19 November, 2021

Lighting for the Lazy

There's a phenomenon that occurs only to the lazy, like myself. I'd like to share it here so that go-getter types could also know of the experience.

Each room in my house has several lights. In the master bathroom, a half dozen lightbulbs are just above the mirror; in the kitchen, several inset ceiling lights help to illuminate my cooking; in the main room, flush mounts and floor lamps predominate. When the house was first moved into, all of these fixtures held working lights. But, as time passes, light bulbs fail. I could replace them. But why bother? The other lights work well enough without them.

How many lights?
One by one over the years, a light bulb will peter out, never again to provide lumens for our nighttime activities. To some people, this would be intolerable; but, to me, what does it matter, really? I usually keep all the lights off in the daytime anyway, thanks to several large windows throughout the house. A small nightlight keeps the bathrooms visible with no windows installed. And at night, the only light I need is that from my computer screen. Or my television set. Or my Switch. (My partner, an artist, requires extremely bright light, but it is solely directed toward her art-making, and isn't on unless she's working.)

Eventually, rooms with several light fixtures get down to their last working light bulb. One day, they, too, will break, and work will have to get done. I will have to purchase new light bulbs and replace the entire rack. But light bulbs these days last years, so I am not too worried. The day will assuredly come, but perhaps not this year. Perhaps not even next year.

Here, we teeter on the edge. Where once our rooms were bright, now the occasional flicker catches my attention. On some days, this is exciting. It is living on the edge. I feel as though I am in a dramatic video game, stalking the halls of a long disused factory, with only a few scattered lights still functional. On other days, it feels emblematic of our general aging: slowly, we are shutting down, the prime of our light long past.

My home isn't as bad as this real hospital.
What's weird about this is that I've experienced this scenario several times in my life. I can remember clearly in my twenties feeling this same emblematic-of-aging gestalt, even as I feel it now. I don't think it has anything at all to do with my actual age. It's just that I have a dim memory of the rooms being brighter, and yet now they are so poorly lit that, although life is still functional, the experience of the room has an entirely different feeling to it. What's really fascinating is what happens after: when the last of the bulbs goes off in a room, that gets me to replace all the bulbs in the house. The change is quite literally palpable: you can feel in your fingertips just how much more bright everything is. The mood changes significantly. Life renews, like an early Spring day.

I don't think that non-lazy types can really fully appreciate how this feels. I am told that pumpkin spice has popularity specifically because it goes away and only comes back once each year. (I don't see the appeal, but to each their own.) Something similar is going on here for me, but on somewhat larger time scales. I enjoy the feeling of going from almost no lighting to full lighting. It is reinvigorating in a way that just keeping full lighting all the time is not. I like how the house undergoes seasons of its own, sometimes with dark shadows in particular corners, and yet other times with lighting all around, illuminating every corner to see. It is as though the house is a living, breathing thing, its breaths interspersed throughout years rather than seconds, and with lighting rather than gasps of air.

Being lazy has its drawbacks. But this — the effect over years from delaying replacing light bulbs — is not one of them.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go install all these bulbs I just received from Amazon.

08 November, 2021

On the surreality of .999 repeating...

When I was in grade school, I often had late evening talks with my friend, Peter. Topics of discussion varied wildly from day to day, sometimes about video games like Doom, sometimes about girls, and sometimes about math. On one specific evening, we talked about infinitely small numbers.

I think the topic held our attention because the books we had access to said, in no uncertain terms, that the decimal expansion .9̅ is equivalent to 1. This left no room for a smaller value, in between .9̅ and 1, but which nevertheless was distinct from 1. We found this perplexing, as there seemed to be nothing logically incoherent with the idea of having an infinitely small positive value which we could subtract from 1 — yet the textbooks made it clear that that resulting difference could not be .9̅, since .9̅=1.

This idea is not unique. Many people make the same error, thinking that .9̅ should be strictly less than 1. In the sci.math newsgroup, the main FAQ's top entry for decades showed that .9̅=1. When I took a look at sci.math just now in November 2021, one of the most recent entries is literally someone making the argument that they are distinct. This is a topic that gets brought up again and again, and there's always someone more knowledgeable around that works tirelessly to correct these misunderstandings. (I used to be that guy on the old skeptic forums, though thankfully not on math ones.)

