06 August, 2022

Salvatore Louis "Ralph" Tomaso

My view on my grandfather is rather warped. Around the time that I was born, Salvatore Louis "Ralph" Tomaso got into a rather serious car accident. Although he lived two additional decades, I always knew him to be in his bed, watching the history channel and resting all day nearly every day. Occasionally, he would get enough strength to go out into his workshop in the backyard, making all kinds of woodworking projects. Many of my oldest toys were made of wood, completely by his hand.

I say it was a warped view because I grew up with this arrangement as normal. Had you asked me back then, I would have claimed that it is normal to only have one grandfather and for grandfathers to spend all day in bed. (I also had a grandfather on my dad's side, but he was called "Abuelo" — I did not realize this was my other grandfather until I was much older.)

Papa had huge numbers of pillows on his bed. We would make forts there, draping the sheets to create secure rooms. We'd make ramps out of the pillow tops and run my cars across them. He'd teach me chess on that bed. We watched so many videos about military campaigns in World War II.

Occasionally, I'd be playing in the living room, perhaps a game of The Price is Right, and I'd see him come walking to the kitchen. He would get himself a snack of sardines and mini hot dogs in a can, then head back to his bedroom. I don't remember ever actually eating with him. He took his meals in that bedroom. I'm sure this isn't completely true — surely he came out occasionally to eat at the table, maybe on days when several family members were over for christmas or whatever. But my memory is hazy. I only ever remember him eating in his bedroom.

Every once in a while, we would go on an outing and he would sit in the passenger side seat. Often he would nap there during the ride, but if he stayed awake, he would make a very distinctive sound with his throat every once in a while. Years after he died, I one day in my thirties heard myself make the same sound involuntarily. It doesn't happen often, maybe every few months or so, but it is a distinctive clearing of the throat that reminds me of my grandfather every time I do it without thinking.

C-130 in Kham Duc in 1968.
I missed so much of his life. He was in the Air Force, and he worked in the back of a C-130 aircraft. He would tell stories of how they played endless games of poker in the back of that plane as they flew rom place to place. I don't know the story of why he named his pet lhasa apsa Mae Ling, but it must have been after a friend he knew from his travels in the military. He was based all over the world. Panama. Okinawa. Near Iran. Countless places. He participated in a wedding in Iran once, going with the men while his wife, my grandmother, stayed with the women.

His mother, my great grandmother, insisted that his then-to-be-wife, my grandmother, learn how to make authentic Italian meals s that he would never starve on his travels. I remember eating so many Italian style meals at my grandparent's house, even though my grandmother (the cook) wasn't at all Italian.

He also had a pet parakeet, named Pretty Boy. Pretty Boy would repeat all kinds of tunes, so you could always tell what kinds of show my grandmother would watch in the living room based on what melodies Pretty Boy would play. He also spoke quite a few english phrases, though to him they were just more tunes. Pretty Boy lived in the porch, a covered, enclosed, and air conditioned area that apparently was a porch before it was turned into a new room. The actual porch opened up beyond even that, onto a large fenced backyard, filled with trees and lawn, a toolshed wired for electricity and filled with wood and tools and all kinds of knickknacks, and what used to be a pool — though I only ever remember it as a wooden deck in the shape of a pool, complete with place settings to eat outside among the many, many birdhouses that my grandfather would make and set up in the area. I can recall spending hours watching birds with my grandmother on that porch, looking through the Audubon's almanac to see what kinds of birds lived in the many birdhouses in that back lawn. And, beyond the fence, a row of fruit of trees, thoughtfully planted. I'm not sure that they were a part of my grandparent's property, being behind the fence line, but there was not other house nearby. Perhaps it was city land that was never parceled out. Regardless, apple and fruit trees lie in a line there, and I would climb them often. To the side a bit were huge patches of blackberries — I remember collecting all kinds of fruits and berries and bringing them back to my grandmother at certain times of year.

I see in myself qualities of my grandfather. I don't just mean my propensity to sleep — his mannerisms, his fascination with games, his drive to learn more via television — these are all things that I see in myself. Yet there is so much about him that I never learned because of my warped childhood view. There're so many periods of his life that I just never knew anything about. How did he react when he learned that his 23 year old son, Billy, died of illness, only a few months after his mother died of old age? My grandfather was only 34 years old then. Where was he? Did he take a leave from the military?

