23 March, 2019

City Life

I spent last week in Boston, accompanying Katherine while she attended the 2019 National Art Education Association convention. She serves as Vice President of Communications for the Maryland Art Education Association, so she's fairly involved with networking with the 5,000 other attendees. Unfortunately, I came a bit too early for the conference I'd be more interested in: EAGxBoston 2019, so I spendt my time just walking through the city.

I've seen homeless people on every corner; stores with prominent handwritten signs saying "No cash accepted" (CVS) and "Leave your bags with the the cashier" (7-Eleven); a cop car on every block; and park benches with railings in the middle to prevent anyone from lying down on them.

You might think it's nicer in the mall where the convention center is located. Superficially, it is, but every power outlet in the floor has people sitting on the ground powering their devices, and every public bathroom is just a little less appealing than the restricted bathrooms I patroned in the convention center (where a guard asked for my badge before I could get through) and the hotel (where a sign clearly indicated that only guests were allowed inside. Even the Barnes and Noble bathroom left a lot to be desired.

I stopped in a fast food restaurant to get some tea, only to find someone sleeping in the corner. Apparently others found this unacceptable, because soon after two police officers arrived and began harassing him in an attempt to get him to leave.

Despite living in several cities for a few months at a time over a decade ago, I never really got used to them. It may surprise you to know that it was only two years ago when I first encountered a drug dealer offering his wares to me -- at least, it's the first time I ever knew that it was happening, and even then I didn't figure it out until a couple of hours later. (He said "you want a cigarette?" repeatedly, which, at the time, I interpreted as "do you have a cigarette?", because otherwise I couldn't understand why he'd be singling me out to ask. I still don't know what kind of drug he was offering, though.) And that same year was the first time I'd been propositioned by a sex worker, despite having done charity work for a sex worker organization a decade ago.

I don't want to pretend to be naive about this sort of thing. I just haven't had a lot of experience with it. Not because I haven't been around the shadier side of things, but because in the past I've always only been around it in the capacity of helping the people involved.

In 2009, I spent a week in Philadelphia interviewing impoverished residents in a food desert about their experiences with getting food for their families. I took pictures at a community garden and visited ultra small convenience stores that were experimenting with stocking fresh fruits and vegetables for local residents. While there, I saw a lot of poverty. There were many people who I am sure were sex workers or drug dealers, but, due to the context of my presence, they spoke about these things only as they related to food insecurity issues.

In 2008, I spent a week experiencing homelessness on the street near Walter Reed in DC. I wanted to know what it was like, and I quickly learned that it's not fun at all. I tried to take the experience as realistically as I could, with the exception of eating at a restaurant for one good meal each day. (Later, I would take the food stamp challenge while sleeping in my bed each night, so I could experience both hunger and homelessness, though not at the same time.) I depended strongly on the electricity from the local library, and I slept fitfully in the Autumn cold. (Several years later, I recreated this experience in a colder climate; I never want to sleep outside again.)

In 2009–10, I spent several months on sex worker/local police relations. I helped with creating advocacy websites, talked to local officers about how they could help make sex workers feel more comfortable with contacting them, and advocated for various methods of making sex work more safe.

I don't want to sound as though I'm naive about seeing the grit of city life here in Boston. I've seen it all before in other cities. But it still makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me want to take an uber everywhere rather than walk, and I have to force myself to walk instead, else I would miss what this city has to offer. Nevertheless, I'm glad I left after only a week. I just don't think I like cities. Furthermore, I love the comfort of my home. I guess I'm just not a travel kind of person. Sure, it was exhilarating when I summited a mountain in the Swiss Alps; it was beautiful when I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail; and I certainly appreciate all the various conventions I've attended, whether they were for skepticismfor board games, for otakusfor sex workers, for food bank organizations, for effective altruists, or even for philosophers -- but really I just prefer being at home with Jasper and Katherine.

I have no desire to ever live in a major city again, and outside of conferences and short trips for relaxation, I expect I'd prefer to do my future traveling via the internet alone.

25 February, 2019

My History and Future with ACE

I've been a close advocate of Animal Charity Evaluators from the very beginning. When the effective altruism movement was still quite young, I participated regularly in forums about there not being an official animal advocacy arm of EA, and how the animal cause deserved to be a significant pillar of the EA movement. I wasn't the loudest voice, and I certainly wasn't the most persuasive, but I gave my support and attention, hoping to see animals represented more heavily by EAs.

