13 November, 2017

Counting My Blessings

Yesterday, I was diagnosed with a long-term illness. It's not life-threatening, but it is a chronic condition.

This reminder of my own likely mortality has understandably put me into a rather somber mood. I find myself counting my blessings and reminiscing over the arc of my life.

I earn enough to be comfortable.

It feels a little weird to bring up money first, but income really does determine many secondary blessings—enough so that it is the primary blessing I think of. I haven't always had what I'd consider a good income, but my life has been much richer monetarily than most people in the world. On the global rich list, I've pretty much always been in the top couple percent, though that isn't exactly difficult to do if you're born in an industrialized country. (A salary of $25k is sufficient.) There were times that were hard enough that I dropped to subsistence levels, but I've always had safety nets of various kinds to support me, so I've always bounced back.

Today, I earn more than I ever have, and I have multiple safety nets surrounding me in the form of friends and family. I'm happy to be able to donate around 25% of my gross income to effective altruism causes even while keeping up the relatively expensive hobbies of board gaming and Switch playing, where I buy pretty much whatever I think I might enjoy.

I am loved, and I love in return.

Once food, shelter, and other necessities are stable, the next most important thing I notice is love. Companionship is important to me, although it's something that I've had some trouble with in the past. Two of my siblings live nearby, and another plays with me weekly online, so I'm able to maintain relatively close relationships with them all. I receive much comfort from the best of my friends and family, and am extraordinarily grateful to have them around.

It wasn't always like this. There was a time when friendships were difficult to maintain for me. As strange as it may sound, I learned many lessons about friendship from the My Little Pony series. It's helped me to become a better person and allowed me to maintain friendships that I traditionally would have allowed to fade.

I am relatively healthy.

Despite my diagnosis yesterday, I have no reason to suspect that my chronic condition will cause an undue amount of discomfort in my life. I am luckier in this respect than I have any right to be. I spent thirty-five years without seeing a dentist, and was found to have no cavities. I've never broken a bone, nor had any serious illness in the past, other than a bout of whooping cough when I was a young child that left no lasting damage. Although I am apprehensive about my recently diagnosed condition, I nevertheless feel as though I've had a very long time to live in such good health, and am accepting of the health condition I will have to endure moving forward.

Culture surrounds me.

Although I ultimately realize that I am mostly ignorant of the world and of humanity's culture so far, I nevertheless feel a great debt to those that first introduced me to the field of philosophy. Before then, I was so focused on basic science, games of power and control, and shallow story-telling, that I did not appreciate what the world truly has to offer. But one by one, philosophy has opened my mind to fields I never previously would spare a thought to. Most important is ethics, and how it led me to the effective altruism movement, but also great literature, art, economics, history, and much deeper story-telling mediums, such as hard science fiction and rational fiction. Philosophy also helped me to realize the importance of the less deep, strengthening my appreciation for bad tv shows, infantile humor, and naive artistic creation, just to name a few.

I know I am but only slightly aware of the depth of culture that surrounds us. So many things exist that I know I do not know: the beauty in how to understand a rifle so thoroughly that one can tear it down and build it back up again in one's head; the sublime nature of artistic pieces in famous museums that continue to elude me; the workings of various biological systems; the rites of honoring a family tradition that has gone on for long before I was born; the joy that some claim comes from a belief in a higher power. And I'm certain that there must be unknown unknowns that I can't even imagine at the moment. Yet I still so fully appreciate the awareness that philosophy and a liberal education has given me that I wish desperately that others might receive the same sort of study, even if they plan on going into an unrelated career.

I am able to control and remember many dreams.

Perhaps it is because I gloss over poor details at the time, but in my own mind it feels as though I may construct stories of any type and any depth on a whim. No book nor movie has ever come close to the situations and storylines that I imagine while I sleep. While I enjoy my waking life a great deal, I also am extremely appreciative of my sleeping hours. There is much in my imagination that is seemingly able to reference more exactly and build upon more dramatically than any fiction I've seen from any other author. Of course, I recognize that this is because my judgment while asleep is less discriminating than when I am awake, and that there is a selection bias where the references I insert are always recognized by me, while the references other authors use may sometimes go over my head. Nevertheless, the feeling I have is that my dreams are superior, and that is what matters to me in the end.

I am a super hero.

