the benadryl and tried to rest, but lying on my side made contractions feel much more intense.

By 8AM I was shaking again, throwing up more, and losing a lot of mucus plug. Maybe this is really happening after all, I thought. I went for a short walk outside on the deck, where I paused a few times to lean against a wall or railing during a contraction. Duncan and Shalin walked beside me, ready to offer physical support, or a barf bag, if I needed help.

By 9:20 I’d thrown up again. Duncan kept me well supplied with coconut water, juice, and bone broth, but I couldn’t seem to keep much liquid down at all. Mackenzie decided to come over a bit early to rehydrate me with IV fluids.

I’d been paying a lot of attention to Cadence’s movements; they tended to move quite a bit just after contractions, as though they were stretching or shoving themselves around. I said multiple times during labor that I thought Cadence was doing most of the work. At 10:12 I had a contraction that I said felt “different”. I don’t remember this in detail, but I told Shalin that it felt like Cadence was “pushing through”. I think I felt them move to a different position this time, and there was more downward pressure for the rest of labor after this contraction.

Mackenzie arrived around 10:30. She listened to Cadence’s heartbeat with a doppler, and said they sounded good. She checked my blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate, and told me all of those readings were fine as well. I was feeling pretty ragged and depleted by this point, though.

She waited for the end of a contraction, then placed the IV while I was leaning forward over the ottoman. The IV itself wasn’t a major part of my experience, though it was occasionally a little inconvenient. She ran a second bag of IV fluids at 11:52, and by that time I was feeling much better. I definitely prefer to labor while hydrated. Being dehydrated felt sharp and strained. Being hydrated felt plump and expansive. I was stronger after the IV fluids.

At 12:25, Mackenzie asked if I wanted a cervical exam. I was still struggling with the possibility that this was not “real labor”—I didn't know how to orient to the experience, and it's hard for me to let go while disoriented—so I said yes. To my surprise, the exam didn't hurt at all. I was 7cm dilated and 90% effaced, and Cadence was at +1 station. I found that really encouraging! Sure sounded like real labor to me.

At 1PM, we decided it was time to start filling the birthing tub. We planned to set it up in my bedroom, so I moved to the living room while Mackenzie’s assistant Jaime began to inflate it.

I remember Shalin saying, “This is transition,” while Jaime was inflating the tub. The contraction sensations were intense, but they felt totally continuous with the earlier parts of labor. I had a harder time integrating them while the tub was inflating, because the sound of the air pump was pretty awful for me. Almost like a leaf blower. I didn’t consider it to be “too much” from within my tranced-out state, though, and told Duncan and Shalin that I was fine. But Duncan brought me ear muffs anyway, and things really were a lot easier after that.

The second bag of IV fluids finished running around 2PM, and it was time to go to the tub. Shalin and Mackenzie wanted me to use the bathroom first, but getting to and sitting on the toilet did not sound any good at all to me. I asked if I could just pee in the birth tub, and they said yes, people do that all the time and it’s fine. So I crawled on hands and knees toward the tub, pausing in the middle to ride through a contraction in child’s pose.

The support of the water was an immense relief. I felt far more comfortable with half of my body floating. I think it made an especially big difference between contractions. I found it easier to rest and relax in the water.

I spent a while leaning forward over the side of the tub, often holding Duncan’s hand. It was comfortable for me, but during a fetal heart rate check, Mackenzie told me that it was not comfortable for Cadence. The birth tub included a little seat on the other side, so I crawled over to it and sat upright. In the new position, Cadence sounded fine. I made the seat my new home base for the rest of labor.

Around 3:30PM, something started to shift for me. I don’t know what sensations tipped me off, but emotionally, I began to orient to the experience differently: Rather than completely surrendering into the timeless space of endurance, I think I recognized that I was entering “the home stretch”. I wanted to mark the shift, and perhaps to communicate with Cadence about it as well, so I asked Duncan to play Cadence’s birthday song: “Come Alive” from The Greatest Showman.

I rarely felt very connected to Cadence as a proto-person when they were in the womb. I was not in love with them already, the way many gestational parents are during pregnancy. But at some point in second trimester, I was listening to “Come Alive”, and it hit me hard that this is how I feel about the fetus, that this is what I want for them and why I was drawn to creating a human in the first place.

It’s what I want for everyone. It’s the kind of love that I feel for everyone. It’s the impact I want to have. I want people to somehow move beyond whatever obstacles prevent them from fully experiencing all the awesome things that constantly surround them. To be their full selves in intimate contact with the world. The ability to experience is why I care so much about humanity.

