16 June, 2019

Happy Father's Day

All people are unique in their own way, but I've always had special admiration for my father.

My father: Fernando Herboso.
Like many latino migrants of his generation, he had machismo issues when I was young. He showed his love through providing a strong financial base, rather than by speaking directly from his heart. But what I find most impressive is that, over time, he changed. How he treats Natalia and Alejandro, my two teen/preteen siblings, is proof of this. My father learns to become a better person over time, and I honestly think that's his best quality.

So many people languish in a groundhog day style rut, never really becoming different from who they are at heart. But my father focused strongly on entrepreneurship early on, creating several businesses, learning from each, and these lessons somehow permeated into the other aspects of his life, resulting in a father who, from my perspective, has genuinely improved in nearly every way over the many years that I've known him.

Showing off his impressive muscles.
Though constant improvement is what I think is his best quality, there are still several others that I find immensely impressive, mostly because I find myself completely unable to match him at those qualities. First and foremost, of course, is his dedication to hard work. His ability to find a good business idea, identify what needs to happen in order for him to be successful at it, and then (this is key) actually following through on doing the necessary work, is, without a doubt, flabbergasting to me. How many people do you actually know who go above and beyond in this kind of work context? Sure, you'll occasionally find a workaholic who spends a lot of time on work, but this is almost always in the context of working for someone else. My father has a knack for identifying the maximal combination of neglected yet effective work that will accomplish the most for a business, and then actually does the required work, regardless of what it is.

Much of this comes from his voracious reading, nearly all of which is business-related. I am in awe of how many books I've seen him consume from the self-help section of the bookstore. His focus on self-improvement is beyond impressive. At every holiday family gathering, it has become a tradition for him to give a 15–30 minute seminar on how to become a better person. He uses youtube videos, includes props, invites audience participation, and regularly quizzes everyone at the end, complete with prizes for whoever performs the best. He not only focuses on success for himself, but for all those close to him in life, especially his children. He genuinely wants all in his life to become the best at whatever they do — sometimes, I think, to their detriment.

Coloring in a restaurant with his kids.
My father's philosophy of success is an interesting one. On the one hand, he defines true success as having a happy, well taken care of family. But he also relates success to becoming the top tier in whatever field you participate in. Second place is but a reminder that one can be even better. But it's not important to forge first in a field; it's acceptable to find other winners and copy their proven strategies. For a long time, I felt confused by his statements on his philosophy of success. I never really spoke with him directly about it, but just learned by hearing his point of view on various things. But I think I have a handle on it now: for him, success lies not in being the very best, but in being the local best. Success is about joining the group at the top, where defining the boundaries of that group is hazy at best. If you're going to play soccer, then work until you are the best on your team. At this point, the goalposts of success change, and now you must focus on winning tournaments. Once accomplished, it's time to join a professional team. Then to work hard enough to be a starting player on the team. And so on. At no point does he seem to ask too much, but there is always more to go. I find his position fascinating.

Fernando with his daughters.
I said earlier that my father believes true success is having a happy, well taken care of family, and I mean it. To my father, this is the ultimate goodness in life. While tribal, this is a goal to which I feel an intense attraction. He believes strongly in family, and he shows it in all the things that he does. I appreciate him very much for this aspect of his personality, and I kinda wish that I could be more like him in this respect. He not only shows love and pride for his family, but also mudita. I am constantly impressed and somewhat jealous of how he feels in this area. He really and truly is an amazing father, even if only for this one single aspect of his being.

iPad painting by my father.
Yet this is not all that my father is. He is an artist, and a tiger-lover, and a musician who adores playing guitar and singing karaoke during family celebrations. Most recently, he is a futurist, listening widely to the idea of Peter Diamandis, a co-founder of Singularity University. He is a lover of well-cooked meat, for which he constantly watches youtube videos on even better ways to grill. He is messy at heart (just see his closet!) yet organized in business, because he needs to be. He does what needs to be done, and he sacrifices much to ensure that his family thrives.

For these and all the other things I've failed to mention in this blog post, I'd like to wish my father, Fernando Herboso, a genuinely happy Father's Day. I love you.

07 May, 2019

A Dream Sickness

[Edit (one week later): This was written while under a heavy fever and doesn't truly represent my normal experiences of lucid dreaming.]