At least I feel like one. I imagine the pride a fireman feels when they save a life, and I consciously attempt to attach that imagined emotion to the result of whenever I donate an amount equivalent to saving a life. It was hard to do at first, and it feels a little weird to talk about it to other people, but, in my private life, when I'm thinking just to myself, I make a point to truly embrace the idea that I have done an equivalent amount of good whenever I donate effectively. This brings me far more happiness and well-being than if I were to spend that money elsewhere.

Evidence points to an upward trajectory.

Yes, there are existential risks. But whereas very few worked on them in the past, the effective altruism movement is mobilizing better and more able minds than my own to work on these problems. Yes, they have an uphill battle, and, on the whole, my expectation is that there is more human capital working toward xrisks than are working against it. But the derivative is positive: we are doing more and more each day to make the world a better place.

Wild animal suffering is a massive problem. People are dying every day for stupid reasons. And yet I feel a Pinker-esque optimism about the trajectory of some of our finest thinkers.

As you can see, I have many categories of blessings to count. I know that much of this is due to the evolution of my ancestors; that the values I care about mostly come about from the replication of genes and memes that started long ago for morally arbitrary reasons. And yet I feel comforted nevertheless.

Yesterday may have given me bad news, but I am happy today.

13 October, 2017

On Violence

My value system strongly prefers a lack of suffering. To that end, I try to practice nonviolence.

But it wasn't always this way. Here are a few examples from when I was a child:
  • When I was young, I would play games with my friends where we would act out battles as fighters and wizards. We used long hardwood sticks as our swords and small rocks as our spells. It only count as a hit in our play if it also hit in real life. I always hit hard.
  • I practiced several martial arts in my youth, with the most emphasis on tae kwon do.
  • Both in school and at home, if I did something particularly considered wrong, I would receive corporal punishment. This included 'spankings' by a paddle and by a switch, as well as one case where I was thrown through a door.
  • We had a hill of dirt that the neighborhood kids would play upon. Whoever could stay at the top would be king of the hill; everyone else lost. The violence ratcheted up in this game to the point where one person rushed the hill with a literal fire axe. He won that day.
  • Even the practical jokes that my dumb friends played were particularly violent. Whereas some kids might wait for a mark to fall asleep and then paint their face, or put whipped cream on their hand and tickle their forehead, the joke favored by my friends was to take a sharp knife and aim it directly above a sleeping person's eyeball, then wait for them to wake up and see it looming above them.
  • On one occasion, I was in the restroom and could hear others coming to rush the door. My assumption was the the joke du jour would be them opening the restroom door unexpectedly while I was inside, so I reacted by buttressing the door shut with my bare hands. Instead, their chosen joke was to pierce the door with a longsword. It went both through the door and the palm of my hand. The emergency room visit that day was not fun.
It would have been good if I had matured away from violence, but, instead, I became an adult that viewed violence as not that big of a deal. I became a bully. I was violent with friends, with family, and in my relationships. I am not proud of what I did.

Over time, I slowly grew past violence. At first, it was a selfish change; I wanted more out of my life and I intellectually realized that refraining from violence was the best way to get what I wanted. It is somewhat surreal to read those past journal entries from a time where I avoided violence completely even while still being philosophically okay with the concept of using violence.

Eventually, as I became more philosophically literate, I began to change how I thought about violence. Over the course of a decade and a half, I went from being happily violent to being philosophically committed to nonviolence. It's a change of which I am both exceedingly proud and terribly embarrassed.

It's been seven years since I last exhibited violence out of anger. In the past seven years, I've only once exhibited threats of violence for what I felt was a justified reason.

I thought it might be helpful to list here some of the outbursts I experienced while I was still in the transition phase, in case it may help others who are also trying to curb what violent tendencies they may have.
  • At one point, I could feel myself getting angry. I felt it was important to lash out at an object rather than a person, so I punched through a window with my bare hands. It hurt. From my perspective at the time, this was an example of me holding back and being responsible by not harming another living being; but from the perspective of today, it just feels like a terribly violent moment during the period where I was actively trying not to be violent.
  • Another time, as I felt myself becoming especially angry, I decided to upend a cup of water rather than do anything actually damaging. To my mind at the time, I thought this to be a good escape valve; now I feel especially bad for the person that I got wet.
Eventually, I was able to curb these impulses entirely. I attribute the change mostly to the use of the "fake it 'til you make it" method, where I made myself be less violent for so long and so often that eventually I just wasn't violent anymore. It also helped to physically put myself into the shoes of those who are less advantaged — I did the food stamp challenge for a few weeks (while sleeping in a warm bed each night), I experienced a life of homelessness on the streets for a couple of weeks (while eating lavish dinners each night), and I went on trips to underprivileged areas to meet and interview real people and write about them in charity magazines and blogs.