At the time, I was working in a non-EA charity helping to fight domestic childhood hunger. I had been a vegetarian for several years at that point, but had never before volunteered or participated in any type of animal advocacy space. In fact, I regularly worked closely with employees at large animal meat companies like Tyson Foods, as a part of my job to get food to hungry children. I was not a fan of many fat-shaming pro-vegan ads put up by organizations like PETA or PCRM, and didn't think much of the low efficacy of local shelters. My opinion of the general animal advocacy movement was quite low. My philosophical stance was quite clear: the systematic torture of pain-capable beings was not justified -- yet I didn't really have anything more than vaguely positive feelings toward any specific animal advocacy organizations.

When 80,000 Hours started Effective Animal Activism as a spin-off project, I was among the first people to sign up as a member. Mostly my contributions back then were limited to facebook posts and working through arguments via email. Eventually, I spoke with Rob Wiblin to learn how I could do more. Within a few months, EAA hired its first Executive Director, Jon Bockman, and I met with him on his very first day, successfully angling to become his first hire.

I served as the Director of Communications for the first two years at ACE. Later, I scaled back to part-time, so I could do earning-to-give in a second job. Overall, I worked as Data Scientist for over two additional years. My last day was at the end of last year.

Today, I accepted a position on the Board of Directors at Animal Charity Evaluators.

I'm glad to know that I can continue to add my skills and experience to help direct an organization with which I so strongly personally identify. I truly want to make the most of this opportunity to help make Animal Charity Evaluators as strong as I'm able.

13 February, 2019

A Family Pet

Doc was the family dog.

He was purchased by my father as a working dog. He spent his days at FH Auto Sales, a family-owned used car lot where he lounged about, purportedly scaring potential robbers from attempting anything sinister. I can only assume this worked well, because when I'd hang out after school there, I would constantly hear loud, surprised exclamations. "Oh, my god! You have a devil dog behind the counter!" "What the fuck?! Can that dog jump over to this side?" "Oh, hell, no, I ain't coming to that counter."

The building was originally used as a small bank, so there were teller stations, a large safe in the back, and lots of empty space where Doc would lie in wait as potential car purchasers would walk up to the counter, only to notice him at the last second. Of course, not all the comments were on the family Doberman Pinscher; if they looked all the way to the back, sometimes they'd first see the large snake sunning itself in a terrarium. (My father used to let him loose in a different car each night, widely publicizing this to staff. This apparently did a good job of deterring inside jobs from workers who knew that Doc came home each night to sleep at my home.)

Doc (or Doctor Death, as his certificate of registration read in full) was a dropout from guard dog school. The usual training involves teaching dogs to bite the raised arm of a would-be attacker, and then to not let go until help arrived. As such, trainers would wear these humongous padded sleeves on their arms to prevent damage from the dogs they trained. Doc, however, would bite the arm only once, and then start repeatedly biting the attacker everywhere else, including places that weren't as well padded. (Knowing what I now know about the hellish training these people put innocent dogs through, I believe the trainer may have deserved it. It also explains why they named him what they did.) My father was able to purchase him much more cheaply this way.

From my perspective as a child, Doc was amazingly well trained. He would not eat unless given a verbal command allowing him to. If you called him from the front yard, he would jump over the extra tall fence in the backyard. He was extremely gentle with children, and always loved running to and fro. In short, Doc was a good dog.

But this is not a story about Doc. It's the other character that I want to focus on here: me.

At first, I was just a kid. I would play with Doc nearly every day. We bonded in the backyard. I'd give commands in german in front of my friends to show off his obedience. When I'd jump in the pool, he'd come to the edge and let me splash him repeatedly. I was the good part of his life.

Doc looked to me as a savior. I spent the most time with him. Before me, from almost his birth, he endured so much in that hellhole of a training facility. To Doc, I was a godsend. An angel of friendship and softness. I provided sustenance. I played with him. We were friends.

Yet this friendship was flawed, for I didn't think of him in a similar way. It's difficult to describe now, with my current views of the world, how my brain worked back then. I almost want to say that I thought of others mostly as I thought of mere objects — but, no, that isn't quite right. I saw a difference there; I just didn't think it was important to act on it. Doc was like an advanced toy. A robot that I took extra special care of, because it could break easily if I didn't. I never hurt Doc, because why would I? And yet it was largely for the same selfish reason that I did not deliberately break my expensive toys. (There's a reason why this blog entry remains photoless.)

