06 January, 2020

Recurring Dreams

Reading an account of another's dream is uninteresting. On this basis alone, I recommend not reading this blog entry. But I cannot ignore the things I experience in the dream state; they are too powerful, recurring often, impacting how I live out a significant (but not majority) number of my waking days. (If it influences your choice on whether to read this, know that a large portion this post goes into more than just the mere content of my dreams.)

Pictured: what I imagine others' dreams are like.
I'm an oneironaut. I'm able to choose what happens in dreams, or at least I confabulate my dream actions, which I am told is not something that most people do. However, I can't choose the setting of any of my dreams. They feel random to me, even though once I am in them, I can explore them at will.

One of the interesting parts of any dream I have is that dividing line between when I am not thinking about whether it is a dream and when I am actively asking whether it is a dream. Soon after is the answer to my question: learning whether I am indeed in a dream. But that dividing line is not so significant as the moment before I think to question and the moment that I do.

Many of my dreams are unique, but I have several recurring settings. Today, that setting was a house that is entirely invented, but which felt like a house I had previously lived in. It's particularly strange because even after I determined that it was a dream, even after I went through all the dream actions I desired, even after I opened my eyes and started looking around the room in my wakened state, I still sincerely thought that my dream was of a former house that I had lived in. It took several minutes before I recognized that this house had never been real, and that the reason it felt so familiar was because it was a home that I had dreamed of living in many dozens of times before, the last of which was over five years ago.

I can clearly see the makeup of this house in my head. The floor plans are mostly sensical, and it seems like it could very well be an actual house. But my awake self has never visited such a place. Still, it felt like an old home to me. So many things happened in that house. I can remember specific events, features, furniture, guests. One item in particular was a word game.

It is this word game that makes me want to write this down in a blog post. Some parts of the game are silly -- dreamlike. For example, each player had a hollow sphere to hold their pieces. The top hemisphere of this was bright orange. But other features made it an actually interesting game. The requirement was to provide a noun that matched a category on the left; if animal was the category, cat would be an acceptable response. But on the right you had a different type of category, a descriptive numerical one like too many, or an alarming amount. The player had to provide two words on the right: a number and another noun, like three birds. This would need to fit the description better than the opposing player's response. After being scored, the completed words would stay together, and could be used in future rounds as responses rather than creating new words. What made this word game unique was that the number of tiles provided was immense. There was no hand; you could spell anything you wanted from your entire collection of pieces. But as the rounds pass, the tiles would become fewer, and the descriptions on the right would become more specific, like not quite a dozen, or three times however many of these are in this room plus the opponent's number. This meant that a successful strategy would need to conserve tiles to be used for specific needed numbers, even while the left hand category is constantly asking for new words that you likely haven't made yet. The winner was determined by a combination of points on how well you responded to each category and how many (and what type) of tiles you had left over when another player ran out of tiles.

This is not a publishable game. It has too many pieces, requiring a set for each player. And the pieces would have to connect in some way so that they didn't break into tiles after being used. The game designer would need to provide a distribution of tiles that would account for needing to spell out numbers quite frequently, and there are certainly some letters that are used far more often there than others. (Not to mention the need for many s tiles for all the plurals.) And the right hand categories would need to get progressively restrictive in an interesting way that involves other players, without being so difficult that the game ends prematurely -- the only way I can think of doing this well is to make the number of starting tiles huge so that when you get to that stage you aren't immediately stumped.

What I find interesting here is how this is a game that I feel like I've played multiple times in this dream house, in several previous dreams. Each time I play it, the rules get more specific. I think more about how turns should be structured, how powers might steal completed words from the opponent, how end game strategy might hinge on knowing in advance what the opponent's categories will be even while being in the dark about your own, and how you can specifically use numbers or words that would make an opponent's upcoming turn particularly difficult.

And yet: I do not remember ever thinking about this game in the waking world. All of this was done in a dream state. Even though it is a bad game, it is not hilariously bad. It's just... not good. That seems pretty impressive for a game created entirely in a dream. As I woke today, I had the thought: Oh, I should pack this game to go with me when I meet Jon next weekend in Virginia. It took several minutes to realize that this is not a real game that exists in the real world.

