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.

12 November, 2018

Great Harms

If I had to figure out the greatest harm I'd ever caused in my life, my initial thought would be from my first 23 years of life when I ate meat every single day. Cumulatively, this likely caused the direct suffering of several animals.

But I get strange looks for saying so. "Eric," my well-meaning adjudicator may say, "the animal is already dead by the time you eat it. How can buying one hamburger have any causal effect on how many cows die?"

It's true that it is unlikely that my purchasing a single hamburger from a restaurant will cause more animals to die. But that chance is not zero. Let's say that the restaurant buys hamburgers in lots of 100. Each week, they purchase as many lots as they expect to sell. This week, they purchased 10 lots, expecting to sell between 901 and 1000 hamburgers. They ended up selling 957; had I not eaten there that week, they would have instead sold 956. This is a clear example where my purchase affected nothing in terms of how many lots they buy each week.

But 1% of the time, I will be the purchase that goes over some threshold. In this naive example, let's say they sold 1000 burgers without me, and I was purchaser number 1001. In this case, in order to sell to me, they will need to purchase an additional lot of 100 hamburgers. In other words, 1 out of every 100 times that I buy a hamburger, it will cause the restaurant to purchase an additional lot of 100 hamburgers. On average, buying one hamburger causes one additional hamburger to be purchased by the store.

Of course, this simplified description isn't exactly what happens. Lots are bigger than this, and the threshold number of sales that causes them to purchase an additional lot is far less than the last hamburger they have for sale. Buying hamburger #957 may in fact be the trigger that causes them to keep 1100 hamburgers on hand rather than 1000. And we still have to consider who they're buying from; one additional lot may not necessarily cause the upstream company to then buy more meat -- you have to do a similar calculation there, and repeat up the chain until you get to the farmer who makes the choice of whether or not an additional cow should be raised and killed. And there's additional concerns of giving the restaurant some miniscule more buying power by making a small hamburger purchase, and elasticity also comes into play if you're really trying to figure out the truth. But, in the end, the math still works out the same. For every burger I eat, I cause approximately one burger worth of harm down the chain.

So, although it is unlikely that any individual meat purchase made on my behalf in my first 23 years caused any additional animals to die, it's probably the case that I was the threshold buyer at least a few times, causing many more lots to be purchased. In terms of expected value, I definitely caused a lot of harm.

That's a lot of suffering. But maybe not as much as I've caused from wasting energy. Sure, having the a/c on constantly doesn't seem like it could cause any great harm. But, in combination with every other wasteful American, the massive power waste has hastened us to a potential major climate change scenario. It's not likely that my actions caused any of what may potentially occur, but there is still a small chance that the overriding factor was me. To calculate expected value, I need to multiply this exceedingly small percentage by whatever harm comes about due to climate change. If it isn't more than moderately bad, then maybe this is not a big deal, since I'm multiplying by such a very, very small percentage. But if catastrophic climate change occurs, with massive amounts of suffering on par with the wildest predictions of video games or movies, then even my very small percentage will end up being the single largest contribution of harm that I've ever done in my life.

"But, Eric," my adjudicator exclaims, "how can you think of expected value calculations when you yourself have caused such direct harm so many times in your life!" If I'm judging the greatest harm I've caused in my life, then the adjudicator is correct: I shouldn't be too quick to dismiss direct harms.

As a young child, between ages 8 and 12, I would play games with my friends. In the course of physical play, I acted as a storyteller, allowing me to pause actions and rearrange conditions at will. So even though everyone used long thick staffs we found in the woods to hit each other as hard as we could, only I had the ability to escape injury by modifying the battle verbally. Those rocks that I threw as hard as I could: is there any word better suited to describe my actions than bully? It was consensual, but it was also direct physical harm to fellow children.

What about when I was mowing a yard, oblivious to my surroundings, only to suddenly see a squirt of blood -- a rabbit, dying in front of me, suffering due to my carelessness. Through the crying and terror I felt for making such a horrible mistake, I nevertheless was able enough to grab a shovel and end the poor creature's misery. Unintended harm is still harm, is it not?

In an early relationship at fifteen years old, feeling trapped, with anger for how I perceived my life to be ruined, I turned violent with my partner. What a stupid idiot I was back then for making such a choice. But I did. A part of me wants to clarify: it's nothing like what you see on tv. I never was violent enough to leave a mark. I never beat up, or slapped, or used some implement to cause harm. But I was emotionally abusive, and I used physical force to overpower. Just because abusers on tv appear worse does not make what I did okay. I was a stupid child.

In a few relationships after that, I was less harsh, but still not anywhere near being a nice guy. It took several years before I got over this terrible habit of my youth. Slowly, I learned to be better, but the learning came at the expense of those I dated between the ages of 15 and 23.