*Come alive, come alive Go and light your light, let it burn so bright Reaching up to the sky And it’s open wide, you’re electrified

And the world becomes a fantasy And you’re more than you could ever be ’Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open And you know you can’t go back again To the world that you were living in ’Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open*

So that’s how I wanted to welcome Cadence to Earth: with a prayer that when they left the darkness and safety of the womb, they would begin a life of unbridled wonder.

I felt all of that in the song as I listened to it, and as, between contractions, I was able to sing along.

The contractions were so intense, and even in the tub, the pain of them never completely let up in between. I felt a little bit betrayed; multiple books and videos about labor had led me to believe that the discomfort would stop between the contractions.

That sense of betrayal conflicted with my meditative strategies. For a few minutes, I was more aware of time, and I started to worry. I thought to myself, I can’t keep doing this.

Fortunately I’d prepared for exactly that thought. I recognized it as a sign of transition while it was happening, and I told my support team about it. “It was just a thought,” I said, trying to reassure them that it had been fleeting, and I was all right. Letting go of it moved me back toward the calm and relaxed state of labor space.

My body began to push spontaneously at about 4:30PM. Mackenzie said she heard it in my voice: Mixed in with the moans, I started making a sound that was more like a growl.

By 5:30, my contractions had spaced out again. They were eight minutes apart. I still felt the pushing when they happened, but the times in between had become comfortable, and I was really enjoying my rest.

Mackenzie alerted me that things might not be moving in the direction I wanted. She offered me a couple options: I could take a cotton root tincture, which might increase the pace of the contractions on its own. Or, I could get out of the tub, maybe go for a short walk on the deck, to try to pick things back up again.

I definitely did not want to get out of the tub, so I asked for the cotton root tincture. However, by the time the tincture was ready, I’d changed my mind. I wanted to try stimulating contractions myself without leaving the tub, just by moving around differently. I used several tactics, including alternating lunges, pelvic tilts, and lifting my body out of the water. Basically, I just needed to make myself the right kind of uncomfortable as soon as I felt ready.

It worked! I rested for what felt like “just as much time as I needed” after each contraction, and then I began moving again to bring on another. Although the contractions seemed to begin as a result of my own decisions, Mackenzie said my pace was just perfect not long afterward.

I used my hand to touch inside my vagina, to see what I could feel. What I felt was a taut little water balloon very close to the opening: The amniotic sac was still intact. I re-checked after every couple contractions, to see if I could perceive any progress, but I could not.

I began to feel frustrated. I was working so hard, but as far as I could tell, nothing much was happening. I didn’t feel Cadence moving as much as they had earlier in labor, either. I really wanted my water to break.

This period of yearning for change was probably the most uncomfortable part of labor for me. The raw physical sensations weren't any more extreme, but emotionally, I felt almost as if I were in an argument with my body. Perhaps if I put more energy into pushing, I thought, then my water will finally break, and things will move again. But it didn't break, not then. I felt a little stuck.

At 6:02, Mackenzie asked whether I felt like I was pushing against my body, or with it. I told her I thought I was pushing with my body, but I wasn’t completely sure, because the sensations were all new to me, and I was frustrated. I asked for another cervical exam. I wondered if I might be pushing against my cervix, in which case perhaps I should try to hold off.

But Mackenzie confirmed that I was completely dilated. To me, that meant that everything was fine, and I just needed to be patient.

I began speaking then to Cadence, and a little bit to myself. Not always in words, and usually not out loud. I reminded myself that birth happens when both of us are ready, that I had no interest in rushing them, and that we’re safe to continue like this for a long time if we need to. “It’s ok to take your time,” I murmured. “Take all the time you need. I’ll be here when you’re ready.” It helped me so much. After that, I felt calm and patient again.

But I wanted to encourage them as well, to invite them out. I told them the thing that’s kept me moving through the roughest patches in my own life: “It’s hard out here,” I said, “but it’s worth it.” There are fireflies out here, and thunderstorms, and poetry. Even though it hurts, you have to live to see them.

At 6:34PM, my water broke as I pushed. It felt like a little pop, like squeezing a water balloon until it burst. I could feel Cadence helping out again after that, moving themselves around and down after every contraction.

My pushes felt clearly productive for the rest of labor. Cadence moved back up a little after each contraction, but each contraction brought them farther down than the last. I could feel their head with my hand at 6:43.

I was able to push two or three times with every wave, two or three exhalations. Mackenzie suggested that I maintain downward pressure between pushes as I inhaled, which I found effortful but intuitive. I kept my pelvic floor open and imagined my breath pooling at the bottom, rather than flowing all the way out.