When I left, I did not think of Doc. I remember, in college, meeting people who would talk about missing their pet back at home, and I would write them off as just being weird. After all, I didn't miss the pool table back at my house. It was just a weird concept for me.

I know now that there was something wrong with the way I processed empathy back then. I didn't really outwardly exhibit sociopathic behavior except in occasional situations, but this was due more to me realizing how I should (instrumentally) act in order for others to feel comfortable around me. It wasn't due to me actually caring (intrinsically) about how others thought or felt.

I traveled a bit before coming back home. When I returned, my parents were divorcing. Doc no longer had a family home; he stayed full time at the car lot. I didn't know this at the time, of course. I never bothered to ask about him. I'm not sure I even ever thought of him. Instead, I just did what I liked with each day, focusing mostly on myself and how I might interact with the world.

I believe I was in my very early twenties, perhaps just 20, when my father took me aside to tell me: Doc is dying. He was to be taken to be 'euthanized' the next day. I should come by the car lot to say goodbye.

It was the first I'd thought of Doc for several years. It was rare for my father to suggest that I do something that had nothing to do with making money, so it stuck out to me as something I should do. Memories flooded to me, not of Doc, but of movies I'd seen where the main character sees an animal off to die. Vaguely, I wondered if the event would elicit emotion from me. I recall that night making plans on how I should act in the situation in order for others to see me acting appropriately. In particular, I remember planning to tilt my head to the side and down, so that my glasses would obscure where tears might form in other humans.

Had you observed me there, you might think I was a normal human. I hugged and talked with Doc. I whispered niceties even when others were nowhere near — but, as I did so, I recall thinking inside my head that this was for the benefit of anyone who might have bugged the back room where Doc lay suffering and still. I can remember specifically thinking that it was not for the benefit of ghosts, as I'd have no chance to hide my true self from them in any case, and definitely not for mind-reading aliens, who would better understand why I seemed to have such different thoughts from my fellow humans. In any case, my words were not said for Doc, though I suppose the principle of double effect may have made the experience comforting for him anyway.

Hours later, Doc died in a veterinary office. I wasn't present. I think I may have gone out for fast food. I didn't really think of Doc again for several years.

Slowly, with punctuated equilibrium, I changed over the decades. I dove deeply into ethical philosophy. I learned more about the sociopathic tendencies I hid in my brain. And eventually, I decided to care.

Perhaps it is still instrumental care. As a moral nonrealist, I don't really believe in intrinsic care. But I've decided that I want suffering to be bad. I want things to be good that others seem to agree are good. I want to spread positive memes, and I want to do it effectively. I now work closely with the effective altruism movement. I care specifically about animals, however instrumental it might ultimately be. And when I think back to Doc, my eyes tear up. Not because anyone is looking. (Not even mind-reading aliens.) I tear up because Doc mattered. I did not act appropriately back then. I should have loved him. I cry now because I know that I didn't.

Jasper, my current feline housemate, is well-loved. I care deeply about his life and how he experiences it. He is family in a way that I never really thought was the case for my actual family members when I was young. When I interact with Jasper, it varies as to whether the interaction is for me or for him. We do things for each other. He comforts me when I am sad. I love him.

Doc never got that. I'm not sure I was capable of love back then. It wasn't fair to him. And so I tear up.

And now here comes Jasper to comfort me in my sadness.

10 December, 2018

Fastly Fast Growing Functions

In a previous post, I discussed Really Big Numbers, moving from many children's example of a big number, a million, up past what most people I meet would think of as a huge number, a googol, and ultimately going through Graham's number, TREE(3), the busy beaver function, infinities and beyond. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but a much better version of that post already existed: Who Can Name the Bigger Number?, by Scott Aaronson.

In my original post, I made a few errors in the section about fast growing functions. Some kind commentors helped correct the most egregious errors, but the ensuing corrections littered that entire section of the post with strikethrough text that I was never really happy with. Now, six years later, I'd like to finally make up for my mistakes.

The Goal

I'd like to name some really, really big numbers. I'm not going to talk about the smaller ones, nor the ones that delve into infinities; you can read the previous post for that. Here I just want to point toward some really big finite numbers. The numbers I'm aiming for are counting numbers, like 1, 2, or a billion. They're not infinite in size. These are numbers where, if someone asked you to write a really, really big number, these would be way beyond what the questioner was thinking of, and yet still wouldn't be infinite in extent.