Empire State Building on fire in 1945.
Where are all the stories of the times he spent in various countries around the world? Who was Mae Ling? Did he grow up in New Jersey as a child? Or New York City? (His mother came to NYC first, then moved to NJ, but I don't know the dates.) Who were his siblings? Why was I never introduced to any of them? Was he estranged from his family, or were we just living too far away?

In 1945, did my grandfather have something to do with the B-25 that hit the Empire State Building? I can't tell if his friends were involved in the accident, or if his family were affected, or what. But apparently some kind of connection exists, according to family records that I no longer have access to.

When my grandfather died, I attended his funeral. They asked if anyone wanted to come up to speak, so I did. I talked about the side of him that I knew. The person I'd spent so many hours with, mostly because he lived only a few houses down the street from me. I talked about pillow forts and racing small cars on his bed. After I sat down, no one else spoke about him. I remember thinking that what I had said seemed so very small — that so much more happened in his life and it wasn't fair that only I spoke about such a small part of his. I realize now that others didn't speak because they were grieving and felt unable to. But it still felt weird to me at the time. I was eighteen years old.


01 July, 2022

Today is my Birthday

By Katherine Hess.

Today, I turn 41 years old, and I'm proud of the majority of my time on this planet.

Today is the soft launch of Effective Giving Quest. Although the website is not live when I write these words, by the end of day anyone will be able to go to EffectiveGivingQuest.org to see what I've been working on for the past few months.

Today, I am going out to eat with nine of my closest family and friends in the area. This might not be a big deal for most others, but it will only be the third restaurant I've visited since COVID-19 started in early 2020. That's an average of one restaurant stay per year. I am hopeful that this will change once the COVID rate drops down in my area, but regardless I will very much enjoy eating out today.

Today, I begin packing for a trip to Orlando, Florida, to attend the Dice Tower East convention. It will be a week of board games with my sisters, my partner, and a few hundred strangers. Out of the hundreds of board games I own, I plan only on bringing War of the Ring and its two expansions. The copy I have is the anniversary edition, and it is extremely nice.

Games featured on Effective Giving Quest.
Today, as I look over the birthday card Katherine drew for me, I find myself almost meditating over the symbolism she included. The love I share with her and with others, the love for my primary partner, for my siblings and close family, and the love for all the friends that I remain close to; the insistence on looking at how the world actually works, rather than how I might prefer it, as in the litany of Tarski ("If it is true, I desire to believe it is true; if it is false, I desire to believe it is false. Let me not become attached to beliefs I do not want."); the fascination with mathematics and mathematical structures, the philosophy of mathematics, and the beauty that unexpected patterns portray in the base nature of reality; the preoccupation I have with temperature, always desirous of ice in my drinks, of a fan blowing onto my skin, of the comfort my body seems to only take in such specific temperature ranges; the pure enjoyment I gain from video games and board games, an enjoyment I can't seem to find in any other media, the joy of solving puzzles, passing challenges, and of achieving mastery in areas that put me more in common with the-countless-persons-who-are-not-yet-here than almost anything else in my life.

Today is a day of celebration; of remembrance of what makes my life so special. It is a time of thanks, both that I am alive after almost losing my life in 2020, and that I have so many close friends and family that care about me so deeply.

Also, today is a day of wonder. I am fascinated by the ~1.7 million people that have liked my story on TikTok. The thought that over 15 million people spent a few tens of seconds of their life learning about an event of my childhood helps me to realize just how strange this world of the internet truly is. Here's just one of several viral videos telling my story on TikTok:
@reddit.stories.us What's f'd up thing happened at a sleepover? #askreddit #slumberparty #sleepover ♬ original sound - Reddit Stories US
Meme by Gilorz.

Today, I turn 41. I am happy. I am loved. I could not ask for more.

10 May, 2022

Invincibility

It took many, many years before I had an appreciable amount of epistemic humility. Throughout my childhood and well on into my twenties, I felt uniquely invincible. Even when bad things happened to me, I could find a way to explain the facts such that I was better off, not worse off. Today, I recognize that one’s rhetorical ability to argue equally well for every set of facts is a liability, not a benefit, when it comes to figuring out how to establish truth. But, at the time, I just thought it made me smart.