I felt burning and stinging sensations around my vaginal opening, but they were not nearly as intense as reading about “the ring of fire” had led me to expect. On top of all the endorphins, it was a kind of pain I find pretty easy to tolerate. I was surprised to learn afterward that I had labial lacerations. It really wasn’t so bad while it happened.

Cadence’s head was 13 inches around. I got it out in three pushes, over the course of one contraction. I felt their body turn sideways shortly after their head emerged. I asked for a mirror to find out what it looked like: A furry softball sticking out of my vagina. Just as I’d expected, but fascinating anyway. Not a sight I was likely to see again, or at least not any time soon.

The rest of their body came out on the next contraction. Even though their chest was larger than their head (15 inches! Great big ribcage!), the whole thing seemed to slide out easily once the shoulders were through. At 7:22PM, Cadence was born into the tub, and Mackenzie caught them.

As I held Cadence to my chest, I said to them, “Hi! Hello! …You’re a little person!?” It seemed pretty wild to me that they had a whole human body full of rigid bones, that they were so large, and that all of that had somehow been inside of my abdomen. I rubbed their back to help them breathe while Mackenzie listened to their heart and lungs. Duncan came over to hold both of us.

Then I sang to them, the chorus from their birthday song, and Duncan joined me. I felt so relieved, and so pleased that I’d accomplished this, and that they were all right.

I was excited for the life they would have. I cried a little as I sang, and my voice wavered. I’m glad it’s one of the first things they heard on the outside. I sincerely meant it, and I always will.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Nuts and Bolts of Naturalism

Man I am so very overdue for this post.

I have been working for the past year on a second sequence in the series that started with "Intro to Naturalism". Intro was about the worldview. This one's called "The Nuts and Bolts of Naturalism", and it's the step-by-step how-to. This, like the previous sequence, is over at

Readers of Agenty Duck will be familiar with most of the things in Nuts and Bolts, but I've spent a lot of time refining the techniques and putting them together into a larger strategy, and from there into a curriculum. Here is a crosspost of the opening essay.

Introducing the Nuts and Bolts of Naturalism

What Is Naturalism?

Naturalism is a general-purpose procedure for advancing one’s art of rationality.

“Naturalism” is the term I use for an investigative process that focuses attention on the points in daily life where subjective experience intersects with crucial information. It is a systematic method for taking your implicit stories and assumptions and holding them up against reality. In the process, you’ll find out whether they survive that contact, or get replaced with new stories.

I’ve previously published a sequence that focuses on the philosophy and perspective underlying this method. In it, I describe what I mean by “naturalism” in a lot of detail, by expanding on the sentence, “Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation.” Fundamentally, I think of naturalism as the practice of behaving as though you believe that knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation.

What Is This Sequence?

My first naturalism sequence was about the worldview. This one is the step-by-step how-to.

The sequence you’re currently reading is the second in a larger series. This second sequence is coherent on its own; however, if you start to read and find yourself wondering, “But why would I bother with any of this?” then you should probably stop and go read the worldview sequence first. (If you instead find yourself wishing that there were many more in-depth examples, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for my third sequence, which I expect will consist mainly of demonstration.)

As I pointed out at the end of the intro sequence, the practice of naturalism is entirely focused on “patient observation”.

When a person first begins to study naturalism with me, … I begin by helping them establish consistent habits of observation. … And then, throughout what has so far proven to be about a three month program, I never shift our focus away from consistent habits of observation. It’s not just where I start. It’s the entire curriculum. …

From a practical perspective, this dogged persistence is the foundation of naturalism. “Direct observation of the territory”, without patience, gets you something like a bag of tricks. Valuable tricks, but still tricks. Isolated mental motions made when they are convenient and enjoyable, not when they are most needed.

With patience, though, you get a life-long practice of epistemic rationality.

The sort of patience I have in mind is not simply waiting. It is a long series of small, consistent efforts to observe openly and thoroughly.

I’ve developed many detailed strategies and techniques for directing those efforts over time. In the past few years, I’ve woven these strategies together into a comprehensive curriculum that several people have completed, and many more have experimented with in part.

In these essays, I will delineate my naturalist curriculum, piece by piece.

These are the nuts and bolts of my practice, and I’ve done my best to touch on each of them.

What This Sequence Isn’t

What follows is a lot like an extremely detailed syllabus. It is not really the curriculum itself in text form.