Why Functions?

We always use functions when writing numbers. It's just that most of the time, it's invisible to us. If we're counting apples, we might make a hatch mark (or tally mark) for the first apple, another hatch for the second ("‖"), and so on. This works fine for up to a dozen apples or so, but it starts to get pretty difficult to understand at a glance. You might fix this by making every fifth hatch cross over the previous four ("卌"), but you quickly run into a problem again if you get too many sets of five hatch marks.

It's easier to come up with a better notation, like using numerals. Now we can use "1" or "5", rather than actually write out all those hatch marks. Then we can use a simple function to make our notation easier to follow. The rightmost numeral is the ones place, then next to the left is the tens place, and the next to the left is the hundreds place, and so on. So "123" means (1*100)+(2*10)+(3*1). Of course, I'm being loose with definitions here, as I've written "100" and "10" using the very system I'm trying to define. Feel to replace with tally marks: 2*10 is ‖*卌卌.

As you can see, functions are integral parts of any notation. So when I start turning to new notations by using functions to describe them, you shouldn't act as though this is somehow fundamentally different from the notations that you likely already use in everyday life. Using Knuth arrow notation is no less valid for saying a number's name than writing "123". They're both just names that point at a specific number of tally marks.

Defining Operations

Let's start with addition. Addition is an operation, not a number. But it's easier to talk in terms of operations when you get to really big numbers, so I want to start here. We'll begin with a first approximation of a really big number: 123. In terms of addition, you might say it is 100+23, or maybe 61+62. Or you may want to break it down to its tally marks: 卌卌卌…卌⦀. This is all quite unwieldy, though. I'd prefer to save space when typing all this out. So let's instead use the relatively small example of 9, not 123. You might not think of 9 as a really big number, but we've only just started. The first function, F₁(x,y), involves taking the numeral X and doing whatever operation it is Y times. In this series of functions, I'm always going to use 3 for both x and y to make things as simple as possible. F₁ is addition, so F₁(3,3)=3+3+3=9.

Each subsequent function Fₓ is just a repetition of the previous function. Addition is repeated counting, but when you repeat addition, that's just multiplication. So our second operation, multiplication, can be looked at as F₂=3*3*3=27.

(As an aside, a similar function to Fₓ(3,2) can be seen at the On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. Their a(n) is equivalent to our Fₓ(3,2), where x=n-1. So their a(2) is our F₁(3,2). You may also notice that F₂(3,2)=F₁(3,3),  so although the OEIS sequence A054871 is out of sync on the inputs, the series nevertheless matches what we're discussing here.)

I want to pause here to point out that multiplication grows more quickly than addition. Look at the first few terms of F₁:
  • F₁(3,1)=3
  • F₁(3,2)=3+3=6
  • F₁(3,3)=3+3+3=9
Then compare to the first few terms of F₂:
  • F₂(3,1)=3
  • F₂(3,2)=3*3=9
  • F₂(3,3)=3*3*3=27
What's important here isn't that 27>9. What's important is that the latter function is growing more quickly than the previous one.
We can keep going to F₃, which uses the exponentiation operation. This is as high as most high school math classes go. F₃=3^3^3=19683. The first few terms of F₃ are:
  • F₃(3,1)=3
  • F₃(3,2)=3^3=27
  • F₃(3,3)=3^3^3=19683
You can see that each subsequent function is growing more and more quickly, such that the only the third term, Fₓ(3,3), is fast approaching really big numbers.

Next in the series is F₄, which uses tetration. F₄=3⇈3⇈3=7,625,597,484,987. Here I am using Knuth arrow notation for the operator symbol, but the idea is the same as all the previous operations. Addition is repeated counting. Multiplication is repeated addition. Exponentiation is repeated multiplication. Tetration is repeated exponentiation. In other words:
  • Multiplication is repeated addition:
    X*Y = X+X+…+X, where there are Y instances of X in this series.
    In the case of F₂(3,2), 3*3=3+3+3.
  • Exponentiation is repeated multiplication:
    X^Y = X*X*…*X, where there are Y Xs.
  • Tetration is repeated exponentiation:
    X⇈Y = X^X^…^X, where there are Y Xs.
Pentation is next: F₅=3↑↑↑3↑↑↑3. It takes a bit of work to figure out this value in simpler terms.
  • F₅=3↑↑↑3↑↑↑3
Remember that tetration is repeated exponentiation, so the part in the parentheses there (3⇈7,625,597,484,987) is 3 raised to the 3 raised to the 3 raised to the 3…raised to the 3, where there are 7,625,597,484,987 instances of 3 in this power tower. The image to the right shows what I mean by a power tower: it's a^a^…^a. In our example, it's 3^3^…^3, with 7,625,597,484,987 threes. And this is just the part in the parentheses. You still have to take 3↑↑↑(N), where N is the huge power tower of threes. It's truly difficult to accurately describe just how big this number truly is.