Games such as these are just a set of rules. In my dream, I followed those rules. Was I not playing the game in my dreams, then? Not just playing a dream game, but the actual game itself. If, in the dream, I had computed 23*34, then wouldn't it be true to say that I had multiplied for real in the dream? In that same way, I think I was playing the real actual game in my dream; I wasn't just playing a dream game. How often does this happen? That a game would be designed and played in a dream, before ever being brought into reality?

I suspect it happens often. How many times have I heard of people getting inspiration from dreams on complex ideas.... The recreational math I do is simple enough to solve in the waking world; perhaps if I attempted harder puzzles I could leverage my dreams to attack them. Others seem to be able to do this, even if they aren't able to do lucid dreaming. I wonder what kind of problems work well in dreams, given that rules can be broken there. Is there some way I can repurpose my dreams to accomplish work that would be relevant in my waking life?

My intention is to start testing. I know, for example, that writing is completely out of the question in dreams. If I write something down in a dream, it doesn't stay there for when I look at it again. But if an object is placed in a room, I can look away and when I return my gaze the object remains. So I can record and manipulate data; I just can't do it using writing. But what specific kinds of things can I keep in mind? Could I place an octopus, for example, to stand in for an eight? Would that even be useful? How many items can I manipulate before the first item becomes unrecognizable?

Test one will be to look up some easy to solve puzzle online that requires manipulating several elements. I will deliberately not look up the answer, and will only look at the question and components right before going to sleep. Then, in my dream state, I will try to solve the puzzle by manipulating the elements. The puzzle should have a unique simple answer, which will be clear to me when I wake. Then, in the waking world, I will check to see if the answer is correct, and, if so, then how many entities have to be kept in mind while manipulating elements to arrive at the correct answer. Then I can do future tests to see what the limit of my dream logic's manipulable elements actually are.

Put 10 sugar cubes in 3 cups, w/ odd # in each. »Answer
One stumbling block will be that the manipulation of elements will have to be basic -- something that I can do in a dream that won't change on me later. This means it can't be word manipulation, like "seeing what you saw", nor unusual combinations, like most lateral thinking puzzles. I'm afraid that if I have to use an object in a way that doesn't mesh with my animal brain, then it will disapparate in the same way that writing does in my dreams. Will this limit what kinds of things I can solve in the dream world? Certainly, but as yet I'm not sure what would or would not qualify here.

Another concern I have is my inability to influence the setting of each dream. What if the objects I need to manipulate make no sense in the context of the setting I happen to dream in that night? Will this make it more difficult to manipulate? Or less? These are all questions that need to be answered.

But for now I suppose I should refocus on the waking world. I need to figure out what real games I should bring for when Jon visits this side of the country this weekend.

17 December, 2019

Feeling Self-conscious

We all have things that we feel self-conscious about. But it can be difficult to talk openly about such things while being cognizant of our privilege.

I don't want to compare my feelings of inadequacy with those of others. I know that I am extremely well off, but when we look at ourselves, we always seem to compare ourselves to the best of others. It's difficult not to feel inadequate in the fields where I just wish that I could be and do better.

This past weekend, Katherine accepted an award for the Maryland high school art teacher of year. While prestigious, it's not unexpected. The year before last, she won the Montgomery County high school art teacher of the year, and she's been extremely active in helping art educators state-wide for a while now. Yet, on the drive over, she expressed her feelings of self-consciousness. Despite knowing all that she has accomplished in her field, she still expressed feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Which is understandable. She's human, after all. But I couldn't help but to think of all the high school art teachers that I know, and of how many of them that just don't plain work as hard and as efficiently as Katherine does. To me, it is obvious why her peers have decided to recognize her as the most prominent secondary level art teacher in the state this year. But, in her head, the comparison is not to the average art teacher in her state, but to the idealized top art teachers that she can imagine. And, amongst that group, she feels quite inadequate.

Playing reference class tennis with myself would be a waste of time, but I can't help but to echo her feelings when it comes to the work I do in the field of effective altruism. There are so many effective altruists that have graduated from the top universities in the world, working at prestigious institutions and/or earning massive incomes. Comparing myself to these people on these terms can make me feel self-conscious.

