23 May, 2017

In Memory of Jorge Herboso

Jorge Herboso
My uncle died a few weeks ago. He had not been doing well. A bug bite from several months previous had given him significant problems, but he had avoided going to the doctor for a prolonged amount of time. It grew infectious and supposedly was subsequently fixed, but this lax attitude of not going to the doctor when he really should may have played a part in why he died so prematurely.

He died in Bolivia. The original plan was for him to go there for only a couple of months. I helped to buy him a chromebook so he could continue to get online easily while he was there. But he fell ill again, and his delay in going to the doctor caused him to extend his stay by two months. Near the end, he was writhing in pain at home, but still had not gone to see a doctor over the issue. My father, from a hemisphere away, had to call family in a nearby city to get them to force Jorge to go in to see a doctor.

A part of this is machismo. Some of it is the idea that nothing will happen to us. Another portion was Jorge's strong religious belief, and his desire to not use traditional medicine whenever he could get away with it. I used to participate heavily in skeptic forums dealing with beliefs just like that. Although I don't post in skeptic forums much anymore, I still occasionally post links to whatstheharm.net whenever I hear a friend or family member talk make the case that there's no harm in allowing people to believe incredulous things.

Carlos, Sylvia, Ruperto, Jorge, Marcos, Chalo, and Fernando
My strongest memories of Tio Jorge are from when I was a child. I remember interacting with him several times in Alabama, especially during a family reunion we had in the late nineties.

I loved the way he would yell out a grito mexicano whenever he was particularly into a song. I loved the way he would smile and laugh when in the company of his brothers. I loved how, when my father would talk about him, it was always to complain about how giving his brother was, to the point of it being to his detriment.

I did not like as much how he would mostly speak Spanish in my presence, despite knowing English, so I could only really understand him only a small portion of the time we spent together. I did not like how he wore his religious beliefs on his sleeve later in life, nearly always commenting on whatever the topic of conversation was by bringing up God in one way or another. I did not like how he physically spanked me when I was very young. I did not like how he shied away from traditional medicine in times when he needed it most.

Jorge was exceedingly kind in his last years. He openly welcomed others into  his home that badly needed the help. He would find them jobs and work to help get them back on their feet. He helped run an Emmaus Retreat, where immigrants can go to help amend broken marriages in a Catholic setting. He did much to try to make the world a better place, and I am very sad to see him die so early on in life.

If you want to see more about my uncle's life, please visit his online rememberance page.