Fastly Fast

So far I've described the first few functions, F₁, F₂, F₃, F₄, and F₅. These are each associated with an operation. I could go on from pentation to hexation, but instead I want to focus on these increasingly fast growing functions. F₅(3,3) is already mindboggingly huge, so it's difficult to get across how huge F₆(3,3) is in comparison. Think about the speed at which we get to huge numbers from F₁ to F₂ to F₃, and then realize that this is nothing compared to where you get when you move to F₄. And again how this is absolutely and completely dwarfed by F₅. This happens yet again at F₆. It's not just much bigger. It's not just bigger than F₅ by the hugeness of F₅. It's not twice as big, or 100 times as big, nor even F₅ times as big. (After all, the word "times" denotes puny multiplication.) It's not F₅^F₅ even. Nor F₅⇈F₅. Nor even F₅↑↑↑F₅. No, F₆=3⇈⇈3⇈⇈3=3⇈⇈(F₅(3,3)). I literally cannot stress how freakishly massive this number is. And yet: it is just F₆.

This is why I wanted to focus on fast growing functions. Each subsequent function is MUCH bigger than the last, in such a way that the previous number basically approximates to zero. So imagine the size of the numbers as we move along to faster and faster growing functions.

These functions grow fast because they use recursion. Each subsequent function is doing what the last function did, but does it repeatedly. In our case, Fₓ(3,3) is just taking the previous value and using the next highest operator on it. F₂(3,3)=3*F₁(3,3). F₃(3,3)=3^F₂(3,3). F₄(3,3)=3⇈F₃(3,3). F₅(3,3)=3↑↑↑F₄(3,3). And as we saw two paragraphs ago, F₆(3,3)=3⇈⇈F₅(3,3).

I chose this recursive series of functions because I wanted to match up with the examples I used in my previous discussion of really big numbers. But most mathematicians use the fast growing hierarchy to describe this kind of thing. Think of it as a yardstick against which we can compare other fast growing functions.

Fast Growing Hierarchy

We start with F₀(n)=n+1. This is a new function, unrelated to the multiple input function we've used earlier in this blog post. F₀(n) is the first rung of the fast growing hierarchy. If you want to consider a specific number associated with each rung of the hierarchy, we might choose n=3. So F₀(3)=3+1=4.

We then use recursion to define each subsequent function in the hierarchy. Fₓ₊₁(n)=Fₓ(Fₓ(…Fₓ(n)…)), where there are n instances of Fₓ.

So F₁(n)=F₀(F₀(…F₀(n)…)), with n F₀s. This is equivalent to n+1+1+…+1, where there are n 1s. This means F₁(n)=n+n=2n. In our example, F₁(3)=6.

Next is F₂(n)=F₁(F₁(…F₁(n)…)), with n F₁s. This is just 2*2*…*2*n, with n 2s. So F₂(n)=n2^n. In our example, F₂(3)=3*(2^3)=24.

At each step in the hierarchy, we roughly increase to the next level of operation each time. F₀ is basically addition; F₁ is multiplication; F₂ is exponentiation. It's not exact, but it's in the same ballpark. This corresponds closely to the function I defined earlier in this blog post. Mathematicians use the fast growing hierarchy to give an estimate of how big other functions are. My F₂(3,3) from earlier is roughly F₂(n) in the FGH. (F₂(3,3)=27, while F₂(3)=24.) (Egads, do I regret using F for both functions, even though it should be clear since one has multiple inputs.)