Philosophical aside:
Today, I self-identify as a political pacifist, not because I think violence never works, but because I am doubtful that it has worked at the state level in any historical war. (I can imagine what a just war might look like, possibly with varelse, where extreme violence might be warranted, but I'm not sure that even WWII would qualify as a just war.) I am also vegetarian. I consider both pacifism and veganism to be closely related to the philosophy of nonviolence, which I endorse mainly because I desire suffering to be bad, and violence tends to create suffering.
By early 2011, I had finally become the nonviolent person that I had decided to philosophically become over ten years earlier. It amazes me that it took so long. It also embarrasses me to realize just how difficult it is to self-modify even behaviors that one is philosophically set against.

In the past seven years, there has only been one experience where I've exhibited a threat of violence. I've worried about and replayed the issue in my head multiple times, wondering if I did the right thing, and whether I would do the same if I encountered the situation again.

It was five years ago. A young teenage cousin of mine kept bullying both myself and those around me. It was small stuff, repeated endlessly. Stealing my phone when I wasn't looking so he could play games. Then the following week stealing my laptop. He'd do the same to his other cousins, taking their balls or other toys when no adults were looking. My reaction was always relatively meek. Eventually, he escalated. One day, at a birthday party of our cousin, he started threatening to destroy a board game piece, so that we would stop playing that game and instead play some other game with him. I explained to him that destroying the game was unacceptable behavior, but he doubled down, saying I wouldn't do anything to him even if he did it.

A part of me is proud of this moment. In the past, this behavior would have made me angry. But I realized in that moment that I was finally at the point where I could look at situations like this coolly. I thought for a second, then said: "If you attempt to destroy this board game, I will physically restrain you." He grabbed the piece from the table and started to break it — but I grabbed and held him before he could do so. I was gentle, but firm. His impression of me as someone meek evaporated that day, and he never treated me or my siblings that way in my presence again.

On the one hand, it was just a board game piece. It would have easily been replaced. Was it justified for me to react in the way I had? It did help to teach him not to bully his cousins in front of me. But I was in my thirties; he was barely a teenager. I'm honestly not sure if I acted completely appropriately.

Regardless, I am sure that I acted without anger. It feels good to know that I can honestly call myself a non-violent person now. I'm proud that seven years are about to pass where I have been completely free of violence.

06 October, 2017


I keep finding myself using disgust as a reason to deny moral value.

Intellectually, I realize this is a mistake. I'm consequentialist (at least I think I want to be, maybe), and when I look at Haidt's Julie/Mark-style situations, I typically answer as a consequentialist would. When making most moral decisions in my life, I try my best to avoid using disgust to make my decisions. And yet, disgust creeps its way into my moral landscape.

To understand why this happens, I first need to distinguish between myself (Me1), who acts in ways that I act, and the person (Me2) that I wish I could be, who acts in ways that I wish I would act. I don't currently live life to the fullest; I don't fully enjoy the pleasures of life that I could. I don't help others in need as much as I should. I don't do the proper amount of exercise, nor eat the diet that would best suit my body. There is so very much I would change, if I could get around my akrasia.

Yet it's not enough to look at who I am (Me1) and who I want to be (Me2). There's also who I want to want to be (Me3) -- this is the person that I wish I could want to be. If I'm going to take ethics seriously, then I should want to follow the demands that seem so obvious to me. I should want to help others as effectively as is sustainable and marketable for me.

As an example, I (Me1) spend a modest amount of time each week working directly with effective altruism organizations. I wish that I (Me2) would instead reorganize my life so that I could devote more time to EA stuff. But, deep down, I feel as though I (Me3) should instead wish to do as much as I possibly could do to help the EA cause.

And yet, this rundown of desires and meta-desires is not enough to fully describe how I feel about this, because there is an even deeper version: Me4, who feels disgust at the idea of dramatically changing Me1 to Me3. From Me4's point of view, it would be almost like committing suicide if I actually followed through with changing myself from Me1 to Me3Me4 represents how I feel about how I would want to want to change myself. Despite my attempts to avoid using disgust in moral considerations as I look as my desires through Me2 and Me3, I nevertheless end up acknowledging disgust when looking at my meta-meta-desires.