15 May, 2017

Pinpricks of Light to Start my Day

I use this as my visual alarm clock.
7:00 a.m.
Katherine leaves the house to start her day at school. The sound of the front door closing is my cue to get up.
7:45 a.m.
My eyes are finally able to stay open for more than a few seconds at a time. I put on my shoes and fill a bottle with tea. I have to leave soon. I browse through the most recent podcasts to decide on what to listen to this morning.
8:10 a.m.
My visual alarm goes off. The sun shines through a window upstairs, illuminating the stairwell and precisely hitting a disco ball hung at the bottom of the stairs that reflects the light into a hundred directions. The sight of pinpricks of light throughout the living room tells me it's time to call an Uber for work.
9:15 a.m.
I am nearly done with my Uber ride. I travel from Germantown, md, to Alexandria, va, thrice each week. Uber costs constitute a large portion of my monthly expenses, but it's worth the expense if I can get to where I need to go quickly and easily. The metro has been involved with too many accidents lately for me to be comfortable using it.
10 a.m.
I'm at work in VA. I go through emails, plan out what I need to do over the next 7-8 hours, and set priorities for the week.
12 p.m.
Lunchtime. I walk to a nearby restaurant and eat. I generally refill my drink at least twice, so the only requirements are that they have vegetarian options and free refills. While I'm there, I check my ACE emails to see if I need to respond to anything urgent.
5:00 p.m.
Work is over. I go downstairs to the company gym. No one else ever goes here after work, so I have the entire place to myself. I turn on a podcast to fill the room with sound and start working out. I spend about thirty minutes each on cycling and walking, then spend ~5 minutes each on five or so different weightlifting machines. In total, I spend about an hour and a half. I time each machine not by a clock, but by the length of various podcast episodes, so my times aren't always exactly the same.
6:30 p.m.
I take a shower at work. It feels especially good after working out. In contrast, morning showers feel like a chore. But post-workout showers are soothing.
7:00 p.m.
I am playing my Nintendo Switch while in an Uber headed home. This is the best portable gaming system I've ever owned, and it works perfectly for long Uber rides. Usually I lose track of time so well that I'm surprised when we finally take the off ramp near my house.
8:30 p.m.
Dinner is cooked. Today's meal is an "Ultimate Cheeseburger" Velveeta Cheesy Skillet, made with vegetarian Morningstar Farms Meal Starters Grillers Crumbles, with a Pillsbury Crusty French Loaf and a Dole Salad Kit. Television is watched while we eat. Depending on my workload, I may do some tasks for ACE after my meal.
10:30 p.m.
Gaming commences. Usually I do a few rounds of Hearthstone, StarCraft, Heroes of the Storm, or anything else that doesn't take the television set.
11:50 p.m.
Now that the television is available, I either play on the Switch or watch shows that no one else in the house enjoys. This continues until I'm sleepy enough to go to bed.
4:00 a.m.
I am in my dream world, which I seem to place much more value on than most people. Here, storylines continue that I have been building for decades. I live out another life in my dreams, unconnected to this one, but equally important to me. I know that it is not real, because I can direct the flow of action there in ways that I cannot do here. But for this same reason, I am in love with my dream world, and am always happy to get to experience it. It's not as good as reality, but it is better than any tv show or fiction novel that I've ever read.

The above describes a typical Monday. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I work from home instead. On weekends, I do my best to not work at all, and instead meet with friends to play board games or visit with my family for celebrations. This past weekend was somewhat somber; although my cousin Bianca had her first communion and Susan was able to celebrate mother's day, the mood was determined mostly by my Tio Jorge's recent passing. Death is an enemy that I think of often. It takes far too many of us.

The specific products mentioned above are not sales pitches for others; I included this level of specificity solely so that when I reread this journal entry several years' hence I will be able to fully remember these specific things.

08 May, 2017

Obligations By Accident

I've often found myself falling into new habits by accident.

In 2002, I was working at a call center hawking credit cards. I would regularly outperform most of my peers using a strategy that differed greatly from what they taught new hires. Rather than attempt to sell to each person that answered the phone, I did my best to get each person answering the phone to hang up on me. This greatly reduced call times and allowed me to reach far more people in a given workday. In the rare instances when someone did not hang up, I reasoned that they must have some minimal interest from the first few keywords I said in my initial boring spiel, and so used that hook to get them to sign up. In a work environment where my colleagues were getting an average of one sale each day, I was getting 3-5 daily.

I was not much interested in working long hours, so I told my manager at the time that I'd rather work 2-3 days each week than the full 40 hours. I figured that since I did more sales in those 2-3 days than others did in a full week, it would be an easy pitch. But they were limited by corporate rules and didn't really have the leeway to let me do as I wanted. I then asked, somewhat jokingly, what if I just quit halfway through the week; would they be willing to rehire me the next week since I'm skilled at the job? To my surprise, they said yes. And so I would work until Tuesday or Wednesday each week, quit, and they'd rehire me the following Monday. It was their way of keeping me while still not going against what corporate had mandated.

This rather strange situation resulted in a happy circumstance. One Tuesday, I quit, as I did each week, and I drove past Spring Hill College on my way home. Because I had technically had no work obligations for the future, on a whim I decided to stop by and see if they'd let me start classes. The first day of classes had been that Monday, so I would be entering rather late, but they were excited to accept me anyway, and I went to my first class the very next day.

