01 July, 2022

Today is my Birthday

By Katherine Hess.

Today, I turn 41 years old, and I'm proud of the majority of my time on this planet.

Today is the soft launch of Effective Giving Quest. Although the website is not live when I write these words, by the end of day anyone will be able to go to EffectiveGivingQuest.org to see what I've been working on for the past few months.

Today, I am going out to eat with nine of my closest family and friends in the area. This might not be a big deal for most others, but it will only be the third restaurant I've visited since COVID-19 started in early 2020. That's an average of one restaurant stay per year. I am hopeful that this will change once the COVID rate drops down in my area, but regardless I will very much enjoy eating out today.

Today, I begin packing for a trip to Orlando, Florida, to attend the Dice Tower East convention. It will be a week of board games with my sisters, my partner, and a few hundred strangers. Out of the hundreds of board games I own, I plan only on bringing War of the Ring and its two expansions. The copy I have is the anniversary edition, and it is extremely nice.

Games featured on Effective Giving Quest.
Today, as I look over the birthday card Katherine drew for me, I find myself almost meditating over the symbolism she included. The love I share with her and with others, the love for my primary partner, for my siblings and close family, and the love for all the friends that I remain close to; the insistence on looking at how the world actually works, rather than how I might prefer it, as in the litany of Tarski ("If it is true, I desire to believe it is true; if it is false, I desire to believe it is false. Let me not become attached to beliefs I do not want."); the fascination with mathematics and mathematical structures, the philosophy of mathematics, and the beauty that unexpected patterns portray in the base nature of reality; the preoccupation I have with temperature, always desirous of ice in my drinks, of a fan blowing onto my skin, of the comfort my body seems to only take in such specific temperature ranges; the pure enjoyment I gain from video games and board games, an enjoyment I can't seem to find in any other media, the joy of solving puzzles, passing challenges, and of achieving mastery in areas that put me more in common with the-countless-persons-who-are-not-yet-here than almost anything else in my life.

Today is a day of celebration; of remembrance of what makes my life so special. It is a time of thanks, both that I am alive after almost losing my life in 2020, and that I have so many close friends and family that care about me so deeply.

Also, today is a day of wonder. I am fascinated by the ~1.7 million people that have liked my story on TikTok. The thought that over 15 million people spent a few tens of seconds of their life learning about an event of my childhood helps me to realize just how strange this world of the internet truly is. Here's just one of several viral videos telling my story on TikTok:
@reddit.stories.us What's f'd up thing happened at a sleepover? #askreddit #slumberparty #sleepover ♬ original sound - Reddit Stories US
Meme by Gilorz.

Today, I turn 41. I am happy. I am loved. I could not ask for more.

10 May, 2022

Invincibility

It took many, many years before I had an appreciable amount of epistemic humility. Throughout my childhood and well on into my twenties, I felt uniquely invincible. Even when bad things happened to me, I could find a way to explain the facts such that I was better off, not worse off. Today, I recognize that one’s rhetorical ability to argue equally well for every set of facts is a liability, not a benefit, when it comes to figuring out how to establish truth. But, at the time, I just thought it made me smart.

I fathered a child as a young teenager. Alabama had no abortion clinics anywhere nearby, so it took months before we could scrape together enough to visit Atlanta, Georgia, for a medical consultation. We didn’t have enough knowledge nor sense at the time to know in advance that we were on a clock, so we were completely crushed to discover that the pregnancy was too far along to stop in Georgia once we finally arrived. (We had saved for quite a while for this ultimately fruitless trip.)

We went home and reevaluated. My partner at the time preferred going the adoption route. She suggested moving to another state during the pregnancy, giving birth, and then allowing another family to raise the child. Meanwhile, I had no strong opinion. Eventually, her body started to show and we decided we had to tell others; both her family and mine seemed to take it well enough (perhaps because what else could they do?), and their immediate assumption was not adoption but that we would marry and raise the child. I wasn’t ready to do any such thing, but, again, I simply felt no strong opinion. I asked her to marry me anyway. We married. It took extra paperwork from our parents because we were so young. Despite not having a strong opinion this entire time, I made a commitment that I would make do what it took to make it work. (I eventually didn’t, even if at the time I thought I had tried my best.)