So at this point you probably get the gist of the fast growing hierarchy for F₂, F₃, F₆, etc. Even though they are mind-boggingly large numbers, you may be able to grasp what we mean we talk about F₉, or F₉₉. These functions grow faster and faster as you go along the series of functions, and there's an infinite number of functions in the list. We can talk about Fₓ with the subscript x being a googol, or 3↑↑↑3↑↑↑3. These functions grow fast. But we can do even better.

Let's define F𝜔(n) as Fn(n). (Forgive the lack of subscripts here; we're about to get complex on what's down there.) Now our input n is going to be used not just as the input in the function, but also as the FGH rank of a function that we already defined above. So, in our example, F𝜔(3)=F₃(3)=F₂(F₂(F₂(3)))=F₂(F₂(24))=F₂(24(2^24))=F₂(24(16777216))=F₂(402653184)= 402653184*(2^402653184)≈10^120000000.

As you can see, F𝜔(n) grows incredibly quickly. More quickly, in fact, than any integer value of Fₓ(n). This means that the sequence of functions I've been talking about previously in this blog post can't even get close to the fast growing F𝜔(n), even though there are infinite integer values you could plug in for Fₓ. An example of a famous function that grows at this level would be the Ackermann function.

But we can keep going. Consider F𝜔₊₁(n), which is defined exactly as we defined the FGH earlier. F𝜔₊₁(n)=F𝜔(F𝜔(…F𝜔(n)…)), where there are n F𝜔s. This grows faster than F𝜔(n) in a way that is exceedingly difficult to describe. Remember that each function in this sequence grows so much faster than the previous function so as to make it approximate zero for a given input. An example of a famous function that grows at this level would be Graham's function, of which Graham's number is oft cited as a particularly large number. In particular, F𝜔₊₁(64)>G₆₄.

There's no reason to stop now. We can do F𝜔₊₂(n) or F𝜔₊₆(n) or, in general, F𝜔₊ₐ(n), where a can be any natural number, as high as you might please. You can use a=googol or a=3↑↑↑3↑↑↑3 or even a=F𝜔(3↑↑↑3↑↑↑3). But none of these would be as large as if we introduced a new definition: F𝜔*₂(n)=F𝜔₊n(n). This is defined in exactly the same way that we originally defined F𝜔(n), where the input not only goes into the function, but also into the FGH rank of the function itself. F𝜔*₂(n) grows even faster than any F𝜔₊ₐ(n), regardless of what value you enter in as a.

I'm sure you see by now where this is going. We have F𝜔*₂₊₁(n) next, and so on and so forth, until we get F𝜔*₂₊ₐ(n), with an arbitrarily large a. Then we diagonalize again to get F𝜔*₃(n), and then the family of F𝜔*₃₊ₐ(n). This can on indefinitely, until we get to F𝜔*ₑ₊ₐ(n), where e can be arbitrarily large. A further diagonalization can then be used to create F𝜔*𝜔(n)=F𝜔²(n), which grows faster than F𝜔*ₑ₊ₐ(n) for any combination of e and a.

Yet F𝜔²(n) isn't a stopping point for us. Beyond F𝜔²₊₁(n) lies F𝜔²₊ₐ(n), beyond which is F𝜔²₊𝜔(n), beyond which is the F𝜔²₊𝜔₊ₐ(n) family, and so on, and so forth, past 𝜔²₊𝜔*₂(n), beyond 𝜔²₊𝜔*ₑ₊ₐ(n), all the way to F𝜔³(n). At each step, the functions grow so fast that they completely and utterly dwarf the function before it, and yet we've counted up several times to infinity in this sequence, an infinite number of times, and then did this three times in order to get to F𝜔³(n). These functions grow fast.

Still, there's more to consider. F𝜔³(n) is followed by F𝜔(n), all the way up to F𝜔(n), beyond which lies yet another digonalization to get to F𝜔^𝜔(n). From here, you can just redo all the above: F𝜔^𝜔₊ₐ(n) to F𝜔^𝜔₊𝜔₊ₐ(n) to F𝜔^𝜔₊₂𝜔₊ₐ(n) to F𝜔^𝜔₊ₑ𝜔₊ₐ(n) until we have to rediagonalize to F𝜔⇈𝜔(n), which we set equal to Fₑ₀(n) just for the purpose of making it easier to read. There are two famous examples of functions that grow at this level of the FGH: the function G(n) = "the length of the Goodstein sequence starting from n" and the function H(n) = "the maximum length of any Kirby-Paris hydra game starting from a hydra with n heads" are both at the FGH rank of Fₑ₀(n).