In 199X, I was driving across the country to someplace new to start over. I wasn't yet sure where I'd go; I had contacted two places announcing my intention to move in: one in Utah and one in Colorado. I was halfway there when I reached the intersection of interstate highways where I'd need to choose one destination or another. There was more traffic in one direction, so I chose the other. This small happenstance resulted in my living in Colorado for a few years.

In 201X, I had been living long-term in a hotel. A fire came, burning several of my possessions, and convincing me that I should perhaps move to a real house. On a whim, I did a nationwide craigslist search for the cheapest rent home that included all utilities and had hi-speed internet access. The cheapest ad at the time was in Tennessee, so I sent them an email, had a quick call over the phone, and moved in three days later.

A few weeks ago, I had to stay a little late after work. It was a Friday night, and by the time I was ready to leave, the Uber fares had surged through the roof. I was unwilling to pay the extra price, and didn't really feel like taking the metro, so I instead decided to use the gym downstairs. I worked out for two hours and so thoroughly enjoyed myself that I decided to workout after work more often. Now I use the gym 2-3 times each week for a couple of hours after work.

When I think of the many choices I've made in life, I often wonder about what might have been. How easily I might have moved into an academic career in philosophy, or stayed as a high school dropout for my entire life. How I came to identify with the effective altruism movement even while I was working for an extremely ineffective charity. How I came to have a relationship with my father when I could have so easily not contacted him or interacted with him at all. And yet so many more things in my life came about just by chance, not choice. Not just the above items, but the chance that allowed me to be good at math, rather than sports. To be born in relative affluence, rather than in a developing country. To have met such wonderful people in my life, mostly because I happened to be born and lived near them.

It is because of these many accidents that I really think hard about how I should negotiate with my future selves. I fear value drift, and yet they deserve consideration as much as I. So much of who I am and what I value is just from chance. Should I be multiplying our vector values so that we can work toward the same goals? Or is it enough for me to just allow them to be different, even if I disagree strongly with their beliefs? What duties do I owe them beyond what I would owe my neighbors? What duties do they owe me?

Even more keen is the past: What obligations have I been ignoring that have to do with my past selves? I clearly remember making a promise to build a theme park centered on dinosaurs when I grew up. Yet I don't see any chance of my ever fulfilling such a strange promise. What about that earlier intent to earn a PhD? Or the prejudiced leanings of someone who used to use the word "gay" as a derogatory term?

I see the moral arc of my life as trending upward, but it is perhaps unfair for my present self to be the one judging that. Would my earlier self see it trending downward? What of my far future self? Am I justified in just being a bad neighbor to my temporal selves? I tolerate Trump supporters in my community, but not really among my close friends. Am I being hypocritical here?

These are tough questions. I need to think on them more. This is the least I owe to my other temporal selves, both past and future.

01 May, 2017

Speaking at the APA Conference

Recently I attended the American Philosophical Association's Pacific Division Meeting in Seattle, Washington, where I gave a talk on effective animal advocacy. It was my first academic philosophy conference, though I've had periodic philosophy-based meetups with small groups of non-academics over the years.

I loved the experience. Going to each of the talks was much more fun than I think even other attendees found it, mostly because in my everyday life I interact mostly with people who have very little interest in philosophy.

I've given talks about effective animal advocacy several times in the past five years, but this was my first time speaking to a crowd of philosophers. I was nervous at first, but after attending a talk on the first day on a study concerning everyday intuitions about utilitarianism, my nervousness quickly faded. His talk was absolutely terrible, and it really made me feel much better about how my talk would go a few days later.

Most talks were good, despite that early outlier. Yet the best experience was always in the Q&A section. I really got into the spirit of delving into each topic, even when the session was about issues that I've never read up on before. There was a plethora of ideas that I was able to experience one after the other, and it was a breathtaking experience.