I did not know it at the time, but, looking back, I realize that my continued insistence on not having a strong opinion was because I felt invincible. Even in the face of such a life-altering situation, I could not help but to feel that it would work out, that the baby would be gone at some point, either taken in by another family or would otherwise not make it long into life, and that my previous plans would resume. I had meant to go to Pasadena, to get into CalTech, to begin my life as it had been planned years in advance. Yes, there was a marriage now. Yes, there was a baby. But, somehow, back then, I still felt like the universe would react in just such a way so that I could fulfill my every plan. After all, every other time in my life things had worked out for the best. I knew this because I could shape any set of facts into evidence that we were still in the perfect universe for Eric. (I literally never noticed any confusion back then on such issues.)

I ended up being a pretty shitty parent. I recall not being bothered by that poor infant’s cries. Now, years later, I recognize how others react to such sounds, yet I clearly remember that my reaction was one of indifference. I am ashamed to say this. I am ashamed to write such words on my blog, even though I am very different person today — even though I have full awareness that the me of today would never act the way that severely immature Eric did so many decades ago. But I will write these words nonetheless: The me of back then would spend hours upon hours of not caring that, in another room, a fellow human cried out helplessly.

I thought, at the time, that I was doing my part. I followed basic instructions. I ensured that meals happened on time, that holding and rocking her occurred on a schedule, that she was cleaned when time came to clean. But I acted solely on a timer: at 2pm doing this; at 4pm doing that. I did not ever change my schedule based on any input from her. At the time, my focus was on keeping to my commitment. It was on being able to say that I did all that was necessary. But I did not know what love was back then. Not to the child, not to my partner, not to my parents, and not even to myself. I was just simply not mature enough to take on such a responsibility. I tried anyway, in the immature way that I could back then. Thank God that my partner left me and took poor Adrianah Celes. She deserved to grow up with real parents, not with who I was back then. I merely went through the motions, thinking that this was sufficient to hold up my end of the agreement.

A combination of things have caused me to write about this today. In my country, Roe v Wade may soon be overturned. I remember how derailed my life was when getting an abortion was not easy to do back in my early teenage years. I certainly don't wish that others ever have to go through what we did back then. But, also, I don't mean to imply that my daughter (am I allowed to refer to her this way? I think perhaps that I am not, being just a mere sperm donor) did not deserve life. I sometimes talk with people who fail to understand the distinction between an existing person deserving life and a potential person's lack of desert for life. I am also concerned for my brother, Alejandro, who is a freshman in high school this year and who seems to also feel that he is invincible. For him, the issue is likelier to be bullying than unprotected sex, but it concerns me nonetheless because it reminds me so strongly of how I felt when I was his age.

I haven't felt invincible for well over a decade at this point. I have grown so very much since those early days in my life. I know now that I have no desire to ever raise a child (it's just not in me), and I've gone through great lengths to ensure that I'd never get anyone pregnant ever again. I was strongly reminded of just how vincible I truly am only a couple of years back, when I very nearly died in early 2020. And, most recently, earlier this year when I finally reached the point where I decided I needed to start seeing a therapist.

I no longer feel invincible. But my life was largely shaped by my feelings of invincibility back when I was younger. Those feelings of invincibility affected my life's trajectory more than most things back then. More than my schooling. More than the friends I hung around. Maybe not as much as my parents, or my cognitive abilities, but it is a closer thing than you might at first think. If I could go back and make one minor belief change in my early life, convincing myself that I was not invincible might be one of the most life changing.

I don't know to what extent I should go to help teach my brother this lesson. Perhaps it will be sufficient to just talk about the things I've said in this blog entry. We'll see.

31 March, 2022

What StarCraft Means to Me

Twenty-four years ago, on March 31, 1998, StarCraft was first released. I didn't realize it at the time, but it would become an obsession for me that has remained constant for two and half decades.

I was sixteen years old. Life was complicated — I had dropped out of public school, I was moving in with my then-partner after she became pregnant, and I was enrolling into freshman classes at the University of South Alabama. Many things happened during this turbulent year — some good, some bad — but, somewhat confusingly, the thing which ended up staying with me long term was StarCraft.

I first encountered the game at Greg's house. I had been playing WarCraft II for years at this point, but StarCraft was an upgrade in almost every way possible. I was entranced. I immediately tore into the campaign, and lan parties became a weekly norm. We were all bad back then, but it didn't matter. This was the best thing since Magic: the Gathering.

EVER OSL Final
Years passed. After dropping out of university (because I was an immature kid), I finally re-enrolled at Spring Hill College. I played StarCraft constantly. I even downloaded videos of pros playing South Korea. This was well before YouTube; MPEG-2 was relatively new at the time, and I'd have to watch the videos in this tiny stamp-sized box in the middle of my screen due to extraordinarily low resolution. It was worth it anyway. The casters were speaking Korean, but I didn't care. I was transfixed by how smoothly they were able to make their dragoons and goliaths move across the map. And I couldn't believe how efficiently they ran their economy.