The full curriculum depends not just on instruction in the techniques, but on practical grounding in the underlying philosophy, plus a whole lot of real-time demonstration and practice. You can’t learn the violin just by reading a book, and you can’t learn naturalism that way either. You have to wrestle with all of it in real life.

That said, I do hope to present here a sturdy framework that especially enterprising students of rationality could personalize and flesh out into a full independent-study curriculum, and from there into a systematic rationality practice. If that might be your aim, I have a few suggestions.

Tips For the Ambitious

Tip 1: Read First

Even if you do plan to attempt a full naturalist study by following the instructions in this overview, I recommend reading through the whole sequence before you begin. I think it will help a lot to be somewhat familiar with a bird’s eye sketch of the process before finding out all the ways things go sideways and require creativity down on the ground.

Tip 2: Prepare For the Unexpected

As you read, I encourage you to keep in mind that no naturalist study goes exactly like the curriculum suggests. As Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” What I’m sharing with you is a plan for naturalist study.

Direct investigation is invariably messy and complicated, because the world is messy and complicated, and so are investigators. If I describe something that seems off to you, or that doesn’t sound like it fits your situation or the way your own mind works, you’re likely right. Generate alternatives, or at least be ready to look for them in the future.

Tip 3: Invite a Friend

Some people study best independently, but many don’t. Social engagement is a fundamental part of my curriculum, and building some into your own work could make a huge difference. When you’re trying to see familiar things in new ways, meeting regularly with someone else who’s doing the same can be both supportive and usefully challenging. They may ask questions you haven’t thought of, or notice things you’ve missed. They’ll also be one more external structure to help keep your progress consistent.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

A Month Of Ocumare

I have a chocolate blog! Mostly I just post my tasting notes there, but sometimes I say more stuff too. This time I said a whole bunch of stuff, because I tasted the same chocolate every day for a month and then wrote about the experience.

You can read it here. You might like it if you enjoy my writings on phenomenology, perception, and original seeing.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Intro To Naturalism Sequence

I've written an entire sequence introducing "naturalism", and I've just finished publishing it on LessWrong. You can see the whole thing at this link.

Here's the first post:


A note on how to approach this sequence:

If you were exactly like me, I would ask you to savor this sequence, not scarf it. I would ask you to approach each of these essays in an expansive, lingering, thoughtful sort of mood. I would ask you to read them a little bit at a time, perhaps from a comfortable chair with a warm drink beside you, and to take breaks to make dinner, sing in the car, talk to your friends, and sleep.

These essays are reflections on the central principles I have gradually excavated from my past ten years of intellectual labor. I am a very slow thinker myself; if you move too quickly, I expect we’ll miss each other completely.

There’s a certain kind of thing that happens when a person moves quickly, and relies a lot on their built-up structures—their familiar, tried-and-true habits of thought and perception. There is a different kind of thing that happens when a person can step back and bring those very structures into view, rather than standing atop them. I'm hoping for the latter.

But since you’re not exactly like me, there might be a better way to approach this sequence, in your particular case, than the exact one I’d suggest to myself. I hope you’ll take a moment to check.

What matters to me is not how fast you read, or how many sittings it takes; what matters is that you create for yourself enough space to explore, to observe the real world beyond all these words, to watch how your own thoughts and experiences unfold in dialog with mine. Any method that allows you to maintain that kind of space as you read is perfect, as far as I’m concerned.


“Naturalism” is a label for a conceptual framework, investigatory discipline, and semi-formalized way of looking at and learning about the world. I’ve been developing and teaching naturalism for the past couple of years, if you start counting on the day I chose the term, or since 2013, if you take a more historical perspective. I’ve made some relevant content available, but I’ve had trouble writing a straightforward introductory post.

The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that the naturalist perspective is suspicious of categories, projections, and preconceptions, and seeks to move closer toward (relatively) unfiltered, direct observations. It’s specifically a frame-breaking and frame-escaping discipline, so it’s hard to describe in frame-terms without being importantly misleading.

I ardently desire not to mislead anyone.


There’s a saying I like a lot, which goes: “A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two is never sure.”

(When I first heard this, I needed to pause for a moment, to let it sink in. It helped me to actually visualize wearing a watch on each wrist, then checking the time.)

The reason I like this saying is that it reminds me to be confused, in an appropriate fashion. “Confused” might even be too weak of a word—it’s almost like it reminds me to be scared, in an appropriate fashion.

I mean, sure—for most things, I don’t have to know what time it actually is, with sufficient precision that the off-ness of my watch makes a meaningful difference. The claim here is not that absolute clarity is required at all times.