I especially enjoyed the Society for the Study of Ethics and Animals sessions, where Nicolas Delon, Ramona Ilea, Jeff Sebo, Toni Adleberg, and myself spoke about effective animal advocacy. The Q&As for these sessions went on for hours, with many of us meeting up for drinks or dinner afterward to continue the discussion. The biggest takeaway for me actually came from the Q&A session after Toni's talk, where issues surrounding intersectionality amongst cause areas were discussed. Toni wrote a follow-up blog post after the conference that touches on this issue, and I really feel that it is one of the most important blog posts that Animal Charity Evaluators has ever published.

I'm still thinking a lot about the intersectionality angle and intend to post something on it on the EA forums once I've fully fleshed out what I think.

Of course, not everything about my trip to Seattle went quite so well. Walking around the city really sucked whenever the person in front of you was a smoker, and that happened at least once each day for 5+ minutes. There were homeless people on every corner; it was quite heart-wrenching to see. Some had beautiful signs created asking for money -- one in particular was exquisitely drawn and had flowers weaved through the edges. I was quite impressed by her cardboard sign. But the people I decided to give money to were instead the ones that I thought others would be less likely to help. One man reeked of alcohol and could not speak coherently at all; I bought him dinner in a vegan restaurant. Another was walking around at 3 a.m. completely sober asking if anyone would give him enough money for a beer; I handed him $8 not knowing how much that would buy him.

I walked a lot late at night there. It was interesting seeing the people that were out that late. As I passed one person, he seemed to ask if he could borrow a cigarette from me. I replied saying that I had no cigarettes to give, to which he replied confusingly. It was several minutes later that I realized he was not trying to take a cigarette from me; rather, he was offering to sell me a cigarette. I'm assuming this code for a drug of some kind, but I guess I have so little experience with this kind of thing that I didn't even understand what they were trying to do in real time.

I also walked quite a bit around town during the afternoon, visiting as many different vegan places as I could. (Shout out to the Veggie Grill!) Many of my fellow streetwalkers during lunchtime were dressed up as various anime characters due to Sakura-Con, which was happening just next-door to the APA conference. I was staying at the Hotel Max, which also housed a number of cosplayers for the anime convention. It was fun going up and down the elevator with these cosplayers, especially when I could recognize who they were dressed up as.

But by far the best part was being able to be around so many people that are even more into philosophy than I am. It is such a great feeling to be the dumbest person in a room with respect to a field as deep as philosophy. Being able to discuss all kinds of different topics from session to session was an amazing experience, and I definitely want to experience this again in the future. I fell in love with philosophy when I was doing my undergrad at Spring Hill College, and going to this APA conference reignited that love by giving me the chance to think, discuss, and argue about a wide variety of topics in such a short time span.

20 March, 2017


I would like to talk about regret—and when it makes sense to return.

You are sitting, eating from a box of cookies. Through a moment of carelessness, you drop a cookie. It lands on the floor. What is the appropriate reaction? Should it be discarded, even if it looks okay? What if the cookie was dropped not through carelessness, but on purpose?

There are lots of possible answers here. In many cases, it depends upon the specific circumstances. How hungry are you? Are there more cookies in the package? How clean is the floor?

I recall taking a test in middle school. It was in band class; I was supposed to attempt a difficult piece of percussion sight reading. I recall having a good understanding of my own capabilities. I knew how well I could spell, and competed in the state spelling bee as a result (2nd place). I knew how proficient I was at martial arts, and competed in state competition there, as well (also 2nd place). I also knew exactly how capable I was when it came to sight reading a difficult piece for percussion; so when my instructor said that taking this test was voluntary, I declined. I knew I would perform poorly, especially in comparison to other gifted drummers in that same class.

Afterward, the teacher explained that the true test was to see who had the initiative to take the test, even though it was very difficult for our age group. Everyone who attempted the test was given an 'A'. I was given a 'C' for that course, mostly because I did not even attempt to take that test.

Is there value in making the attempt, even if one recognizes in advance that it will be especially difficult? For a child who never puts themselves out the, the answer may well be yes; but this was not me. I pushed myself in other fields where I knew that I could be successful. I traveled to Birmingham for state competitions. I read books that were aimed at much older audiences than I was, at the time. I had no general problem with putting myself out there. So, in the case of this percussion test, should I have attempted it anyway? Even in knowing that I would not perform well at it? What lesson would this teach me? Is there value just in the attempt itself?