But in order to tread new frontiers in mathematics, you sometimes have to take a "yes, and..." approach. Sometimes when you do so, you're able to reach new ground that later ends up bearing significant fruit. This is how it was with negative numbers, this is how it was with imaginary numbers, and maybe something similar could be said with the idea of a positive number so small that even adding an infinite number of them together will not sum up to 1.

I first discovered the concepts in Berlekamp, Conway, and Guy's Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays back when I was working my way through Feynman's Lectures on Physics. I had been gifted a very nice three volume set as a teenager, and while the first book wasn't terribly difficult to get through, I was having trouble understanding books 2 and 3. At the time, I had dropped out of school, and so my only way to read these Feynman lectures required me to first teach myself more complex mathematics. I went to the local library, taking out texts that would help me to get through what Feynman had written, and, occasionally, I'd use the internet to supplement my understanding. Back then we did not have 3Blue1Brown; the best online math explainers were merely paragraphs of html text alongside slowly loading jpgs. So it was hard going. Nevertheless, I kept at it and eventually learned what I needed in order to properly enjoy my boxed set of Feynman lectures.

Hackenbush girl from WWfYMP.

It was during one of these online math excursions that I came across Andy Walker's excellent late 1990s-era html maths-explainer: Hackenstrings, and the .999?=1 FAQ. Walker walks us through a simplified version of Conway's Hackenbush idea, showing the beginnings of what we now call surreal numbers. Here, Conway and Knuth take seriously the idea that there could be a positive number so small that adding it to itself infinitely many times would never add up to any traditional real number. This is the first time that an infinitesimal is taken seriously enough to warrant the creation of a new system of numbers. (At least it's the first time since limits replaced infinitesimals in our teaching of calculus.)

At the time, I was too immature to think that I should purchase for myself Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays, but I ever so much wish that I had. It's an amazing book and well worth the read.

If you're interested in learning more, I highly recommend this excellent video by Owen Maitzen that does an absolutely amazing job of explaining Hackenbush. While it's an hour long, this is nevertheless one of the most entertaining introductions to a new type of math that I've seen anyone on the internet create. (He's even composed a soundtrack that suits his video perfectly!) Well done, Owen.

26 September, 2021

Honoring Petrov Day by NOT Pressing the Button

Thirty-eight years ago, Stanislav Petrov disobeyed orders that may have caused a nuclear attack. I'll quote from Yudkowsky's retelling of Petrov's story:

On September 26th, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was the officer on duty when the warning system reported a US missile launch.  Petrov kept calm, suspecting a computer error.

Then the system reported another US missile launch.

And another, and another, and another. 

What had actually happened, investigators later determined, was sunlight on high-altitude clouds aligning with the satellite view on a US missile base.

In the command post there were beeping signals, flashing lights, and officers screaming at people to remain calm.  According to several accounts I've read, there was a large flashing screen from the automated computer system saying simply "START"….

Petrov decided that, all else being equal, he would prefer not to destroy the world.  He sent messages declaring the launch detection a false alarm, based solely on his personal belief that the US did not seem likely to start an attack using only five missiles.

Petrov was first congratulated, then extensively interrogated, then reprimanded for failing to follow procedure.  He resigned in poor health from the military several months later.

Each year, I and many others take a moment to think back to the day when the world as we know it almost died. Of all the traditions I follow, this is perhaps the most solemn. (In 2018, I attended a ceremony where the Future of Life Institute posthumously presented Stanislav Petrov the $50,000 Future of Life Award.)

From Petrov Day 2020.
This year, I have been invited to take part in an experiment of mutually assured destruction. LessWrong and the Effective Altruism Forum have decided to honor Petrov day by creating buttons on each site which, if pressed with the appropriate arming code, will take the other site down for the duration of the day. I was chosen by the EA Forum as one of the people trusted with the launch codes capable of taking down LessWrong's site.

To outsiders, this exercise may seem silly. It has the appearance of a mere game, but I think it is much more than that: it is a serious ritual, one where the stakes involve thousands of visitors to each site, one where defection will be public, one where we practice the very real act of not causing wanton destruction due to mistrust, carelessness, or flippancy. But yes, it is also a game: one with stakes we should not callously risk.