But there is indeed an unfortunate property of having-a-watch, which is that it provides me with an answer to the question “what time is it?”

It provides that answer clearly, and specifically, and unambiguously. It provides that answer with more confidence than it ought to, like a calculation that doesn’t attend to significant digits. And if I’m not careful, then with my watch right in front of me, it’s very easy to lose track of the fact that I do not, in fact, know exactly what time it is. To forget that what I really know is what time it almost is.


This is what our concepts do for us. They are usually a strict upgrade over “entirely too much information for us to even begin to process or handle”; but if you lean on them too heavily, or too unthinkingly, they become actively misleading. Actively harmful, in cases where precision and accuracy genuinely matter, and being subtly wrong is disastrous.

And concepts encourage us to lean. They’re sturdy! Sensible! Comforting! They soothe confusion, make the world seem more predictable and comprehensible, give us the surface sensation of control (or at least understanding). It’s nice to have answers.

But the map is not the territory.


It’s easy to look up at the sky, and name the constellations, without losing track of your knowledge that there isn’t really a Great Bear up there. We know that the constellations aren’t “real,” that they’re just there to help us chunk and cluster and orient and discuss.

But constellations are an unusually transparent construction. In the set of fake concepts that we impose on messy reality, they’re unusually candid about their fakeness. Their arbitrary nature is kind enough to be apparent and obvious.

Many concepts are much less wearing-their-fakeness-on-their-sleeve. Constellations don’t bear all that much resemblance to actual stars, so it’s easy to avoid getting confused. But a lot of concepts really look quite similar to the thing they’re modeling, and are therefore much more seductive, mesmerizing, convincing, befuddling. Much more in-the-way, much more likely to distract, much harder to set aside and see past.

The concept Harry's mind had of the rubber eraser as a single object was obvious nonsense.

It was a map that didn't and couldn't match the territory.

Human beings modeled the world using stratified levels of organization, they had separate thoughts about how countries worked, how people worked, how >organs worked, how cells worked, how molecules worked, how quarks worked.

When Harry's brain needed to think about the eraser, it would think about the rules that governed erasers, like "erasers can get rid of pencil-marks". >Only if Harry's brain needed to predict what would happen on the lower chemical level, only then would Harry's brain start thinking - as though it were >a separate fact - about rubber molecules.

But that was all in the mind.

Harry's mind might have separate beliefs about rules that governed erasers, but there was no separate law of physics that governed erasers.

Harry's mind modeled reality using multiple levels of organization, with different beliefs about each level. But that was all in the map, the true >territory wasn't like that, reality itself had only a single level of organization, the quarks, it was a unified low-level process obeying >mathematically simple rules.

It is genuinely difficult to notice that an eraser is something other than “an eraser”—to circumvent the well-intentioned shortcutting that our brains are so practiced at doing.

And to be clear: it’s usually not necessary to notice that the mental category “eraser” is glossing over a bunch of detail. It usually does not matter; our concepts are ubiquitous in large part because they tend to be sufficient, adequate for our purposes.

But there are times when it’s absolutely crucial to be un-hypnotized, when it’s absolutely crucial to be aware of the difference between [what’s happening] and [the layer of interpretation we’ve draped like a blanket over what’s happening].

And there’s something frightening (to me, at least) about the idea of such a crucial moment arising and people not noticing it, because they aren’t even aware that they’re draping a blanket. Or noticing that they need to set aside the blanket, but not knowing how to actually do so.

Which is why I’ve devoted so many of my resources to developing naturalism. It’s an important facet of mature rationalist practice, and it’s mostly missing from our collective toolkit.


Notice, though, that “naturalism” is itself a concept. It’s a constellation painted somewhat arbitrarily over a multidimensional cluster of phenomena, pretending to be real. It’s easy to say that X is a part of naturalism and Y is not, and to forget that there just isn’t any boundary out there in the territory.

But in order to properly draw your attention to the cluster, I think I sort of have to paint those lines. Human brains (mine included) have a really hard time getting excited about vast collections of vaguely adjacent points; in order to produce something useful and comprehensible, I have to pretend that there’s a Thing, there.

I think doing so is instrumentally useful, and I think that (when done honestly, as this intro sequence is attempting to do) it’s not actually misleading, or self-undermining. This is a fundamental thesis of naturalism: that there are points, and there are paintings we superimpose upon them, and that these things are different. That the constellations are of a wholly different nature than the stars.

Doesn’t mean we don’t need the conceptual overlay. We just want to know, in any given moment, whether we’re dealing more with paintings, or more with the things they’re meant to depict.