I fathered a child as a young teenager. Alabama had no abortion clinics anywhere nearby, so it took months before we could scrape together enough to visit Atlanta, Georgia, for a medical consultation. We didn’t have enough knowledge nor sense at the time to know in advance that we were on a clock, so we were completely crushed to discover that the pregnancy was too far along to stop in Georgia once we finally arrived. (We had saved for quite a while for this ultimately fruitless trip.)

We went home and reevaluated. My partner at the time preferred going the adoption route. She suggested moving to another state during the pregnancy, giving birth, and then allowing another family to raise the child. Meanwhile, I had no strong opinion. Eventually, her body started to show and we decided we had to tell others; both her family and mine seemed to take it well enough (perhaps because what else could they do?), and their immediate assumption was not adoption but that we would marry and raise the child. I wasn’t ready to do any such thing, but, again, I simply felt no strong opinion. I asked her to marry me anyway. We married. It took extra paperwork from our parents because we were so young. Despite not having a strong opinion this entire time, I made a commitment that I would make do what it took to make it work. (I eventually didn’t, even if at the time I thought I had tried my best.)

I did not know it at the time, but, looking back, I realize that my continued insistence on not having a strong opinion was because I felt invincible. Even in the face of such a life-altering situation, I could not help but to feel that it would work out, that the baby would be gone at some point, either taken in by another family or would otherwise not make it long into life, and that my previous plans would resume. I had meant to go to Pasadena, to get into CalTech, to begin my life as it had been planned years in advance. Yes, there was a marriage now. Yes, there was a baby. But, somehow, back then, I still felt like the universe would react in just such a way so that I could fulfill my every plan. After all, every other time in my life things had worked out for the best. I knew this because I could shape any set of facts into evidence that we were still in the perfect universe for Eric. (I literally never noticed any confusion back then on such issues.)

I ended up being a pretty shitty parent. I recall not being bothered by that poor infant’s cries. Now, years later, I recognize how others react to such sounds, yet I clearly remember that my reaction was one of indifference. I am ashamed to say this. I am ashamed to write such words on my blog, even though I am very different person today — even though I have full awareness that the me of today would never act the way that severely immature Eric did so many decades ago. But I will write these words nonetheless: The me of back then would spend hours upon hours of not caring that, in another room, a fellow human cried out helplessly.

I thought, at the time, that I was doing my part. I followed basic instructions. I ensured that meals happened on time, that holding and rocking her occurred on a schedule, that she was cleaned when time came to clean. But I acted solely on a timer: at 2pm doing this; at 4pm doing that. I did not ever change my schedule based on any input from her. At the time, my focus was on keeping to my commitment. It was on being able to say that I did all that was necessary. But I did not know what love was back then. Not to the child, not to my partner, not to my parents, and not even to myself. I was just simply not mature enough to take on such a responsibility. I tried anyway, in the immature way that I could back then. Thank God that my partner left me and took poor Adrianah Celes. She deserved to grow up with real parents, not with who I was back then. I merely went through the motions, thinking that this was sufficient to hold up my end of the agreement.

A combination of things have caused me to write about this today. In my country, Roe v Wade may soon be overturned. I remember how derailed my life was when getting an abortion was not easy to do back in my early teenage years. I certainly don't wish that others ever have to go through what we did back then. But, also, I don't mean to imply that my daughter (am I allowed to refer to her this way? I think perhaps that I am not, being just a mere sperm donor) did not deserve life. I sometimes talk with people who fail to understand the distinction between an existing person deserving life and a potential person's lack of desert for life. I am also concerned for my brother, Alejandro, who is a freshman in high school this year and who seems to also feel that he is invincible. For him, the issue is likelier to be bullying than unprotected sex, but it concerns me nonetheless because it reminds me so strongly of how I felt when I was his age.