I'd like to think that I'm intelligent. That I'm thoughtful when it comes to others. But can I really be a good judge of myself? If I am to avoid bias, I need some way of comparing myself using a proper reference class.

Recently, a friend got so upset with me for being so strongly inconsiderate that she ended up removing me as a friend on social media. If you had asked me only a day previous to this whether I could do something that would cause such a reaction from one of my friends, I would have maintained that that would be extremely unlikely. Yet it did occur, and I am at a loss to explain why.

Steelmanning her point of view, I suppose it was because I was saying something derogatory toward her while she was already down, and this was over the line because you don't kick a person when they're down. Saying it like this does make me seem like an asshole, I guess, though I still don't think that if I could redo the conversation that I would choose to act any differently. She is not doing well financially, and she was asking me for a moderately large loan to get out of what she called an emergency situation. My response was that I had given her over a dozen loans so far in the past decade of over $1k each and despite her numerous promises to repay, she had not made even the slightest attempt to repay any of it for several years. I reminded her of this as my explanation for why I could no longer loan her any money. I then gifted her a small amount, hoping that this might help her immediate emergency situation. Her response was to unfriend me, saying that I was an asshole for saying derogatory things about her while she was in a bad situation already.

Judging myself is inappropriate, because biases abound. But if I am to judge based on her perception of me…

I went on a first date with someone intelligent. During our discussion, I said something that, looking back, I really regret. I said that I felt like I wasn't very smart. What I meant was that, in the reference class of comparing myself to people I associate with in the EA movement, I am just not nearly as quick as they are. This is the wrong reference class. I know this. This is especially wrong when you're on a first date -- they don't yet know you, and they can't possibly understand the context behind such a stupid thing that you might say. Self-deprecation is not good. It's not funny; it's not helpful. I regret doing it. But I did; it just came out too easily. Thankfully, she looked past it. I guess other parts of the conversation at least made up for it.

Yet despite knowing that it isn't appropriate to say, I nevertheless still feel it. I really do. I'm not nearly as effective as I could be. I don't read nearly as much as I could. I don't give nearly as much as I'd be able to if I just worked as hard as I'm capable of. When I speak to peers about money, I can't help but to realize that they're making $200k or more each year, while at my peak I've only had a salary in the $115k range. Now, working directly for EA charities, I earn far less than that, but I consider the difference as a form of in-kind giving. But, again: this is the wrong reference class. In comparison to the world at large, I am extremely affluent. I have the luxury to be able to quit a job and spend six months before deciding what I want to do next. I know this; but what I feel is inadequacy. I went to a great college. I had absolutely top-notch philosophy teachers; I was able to read to my heart's content in the best philosophy library in the state of Alabama. But what I end up comparing myself to are peers that graduated from Ivy league institutions. It's maddening to know that this doesn't matter; that their education in terms of both breadth and depth is not dissimilar to my own, especially considering how much autodidactic extra-curricular stuff I went through. But what I know is not what I feel.

What makes it worse is that I cannot really talk about this with anyone. In the context of a conversation with a person in the same room with me, saying these things just makes me look like an ass. I mean, can you imagine? "I feel so stupid and poor and uneducated," Eric unthinkingly complains, despite being the literal opposite of all three. And so I write my feelings on my blog instead, feeling safe in the knowledge that no one I know (and no one that I don't know) reads anything I write here. It's like this is my own private journal, kept locked in a box under my bed, except I put it online with my name next to it, and no one cares because why would they? This is a safe space. I can say my true feelings here, even if those same feelings would make me look like an absolute ass if I ever said them to my actual friends in real life.

14 November, 2019

Pay the Rent First

When you don't have much money, sometimes you have to prioritize which bills you can pay first. Should you pay the electricity bill? Or water? Food? Or rent?

If you're really desperate, then it can become a delicate balance of always staying ahead of eviction or the lights going out. But there's a narrow band of poverty where this is a legitimate question, where the answer always remains the same: Always pay the rent first.

If enough money comes in to pay bills eventually, but they don't come in quite enough time, then you always want to pay rent first because that's the most important thing to keep you okay. Other bills can be paid late, and you can get assistance at a food bank for meals, but not paying your rent can have devastating consequences.