Later, as an adult, I learned how to have positive, happy relationships.  Occasionally, I still caused harm, but not of a violent type. One partner's father died. She had always spoke of him negatively, without love. I took her at her word, so when I had an existing trip planned and he passed away, it did not occur to me that I should have canceled the trip to be there for her. Instead, I left her alone. Another partner told me in advance what was acceptable and what was not, and mentioned that she had low willpower, so I should only do what was acceptable, even if in the moment she said otherwise. Later, in the moment, she said otherwise, and my willpower broke just as surely as hers did. Afterward, she considered it a violation, because she had verbally set boundaries in advance that both of us had broken. Shared causation of harm doesn't negate the harm that is caused.

But, of all these harms, the greatest of all is due to a utility monster. Years ago, I had a partner who did not mesh well with me at all. The relationship was terrible, in the sense that what each of us wanted did not match at all with what each of us was willing to give. I've had partners that were worse matches, but those were short flings. For some reason this partner and I committed to one another for a period of two years even while neither of us really wanted to be with each other. At the time, it had been over a decade since I had last been violent with a partner. I was past that, I thought. But this relationship grated and pushed and irritated and escalated until, during four occasions throughout those two years, I overpowered my partner. It was especially bad because I knew better by then; I'd had plenty of good relationships since the last time this had happened. It was especially bad because it happened four times in total; I should have ended the relationship immediately upon it happening the first time. It was especially bad because the actual events were minor in comparison to the things I had done when I was much younger; each event, though undeniably a case of physical overpowering, was compared in my mind to the much worse events I committed before age 23, and so I wrongly excused them as not as big a deal.

But none of the above is why I now consider it my greatest harm. Instead, it is the fact that this particular person was especially affected by my actions. She ended up taking these events and magnifying them to the point where the harms negatively affected her life in major ways even ten years after they occurred. She has PTSD. She is unable to work. She has bouts of depression and has suicidal ideations stemming directly from the incidents that occurred ten years earlier with me. What seemed like a relatively minor example of overpowering to me was, to her, an event so intense that entire swaths of her current life revolve around memories of these abuses.

What I did to her was unacceptable. It was abusive and wrong. I should not have held her down in the way that I did, even though the alternative would have been to allow her to scratch me. I should not have stayed in a relationship with her for two years, knowing that this kind of thing was happening, even though it only came to a head every six months or so. I do not excuse any of it today, even though, at the time, I think I was trying to excuse it by contrasting how minor the events seemed compared to the actions I took when I was much younger.

In the end, it doesn't matter how 'terrible' what I did was, when judged by an outside observer. Rather, what matters is the level of suffering I inflicted by doing so. And in this particular case, the amount of suffering is overwhelming. Regardless of my intent, the harm suffered by her was (and still is) undeniably intense. Her everyday life is much, much worse than it would have been had she not been in a relationship with me. The only good to come out of it has been the lesson it taught me: to never allow any situation to even get close to a point where harm could occur again. I honestly believe that over the past decade, I've become a much better, kinder, and more fair person directly because of the experience I had with her.

Maybe it's just moral luck that the other people in my life that I harmed were strong enough to bounce back and lead happy lives. But when I evaluate the greatest harm I've caused in my life, I cannot help but to think of this one person, who suffers even today, ten years after the fact, from things I am now far removed from.

Expected value calculations just don't work in the face of utility monsters. My greatest harm is determined more by the person that was harmed than by the actions I used to cause the harm in the first place. This makes me feel conflicted, but, most of all, I just feel shitty.

18 October, 2018

Enjoyment Through Attention and Meaning

I've been making some errors lately.

I valued content consumption too highly. Listened to too many podcasts, read too many articles, browsed reddit for too many hours. Describing me as time-poor would have been an understatement. It's not that I didn't find the activities worthwhile; to the contrary, I love board game night. Playing my Switch is always a highlight of my day. The new tastes I experience after trolling veg*n cooking videos on youtube are definitely worth it. But when you put it all together, it's just too much.

This week, I started walking between 2–4 a.m. every other day, and one key decision has made it more worthwhile than I could have expected: I left behind my headphones.

I've walked for years. That part isn't new. It was always between 1–2 hours each weekday in half hour increments in downtown DC, or VA, or wherever I happened to be working that day. But I always would listen to podcasts. I felt like I was wasting my time if I wasn't learning something new. I subscribed to podcasts on philosophy, news, economics, effective altruism, rationalism, gaming, history, etc. The more content I consumed, the better I felt. And on the rare occasions that I didn't feel like focusing on something deep, I would put on a lighter podcast or listen to orchestral music. If I was walking, my headphones were on.