I've been an oneironaut for as long as I can remember. At seven years of age, I learned to use tells that would let me know if I could affect this dream, rather than others. At first it was only occasional. Now, 30 years later, I enter a state of lucid dreaming nearly every night, sometimes doing so multiple times each day.

It has pretty significant drawbacks. I never truly appreciate cultural media, because it immediately gets compared to what I dream that night. I never have a desire to optimize for less sleep, as I consider it part of my entertainment time, which means I don't get as much done each day as I otherwise might would. And if I'm in bed anyway, sometimes I'll opt to dream rather than actually start my day. In short: it makes me lazier and more unappreciative of the things I experience in waking reality.

Yet it's not quite a curse. I enjoy my dreams. Most, by far, are pleasant. It gives me an outlet for creativity. It also means I never truly get homesick.

But I'm not bringing up my lucid dreaming today just to wax on -- instead I wanted to point out that lucid dreaming does not interact well with being very sick, and from April 29 through May 7 (so far), I have been (what I consider) extraordinarily ill continuously. I have not exactly been bedridden, but at least restricted to either the bed or the couch for anything longer than bathroom breaks. I've had extreme chills, treated incorrectly with heating pads, and the strongest headache I've ever experienced, but which I would not term 'migraine', due to my ability to communicate somewhat during them. I've looked up combinations of medications that may help, realizing several days in that I was doing it wrong at first. I've experienced the most utter exhaustion, feeling as though it started in my very bones. I've seen the alarm say that it's time to take another dose, and the bottle lies less than a foot before me, on the couchside-table, and yet it takes me ten minutes to actually reach for the bottle.

The sickness sucks. But possibly worse is the way I will constantly lucid dream without desiring and, indeed, with me actively trying to suppress it. Some of these are similar to hallucinations, except they are happening while my eyes are shut and I'm lying down; these are not occurring during the wakeful state. I have to double-, then triple-check anything important. If I am moving needed objects from one place to another, I can't just trust that they are moved. And worse: if a conversation happened, it may not have really happened. It would be utter chaos, except I can almost always tell at the time whether I'm in a dream, but later, when I'm trying to remember what I did the previous day, it's difficult to decide whether this or that conversation happened in a dream or in a wakeful state.

I've never done any recreational drugs. I wonder if this is anything like some of those experiences.

29 April, 2019

A B/W Career Gradient

From December 2018 – March 2019, I participated in a rather involved hiring process as a research analyst for the Open Philanthropy Project. Although I was compensated well for my time during this process, I was ultimately not offered a full-time position.

I had been approached to join them twice before: first in April 2018, and later in December 2018. The first time I was too focused on my data science work at Animal Charity Evaluators to seriously consider a career change to research analysis at a think tank, but given my recent switch to the board at ACE, I decided to move forward with applying at Open Philanthropy, despite it being a completely different line of work.

My time with Open Philanthropy was limited, but it was overall a fulfilling experience. Applying at a think tank of this caliber was far more serious than I originally thought it would be. I'm not entirely sure of what I was expecting beforehand, but I can now say that the process of applying to work at OPP was not only helpful to them in terms of understanding how I would potentially perform there, but also was extremely helpful to me in terms of better understanding how I currently think deeply about more practical effective altruism considerations (as opposed to the theoretical considerations I'm more used to thinking about).

I currently earn a living by doing communications consultation work — a far cry from the research analysis that OPP wanted me for. My work these days is maybe a bit too meta: I communicate to communications departments how to more effectively communicate. Mostly this consists of data analysis and hypothesis testing, but I've found that most people misunderstand what I do when I tell them this. The reality is that my job is just to implement best practices in places that don't already think too deeply about what their data is telling them.

There's a social norm that it's not good to publicly mention when you try and fail to be hired somewhere. I don't like this norm. I think it's important to be open both about one's successes and one's failures. This applies especially in this case, because I found the application process to be so enlightening about how I'd actually perform this type of think tank work. Nevertheless, it taught me a lesson: my career goals should align more closely with the skill expertise I have that is neglected among my peer group.

I've dedicated my life to the field of effective altruism. I donate 25% of my income to EA organizations; I serve on the board of an EA org; I've volunteered and/or worked for half a dozen EA orgs over the past seven years; and I spend a non-trivial amount of my free time thinking about and contributing to EA spaces.