The constellation I will paint in this sequence is a single sentence. It’s a sentence I built one word at a time, sketched atop a cluster of five stars I’ve picked out from my view of the night sky.

The sentence is a summary of naturalism after-the-fact. It will do almost nothing to help you understand the stars themselves, the real thing that I try to do with my mind day in and day out.

But it may serve to guide your attention to those stars. It may prompt you to look more closely, for yourself, at the reality hidden behind the tidy painting.

The sentence, which I will discuss piece by piece throughout my introductory sequence, is this:

The sentence forms the outline of my sequence, more or less:

  • Knowing
  • The Territory
  • Observation
  • Patient Observation
  • Direct Observation

My only goal in this sequence is to communicate what I mean by the sentence, “Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation.”


Here is what will happen in this sequence: I will pick out the concepts that seem central to my understanding of naturalism; I will name them with words; and I will do my best to tell you what I mean by those words.

That is all.

There are a few things you might expect from an introductory sequence that I will not even try to accomplish. I want to be clear about my intentions.

I will not try to argue for the truth of the proposition the sentence picks out. It’s true, I think, that knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation. But I won’t try to convince you of that here.

I won’t tell you what would change my mind, or what I’d expect to see if I were wrong. I won’t tell you how I think you could find out if I were correct, or if I were not. I will not present evidence. I will not engage with counterarguments.

Inasmuch as I’m making a claim, you’re right to want that sort of thing from me. But I’ll disappoint you, for now, on this front. I cannot do very much at once; for me, just saying what I mean without misleading anyone is quite enough to be getting on with.

I will not try to argue that naturalism is important, either. Or, at least, not directly or on purpose. I won’t say much of anything about when it matters, or why. This is also a worthwhile topic, but it’s beyond the scope of this sequence.

Finally I will not try to help you learn naturalism. I do have a sometimes effective curriculum at this point, and I’ve even published a sort of [proto-naturalism introductory course] ( that you can take at your own pace online; but I will not be presenting anything like that here.

What I will try to do is pick out the concepts that are central to naturalism, name them with words, and tell you what I mean by those words.

It will take me seven-and-a-half essays, the first of which you have nearly finished.

When we are done here, I will write more things. When I write those things, I will sometimes use the term “naturalism”. And if this sequence is successful, people who have read it will know what I’m talking about.

People who have not read this sequence will say “What is naturalism?”, and I will finally be able to answer their question to my satisfaction.


Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation. Let us begin, then, with “knowing”.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Investigating Fabrication

I've got an essay up at LessWrong that definitely belongs here as well, but that's where it's all nicely formatted so I'm just gonna link. It's a demo of a naturalism study; Duncan wrote a great essay about "fabricated options", and I did a report on my attempts to learn the thing myself.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Why Is History So Boring?: An Open Letter To My Middle School Self, To Be Read Beneath the Desk During Social Studies Class

1. Read one random sentence of a history textbook and pick out the most mind-numbing phrases.

I'll go first.

"In 1958, Heinrich Berlin published a detailed analysis of inscriptions on the sarcophagus lid from the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, identifying the ten figures on the sides of the sarcophagus by their name and glyphs."

Most mind-numbing phrases: "In 1958", followed by "Heinrich Berlin", followed by "Temple of the Inscription at Palenque".

2. Write down what exactly happens in your head as you read each phrase. How do you feel? What do you imagine? What kinds of thoughts pop up?

Here's mine.

"In 1958": Irritation, dismissal, skipping-over.

Whoah, slow down. What happens right before the irritation? How did you know to be irritated?

When I read something, I try to let it into my head and make sense of it. But when I read "1958"... It's like when I'm using my hands to prepare a spot in the garden for a new rosemary plant, and I reach down expecting to grab a handful of soft loamy soil and move it out of the way, but instead there's a buried rock that's bigger than my head. I run into "1958" really hard, and it doesn't yield and incorporate gracefully into my thoughts like ordinary words would, and then I'm all stumbling and disoriented. The dismissal and skipping-over is like having decided to put the rosemary plant six inches to the right rather than contending with the buried boulder.

"Heinrich Berlin": Irritation again, though less than before, and even faster skipping-over. It's almost exactly like coming across a word or phrase written in Russian. It's just some nonsense sounds that maybe mean something to somebody else and could perhaps come to mean something to me in the future given enough context, but I know that right now it's just a pointless name. But actually it's worse than that, because I know that I'm reading a history book, and I've learned that most of the names in history books only show up once or twice. It's not like when a main character in a fantasy book has an unfamiliar name that it would take a while to work out. In that case, I trust that it'll become familiar over time. But in a history book, proper nouns vanish almost immediately after they first show up.