I've had several romantic relationships in my life. Some short; others long. I'm polyamorous, so I'm never really not open to new relationships, but I'm also an extremely busy person, so I'm never really actively looking for new ones. This means that my relationships rise and fall mostly with where and when I happen to move to a new place.

Early on in my life, I placed a large amount of importance on specific people being in my life. As is common in our culture, I would begin a relationship with someone and then want to continue it, even when it made little sense to do so. I was always quite loyal. I felt that, if my feelings for a person were true, then it was important that I continue loving them through good times and bad. I would always pick up the cookie, even when it was good for neither of us.

As I grew, I came to realize that even the rarest of cookies were still relatively plentiful in this vast world. When a relationship would sour, I learned to walk away and begin anew elsewhere.  This made sense. Even though I felt (and still feel) that I made a particularly good mate, that capability is harmed when problems in the relationship overshadow possibilities for positivity. I never made first chair in percussion in middle school, even though I was at a similar level of competence as my peers; the fact that I was unwilling to try kept me from being considered, even though I deliberately choose not to test because I knew I would perform poorly. But I did well in other fields where this souring incident did not occur.

Of course, relationships don't just sour by themselves. In many cases, I caused the souring through actions I took. When I was very young, these tend to be actions that were mean-spirited. When I became an adult, they were actions born of accident, or sometimes carelessness. Occasionally, they've been on purpose. Most recently, it has been because I did not understand why it was bad at the time (an excusable offense), and did not take seriously a warning that it would considered bad by the other party (a less excusable offense).

Unlike most people, I don't have to stop being in a relationship with someone in order to move on to other things. Being poly means maintaining long distance relationships is easier for me than for most. I can amicably end a close relationship while maintaining it at a less intense level of intimacy. Relationships can endure errors and continue even when pursuing other relationships might be easier.

When I was young, a dropped cookie was always picked up. I focused solely on maintaining even flawed relationships, mainly because I felt that the love of felt earlier in the relationship would be somehow tainted if I didn't continue to love the same person regardless of circumstance. Later, I learned to let go, but still kept open any relationships I could, even when I had done severe damage to the cookie of my own free will.

Today, I think back and I regret. I had a relationship end that I did not want to end. I made an error: a significant error that warrants serious consideration. I was told: don't do X. It's inappropriate. In the heat of the moment, I might change my mind, but that will not be the real me. The heat of the moment came, and I wanted X. She wanted X. So we did X. But in doing so, I had betrayed the level-headed person by listening instead to the one acting in the moment—the one with a brain chemistry spiked by endorphins that was not acting per the request of her past self only a few moments earlier.

This is a serious breach of trust. It is assault, in one sense, because it went against a person's will. In another, legal, sense, it did not rise to assault, since she welcomed it in the moment and gave no indication to stop once it was in progress. Once she did object, I immediately ceased. It was confusing in the moment to have such conflicting signals, but I honestly tried to do what I thought was best.

Later, I learned that she felt violated. It is an odd sort of violation, where I felt that I was acting appropriately at the time, but it was indeed a violation nevertheless, because individuals need to be able to set boundaries that should not be crossed, even if their future selves invite them to be crossed.

Legally, what I did was not assault. But the law is not a good judge of what is moral here. I clearly acted wrongly; when a person sets a boundary, it should be respected even if that person recants, if the recanting is done in a situation where they are but thinking as clearly.

This remains true even though I was in the same situation, and I was similarly not thinking as clearly. Once a boundary is set, it should be respected by not allowing ourselves to get into a situation where we expect we might be tempted to cross that boundary.

So although this was not legal assault, I believe it morally counts as something like assault. I invited disaster by going into a situation where we might reasonably expect a boundary to be crossed. This is no different from running with scissors; even if my intent was not to injure, the act of running itself risked injury to a degree where I should be held ethically at fault. (The seriousness of this topic nags at me so strongly that I cannot help but to make several hyperlinks in the above text, in a misguided attempt to distract the reader into something more interesting to them (and less personal to me).)