I haven't felt invincible for well over a decade at this point. I have grown so very much since those early days in my life. I know now that I have no desire to ever raise a child (it's just not in me), and I've gone through great lengths to ensure that I'd never get anyone pregnant ever again. I was strongly reminded of just how vincible I truly am only a couple of years back, when I very nearly died in early 2020. And, most recently, earlier this year when I finally reached the point where I decided I needed to start seeing a therapist.

I no longer feel invincible. But my life was largely shaped by my feelings of invincibility back when I was younger. Those feelings of invincibility affected my life's trajectory more than most things back then. More than my schooling. More than the friends I hung around. Maybe not as much as my parents, or my cognitive abilities, but it is a closer thing than you might at first think. If I could go back and make one minor belief change in my early life, convincing myself that I was not invincible might be one of the most life changing.

I don't know to what extent I should go to help teach my brother this lesson. Perhaps it will be sufficient to just talk about the things I've said in this blog entry. We'll see.

31 March, 2022

What StarCraft Means to Me

Twenty-four years ago, on March 31, 1998, StarCraft was first released. I didn't realize it at the time, but it would become an obsession for me that has remained constant for two and half decades.

I was sixteen years old. Life was complicated — I had dropped out of public school, I was moving in with my then-partner after she became pregnant, and I was enrolling into freshman classes at the University of South Alabama. Many things happened during this turbulent year — some good, some bad — but, somewhat confusingly, the thing which ended up staying with me long term was StarCraft.

I first encountered the game at Greg's house. I had been playing WarCraft II for years at this point, but StarCraft was an upgrade in almost every way possible. I was entranced. I immediately tore into the campaign, and lan parties became a weekly norm. We were all bad back then, but it didn't matter. This was the best thing since Magic: the Gathering.

EVER OSL Final
Years passed. After dropping out of university (because I was an immature kid), I finally re-enrolled at Spring Hill College. I played StarCraft constantly. I even downloaded videos of pros playing South Korea. This was well before YouTube; MPEG-2 was relatively new at the time, and I'd have to watch the videos in this tiny stamp-sized box in the middle of my screen due to extraordinarily low resolution. It was worth it anyway. The casters were speaking Korean, but I didn't care. I was transfixed by how smoothly they were able to make their dragoons and goliaths move across the map. And I couldn't believe how efficiently they ran their economy.

Years passed. Every few months, I would pick up everything and leave for a new state. It was a nice transient experience, and I got to see much of the United States. I had very few possessions during this time. I made a habit of buying cheap paperbacks to read and then donating them to the local library before packing up my car and moving to the next place. I'd always stamp the books first; if you ever see an early-to-mid-20th-century scifi paperback in a small town library, check the inside front cover to see if it says it was donated by me. (I must have donated ~400 books over the few years I did this.) But one of the things I always made sure to bring with me was my copy of the StarCraft battle chest. It held a special place of honor next to my computer and I would replay the campaign in nearly every state I moved to.

Artosis and Tasteless
Years passed. StarCraft 2 came out, and I became addicted to watching Dan "Artosis" Stemkoski and Nick "Tasteless" Plott as announcers in the Global StarCraft II League, held in South Korea. I may have never watched football before, nor even soccer (despite playing soccer myself in middle school), but I watched every GSL tournament match as they came out. Many times, I'd even watch live at three or four in the morning to watch them compete across the world. When the AfreecaTV StarCraft League was announced, I fell in love all over again. Tasteless & Artosis casting the original StarCraft was a dream come true. I'm literally going to watch the latest ASL match later today immediately after posting this blog entry.

I don't quite know why I feel so connected to this game. It's not the best RTS — StarCraft II has that title, as it fixed all those dragoon/goliath shenanigans. But it is definitely the best esport. It's exciting, fun to watch, and has depths of strategy that never gets old. In most games, pros seem able to do things that I could never do. But StarCraft is different: I can do many of the things that I see pros do — it's just that I can only do them one at a time, on normal speed. What makes them pros is that they're able to do those things while running a good economy, having map awareness, microing in multiple places at once, and generally doing all of this while also having to think both strategically and tactically. This means that I can see their expertise clearly at play even though each individual move they make is one that I can understand as it is doable at my level.

As I move forward with Effective Giving Quest, I am hopeful that I will be able to connect with the StarCraft community and bring some of them to effective altruism. It would mean a lot to me if I were able to bring two of my passions together in this way.