Years passed. Every few months, I would pick up everything and leave for a new state. It was a nice transient experience, and I got to see much of the United States. I had very few possessions during this time. I made a habit of buying cheap paperbacks to read and then donating them to the local library before packing up my car and moving to the next place. I'd always stamp the books first; if you ever see an early-to-mid-20th-century scifi paperback in a small town library, check the inside front cover to see if it says it was donated by me. (I must have donated ~400 books over the few years I did this.) But one of the things I always made sure to bring with me was my copy of the StarCraft battle chest. It held a special place of honor next to my computer and I would replay the campaign in nearly every state I moved to.

Artosis and Tasteless
Years passed. StarCraft 2 came out, and I became addicted to watching Dan "Artosis" Stemkoski and Nick "Tasteless" Plott as announcers in the Global StarCraft II League, held in South Korea. I may have never watched football before, nor even soccer (despite playing soccer myself in middle school), but I watched every GSL tournament match as they came out. Many times, I'd even watch live at three or four in the morning to watch them compete across the world. When the AfreecaTV StarCraft League was announced, I fell in love all over again. Tasteless & Artosis casting the original StarCraft was a dream come true. I'm literally going to watch the latest ASL match later today immediately after posting this blog entry.

I don't quite know why I feel so connected to this game. It's not the best RTS — StarCraft II has that title, as it fixed all those dragoon/goliath shenanigans. But it is definitely the best esport. It's exciting, fun to watch, and has depths of strategy that never gets old. In most games, pros seem able to do things that I could never do. But StarCraft is different: I can do many of the things that I see pros do — it's just that I can only do them one at a time, on normal speed. What makes them pros is that they're able to do those things while running a good economy, having map awareness, microing in multiple places at once, and generally doing all of this while also having to think both strategically and tactically. This means that I can see their expertise clearly at play even though each individual move they make is one that I can understand as it is doable at my level.

As I move forward with Effective Giving Quest, I am hopeful that I will be able to connect with the StarCraft community and bring some of them to effective altruism. It would mean a lot to me if I were able to bring two of my passions together in this way.

14 March, 2022

A Decade of Effective Altruism Contributions

Giving What We Can
I joined the effective altruism movement in 2011 after hearing Toby Ord make his pitch. At the time, the Giving What We Can pledge required you to pledge to give to global development and health charities — so I did not actually sign the pledge until the day after they announced they would change it to include any effective altruism charities. I took the GWWC pledge in 2014, pledging to give 25% of my income for the remainder of my working life toward EA charities. (The base version of the pledge asks only for 10%.)

It has now been over a decade since I joined the EA movement. Today, I looked up how much of an effect my donations have made. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, over the course of the last ten years, my donations toward EA charities have added up to the equivalent of saving the lives of 37 people.

This is pleasing to me on several fronts. First, my go-to favorite number has been 1/137 for many decades at this point, so 37 is just a generally pleasing number for me to see. Second, it helps to make salient just how much my efforts have made a difference. As of 2020, it appears that it costs around $2300 to effectively save the life of a person via AMF. I've accomplished this standard an astonishing 37 times. This is honestly staggering to me.

Marcos is in the Qatar shirt, posing w/ siblings.
From an old reddit comment of mine:

There's a story that gets told at my family gatherings. It comes up maybe once every few years. It goes like this:

Forty years ago, my uncle Marcos was walking down the street in his home country of Bolivia. He turns a corner, and he is suddenly facing a fire that has recently started raging in a house, only a few tens of meters away. He drops his pack and runs to the house, calling out if anyone is still inside. When he hears a faint voice, he rushes in, zeroes in on the older lady there, and successfully brings her out of the building. Later, firefighters arrive, and they help to partially save the building. But the old woman saves most of her thanks to my uncle Marcos.

When this story is told, people at the dinner table feel pride for what Marcos did that day. He wasn't a firefighter; he was just a bystander who stood up to do what is right when he found himself in a place where he could help save a life. This is a story of a hero, and it feels good to hear it.

But, of course, actual firefighters get the chance to save lives much more often than this. Maybe not as often as it occurs in the movies, but maybe on average they get to save someone's life once a year. They are, without a doubt, even more heroic. Yet I wonder if they get as many positive feels around the dinner table as Marcos does when his story gets retold.