And so the cookie lies upon the floor. The question now is: should I have picked it up?

This blog entry is titled "Regret", and so maybe you already know the answer. But do not be so sure.

In one sense, the harm that was done is not necessarily relationship-ending. We both made errors, and what fault exists is due solely to choosing to run with scissors, with no intent to use those scissors to harm. We both prefer the company of each other; it's not as though we have serious issues with our relationship that haven't been listed here. I really enjoy being with her, and the feeling seems to be reciprocal. But there are two main problems.

The first problem is that she feels violated, even as she recognizes my good intent. It would take a large amount of effort to make the relationship work with where it now stands. This first problem lies mostly upon her; she feels hurt, and she would need to move on from that hurt in order to enjoy her time with me. The only way she could do this is with time and significant effort on my end.

The second problem is my will. It is the portion that is primarily my problem. It takes patience and deep care to nurture a relationship back to health from this set of circumstances. She is worth that effort, of course—she has many of the qualities I admire most, and all in the same package. She is intelligent, ethical, motivated, caring, and genuinely fun to be around. She matters as an individual to me, but even beyond that: as a person with a set of qualities, it would be exceedingly improbable for me to ever find another like her in the world.

This second problem is my willingness to go through such effort. Is it that I am lazy? That I am not thinking straight? No, I think it may be because I am polyamorous. I have another partner whom I love very much. I am comfortable with her. She helps to smooth my life and make it easier. I am quite happy being with her. There is no perceived lack in my everyday being, no person-shaped hole in my heart. Yes, I care deeply for this person whom I am no longer with, but it is not as though my life is empty without her.

This second problem is that the effort involved in rescuing this cookie is immense. It would take away energy from my life. It would complicate my ability to do other things. It would require such a large focus from me. She is worth it, that's for sure, but with limited resources, being worth it is not enough. The poor in developed countries deserve to be helped; they are worth our charity. But as an effective altruist, I'd rather my money go toward developing countries, where it can produce more good. Being deserving of something is insufficient to actually receive when limited resources are at play.

This second problem is that there are countless other possible relationships out there that would take far less effort to cultivate. Cookies in the tray are easy to pick up, and as rare as the cookie that lies upon the floor may be, I am already content with the cookies already in my possession, and there very well may be equally rare cookies still in the package. The effort of cleaning and repairing the dropped cookie is just too high a price to pay.

I love her. In our culture, this usually means I should 'fight' for her. "Love conquers all." It's considered romantic to overcome obstacles and 'win the girl'. But I honestly believe that is all bullshit. Yes, I love her, but I also love others. She and I might have equally fulfilling relationships elsewhere. Neither I nor she is so unique as to be undiscoverable elsewhere. I love her, but being with her is like starting a race with a heavy backpack on. There is so much negativity to overcome, and the benefit from overcoming it is solely that we get one another. Sure, I am special, as is she, but we are not so special that fixing a crumbled cookie is worth the immense effort, given limited resources. Wouldn't she be better off with another, someone whom she would not have to go through this effort?

So, yes, I have regret. But the regret is that I made the error in the first place. I don't think I have regret for my choice to not complicate my life by trying to work it out with her. Perhaps, with time, we might rekindle. It would require time to heal the feeling of violation she felt, and time for me to be more certain that I would not risk running with scissors. I would like that, if it happened in time. But regardless of how much I love her, I cannot justify going through such immense effort. We do not live in a fairy tale world where each person is assigned a soul mate. There are plenty of people out there for her, just as there are plenty out there for me. It makes little sense to pay such an exorbitant price to continue this specific relationship when so many other cookies in the container require no such additional effort.

I have regret. I regret that the relationship seems to have ended. I regret and mourn the loss. But I honestly believe I'm acting appropriately in the moment by just moving on. (Cognitive dissonance be damned.)