When I applied to OPP (and, indeed, when OPP sent me multiple invitations to apply), the idea (I think) was that I might perform well as a data analyst. I think this was correct. But it failed to take into account that lots of people that are into effective altruism consider research analysis as a high-status position, and thus expend a lot of resources to strongly compete for the very few positions available in the field. While I may be competent at research analysis, that category isn't at all neglected among EAs. Compare this state of affairs to my communications expertise: among EAs, communications is a neglected field. I'm much better suited to working in the relatively neglected field where I've already built a good deal of career capital.

Tim Urban of Wait But Why published an excellent post last year about how to pick a career that fits you. His advice is sourced from (among others) the well-researched 80,000 Hours, which incubated ACE in its initial year. I have siblings in both middle school and high school, so I've been thinking deeply on these ideas recently, and I believe the same sorts of considerations apply to me.

The one thing I've learned from my experience with OPP is that I'd like to be a bit more novel in the data science communications projects that I undergo. Most of my current work involves just applying best practices to orgs that aren't already following them; but there is an undeniable excitement when you're working on novel procedures. To that end, I've been pursuing knowledge of more of the darks arts of communication — not because I plan to use them, but because I want to learn more about the methods that compete with the 'best practices' that I currently solely implement. Of particular interest has been Destin Sandlin's recent Smarter Every Day series on social media manipulation (on youtube, twitter, and facebook). I've also gained access to a number of paid tutorial videos obtained on the dark web that focus on facebook ad manipulation. Again: I want to stress that I have no intention of doing anything black hat — how I've handled wikipedia/EA controversies in the past should make that perfectly clear — but knowing these strategies is helping me to understand how to better innovate in the communications field.

I look forward to seeing how this affects what I do next in my career.

Review: Judge on a Boat

Judge on a Boat Judge on a Boat by Alan Manuel K. Gloria
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Historically, science fiction has been big on setting. Characters and dialog are important, too — otherwise it's unlikely to be well written — but the key signifier of science fiction is that setting is much more important. Sci-fi is all about transporting you to a wondrous place and making you believe that you are there. All too often this means that authors of sci-fi will spend way more time on setting than authors of other genres. Think Hal Clement going pages upon pages about gravitational minutiae in A Mission of Gravity; or Asimov insisting on describing at length complex social structures in his Foundation series. These are great stories, and they are what makes good sci-fi so memorable to me. But Gloria bucks this trend beautifully in Judge on a Boat.

Judge on a Boat is undeniably sci-fi, but instead of describing a wondrous place as its setting, Gloria instead describes a world where rationality already won. It is a vision of the future that's as alien as, well, Alien, yet it isn't the description of space travel and drop pods that makes this sci-fi. It's the casual description of LessWrong-esque ideas from the rationalist community that makes this short text stand out. Reading this transports me into a world that is alien by virtue of its ideas, rather than by its technology.

At heart, Judge on a Boat is a mystery novel. Clues are interspersed within and commented on throughout. But, again, it stands out because the mystery itself doesn't adhere to common mystery tropes — and this is explicitly pointed out in-universe, so that the reader can fairly understand the rules of the game and play along, trying to solve the mystery before the end.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it to anyone well-versed with the rationality community. However, the density of jargon is such that if you aren't already at least loosely acquainted with these ideas, then going through this text will be a slog. I hesitate to make the comparison, but imagine reading Joyce's Ulysses without having first read the classics. It would be impossible to enjoy, because at nearly every step you'd need to look in the margin for notes, or, in the case of this text, you'd need to refer to the Sequences.

The bottom line: if you don't know what the Sequences are, then you probably won't enjoy this book. It's just not written for you. But if you are aware of the rationalist community (even if you don't self-identify in that group), then this short mystery novel is a great way to spend a few hours of fun. For the correct audience, it deserves this 5 star rating (and, more impressively, was so good that it got me to avoid my akrasia and post a review on goodreads for the first time in several years).

View all my reviews

18 April, 2019

A Kind of Degree

I've been thinking a lot recently about differences of kind versus differences of degree. Perhaps it has to do with a clicker game I've been playing recently, Mine Defense. In the game, you start off by clicking a mine, ostensibly mining gold from it with each click. As you progress, you gain options that allow you to click many times more efficiently, then ways to earn gold automatically over time, and ultimately to earn more of the ways that earn gold automatically over time, eventually reaching points of absurdity. Meanwhile, you also start to earn other types of income, and ways to earn those types more efficiently. (If you're looking for a clicker game recommendation, this is not it. It's not a particularly enjoyable genre, and this isn't the best of its kind. If you press me for a recommendation, I'd say to play Universal Paperclips (it relates to paperclip maximizers) but, really, I'd steer you toward other, more enjoyable genres.)

