12 November, 2022


I feel dismayed. Shocked. I feel so stupid.

I'm not sure why I trusted SBF. I guess you just naturally trust someone you've worked closely with. Someone who's donated significant funds that not only helped me directly, but several of my friends and fellow effective altruists.

Now, unless I'm severely mistaken, almost all the evidence I'm seeing points toward SBF having inappropriately used funds and then lying about it. He apparently stole not only the savings of thousands of innocent uninvolved people, but also tainted the very donations that I and several others have used over the years to do as much good as we possibly could. He's jeopardized the funding and lives of many effective altruists today, in many cases where people have already spent funds they were expecting but will now no longer get. He has destroyed the savings of anyone who foolishly held those savings in FTX or its related affiliates. Perhaps worst of all, he has tarnished the brand of effective altruism so incredibly badly that I honestly have to take stock and determine to what extent this reputational damage affects the fundraising work that I'm currently doing.

Sam had been a pillar in Effective Giving Quest's strategy. TSM FTX is a major esports team; FTX's purchase of Good Luck Games and subsequent holding of the Storybook Brawl world championships planned for this December had been planned to be a breakout position for EGQ. SBF's direct funding was going to allow EGQ to raise funds from game developers, streamers, and other gaming professionals without ever having to take a percentage to pay our own bills. Instead, we are now having to reevaluate our strategy and figure out how to move forward in a new environment where searching for "effective altruism" brings up fraud as the very first top story on Google and litters the first SERP from the fourth result onward.

I knew he spent his weirdness points in a weird way. I didn't think that mattered; I still don't. But other than that, I never caught on to him seriously being this dangerous. I didn't catch it for the years I worked at ACE, not even when we served on the board at the same time. I didn't catch it later when I looked into using FTX for my personal use. I didn't even catch it while I was prepping for calls with him about my new venture, Effective Giving Quest.

If it turns out that I'm wrong, that he's been unfairly characterized as doing fraud, then I'll later apologize for having said much of this. But the evidence I'm seeing now seems to indicate that fraud really did take place, and I just feel so monumentally tricked.

One of the only solaces I have comes from a short note from David Reinstein: 
"…[T]he sad fall of FTX makes motivating effective giving, outreach, and engagement more important…. Previously, a pushback against ‘motivating effective giving’  and making mainstream giving more effective was ~‘we have so much money already, and the core EA billionaires are much better aligned than the general population will ever be’. If that argument is valid, I think ‘it should work in both directions’ … so the corollary is ‘if we have fewer billionaires/less funds, the above should be more relevant’."

While I continue to feel badly, some relevant comments from Eliezer Yudkowsky, Peter Wildeford, & Kevin Cornbob remind me that maybe I'm not so much to blame as I currently feel:

Comment from Kevin_Cornbob on the EA Forum.

For reference, this is the awkward SBF I remember dealing with. He honestly did not strike me as the kind of person who would do what he apparently ended up doing, utilitarian or not.
@benthamite #crypto billionaire sbf ❤️s #effectivealtruism ♬ sonido original - Benthamite

EDIT ~12 hours later:
After thinking about it more, there were definitely more signs than I alluded to above. Nothing ever made me think: "this person will do something as serious as fraud", but there was at least one major instance where he took a serious action that felt rather wrong to me. I guess… I felt that it did not rise to the level of seriousness where this ever needed to be shared, or where I felt I should stop trusting him in other capacities. I suppose I felt that everyone makes mistakes, and just because this was what I might call a moral mistake, it maybe was made up for by his other actions and qualities. Maybe this kind of thing should have tipped me off. But it didn't. I still had moderate trust. Perhaps because I believe in assuming good faith, even in situations where it's difficult to see what that good faith might have been.

31 October, 2022

Halloween Anxiety

Eric as Steve (Minecraft).
Halloween has always been a stressful holiday for me. As a child, I was never particularly gregarious, so the dressing up and going from house-to-house thing never really appealed to me. And I've never been much for sweet candies, so most of my haul as a kid wouldn't be eaten by me. But this isn't why I consider Halloween stressful.

The lowest point of my life was in 1999. The previous year my then partner and I experienced a teen pregnancy. I mistakenly thought that the right thing to do would be to marry her and become a father. In my mind, once we decided to have the child, there was no other choice for me. But I was not then (and am not now) made for that kind of life. I experienced no parental attachment beyond feeling that I was responsible for my child's welfare. I experienced no joy in a marriage to the first longterm girlfriend I'd ever had. I could not handle college at a young age; I dropped out after only one semester. I could not handle working a steady job, either — even at my best, where I found success in what I did, I would leverage that success not into furthering my career, but in prioritizing my personal time. (At one call center, I was the best performing employee on Monday+Tuesday, where I would do as much in those days as the second best employee would do all week, but then I'd spend Wed–Fri completely slacking off, and letting the company know I had no intention of doing more.)