Sometimes I think about charity this way. It can be nice to give to a direct charity like Animal Equality, giving you that warm feeling of knowing that your money is working directly on helping to make animals' lives better. But sometimes it's better to think about paying the rent first, before going to the movies or eating out.

Animal Charity Evaluators
Animal Charity Evaluators is an organization evaluator; it (among other things) looks at organizations that are potentially highly effective and looks into whether they actually are among the top tier of animal advocacy organizations using an effective altruism framework. ACE's job is to find and promote the best animal charities, so usually when people go to ACE's website, what they're looking for is a recommendation for which animal charity they should give to.

Yet before you give to those recommended charities, it may make sense to first give to the organization that is actually doing the work of finding and promoting the best charities and interventions that help animals. By paying the rent first (donating to ACE before donating to its recommended organizations), you can ensure that the best opportunities for giving in the animal advocacy space will continually be identified and the best charities will be incentivized to not just be among the best today, but to always move forward as well, to stay in that designation as an ACE top recommended charity.

This is why I'd like to ask those of you who are already planning to donate to an animal advocacy charity to donate a portion of that amount first to Animal Charity Evaluators. It's not as sexy as donating to direct aid organizations, but it's nevertheless important to pay the rent first.

I should mention a few caveats here.
  1. First, while moving donations can potentially be much more effective than merely increasing your donations, in the case I lay out here this is not true. If you're already giving to a top charity, moving it to ACE might or might not be more effective. My argument would follow effective altruism philosophy more clearly if I instead made the ask for people to increase their donation by giving to ACE, rather than moving money from one top charity to another. But others are already making asks like that; I'm trying to focus instead on the idea of paying rent before spending on movies, rather than spending solely on movies. This scenario doesn't have an analogue of increasing one's donations, so it doesn't apply here.
  2. Second, I'm on the board of directors for Animal Charity Evaluators, so that may color how you interpret my suggestion to give to ACE. I would argue that the reason why I'm on the board of ACE is because I believe it is so very highly effective and so sought it out; it's not the case that I'm only recommending ACE because I happen to be on its board.
  3. If you really took this argument to the extreme, you might want to extend the analogy to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, at which point you might argue that you need to first spend money on oneself before spending anything on charity. I'm not averse to these kinds of arguments, but I do think that saying so to the audience likely to read this blog post sends the wrong message. In general, people allocate far too little to the most effective causes, so arguing that we should spend on ourselves first isn't the best argument to be making, even if it technically is true.
  4. If you need more info before donating, I highly recommend that you read about ACE's room for more funding or my colleague Allison Smith's pitch for donations to the organization before the giving season starts, at which point all marketing efforts ACE makes will be made toward giving to its recommended organizations and funds.
  5. If you're single, it actually isn't that difficult to live without paying rent, so long as you pay for a gym that has showers and a post office box. In that case, you should probably pay for your gym membership and post office box first, before any other bills. I wouldn't recommend it, though.

04 November, 2019

Remembering Final Fantasy VI

Twenty-five years ago, I was twelve years old. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was my most prized possession, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was my favorite game on the system. I proudly displayed a folded certificate that proclaimed "I brought light to the dark world", and I was eager to see what the next big game was going to be.

At the time, I was looking for a bigger adventure. Something that could engross me with puzzles rivaling A Link to the Past, but which would have more textual substance to it. I wanted a story with characters I could fall in love with. I wanted a villain that could both horrify and fascinate me. Unbeknownst to me, what I wanted was an RPG.

Enter Final Fantasy VI.

It hooked me from the opening scene. I felt awe at the initial setup of the story and continued to be awed by the depth of the story from moment to moment. Story beats kept coming at hour 1, hour 2, hour 3, and so on, but when it really grabbed my attention was the moment when (spoilers!) the villain won the final battle. I thought I had done something wrong. Did I wait too long for Shadow? Everything went to hell and suddenly I was starting again from scratch in a ruined world. The story overwhelmed me. Themes of suicide, of love, of hatred, of all kinds of things treated me like an adult. I experienced so many emotions on playing this game, and I could wait to replay it once I finally finished it. I kept a save game right before Kefka and made a habit of beating the final boss each night so I could listen to the exceedingly awesome ending theme song while I fell asleep.