I've also been spending a lot of time around my siblings this week because Anh has come into town. I only see her relatively rarely, so I always end up interacting with them quite a bit while she's in town. (My siblings are 12, 15, & 25 years of age. I'm 37.) Being around children forces me to think in ways that are helpful for them to understand. I have to be able to process and talk in simpler language, and to break down concepts into their constituent parts. This process in turn helps me to clarify my understanding of things. (One of the best ways that you can force yourself to really learn a topic is to attempt to teach that topic to another person. It really brings into clarity the parts that were previously fuzzy to you.)

In one hand, I hold three apples. In another, I hold five. The contents of each hand are different, but they are differences of degree, not of kind. I could just modify the quantity of apples in one hand to get it to match the other, because the contents are of the same kind.

Compare this to a different situation. Now I have three apples in one hand, but five oranges in the other. This is a difference of kind, not degree, because no matter how I alter the contents of one hand numerically, I won't be able to make the contents of each hand match.

But not all such examples are obvious. In my work at Animal Charity Evaluators, I often had to contend with critics that thought that their methods of helping animals was fundamentally different from the methods that ACE recommended. They would claim that ACE is utilitarian, that you can't help a class of persons by promoting harm to them. Rape is wrong, they would say. Passing a law that forces rapists to bring a pillow with them to comfort their victims is an immoral strategy because the thing that is wrong is the rape itself; lessening the impact of the rape is inappropriate. Similarly, causing chickens to be tortured and killed is wrong. Passing laws that increase the amount of space they have to live in or that limit the ability of farmers to cut their beaks off is an immoral strategy, because you're then focusing on the wrong thing. Their argument is that there is a difference in kind, not degree, between what they are trying to do (outlaw harming of animals) and what we are trying to do (reduce the harm that animals suffer), and so it doesn't matter how effectively we achieve our goals, they're still insufficient for the goals they care about.

I think they are wrong. I think that, for all practical purposes, it is a difference of degree. I think that it matters how efficiently you go about these things. I think that you can get from where we are to a world where people are far more kind by traveling a road of reducing suffering at each step.

Think back to that example with apples in one hand and oranges in the other. Their building blocks are the same at some level. The molecules in each are different, perhaps, and maybe even the atoms, but the subatomic particles are basically identical. Rearrange them, change the quantity, and, all of a sudden, three apples become five oranges. At this level, the differences between them is of degree, not of kind.

My brother watches Naruto, an anime where all kinds of fantastical ninja have powers beyond belief. Some breathe fire; others control dirt. (I don't actually recommend it to anyone, but if you watch or read through it anyway, then you should definitely read the rational fiction fanfic The Waves Arisen, which requires knowledge of the series. If you insist on watching the anime, I recommend Naruto Kai, which removes the filler episodes.) In this world, one of the concepts used is a large golem strong enough to withstand a flurry of elements pushed against him. Imagine a tall golem of mud, with its feet planted to the ground as a torrential rain of water rushes horizontally against it, attempting to knock it down. The jounin behind this golem struggles to keep it upright. As parts of the golem's legs get pushed behind it from the water, he brings more mud to replace the front of the leg, in a never-ending cycle of renewal just to keep the golem standing.

At first, there seems to be a difference of kind between how we, as humans, stand in a light wind, and how this golem stands in his torrent of rain. But cells die; skin is renewed. When we stand in a breeze, this is what is happening in reality. Scent is the detection of molecules that drift from objects; humans have scent, too, and these are the parts of the body that drift from us, eroding naturally, but even faster from the wind that blasts our bodies. We are, in a very real sense, like that golem: renewing our body each moment as parts of us get constantly pushed away.

Consequentialism certainly seems different in kind from deontology. And it is, from a philosopher's point of view. But there are certain areas where the differences seem closer to a difference in degree, as strange as that may seem at first. I'm still thinking through how to make this argument, but the basic idea involves a non-philosopher deontologist thinking that harm is bad, and yet still preferring a choice that results in less harm than in a choice with more harm. Numbers matter, even for deontologists. Maybe to the point where moral choices converge when using real world data? More on this later.