Last year, this experiment failed. LessWrong user Chris Leong pressed the button, taking down the site during Petrov Day 2020. The failure, I believe, was not entirely on his part, but also due to a poor choice of who would be entrusted with the launch codes. I am hopeful that the decision to trust me with the codes this year will not be in vain.

At the same time, I am cognizant that the concept of mutually assured destruction here is supposed to incentivize the other team to not press their button. This presents a dilemma to me: I honestly do not want to press a button that will take down LessWrong's site. But should I keep open the possibility, should LessWrong press their button to take down the EA Forum? In order for the threat of MAD to work, I must precommit to taking an action that might not make sense in the moment when I have to take it. But I abhor the idea of precommitting myself to such an action.

Homepage of the EA Forum today.
I'm not going to strike first. That much is certain. But I'm less sure about my stance on a retaliatory strike. I want to say that even if they fire first, I will not fire back. What use is there in additional destruction? But this intellectually seems like the wrong stance to take. This exercise is repeated each year; Tit for Tat does seem like the better policy. That requires precommitting to MAD. At the same time, I don't take precommitting to anything lightly.

So here I stake my claim: if the EA Forum goes down due to LessWrong pressing their button, I may press in retaliation. This is not an idle threat. I do think that I may press, just to ensure that future Petrov days don't undergo the same terrible defection. But I'm not precommitting. Hopefully, LessWrong will understand this to be a credible threat, even if not entirely likely. I am hopeful that this small amount of threat will be sufficient to prevent them from deciding to press their button.

(If you are reading this on Petrov Day, Sept 26, after 11 a.m. ET, you can see the button on LessWrong and the EA Forum's home pages if they are still up. Or, if one side has already defected, you will see that the other side's site will be taken down.)

38 years ago, Stanislav Petrov saved the world. This year, I was chosen by the Effective Altruism Forum as steward of...

Posted by Eric Herboso on Sunday, September 26, 2021

30 August, 2021

Review: Worth the Candle

Worth the CandleWorth the Candle by cthulhuraejepsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Writing reviews can be quite difficult. I serve three masters: the friend or stranger looking up this review on GoodReads to see if they should read this massive book; the googler who finds this entry on my blog because they want to read more about this great book that they've just finished; and future me, who wants to remember and keep track of some of the better books that present/past me reads.

So, in the spirit of the metafictional story Worth the Candle, I'll take each of these in order.

Alexander Wales' epic is both the greatest Isekai novel and the greatest LitRPG novel I have ever read. Juniper is rudely transported in media res from school to a strange world of magic and soft fantasy in the opening lines, and his subsequent adventures in the plane of Aerb plays out like a tabletop role-playing game, complete with HP, skills, and leveling up. Juniper is young, but has a passing understanding of rational-adjacent tropes, mostly because his childhood friend was a fan of learning about rationality online (as much as a teenager could). This means that the narrator, Juniper, is able to talk lightly about rationality using rationality language, even when it's clear that it's just a teenage-level understanding of the tropes. This results in a highly exciting adventure with believably flawed characters who try to do their best in the situation they find themselves in. The novel works at the level of the action, at the level of the narration, and at the metafictional level of the author, Alexander Wales, who writes in such a way that we get to see glimpses of what seem to be highly creative nonfictional elements behind the structure of the text.

Worth the Candle is long — very long — but if you're comfortable with reading a sprawling epic that weaves LitRPG with Isekai with metafiction all in the genre of Rational Fiction, then I highly recommend that you read this book.

However, despite my five star rating, I do have several complaints about the book. (It would be hard not to, given its epic length.) What follows from here are spoilers, so if you haven't read Worth the Candle yet, go do that first.

Jesus Christ, Wales. I don't know how much of the text came from working out your personal issues, but Gods damn I hope it helped to write through this story. It's unclear just how much the Dungeon Master in the story should be identified with Wales the author (do you really have a Dice Girls shirt?), but, to the extent that this is played straight, I honestly hope writing this book has been therapeutic.