But I no longer work in DC. I left my position at ACE last month and I have nowhere regular that I need to walk to anymore. I'd gone from time-poor to time-sufficient. So when I decided to start walking in my local area earlier this week, I didn't feel the pressure to bring my headphones. Instead, I merely listened to the rustling of the leaves for a couple of hours.

Tenmile Creek, just north of where I was this morning.
Tonight, I trekked to Little Seneca Creek in silence. It was glorious. The night air was chill, but invigorating. The deer I saw today disappeared between the trees when I stepped on a twig. The fish weren't visible, but I could hear them playing as they leapt from the water's surface. It felt good.

Black Hill Park is beautiful, and I feel so lucky to live within walking distance.

I must say that I've been thinking about this for a while. Too often I've found myself watching a sub-top-tier tv show while playing on my phone. Or reading about politics while StarCraft matches are going on in the background. Others have also brought this up. CGP Grey posted a video about this a few weeks back that's well-worth watching. (Seriously: if you only click one link in this post, it should either be CGP Grey's video or John Michael Greer's blog post in the penultimate paragraph.Day[9] talked about related issues on stream a few days ago. And when Dorek was still trying to convince me to visit Europe with him, he pounded on this point repeatedly:

At 36, I finally learned what a glacier was.
Hint: It's not the equivalent of an iceberg but on land.
"There's something different about just going out in nature and experiencing it. You get something out of climbing the parapets of a thousand year old wall that isn't he same as just looking up the wall on wikipedia." Dorek described the feeling of backpacking across Australia, looking up at a multitude of stars when no one else was around for many dozens of miles. He reminded me of the peace we felt when we would go to Dauphin Island, walk through the bird sanctuary, and relax on the deserted beach just next door to the sea lab. He'd walk west; I'd walk east. Then we'd sit, too far away from each other to talk or see one another, and wait for the sunrise.

Last year, I went with him to Europe. We saw castles and towns and people and food. But the best part was nature. He took me to a mountain in the Swiss alps overlooking the Aletsch glacier. He pointed me toward an easy peak to climb, then left to climb a tougher peak just nearby. Making it to the top of that peak by myself felt really, really good.

I think the disconnect here has to do with a difference between the way I think and the way some others that I know think. There's a feeling that people sometimes get where the essence of an event or storied thing somehow imbues the physicality of an object. It's the reason why houses where murders take place are avoided by some people. The Smithsonian castle has (what I think is) a really weak exhibit of just bits of random stuff that Americans donated from world events. Like a scrap of cloth from the bedsheet Lincoln died upon. Or a miniscule piece of rock from the Berlin wall. (I was going to link a partially examined life episode on this kind of thing, but I can't recall when it was discussed there.) These things bore me. I don't feel anything special by actually being in a place that I wouldn't otherwise feel from learning about the place. I don't have a feeling that events imbue something extra into physical locations or objects.

Don't get me wrong; I want those places to exist. I want historical locations preserved. I want to be able to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. But I feel like a proper meditation on the events from reading in a classroom or home setting can be just as powerful an experience. Others disagree strongly with this sentiment.

John Michael Greer wrote a great piece on the next ten billion years. It's worth reading, and I won't spoil the story. But when you finish it, you should also definitely read his next post, which points out a great divide between two camps of readers. You may know what side I fell on after having read this blog post.

I really want to recreate the experience I had at the top of that mountain more often. Walking without headphones at 3 a.m. to the local creek is not nearly as provocative, but it is similar enough to make me feel good. Now I just need to look into purchasing a foldable kayak.

16 October, 2018

Night Walks

2 a.m.
The night air relaxes me as I walk through my neighborhood. I always thought of suburban areas like this as still being more city than country, yet I am accompanied on my sidewalk trek by two wild deer, who pause every dozen feet to turn and look at me. Eventually they continue forward while I make a left turn. It's calm. My neighbors are mostly asleep.

Two days ago, we had to switch from using the air conditioner to the heater; I'm not quite comfortable with the change yet. The house smells different when heated. I miss the cold air. I will always prefer cold surroundings, so long as I can warm up in my own way, using electric blankets or exerted energy in a small space. My favorite was when I lived in Colorado: anytime it would snow, my first instinct would be to go outside and sit in the hot tub. Something about having a toasty warm body under the water while snowflakes gathered on my eyelashes and glasses always made me feel comforted.

This is why the walks outside feel so good this late at night. The air is cool. The breeze occasionally makes me shudder. But it is such a positive feeling to get my warmth from exercise while the air cools my body.

I also like the feeling of being alone. Walking without a phone. No podcast on. Just the deer to accompany me. It's peaceful.