"Temple of the Inscription at Palenque": Same as before, but this time with a feeling of exhaustion, "I'm fed up with this", and a motion of giving up. It's like my attempt to prepare the ground for a rosemary plant ran into three big rocks in a row, and maybe I should just find a pot and put the rosemary on my porch instead of in the ground. By the time I've gotten to the second half of the sentence ("identifying the ten figures on the sides of the sarcophagus by their name and glyphs"), it's like I've completely lost my footing and am tumbling freely down a hill. There's no chance for those words to make it in, because I'm too tired and disoriented.

I've recently learned something about how to read history. Like in the past three days. For my entire life before that, I would read something like, "In 1958, Heinrich Berlin published a detailed analysis of inscriptions on the sarcophagus lid from the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, identifying the ten figures on the sides of the sarcophagus by their name and glyphs," feel all of the things I just described, and then be angry at the author for doing this to me and give up in either despair or disgust. Sometimes, especially if I'd been excited about the topic, I'd even feel betrayed. The problem is, history books look a lot like novels, and they even purport to tell "stories" about the past. Because of this surface-level similarity to something familiar, by default I take on pretty much the same mental posture I use when reading a novel. But that's not the only way to read something.

What happens when you're reading a novel and you come across an unfamiliar word? You look it up in a dictionary, right? What is it like to look up a word in a dictionary?

3. Let's try it; let's both look up "jentacular", a word I've just run into for the first time, and keep track of what happens in our heads as we do it.

Even before I open a new tab and start to type (I'm using an electronic source instead of an actual book because I'm 32 and the world is different now), I can tell that my mind has already begun to "use a dictionary". There's a sharpness, a focus, a searching. I feel a little like a heat-seeking missile. It's like I've created an open space in my mind, a definition-shaped cavity, that's prepared for the meaning of a word to fall in.

As I open the tab and type "jentacular", it's as though the cavity narrows. Something about it becomes sharper. I'm no longer a heat-seeking missile; I have become more like a diving falcon who has identified a specific mouse.

The dictionary says: "Of or pertaining to a breakfast taken early in the morning, or immediately upon getting up." As I read the definition, it doesn't immediately make complete sense to me. It takes me a minute to feel it out, to find the associated concepts and experiment with ways for them to fit together until I've found something I can hold onto. I scan up and down the entry a couple of times, and what finally makes the meaning settle in place is recognizing that this is an adjective. I had to adjust a little, because the definition-shaped cavity I'd created was accidentally a little bit more noun-shaped than adjective-shaped.

But I get it now: I have a daily habit of drinking a jentacular bottle of water even before breakfast. The deer are often full of jentacular yearning for my chrysanthemums. It was a bout of post-jentacular study of the Olmec that prompted this demonstration.

I expect you had a similar experience, because you know how to use a dictionary, too.

4. Now let's try this same thing with a novel. I'll give us a random sentence from a novel, and we'll track what it's like to read it.

"Then she turned slightly, looking to Aitrus lovingly."

Just before I read this sentence, as I look at the page in the novel, it's like I'm letting some kind of barrier dissolve so that the words can flow into me unimpeded. I'm making a welcoming sort of motion with my mind, and I feel a hint of curious excitement. It's as though I'm saying, "I wonder what this book will do to me!"

As I read the sentence, images happen. It feels effortless and automatic. All the work was in the preparation, when I made myself like a canvas. I read, "Then she turned slightly," and my imagination rushes forward to present me with a hazy image of a woman, and the kinesthetic sensation of turning a body a few degrees. I read, "looking to Aitrus lovingly," and the image becomes richer, more specific. The woman is an adult with long brown hair and an apron. My emotions about her become warm, I imagine a smile, and if I focus on the image for a while I begin to smell cinnamon, oatmeal, and chocolate chip cookies, and I know the smooth soft alto voice she will have when she speaks.

None of that is work. It's just happening to me, automatically, as I read. Imagining bits of stories is what my mind does when it rests. When it daydreams, and when it sleeps. So to engage effectively with a novel, all I have to do is get my deliberate thoughts, goals, and distractions out of the way.

Now let's go back to the history book. Why did you feel betrayed by the author?

There are a lot of years between us, so I could be wrong. But if you are like me in this respect, and if my memory of you is correct, it's because you prepared to read the story of history by cooperatively, trustingly, vulnerably getting yourself out of the way. You let your guard down, as though preparing for sleep, to become a blank canvas upon which the author might paint. You did what you thought was your part in the shared endeavor, and then the author failed to do what you thought was theirs.