I get that everyone has their own sex hangups. Maybe it's difficult for me to relate because I'm asexual, but the way that the DM kept pushing things made me feel uncomfortable. Yet this is on purpose; canonically, the author himself seems to be uncomfortable with his own desires of what to put on paper here, which makes for an extremely interesting expression of cognitive dissonance that we can see enacted diegetically.

What I liked most (and what I think the author himself may have liked most) was the setting. Aerb is such a mismatch of all kinds of weird rpg tropes, but it honestly feels like everything ties together well. We read about dangled threads early on which, when later explored, appear to fit in the world properly. Not seamlessly, of course, but that's on purpose: Aerb itself is not seamless, which is itself a plot point. I am disappointed that more of the threads weren't explored, but I wonder if here, too, that is intended: that these aspects only get fleshed out if the text needs them to be, yet ensures that they retain continuity with the whole nevertheless. This says something important, I think, about the ending: that Juniper will not actually get to go on. The life breathed into Juniper's existence, in the end, only happens when we (Thargox?) read it. This is not what the DM claims. It's unclear to me if the intended reading by the author is that the DM is honest here, or if we are supposed to notice that point of view does really matter. (I think it's the latter, but there's additional evidence of the former: the multiple Dahlia copies that we never see, the offscreen fleshsmith fight, and the timeskip post-Fel Seed all point to the diegetic characters experiencing events not in the POV.)

The ending feels rushed. A four year work like this must be hard on the author; I'm sure burnout was a real threat. But when so many threads started getting dropped, I at first blamed the author. Later, I saw that it was partially justified in-story, but even later that started to feel like lampshading to me. Yes, it made sense to skip things, and there were plot-relevant reasons for doing so, but also this is a fig leaf, created so that the author could rush through parts that (IMO) did not deserve to be rushed through.

If I were Wales' editor, there are several parts I would point out as needing additional attention. Some are minor, like both devil Fenn and Grakhuil keeping an arrow displayed in their home. Why the unnecessary callback here? It seems like it is because the weaker version occurred first, then the author decided not to stray from using the stronger version later since it made sense that that's what Fenn would do. If so, then this is a pure drawback of writing serial fiction, and should ideally be fixed. And some issues are major, like deviating from established point of view rules for no good reason. The vast majority of the story is told from Juniper's POV, even to the point where the author himself laments from not being able to write from Larkspur's POV, making him a weaker villain. When we occasionally do get the POV of non-Juniper characters, it always seems to be in the form of a letter than Juniper reads, or a narrator's explicit retelling from after the fact. And yet, at one point, we start to see several scenes (and chapters) from someone other than Juniper, and it's never explained why. Did the author forget? Was it a mistake that wasn't fixed because the author is committed to serial writing? Or perhaps was this another piece of evidence aimed at showing the ending would be as the DM claimed it would be?

I enjoyed the story immensely, even if I did think the harem concept was cringey. I think the author thinks it is cringey, too, which is why I think I'm okay with it. I really liked the exploration of unexpected rape; it felt real to the characters, even if it meant that Bethel got relegated to the background where we couldn't see her progress as much as I would have liked. But most of all I enjoyed the weird combination of explained and unexplained that caused me to tag this book on GoodReads as both hard fantasy and soft fantasy. Alexander Wales is an awesome worldbuilder, just like the DM, even more than he is an awesome narrator, just like the diegetic narrator. Now if only he were willing to write non-serially so we could get some of these amazing texts edited!

View all my reviews

09 August, 2021

Katherine Hess

Katherine and Jasper.
Using online profiles makes meeting people so much easier. By the time of our first conversation, I already knew she was smart and funny. But it wasn't until we actually spoke that I realized the extent of her wit. She had this uncanny ability to connect disparate ideas in just such a way to make a joke or observation that was entirely new to me, and I loved it. Katherine very quickly became one of the most enjoyable friends I've ever had the pleasure of spending time around.

Romance, on the other hand, was not something that I was looking for at the time. I had only just arrived in the local area the day before, and I really just wanted to get situated first before looking for anything romantic. But, being polyamorous, I've always felt open to friendships becoming something more, and meeting a new partner has never been a bar to my meeting others, so it wasn't too much of a stretch when, after meeting Katherine a few times, I realized that I didn't just want the friendship.