When a change is small enough, I'm okay with it. I get up each day only slightly feeling as though I may have died the previous night. But when I think back to the Eric of ten years ago, I cringe. I am so very, very different from that person. I think of him as an ancestor, not as me. When I think about the future Eric ten years' hence, I do not want him to be so different. I want him to share my values! Don't get me wrong: I don't mind extrapolating my volition. There are surely facts in the world that would cause me to do things differently were I to truly understand them. If future Eric makes different decisions because he's learned more true facts, then I count that Eric as myself -- it's just that he's in a better position to know what to do.

But if his values are as different to mine as mine are to the past Eric of a decade ago, then he is not just me in a different time period. No, then he is more like my offspring. A person close to me in many ways, but who is decidedly not me.

This feeling of hidden discontinuity comes about from feelings of disgust at the idea of suicide. I don't want to die. I don't want future Eric to hold such disparate values. The entire reason I hold the values I do is because those are the values that I would instantiate into infinity. I would make them the rule in extended space, in the far reaches of the future, etc. Of course, I don't mean to so universalize wrong principles, so I'm not saying that the vocalization of my values is what is sacrosanct. Rather it is the ideas behind them, of equity, fairness, etc., that I dare not express too succinctly in words. To the extent that I am mistaken in true facts about the world, the way that we would express those values might change -- but the values themselves would not should not.

To the extent that I should change my mind in the future, there is no reason not to also make that shift today, so there is no reason to suspect that future Eric should have reason to change value systems that I would not also consider reasons to change my current value system. While I am in favor of changing one's mind in the face of new facts, I am not inclined to change my value system unless there is good reason to do so (moral trade might make it better for my values if I vector-average with others' values (even acausal trade could make this happen); learning the basis of why I have a value might cause me to hold that value less or more strongly; etc.).

I do not want to die. I do not want future Eric to not be me. I do not really want Me3 to actualize. Yes, I'd like to self-improve to Me2. But Me3 is too far, even though Me3 is the better man.

It is the disgust of Me4 at the idea of committing suicide that causes me to not wish to change beyond my current desire to move from Me1 to Me2.

Death occurs much more often in a single life than most people realize. I want to be a better me, but Death is the enemy. I must become better without committing suicide.

23 May, 2017

In Memory of Jorge Herboso

Jorge Herboso
My uncle died a few weeks ago. He had not been doing well. A bug bite from several months previous had given him significant problems, but he had avoided going to the doctor for a prolonged amount of time. It grew infectious and supposedly was subsequently fixed, but this lax attitude of not going to the doctor when he really should may have played a part in why he died so prematurely.

He died in Bolivia. The original plan was for him to go there for only a couple of months. I helped to buy him a chromebook so he could continue to get online easily while he was there. But he fell ill again, and his delay in going to the doctor caused him to extend his stay by two months. Near the end, he was writhing in pain at home, but still had not gone to see a doctor over the issue. My father, from a hemisphere away, had to call family in a nearby city to get them to force Jorge to go in to see a doctor.

A part of this is machismo. Some of it is the idea that nothing will happen to us. Another portion was Jorge's strong religious belief, and his desire to not use traditional medicine whenever he could get away with it. I used to participate heavily in skeptic forums dealing with beliefs just like that. Although I don't post in skeptic forums much anymore, I still occasionally post links to whatstheharm.net whenever I hear a friend or family member talk make the case that there's no harm in allowing people to believe incredulous things.

Carlos, Sylvia, Ruperto, Jorge, Marcos, Chalo, and Fernando
My strongest memories of Tio Jorge are from when I was a child. I remember interacting with him several times in Alabama, especially during a family reunion we had in the late nineties.

I loved the way he would yell out a grito mexicano whenever he was particularly into a song. I loved the way he would smile and laugh when in the company of his brothers. I loved how, when my father would talk about him, it was always to complain about how giving his brother was, to the point of it being to his detriment.

I did not like as much how he would mostly speak Spanish in my presence, despite knowing English, so I could only really understand him only a small portion of the time we spent together. I did not like how he wore his religious beliefs on his sleeve later in life, nearly always commenting on whatever the topic of conversation was by bringing up God in one way or another. I did not like how he physically spanked me when I was very young. I did not like how he shied away from traditional medicine in times when he needed it most.