I performed a playthrough where I got everything and leveled up to the maximum; I did a playthrough where I beat the game with only three characters. I worked my way through a low-level playthrough; I even played so sloppily on one playthrough that I got into a soft-lock in the opening part of the game with several parties of moogles that all got dropped to 1hp with not enough items to actually allow me to beat the scenario.

I celebrated the 25th anniversary of this game earlier this year by reading through Clyde Mandelin's excellent translation comparison of Final Fantasy VI. I especially appreciated the better understanding this translation comparison gave me of Locke's relationship with Rachel.

When I was in my teens, parts of this game affected me so much that I would use themes from it to explain how I felt about people in my life. When I had the chance to name an actual person coming into being in this world, I chose a name from this game, not because it was my favorite character, but because that character stood up for what they believed in, abandoning a position of power to instead do what was right.

Once, when a partner left me, they chose to leave a note not on the refrigerator, nor on the bed, but instead next to my copy of Final Fantasy VI, assuming, I suppose, that that is where I would head first after receiving such a dear john letter. (It wasn't, btw, and it took quite a very long time before I found that letter.)

During several of my lowest moments in this world, I would turn to music to help me to not feel so depressed. Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of Final Fantasy VI, is one of the composers to whom I would turn almost every time (the other being Yasunori Mitsuda, for his work on both Chrono Trigger and Xenogears). I don't do this quite as much anymore, perhaps partly because I don't endure long bouts of depression any longer, but I do occasionally play covers of their songs to make me smile.

Final Fantasy VI remains as one of my favorite video games of all time. It defined a moment of my childhood and reappeared in various forms during several major moments of my life. So I salute the game, 25 years later, as being the touchstone that it was for me in my life.

02 November, 2019

Blizzard's Next Step

It's important to never move the goalposts. If you have an expectation, write it down. Commit it to text, so that when the time comes, you don't inadvertently change the goalposts after the fact.

I did this with the Blizzard situation. I've thought a lot about this, because it significantly affects my life. The last three weeks of not opening any Blizzard games is the longest period of time that I've not opened a Blizzard game in almost 11 years. I've been a fan of their games since 1998. I've had a longstanding policy of never preordering games from any company with the exception of Blizzard and Nintendo. The amount of trust I've put into Blizzard in my life is significant. So when this whole situation went down, I committed to text exactly what I found wrong about the whole thing.

First, it is important for me to be realistic. Blizzard, as a company, has to be able to move into the Chinese market. To expect otherwise is the same as just giving up on them completely. So I was not expecting them to badmouth China, or to say that the Chinese position is wrong. But I was hoping that they would apologize for handling the situation so poorly. That they would make up for it by committing resources to help those hurt by the protests in Hong Kong, perhaps by donating to a charity working on providing financial assistance to the victims of accident or illness there -- something nonpolitical, which did not take a stance against China, but which actively helped the people in that area to be better off, even though they may be protesting the Chinese government.

This may seem overly specific. Expecting charitable help didn't seem out of the question to me; it seemed like a way that they could try to make amends while simultaneously not speaking out against China. It seemed reasonable. The other part that I wanted was for them to explicitly disavow themselves from NetEase's Weibo post. This was the clencher for me. NetEase made a post that was completely and utterly unacceptable. It was made on official accounts for the game itself. This seems like the kind of thing that Blizzard needs to explicitly disavow, or else it reflects directly upon them as a company.

Well, now Blizzcon is over. J. Allen Brack gave a corporate-sounding apology in the opening ceremony. It isn't great; Jai Dhyani points out that it is missing several aspects of what a genuine apology from a person should look like. But this is a company, not a person. It's still lacking, but not as severely, I think, as Dhyani intimates.

Blizzard explicitly told its employees that they are welcome to participate in the protests. Some did. Blizzard explicitly allowed any and all protests to occur, so long as they didn't harm people. This happened; disruptions occurred, and Blizzard allowed them. No one was kicked out for protest-related activities. Twitch chats were full of pro-Hong Kong sentiment; to my knowledge, the only people banned from chat were the ones who were spamming. No content bans occurred.