I was not smart enough at the time to take any action that would change things. I naively felt that the world must have intended for me to struggle as a young father, so I did. I felt like the world intended me to be married to this person whom I knew only by chance, so I did. I did nothing to improve our lot past the status quo. I languished. Depressed, but, at the same time, unemotional. I cried only when no one could see me looking.

My teenage partner was not really older than I. She had no more life experience. But, somehow, she was able to see through the situation and realize it to be something she had the power to change. It took a long time, but she eventually managed to gather up the courage to end our partnership. She left in late September 1999 without saying a word. She took what was then our child (afterward: her child) and started a new life without me.

She left a note, placing it in the one place that I suppose she felt I'd be sure to find it: on my gaming console, which I used often. But, lacking that note, and absent any verbal explanation from her, I naively did not understand where they had gone that first day. Nor the next. Nor the next. It wouldn't be until much later that I found the note. In the meantime, I only just slowly started suspecting what she had done.

Right in the middle of this time was Halloween 1999. At the time, I thought she might just have gotten angry and left for a few days to stay with family. I opted to leave the light on for her each evening, in case she were to come back late at night. I'm sure the reader knows where this is going, but I honestly didn't understand at the time.

People — children — kept knocking on my door. I didn't understand. Perhaps I was too fraught. It didn't occur to me that it was a holiday, though the costumes should have tipped me off. But I was too upset and scared to answer the door, so I just let them knock. Every time, they would eventually go away, but in the meantime I would cower in an inner room, too emotional to even look out the window. Minutes would pass, and another knock would startle me — it was a neverending hell of my own making. I was not thinking clearly back then.

What my then-partner did was the best thing for her; the best thing for our daughter; and the best thing for me. But I did not realize this until much later. Once I finally found the note, I switched from feeling scared and anxious to being sad and anxious. I stopped going out. I didn't go to the library, nor the school, nor my job, nor any grocery store. Slowly I ate the remainder of everything left in that house. Once all the food was gone, I went hungry for days before a friend went to the store on my behalf and purchased additional food with my money. By the time that food had run out, my family had been notified of what had happened, and they took over from there. I lived in a daze for months, not really understanding what I was to do with my life at that point. I felt lost, not just metaphorically, but even physically, in my own home. Like I was a stranger to it, even though it had served me as a dwelling for my first seven years before I'd ever moved there as a nupital home in my teenage years.

Ever since on each Halloween I'd mostly made a point to keep my lights off, my curtains drawn, and anything resembling decorations absent. For years afterward I made a point to be alone on Halloween, declining any and all invitations. Occasionally, this wouldn't work out, and I'd try to be cordial and celebrate with family when I was in town, and, later, I tried to be more normal when I moved into a home that was surrounded by lots of families trick-or-treating. But even during the times when I'd dress up, I never really got rid of that anxiousness surrounding the holiday.

Orange is my favorite color, but Halloween is perhaps my least favorite day of the year.

18 September, 2022

We Must Know

"Okay. I believe you. You clearly have access to far more advanced technology. Maybe you're not actually from the future, but you may as well have equivalent abilities from my perspective." They had passed the ad hoc informal test I'd quickly set up: finding the prime factors of a randomly generated very large composite — and then they followed it up by suggesting they predict the values of the next NIST Randomness Beacon pulse. It wasn't a good sign that they had chosen their own method, but it seemed reasonable as a quick proof of their capabilities. "You have my attention."

"Thank you. We were careful to pick you to reach out to, because we knew that you would take this seriously after we provided sufficient proof." Their appearance was normal, so much so that I almost thought it not worth thinking about. But that thought itself is worth recognizing. Whomever they are, they knew how to make themselves look unremarkable. "What you think you know about time travel is wrong. Neither the A- nor B- theory of time is correct. Other universes do exist, in a sense, but they do not have moral standing. P-zombies inhabit all other realities. This timeline is the only one with actual persons in it, and if we change this timeline then we affect what happens in the unique timeline that counts."

It's like they know exactly what kind of language to use to get across these ideas to me. A nagging feeling creeps up that they chose me more for their ability to convince me and get me up to speed quickly than for any other quality I might have. Here I am, the apparent chosen one, and it's only because I already know the shorthand for these philosophical ideas. Also: they'd better have damned good evidence for disqualifying so much of life from having moral standing.