Jorge was exceedingly kind in his last years. He openly welcomed others into  his home that badly needed the help. He would find them jobs and work to help get them back on their feet. He helped run an Emmaus Retreat, where immigrants can go to help amend broken marriages in a Catholic setting. He did much to try to make the world a better place, and I am very sad to see him die so early on in life.

If you want to see more about my uncle's life, please visit his online rememberance page.

15 May, 2017

Pinpricks of Light to Start my Day

I use this as my visual alarm clock.
7:00 a.m.
Katherine leaves the house to start her day at school. The sound of the front door closing is my cue to get up.
7:45 a.m.
My eyes are finally able to stay open for more than a few seconds at a time. I put on my shoes and fill a bottle with tea. I have to leave soon. I browse through the most recent podcasts to decide on what to listen to this morning.
8:10 a.m.
My visual alarm goes off. The sun shines through a window upstairs, illuminating the stairwell and precisely hitting a disco ball hung at the bottom of the stairs that reflects the light into a hundred directions. The sight of pinpricks of light throughout the living room tells me it's time to call an Uber for work.
9:15 a.m.
I am nearly done with my Uber ride. I travel from Germantown, md, to Alexandria, va, thrice each week. Uber costs constitute a large portion of my monthly expenses, but it's worth the expense if I can get to where I need to go quickly and easily. The metro has been involved with too many accidents lately for me to be comfortable using it.
10 a.m.
I'm at work in VA. I go through emails, plan out what I need to do over the next 7-8 hours, and set priorities for the week.
12 p.m.
Lunchtime. I walk to a nearby restaurant and eat. I generally refill my drink at least twice, so the only requirements are that they have vegetarian options and free refills. While I'm there, I check my ACE emails to see if I need to respond to anything urgent.
5:00 p.m.
Work is over. I go downstairs to the company gym. No one else ever goes here after work, so I have the entire place to myself. I turn on a podcast to fill the room with sound and start working out. I spend about thirty minutes each on cycling and walking, then spend ~5 minutes each on five or so different weightlifting machines. In total, I spend about an hour and a half. I time each machine not by a clock, but by the length of various podcast episodes, so my times aren't always exactly the same.
6:30 p.m.
I take a shower at work. It feels especially good after working out. In contrast, morning showers feel like a chore. But post-workout showers are soothing.
7:00 p.m.
I am playing my Nintendo Switch while in an Uber headed home. This is the best portable gaming system I've ever owned, and it works perfectly for long Uber rides. Usually I lose track of time so well that I'm surprised when we finally take the off ramp near my house.
8:30 p.m.
Dinner is cooked. Today's meal is an "Ultimate Cheeseburger" Velveeta Cheesy Skillet, made with vegetarian Morningstar Farms Meal Starters Grillers Crumbles, with a Pillsbury Crusty French Loaf and a Dole Salad Kit. Television is watched while we eat. Depending on my workload, I may do some tasks for ACE after my meal.
10:30 p.m.
Gaming commences. Usually I do a few rounds of Hearthstone, StarCraft, Heroes of the Storm, or anything else that doesn't take the television set.
11:50 p.m.
Now that the television is available, I either play on the Switch or watch shows that no one else in the house enjoys. This continues until I'm sleepy enough to go to bed.
4:00 a.m.
I am in my dream world, which I seem to place much more value on than most people. Here, storylines continue that I have been building for decades. I live out another life in my dreams, unconnected to this one, but equally important to me. I know that it is not real, because I can direct the flow of action there in ways that I cannot do here. But for this same reason, I am in love with my dream world, and am always happy to get to experience it. It's not as good as reality, but it is better than any tv show or fiction novel that I've ever read.

The above describes a typical Monday. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I work from home instead. On weekends, I do my best to not work at all, and instead meet with friends to play board games or visit with my family for celebrations. This past weekend was somewhat somber; although my cousin Bianca had her first communion and Susan was able to celebrate mother's day, the mood was determined mostly by my Tio Jorge's recent passing. Death is an enemy that I think of often. It takes far too many of us.

The specific products mentioned above are not sales pitches for others; I included this level of specificity solely so that when I reread this journal entry several years' hence I will be able to fully remember these specific things.