Brack also clarified in a PC gamer interview that NetEase is not a Blizzard arm. It is an entirely separate company, and they are not legally allowed to tell them what they can or can't put on NetEase's official social media accounts. When asked about the comments NetEase made, Brack made clear: "We did not authorize it. We did not approve it. We would not have approved it had they asked."

Blizzard has made clear that the pro-China rhetoric on social media is not from them and they are not in favor of it being posted. They have made clear that they are okay with free speech from employees and contractors, so long as it isn't something political during an official stream that's supposed to be about the game. They acknowledged that their original punishments were too severe, and they've reduced them significantly. So what does this mean in terms of what they have yet to properly apologize for?

I think that this means that they've disavowed themselves from some of the more egregious acts. They're corrected on the overly strong punishment. They've said that they cannot legally tell NetEase what to do about the bad social media posts. From my original set goalposts, it is unreasonable to expect them to be explicitly anti-China. So, from my vantage point, they have:
  • Included what the actor did wrong, by clarifying that the pro-China rhetoric cannot legally be changed by them, that the punishments they made were too excessive, and that they failed to properly explain why they had to take a neutral stance on the political issue.
  • Included a causal explanation of the underlying issues that led to the action, by having NetEase be so connected to the Chinese government, unable to tolerate an anti-China stance..
  • Acknowledged the hurt that their action caused, by making several statements to this effect.
  • NOT explained any lessons learned; they appear to instead want to not go into it very deeply. I think this might be okay for a company to do, even if an individual apologizing shouldn't have this as an option.
  • NOT made enough restorative actions to mitigate/compensate for the harms done. They did reduce the punishments to the point that they feel is fair, and I think I'm lightly in agreement with them on the fairness aspect of the punishment. But although NetEase was responsible for the worst of the pro-China sentiment, and although NetEase is a separate company than Blizzard altogether, they are nonetheless linked by the games they publish, and it seems appropriate for Blizzard to compensate for the harms enacted by NetEase in the same way that you or I might purchase carbon credits to compensate for the harms enacted by our airline company. Blizzard has yet to do this.
  • NOT described sufficient actions that address the underlying issue in an attempt to prevent it from recurring in the future. They have taken some actions on this front, by being more clear about when and where their commitment to free speech applies. But there seems to be no way to both sell their games in China while simultaneously limiting the kinds of things that their producer in China will say about things like the Hong Kong protests. This is something Blizzard hasn't done, but which I'm not sure they have the capacity to accomplish at all; thereby meaning that we shouldn't expect them to do what they literally cannot do, and so shouldn't expect them to figure out how to correct the underlying issue.
I want to make it clear that the standard I am giving Blizzard above is a corporate standard. If you're an actual human, you have to make it right, even if you can't. You do as much as you can to make it right, and when you fail, then that's just too bad for you. You separate from the aggrieved and move on. But a company cannot act this way without going out of business. Expecting it to is equivalent to expecting the business to bankrupt itself. This might be a moral hazard, but it is the best we have when it comes to companies, rather than people.

So, in summary: Blizzard has done a lot to make up for this brouhaha. But there are things it has yet to do that it should if it wants to genuinely make up for what has happened. Blizzard still needs to make restorative actions that either mitigate or compensate for the harms done. Looking back at my original goalposts, this makes sense to me. Everything else is either already done by Blizzard or it would be inappropriate to actually expect Blizzard to take those types of actions.

What Blizzard needs to do is to take some kind of charitable action in the Hong Kong region. It doesn't need to be political in nature; that would be inappropriate for a company trying to sell games in the China region. But it does need to help the people of Hong Kong, in way of showing that Blizzard is not against them in the same way that NetEase's Weibo post implies. Blizzard needs to pick a charity that helps to pay for medical expenses, or does something that directly helps the people who may or may not be involved in the Hong Kong protests. And it needs to be a charity that is NOT explicitly pro-China. It must be politically neutral.

If Blizzard does this, then I think that it will have done enough. I'm still not exactly happy with Blizzard. I'm certainly not going to preorder from them anymore. And I might not spend as much as I've already spent on their non-starcraft products. But I may resume spending on my favorite game of all time. And I'll once again look forward to the high-quality games that Blizzard has long been known for. So please, Blizzard: do something to compensate for this situation. Give to a Hong Kong charity. I promise that these goalposts will not be moved.