14 March, 2022

A Decade of Effective Altruism Contributions

Giving What We Can
I joined the effective altruism movement in 2011 after hearing Toby Ord make his pitch. At the time, the Giving What We Can pledge required you to pledge to give to global development and health charities — so I did not actually sign the pledge until the day after they announced they would change it to include any effective altruism charities. I took the GWWC pledge in 2014, pledging to give 25% of my income for the remainder of my working life toward EA charities. (The base version of the pledge asks only for 10%.)

It has now been over a decade since I joined the EA movement. Today, I looked up how much of an effect my donations have made. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, over the course of the last ten years, my donations toward EA charities have added up to the equivalent of saving the lives of 37 people.

This is pleasing to me on several fronts. First, my go-to favorite number has been 1/137 for many decades at this point, so 37 is just a generally pleasing number for me to see. Second, it helps to make salient just how much my efforts have made a difference. As of 2020, it appears that it costs around $2300 to effectively save the life of a person via AMF. I've accomplished this standard an astonishing 37 times. This is honestly staggering to me.

Marcos is in the Qatar shirt, posing w/ siblings.
From an old reddit comment of mine:

There's a story that gets told at my family gatherings. It comes up maybe once every few years. It goes like this:

Forty years ago, my uncle Marcos was walking down the street in his home country of Bolivia. He turns a corner, and he is suddenly facing a fire that has recently started raging in a house, only a few tens of meters away. He drops his pack and runs to the house, calling out if anyone is still inside. When he hears a faint voice, he rushes in, zeroes in on the older lady there, and successfully brings her out of the building. Later, firefighters arrive, and they help to partially save the building. But the old woman saves most of her thanks to my uncle Marcos.

When this story is told, people at the dinner table feel pride for what Marcos did that day. He wasn't a firefighter; he was just a bystander who stood up to do what is right when he found himself in a place where he could help save a life. This is a story of a hero, and it feels good to hear it.

But, of course, actual firefighters get the chance to save lives much more often than this. Maybe not as often as it occurs in the movies, but maybe on average they get to save someone's life once a year. They are, without a doubt, even more heroic. Yet I wonder if they get as many positive feels around the dinner table as Marcos does when his story gets retold.

So when I started donating to effective altruism charities in 2011, I made a personal decision that ended up working out very well for me. I decided that instead of giving a monthly donation, I would save up my donations until they reached a certain chunk size, and then I would donate that amount to a single EA charity. The size I chose was the donation size that GiveWell at the time had determined was the amount needed to save a life by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation.

Since then, EA has become more mature. GiveWell no longer likes to talk in terms of "the amount it takes to save a life". But I've kept the tradition of giving in chunks for a very good reason: it makes me feel good.

Every time I donate a block of money that I've saved up, I visualize in my mind that it is me that has dropped my pack, and it is me that is running toward that burning building. I visualize that, as I donate this amount, what is actually happening is that I am saving this specific individual's life.

And you know what? As corny as this sounds, it actually works. It's a private experience — it doesn't get told at family dinners — and it is somewhat mitigated by the fact that I give to EA charities that aren't AMF these days, but it nevertheless feels to me like I am making a difference every time I donate a chunk of money. It works even though I have aphantasia, and I visualize in a completely different way than most people do. It works even though I know the person in my head that I'm saving is not literal/real. It works even though I do this ceremony alone, just for myself, without others to be around to experience or even know about it. It just works, and it honestly makes the experience of giving for charitable utilons to be as pleasurable as when I give for fuzzies. It's a different feeling; it comes less often. But it feels good.

Over time, I've visualized saving someone an astonishing 37 times. It has felt wonderful every single time. (Technically, I've gone through the process fewer times than this, because the old calculation for how much it cost to save a life was $7500. It is now $2300.)

If you have yet to take the Giving What We Can pledge, I strongly encourage you to do so. To date, 8,274 people have taken the pledge. You could be the 8,275th. Of all the things you could purchase with your money, this is perhaps the thing that may ultimately mean the most, and, if you treat it as a ceremony the way that I do, it may also end up feeling like the most wonderfully feeling personal experience that money can honestly buy.