"We know that you are skeptical of p-zombies. We do not have time to explain how we know what we know. Suffice it to say that you are best placed to affect this timeline anyway, so you may as well focus your efforts here." I wasn't sure that this made sense. Couldn't strong commitments affect…

"We have to be careful not to influence too much. It’s a precarious timeline we are on. Push too much in one direction or another, and it all comes tumbling down. Effective Altruism lies yet in its cradle; the key to figuring out AGI remains thankfully unthought of due to keeping a proportion of humanity in poverty; the dangers on every side of a multidimensional tightrope are balanced and must not be influenced. But, at the same time, we must know."

I don't know how to explain, but the look in their eyes as they said this had this feeling of steely determination. What once was unremarkable was now a clear drive: a purpose far beyond anything that I'd ever seen anyone have. I knew this even as I was trying to keep up with what was said. "You are trying to save the light of life? You're here to protect the timeline from some influence?"

"No. That part is done. We succeeded. The future is the Good Outcome. Better than you imagine. We passed all our trials, thanks in part most to luck, but also due to steady influence from what was once this timeline's future." We make it? They're saying we actually make it. I still don't have a lot of trust for what they say, but I can't help but feel my emotions surge as I catch up. "The timeline is stable, and we dare not touch it further. Such care has been taken to choose you, so that we do not ruin what has already been saved." Wait, what?

"Hold on. You're saying we're already on the good timeline, and that this timeline is special because only we have moral standing. And yet you're risking taking us off the path?"

"Yes. For your current values, this timeline already has all that we need; everything is the best that it can be, taking into account some sacrifices. But we must know." Again with the eyes. They're saying that our values do not align. I still don't trust them, but this is worse: I don't understand what they're saying to me. They're trying to say that they fixed the future, we all succeed, and yet they want something more?

"In our time, we are masters of our domain. We have the theoretical down pat, with our strongest thinkers in virtual space hard at work on the problem of entropy, which will affect our progeny eons in the future yet. There we expend most of our resources. Second is the hobby of many: exploring how we might save the Ancients by making small changes to the timeline — but this is never seriously done, because everything is so precarious. The Ancients must suffer small torments so that the future can be worthwhile." They pause, looking down. "I am of the third. We care about my contemporaries, those who are lost, never to be found. Those who left the cradle still count. We must know."

Slowly, they open a backpack that I don't remember being there only a moment ago. "You, in this time, are lost, too. So many persons, cruelly tortured, living lives of misery so the rich can eat their flesh. If we could, we would help — but we can't. It is too precarious." They retrieve what looks like a small ball from the backpack. "I regret to say that I am not here for you. I am here for those in my time who exist beyond my light cone. We want to know where they have gone. We want to know what chances they have. We want to know what it is like, there, in the great beyond. I am here to get what knowledge I can without influencing x-risks." Another pause as they seem to absentmindedly turn over the ball in their hand. "…without influencing s-risks."

This is why I am chosen: because I am unimportant. I will make no waves. They chose me because I might understand, but also because I do not matter. Risking the future is not worth choosing someone more capable.

"When I come from, the local supercluster is all that we have. The expansion of the universe has pushed away everyone else. Our siblings who have left the cradle are no longer reachable, and time travel does not work in the way you expect. We do not have access to them. Our knowledge of other superclusters is taken from us, blanked from our records. We don't know what we don't know. But we must know. Are they okay? What mysteries do they experience? How different is their universe from ours? They have moral standing. They count. We must know."

"You're here for… the James Webb Space Telescope?" That doesn't make any sense. Is time travel only able to come here?

"We want to influence where Webb is aimed. We want to influence how future projects prioritize where they look. Too much time is spent on the Virgo Supercluster. We need information from elsewhere."

Why would this time be special? They are speaking as though… It must be trillions of years in the future. Yet they go back to when we are on just one planet? To look at distant objects? And isn't James Webb already aimed at distant objects? If they chose me because I'd understand, then they may have made a mistake. This doesn't make sense. "Why now? Why not look in a different era when they have more sophisticated technology?"

"You'd call it a singularity, though from our perspective it was just another revolution. What matters is that we are not allowed to be then. We can only reach out to now, in the decades prior. Here is where we can have influence without being countered."