So when I started donating to effective altruism charities in 2011, I made a personal decision that ended up working out very well for me. I decided that instead of giving a monthly donation, I would save up my donations until they reached a certain chunk size, and then I would donate that amount to a single EA charity. The size I chose was the donation size that GiveWell at the time had determined was the amount needed to save a life by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation.

Since then, EA has become more mature. GiveWell no longer likes to talk in terms of "the amount it takes to save a life". But I've kept the tradition of giving in chunks for a very good reason: it makes me feel good.

Every time I donate a block of money that I've saved up, I visualize in my mind that it is me that has dropped my pack, and it is me that is running toward that burning building. I visualize that, as I donate this amount, what is actually happening is that I am saving this specific individual's life.

And you know what? As corny as this sounds, it actually works. It's a private experience — it doesn't get told at family dinners — and it is somewhat mitigated by the fact that I give to EA charities that aren't AMF these days, but it nevertheless feels to me like I am making a difference every time I donate a chunk of money. It works even though I have aphantasia, and I visualize in a completely different way than most people do. It works even though I know the person in my head that I'm saving is not literal/real. It works even though I do this ceremony alone, just for myself, without others to be around to experience or even know about it. It just works, and it honestly makes the experience of giving for charitable utilons to be as pleasurable as when I give for fuzzies. It's a different feeling; it comes less often. But it feels good.

Over time, I've visualized saving someone an astonishing 37 times. It has felt wonderful every single time. (Technically, I've gone through the process fewer times than this, because the old calculation for how much it cost to save a life was $7500. It is now $2300.)

If you have yet to take the Giving What We Can pledge, I strongly encourage you to do so. To date, 8,274 people have taken the pledge. You could be the 8,275th. Of all the things you could purchase with your money, this is perhaps the thing that may ultimately mean the most, and, if you treat it as a ceremony the way that I do, it may also end up feeling like the most wonderfully feeling personal experience that money can honestly buy.

06 March, 2022

Illegality

I've never stolen anything. I don't think I've even ever really come that close to doing so.

Once, when I was homeless, broke, and had nothing but a laptop to my name, I would work online to earn mere pennies at a time until I made enough for that day's meal. But I never stole. Never even begged. It honestly didn't occur to me as an option at the time.

Once, when I was very young, perhaps 6 years old, I collected He-Man stickers that I would place in a sticker album. I was missing a very specific sticker for a while, when I suddenly saw it on the floor. We were in a grocery store aisle. Someone before me had illegally opened a pack of these stickers right there, in the aisle, and discarded the ones they did not need. One such discarded sticker was the one I did need.It was stuck to the floor. It was gross. I peeled it off anyway. Within ten minutes, a few aisles later, I could not bear to continue further. I rushed back to replace it in its place on the dirty floor.

I've never done recreational drugs. I've never knowingly even been offered drugs.

Once, when I was in town for a philosophy conference, I walked the streets very late at night just to clear my head. Someone on the street said something to me that was unintelligible; I literally could not understand their accent. It wasn't until describing the situation days later that I was told by someone ele that thery were likely asking if I wanted to purchase drugs.

Once, I got into a normal van, drove with friends across the country, and stopped at my dad's place to stay for the week. We got our stuff from the van and moved into my dad's spare bedrooms for. short vacation. Nothing seemed amiss. A decade later, I am told that both my parents have a strong memory of helping my friends to get their stuff out of that van and instantly recognizing the distinct smell of pot from within. I honestly have no memory of it being smoky, nor of it smelling weird, nor of any of those friends ever doing any drugs in my presence. At least one self-identified as straight edge. I honestly cannot square the memory of my parents and my own memory on this.

Once, when I spoke to a childhood friend, I was introduced to their companion as someone who did not ever do drugs. It seemed like a weird description to me, but I suppose, to them, that was a defining feature.

But I did kill. Once.

It was a hot summer day. The grass in the front yard was tall. I hadn't cut grass since I was a child, riding a lawn mower. This metal contraption was new to me: a cylinder of blades pushed by a long handle. It looked dangerous. I didn't want to do it. I did it anyway. Suddenly, a spray of red. I felt numb. Looking down, I saw the mangled rabbit. I didn't know what to do. I broke down. I ran to my partner at the time, who calmly said that I should relieve it of its suffering. I was given a shovel. As I knelt next to its fast breathing body, legs torn apart, I mumbled a few private words only for me and the rabbit I had harmed. It seemingly took forever for me to gain the courage, but eventually I used the shovel. First, as a blunt instrument, and then for its intended purpose, creating a final resting place for the first and only being I consciously killed.