But a history book is not that kind of story.

When it comes to the sort of cooperative endeavor in which reader and author together engage, a history book is much more like a dictionary than like a novel.

It's a little confusing, especially in history books written specifically for high schoolers, or for a popular audience; there's a lot of pressure on the authors of those books to entertain, to not completely alienate people who don't know how to read history. So there are sentences like the one we started with, but there are also exciting full-page pictures, sentences filled with action verbs and suspenseful clauses that sound a lot like tabloid journalism, and even artificially constructed novel-like plots.

Really, though, a history book is a kind of resource. It is a resource for answering questions.

If you started reading a dictionary, cover to cover, for no other reason than that someone told you to, it would probably be even more mind-numbing than your experiences with history books so far. It would be like that because you would not be using the dictionary in the way it was designed to be used. You would not be shaping your mind in a way that let you receive the type of information offered, and you would not be doing the work needed to make sense of the information once you'd begun to receive it.

Ideally, you'd go to a history book when you were already curious about a certain topic and wanted to understand its context.

I've been reading about ancient mesoamerican cultures, for example, because I've been really interested in chocolate, and I want to know where it comes from. What I find in the history books is a curated collection of a whole bunch of evidence about what happened in mesoamerica a long time ago, before cacao trees were domesticated. As I read, the work I'm doing is about sifting through and weighing all of that evidence to figure out for myself what the world was like when people first started to eat chocolate.

But since you're in a pretty terrible educational situation where people are going to plop you down in front of a history book and force you to either read or sacrifice your grades, here is what I recommend.

Never just start reading. If you have a history book in front of you, and you notice the getting-out-of-the-way feeling that is like reading a novel or preparing to dream, stop what you are doing. Do not read anything but the title of the section, or at most the first paragraph. Then get out a piece of paper, and make a list of questions. Ask yourself, "Given that I'm going to learn about X, what do I most want to know?" Think about what kinds of things you're usually interested in (poetry, philosophy, science, whatever) and try asking questions that have something to do with those topics.

Only once you have filled the paper with questions, or spent at least five minutes trying to, should you begin to consult the textbook. The author will present some evidence that might pertain to some of your questions. See if you can use what they have to say to figure out whatever it is that you care about.

Do not try to care about what they're saying just because they wrote it down. That's not how history books work, any more than it's how dictionaries work.

One of the questions on the list I wrote while preparing to learn about the Olmecs is, "What was going on in Europe at the time?" I knew that chocolate is not native to Europe, and that Europeans did a lot to advance chocolate-making technology once they got their hands on cacao beans. I figured that if I follow the history of chocolate, I will eventually get to the point where cacao arrives in Europe, and I didn't want that arrival to be a floating, disconnected point in European culture. I wanted to understand the context of both sides of the ocean. So I thought I should keep an eye on the paralel history of Europe as I learned the history of mesoamerica.

Thus, when I encountered the sentence, "San Lorenzo is the oldest of the heartland cities, dating from about 1500 B.C.," I did not feel irritation, dismissal, or skipping-over when I got to the number. I did stumble slightly—the number didn't fall right into my head as easily as most words would—but I knew how to recover, just like I knew how to make sense of "jentacular" when it turned out to be an adjective rather than a noun. I made sense of "1500 B.C." by pausing, mulling it over, recognizing that it was a year, recognizing years as shared reference frames across continents, and wondering what was happening in Europe at the time. Was this before Socrates? I think so. Maybe even before Greece, but probably not by more than a thousand years.

In the end, after a bit more work of this sort, here is how I understood the sentence:

"San Lorenzo [an ancient city near the Southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, just within agricultural zone 11 so probably warm enough for cacao to grow] is the oldest of [the major Olmec population centers], dating from about [a thousand years before Ancient Greece, and two hundred and fifty years before the Olmec (took it over? started calling themselves 'Olmec'? changed in some way that contemporary historians now recognize them as 'Olmec'?]."

It took some doing to fit that sentence into my thoughts, and to understand most sentences I've read in same book. But it's not irritating or frustrating work, because I am eager to do it, and well prepared. That's the state you need to find before beginning to read history.

A final note:

If you're feeling up for a slightly greater challenge, imagine that the author was intensely curious about something genuinely interesting. They wrote this history book as part of gathering evidence about the interesting thing. See if you can reconstruct their list of brainstormed questions. Try to figure out what was so fascinating that they had to write an entire book to work it out.