You can keep going, obviously. Tetration isn't the end for 𝜔. We can do Fₑ₀₊₁(n), then the whole family of Fₑ₀₊ₐ(n), followed by Fₑ₁(n). And we can keep going, to Fₑ₂(n) and beyond, increasing the exponent arbitrarily large, followed by Fₑ𝜔(n). And this ride just doesn't stop, because you go through the whole infinite sequence of infinite sequences of infinite sequences of infinite sequences of infinite sequences yet again, increasing the subscript of e to the absurd point of ε₀. And then we can repeat that, and repeat again, and again, infinitely many times, creating a subscript tower where ε has a subscript of ε to the subscript of ε to the subscript of ε to the suscript of… -- infinitely many times. At this point the notation gets too unwieldy yet again, so we move on to using another greek letter: 𝛇, where it starts all over again. And we can do this infinite recursion infinitely yet again, until we have a subscript tower of 𝛇s, after which we can call the next function in the series η.

Each Greek letter represents an absolutely humongous jump, from 𝜔 to ε to 𝛇 to η. But as you can see it gets increasingly complicated to talk about these FGH functions. Enter the Veblen Hierarchy.

Veblen Hierarchy

The Veblen Hierarchy starts with 𝜙₀(a)=𝜔a, then increases with each subscript to a new greek letter from before. So:

  • 𝜙₀(a)=𝜔a
  • 𝜙₁(a)= εa
  • 𝜙₂(a)= 𝛇a
  • 𝜙₃(a)= ηa
This FGH grows much faster than the previous one, because it skips over all the infinite recursions to the final tetration of each greek letter, which it defines as the next greek letter in the series. The Veblen Hierarchy grows fast.

The subscript can get bigger and bigger, reaching 𝜙ₑ(a), where e is arbitrarily large. You can follow this by making 𝜔 the next subscript in the series, then follow the same recursive expansion as before until you get to 𝜔⇈𝜔, which we'd define as ε. And go through the greek letters, one by one, until you've gone through an infinite number of them, after which we can use 𝜙 as the subscript for 𝜙. Then do this again and again, nesting additional 𝜙 as the subscript for each 𝜙, until you have an infinite subscript tower of 𝜙, after which you have to substitute a new notation: Γ₀.

Here we finally reach a new limit. Γ₀ is as far as you can go by using recursion and diagonalization. It's the point at which we've recursed as much as we can recurse, and diagonalized as much as we can diagonalize. 

But we can go further.

We can already see Γ₀ as 𝜙(a,0)=a. Let's extend Veblen function notation by defining 𝜙(1,0,0)=γ₀. Adding this extra variable let's us go beyond all the recursion and diagonalization we could do previously. Now we have all of that, and can just add 1.

Let's explore this sequence:
  • γ₀=𝜙(1,0,0) Start here.
  • γ₁=𝜙(1,0,1) Increment the last digit repeatedly.
  • γ𝜔=𝜙(1,0,𝜔) Eventually you reach 𝜔.
After this, the next ordinal is 𝜙(1,1,0). As you can see, we have a new variable to work with. We can keep incrementing the right digit until we get to 𝜔 again, after which we reach 𝜙(1,2,0). And we can do this again and again, until we reach 𝜙(1,𝜔,0). Then the next ordinal would be 𝜙(2,0,0). And we can keep going, more and more until we get to 𝜙(𝜔,𝜔,𝜔). At this point, we're stuck again.

That is, until we add an additional variable.

So now we have 𝜙(1,0,0,0) as the next ordinal. And we can max this out again until we need to add yet another variable, and then yet another variable, and so on, until we have infinite variables. This is called the Small Veblen Ordinal.


Among FGH functions, the Small Veblen Ordinal ranks in just the lower attic of Cantor's Attic. It's not even the fastest growing function on the page it's listed on. We're nowhere near the top, despite all this work. Of course, there isn't a top -- not really. But what I mean is that we're nowhere near the top of what mathematicians talk about when they work with really large ordinals.

…and Beyond!