At the Kennedy Center.
One aspect of Katherine that cannot be missed when you meet her in person is her size. Katherine is fat, not in the colloquial sense where thin people complain about getting 'fat', but in the sense of actually being big. She is the largest human friend I've ever made, and this life condition of hers is one that affects her public and social life considerably. While her size is not nearly the most significant part of her, it is definitely something that most people who meet her will notice first. In terms of a disability, it affects much of how she has to interact in this world, from what kind of restaurant tables she can sit at to how many plane seats she has to purchase in order to fly to a different city. But despite the clear prejudice against size in our culture, she's nonetheless been able to thrive due to her intelligence and humor, which makes her stand out considerably amongst her peers in the teaching profession.

As a friend, she was an obvious pick. Anyone who can overcome such adversity and find success despite it is definitely someone that any of us should hope for in a friend. But romance was different for me. Back then, I did not yet come to love her as I do now. I gave her the chance to win my heart, and she subsequently did, but I wonder: was it because I was polyamorous? Was the fact that entering a relationship never blocks the possibility of entering into others a key consideration to why I opened up and pursued a romantic relationship with Katherine in the way that I did? Could it be that, had I not been poly, I would have not been open to romance with her merely because of her size?

It seems a silly thought today. Today, I know her. I love her. She is so very amazing that to think something as silly as her size might have been the obstacle to me getting the chance to be with her is distasteful in the extreme. But, at the time, there was not yet the love that I feel now. Back then, I had not yet gained the knowledge of her that I have today: her personality, her charm... Back then, I only knew that she was well read because she would make witty references that I would catch; I only knew she was quick thinking because every topic we talked about would be highlighted with a joke or pun made at just the right moment. I enjoyed her company, and even if I had not been poly, that would have remained true. But had I not been poly, would I have remained open to romance with Katherine? I ask myself because I do not know. It is unsettling to think so. How lucky I am, then, that I did not think of relationships in terms of zero sum at the time. How lucky I was to think that no single partner has to be everything to me.

Thankfully, I did pursue her romantically, and I cannot stress how much this changed my life. Katherine is amazing. She is the closest friend I've ever had. She complements me perfectly: she's strong in the arts and in reading people, the two fields where I'm weakest, and yet she is still highly competent in the fields I'm strongest in: math and logic. She is an artist, but went to a liberal arts school and focused more on being a polymath than in learning to know any one field. She's read more books than I have, and that's quite a feat. She's a social wizard; she has to be, I suppose, in order to make up for the social prejudice against people of her size. She's a great teacher, but, more importantly to her career, she's an excellent leader of teachers. Winning high school art teacher of the year in the county and then the state was impressive enough, but following it up with the highest state award given to any art teacher here, the 2020 Maryland Art Educator of the Year, was enough to really solidify just how much she does to help others in her profession. She's also an amazing artist in her own right, having displayed art across five states, winning several awards for pieces both big and small.

My love, Katherine.
I cannot stress just how lucky I am to have found Katherine. My prior relationships pale in comparison to the things she's brought to the table in terms of romance, friendship, and deep support. On at least one occasion, she has already saved my life; I honestly believe that I counterfactually would have died had she not been there to know what to do. She's also helped to financially support me when I needed it most; after I left my last high-earning (to me) part-time for-profit job at $94/hour, I decided to look for the perfect nonprofit job opportunity before jumping into another for-profit position. This process took many, many months; had I just had my own savings to work from, I think I would have caved and taken a job elsewhere. But instead, Katherine supported me enough to allow me to start my own new effective altruism charity. Any utility our society gains in the future from this work would not have happened if not for Katherine. Most importantly, though, Katherine has supported me emotionally: she's comforted me at my lowest points; she's helped me soar during my highest points; she's cheered for me whenever I've succeeded and helped pick me up each time I've failed. She gives the most thoughtful gifts. She's always up for a video or board game. She's been the best partner I could ever have imagined that I would ever have, and she's accepted me entirely into her life just as deeply as I have accepted her into mine.

I could not be happier with Katherine as my partner. <3