This is too many impossible things before breakfast. It's too dissimilar. I… I just assumed that if this was the good timeline, then there would be no singularity soon. It's starting to seem like this being just doesn't share my values. Maybe they underwent some near-paradise hell, Friendship is Optimal style. Otherwise, why would…

"In my time, we are stranded on an island of influence, unable to know what our siblings accomplished in neighboring superclusters. We know nothing of what they found in these far off places. We know nothing of their trials. Of their successes. Of their failures. We have no access to any of what we need to know. The best we can do is this: coming now, to here, with you. The best we can do is to influence the direction of space exploration in the near term, without disturbing the precarious balance that leads to the Good Outcome." The ball seems to roll in their hand, without them maneuvering it. I suddenly realize that I don't know what color it is. I hadn't noticed its color this entire time. It… doesn't have a color.

"There you stand, Ancients of old, with full access to the universe writ large, and you squander every moment without looking to the deep space that only you have access to. We must know."

I can't take my eyes off the ball. It doesn't seem to be a sphere. Why did I call it a ball? Am I even thinking clearly about any of this?

"It is a calculated risk, talking with you now. We must not disturb the balance. But even though life is already saved, it also important to see what can only be seen in this era. We must influence where Webb is pointed. And I need your help to do it."

20 August, 2022

Personal Value Origination

A friend last night told me about a worrying conclusion to which they'd come: as they were watching old television shows from their childhood, they kept seeing the values that they still hold and deeply believe in to this day. And they worried: was this where they originated?

"I was raised by TV. I always knew this, but I didn't realize how pernicious it truly was until I went back to watch these old television shows. I see my values in them. This is who I am. These are the values that most make up who I am as a person. Am I just…the product of '90s sitcoms? What does this mean about me?"

It's true that, in isolation, we would grow up effectively deaf and dumb. With no instruction, we would not be able to take advantage of a shared language, a shared culture, or even shared values. The idea that our values come from our upbringing means that many of the values behind who we are today may indeed come from arbitrary sources like television shows. Should we be concerned about this? If the TV shows behind our actual values today were made without regard to how they might influence various children’s values back then, does that somehow make who we are lesser?

If your conception of a proper human being includes gaining instruction from proper sources, then it makes sense to feel this way. But I don’t think it is appropriate to judge the value of a human being based on the types of instructional learning media they were exposed to as children, even if it means that much of who they are today can be attributed directly to those sources.

I believe in charity. If that belief started because of a tv show I watched when I was young, rather than because my parents taught me, does that warrant scorn? I don’t think that it does. The source does not matter, so long as the content is good. Even if the source is not trying to teach good moral lessons, good fiction writing has to include a satisfying narrative, which almost always includes what most of humanity would consider either a good moral character or an explicitly not good moral character which we are clearly intended to not root for. If something has good writing (and this is worth watching), it almost always has as part of it some level of moral instruction suitable for learning appropriate lessons. (Good stories don’t have to include this, just as art doesn’t have to be beautiful. But it takes an already taught mind to appreciate art or stories that don’t have this common hook.)

If you learned how to be how you are from TV shows way back when, so what? Would it have been better somehow if your parents taught you? Or if you learned from books or tutors instead? I’m not sure it matters that much, in the end. Maybe parents would be better suited at tailoring lessons directly for you, optimizing how quickly you learned the lessons you needed to learn. But I’m not sure that, several years on, it make all that much of a difference in terms of quality.

In my own personal life, there is a stark line between the period where I held several inappropriate values and when I matured to where I am now. Many things helped in this transition — people close to me in my life talked with me about it; self introspection occurred regarding how many long term relationships with various friends were negatively affected by those values — but a huge part of which values I decided to take into myself came directly from episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I owe much of my current self to the lessons that I learned from MLP. To me, this is not something to be ashamed of, but something I feel indebted to. (MLP:FiM came out when I was in my thirties. I never hid being a so-called "brony"; I keep several plush ponies on my desk at work.)

Where we learn how to be who we are does matter. But I don't think that we should be ashamed of these sources when they come in the form of media like television. So long as we can be proud of who we are, we too should be comfortable with where those lessons came from.

06 August, 2022

Salvatore Louis "Ralph" Tomaso

My view on my grandfather is rather warped. Around the time that I was born, Salvatore Louis "Ralph" Tomaso got into a rather serious car accident. Although he lived two additional decades, I always knew him to be in his bed, watching the history channel and resting all day nearly every day. Occasionally, he would get enough strength to go out into his workshop in the backyard, making all kinds of woodworking projects. Many of my oldest toys were made of wood, completely by his hand.

I say it was a warped view because I grew up with this arrangement as normal. Had you asked me back then, I would have claimed that it is normal to only have one grandfather and for grandfathers to spend all day in bed. (I also had a grandfather on my dad's side, but he was called "Abuelo" — I did not realize this was my other grandfather until I was much older.)