You might notice that at no point did I mention TREE(3), which was one of the numbers I brought up in my last blog post. That's because the TREE() function is way beyond what I've written here. You have to keep climbing, adding new ways of getting to faster and faster growing functions before you reach anything like TREE(3). And beyond that to the point of absurdity is SSCG(3). And these are all still vastly beneath the Church Kleene Ordinal, which (despite being countable) is uncomputable. This is where you finally run into the Busy Beaver function. The distances between each of these functions that I've mentioned in this paragraph are absurdly long. It took this long to explain up to the Small Veblen Ordinal, and yet it would take equally long to get up to the TREE() function. And then just as long to get to SSCG(). And just as long to Busy Beaver.

I want to be clear: I'm not saying they are equal distances from each other. I'm saying that it would take an equal amount of time to explain them. At each step of my explanation, I've gotten to absurdly faster and faster growing functions, leaping from concept to concept more quickly than I had any right to. And I would explain that much faster if I kept going, using shorthand to handwave away huge jumps in logic. And yet it would still take that long to explain up to these points.

And I still wouldn't even be out of the lower attic, with the Church Kleene Ordinal.

If you want to keep going, you may be interested in this readable medium post by Josh Kerr, the absolutely beautifully written Who Can Name the Bigger Number? by Scott Aaronson, or the wiki at Cantor's Attic. Parts of this post were inspired by my own previous post on large numbers and a reddit post by PersonUsingAComputer. I'd also like to thank professor Edgar Bering and grad students Bo Waggoner and Charlie Cunningham for helping to correct errors in this essay.

Slow Growing Functions

I'm a terrible amateur mathematician.  Sure, I watch Grant Sanderson's 3Blue1Brown videos for fun, but I never pause them to work out the math on my own. I participate in math forums occasionally, and every once in a while something I play around with gets some press (e.g., when I helped in a thread with Ed Pegg, Jr., and Laura Taalman with determining that the scutoid shape always has non-planar faces, for which Taalman's 3d print model was later popularized in a Matt Parker video), but to be honest, these are just nothing more than weird flexes. Beyond the thesis I wrote back in my school days about applying Gödel numbering to Aristotelian logic (which had no discernable practical applications), I haven't added anything novel to the field of mathematics at all.

Nevertheless, I love math. There's something about the way you can navigate its simple rules and come up with surprising results that makes me feel excited and full of genuine wonder. I enjoy board games and video games for much the same reason: I like to play around with rulesets and see what comes out. But mathematics has an unreasonable effectiveness when it comes to reality that few other invented systems have, so it occupies a special place in my heart.

Six years ago, I found myself talking with my friend Dale about extraordinarily large numbers. The conversation prompted me to write a short blog post on the topic. It was written just for my own enjoyment, but a number of better mathematicians than I got their hand on it and wrote a few discouraging words. One commenter in particular pointed out a few errors in the last few paragraphs of my post, and then, after I replied and edited my post, they wrote: "I'm sorry if I came off a little brusk and harsh. It's good that you're interested in this stuff and trying to learn more!" As a layperson, it felt simultaneously good and bad to read their comment. Good, because they're right: it is good that I'm trying to improve on this stuff. But also: Bad, because they're right: I'm just a nonmathematician writing another poorly written post on mathematics.

Anyway, the part of that past blog post where I was most confused was on fast growing functions. I not only explained what I knew poorly, but I also didn't fully understand the concepts behind those ideas. I really should not have included fast growing functions in that post, since it was not something I fully understood at the time, but it fit thematically and I really wanted to make the post thorough.

Now, I realize how much more important it is that all portions of a blog post are researched well enough to pass for at least acceptable to experts in whatever field it is. I've striven to ensure that even reddit posts I make in specialized subreddits are suitable enough so that experts in those fields wouldn't downvote me. It's a weird goal to have, not wanting experts to downvote me, but it's the best a layperson can strive for, I think. My contributions to r/philosophyofscience, r/boardgames, r/startrek, r/philosophy, amongst others, are examplars of what I aim to do in my everyday life: to know enough in each facet of life to not be a total idiot in it. My eventual aim of competence starts with a desire to function adequately, and slowly grow to more knowledge in each field as I can.

It sounds a bit silly when I put it this way. There are areas where I have a great deal of competence: effective animal advocacy, communications data analysis for organizations, knowing every nook and cranny of the worlds of balance and ruin in Final Fantasy VI. But for everything else, I just want to do well enough so that an expert in that field wouldn't laugh at me, and then I want to slowly build from there.

It's in that vein that I'd like to make up for the mistake I made six years ago. And so I present a short essay on fastly fast growing functions, written for a lay audience that's moderately comfortable with high school level mathematics.