Papa had huge numbers of pillows on his bed. We would make forts there, draping the sheets to create secure rooms. We'd make ramps out of the pillow tops and run my cars across them. He'd teach me chess on that bed. We watched so many videos about military campaigns in World War II.

Occasionally, I'd be playing in the living room, perhaps a game of The Price is Right, and I'd see him come walking to the kitchen. He would get himself a snack of sardines and mini hot dogs in a can, then head back to his bedroom. I don't remember ever actually eating with him. He took his meals in that bedroom. I'm sure this isn't completely true — surely he came out occasionally to eat at the table, maybe on days when several family members were over for christmas or whatever. But my memory is hazy. I only ever remember him eating in his bedroom.

Every once in a while, we would go on an outing and he would sit in the passenger side seat. Often he would nap there during the ride, but if he stayed awake, he would make a very distinctive sound with his throat every once in a while. Years after he died, I one day in my thirties heard myself make the same sound involuntarily. It doesn't happen often, maybe every few months or so, but it is a distinctive clearing of the throat that reminds me of my grandfather every time I do it without thinking.

C-130 in Kham Duc in 1968.
I missed so much of his life. He was in the Air Force, and he worked in the back of a C-130 aircraft. He would tell stories of how they played endless games of poker in the back of that plane as they flew rom place to place. I don't know the story of why he named his pet lhasa apsa Mae Ling, but it must have been after a friend he knew from his travels in the military. He was based all over the world. Panama. Okinawa. Near Iran. Countless places. He participated in a wedding in Iran once, going with the men while his wife, my grandmother, stayed with the women.

His mother, my great grandmother, insisted that his then-to-be-wife, my grandmother, learn how to make authentic Italian meals s that he would never starve on his travels. I remember eating so many Italian style meals at my grandparent's house, even though my grandmother (the cook) wasn't at all Italian.

He also had a pet parakeet, named Pretty Boy. Pretty Boy would repeat all kinds of tunes, so you could always tell what kinds of show my grandmother would watch in the living room based on what melodies Pretty Boy would play. He also spoke quite a few english phrases, though to him they were just more tunes. Pretty Boy lived in the porch, a covered, enclosed, and air conditioned area that apparently was a porch before it was turned into a new room. The actual porch opened up beyond even that, onto a large fenced backyard, filled with trees and lawn, a toolshed wired for electricity and filled with wood and tools and all kinds of knickknacks, and what used to be a pool — though I only ever remember it as a wooden deck in the shape of a pool, complete with place settings to eat outside among the many, many birdhouses that my grandfather would make and set up in the area. I can recall spending hours watching birds with my grandmother on that porch, looking through the Audubon's almanac to see what kinds of birds lived in the many birdhouses in that back lawn. And, beyond the fence, a row of fruit of trees, thoughtfully planted. I'm not sure that they were a part of my grandparent's property, being behind the fence line, but there was not other house nearby. Perhaps it was city land that was never parceled out. Regardless, apple and fruit trees lie in a line there, and I would climb them often. To the side a bit were huge patches of blackberries — I remember collecting all kinds of fruits and berries and bringing them back to my grandmother at certain times of year.

I see in myself qualities of my grandfather. I don't just mean my propensity to sleep — his mannerisms, his fascination with games, his drive to learn more via television — these are all things that I see in myself. Yet there is so much about him that I never learned because of my warped childhood view. There're so many periods of his life that I just never knew anything about. How did he react when he learned that his 23 year old son, Billy, died of illness, only a few months after his mother died of old age? My grandfather was only 34 years old then. Where was he? Did he take a leave from the military?

Empire State Building on fire in 1945.
Where are all the stories of the times he spent in various countries around the world? Who was Mae Ling? Did he grow up in New Jersey as a child? Or New York City? (His mother came to NYC first, then moved to NJ, but I don't know the dates.) Who were his siblings? Why was I never introduced to any of them? Was he estranged from his family, or were we just living too far away?

In 1945, did my grandfather have something to do with the B-25 that hit the Empire State Building? I can't tell if his friends were involved in the accident, or if his family were affected, or what. But apparently some kind of connection exists, according to family records that I no longer have access to.

When my grandfather died, I attended his funeral. They asked if anyone wanted to come up to speak, so I did. I talked about the side of him that I knew. The person I'd spent so many hours with, mostly because he lived only a few houses down the street from me. I talked about pillow forts and racing small cars on his bed. After I sat down, no one else spoke about him. I remember thinking that what I had said seemed so very small — that so much more happened in his life and it wasn't fair that only I spoke about such a small part of his. I realize now that others didn't speak because they were grieving and felt unable to. But it still felt weird to me at the time. I was eighteen years old.