17 January, 2022

From Obtuse Mental Health Issues to Acute

It can be difficult to talk openly about mental health. I’ve tried over the years to not shy away from talking about many of the issues in my life, many of which are quite serious. But when it comes to mental health, I tend to stay relatively quiet. I think this may be because I value my mental health more than any physical health or disability that I may encounter in life. It probably explains why I am a teetotaler, and why I take special care to exercise my brain far more often than my body.

Which is all why it still seems so difficult to me now to say the thing that I’ve come here to say. So I’ll just be out with it:

It came on suddenly.
I suffered a mental breakdown a few weeks ago.

If you asked me what caused it, I’m not sure I’d be able to give a good answer. There’s a lot going on in my life that has been causing me extreme stress. There are people who count me as an enemy despite my trying to work with them. There are issues with an employee I hired who is also family, and the relationship has grated as a result. There are undone tasks in my household which have dramatically hurt my ability to live well there. There are people I have let down, and my brain has not been able to make it up to any of them.

The extent of this problem has become severe. Since my ordeal in 2020, I have been instructed by a doctor to take life saving medication every day. Without these medications, I would die. So you would think that, even if other things in my life started falling down, at least when it came to life-saving medication, I would take it every day.

So far, this is true. I do take it each day, with my partner’s help. But my doctor retired last summer. Slowly, one by one, the prescriptions that they ordered for me started to expire. I no longer received the medications that I needed each day to live. Yet I found myself unable to call that doctor’s office. I could not get new prescriptions under another doctor’s name. One day, when my partner found out that I had only a few days left of a certain life-saving medication, she panicked and bought it online instead. The price was ~50 times as expensive as my co-pay would have been. But at least it meant I continued remaining alive.

This is what triggered awareness of just how bad things had become for me. After a few additional events like this, my mental capacities mostly shut down at the beginning of this year. I’ve been slowly picking up the pieces since.

Yesterday, I spoke with my family for the first time in quite a while. They were concerned because they had not been able to get in touch with me. I’d been avoiding text messages and email entirely since Christmas, with the exception of my EGQ email. I believe that every single other responsibility in my life, whether it’s shoveling snow or dealing with board issues, has fallen by the wayside during these three weeks.

By Katherine Hess.
For those that have never experienced something like this, I will try to explain my inner subjective experience. In a word, it is dread. But the dread is attached to something that should be innocuous. For example, I am owed ~$2700 by someone who wants to pay me. If they were to pay me without me having to do anything, I’d be happy about this. But I have to fill out a form, and that form fills me with dread. Not because it is a difficult form to fill out, nor because there’s some rational reason why I should be wary of it, but merely because my brain has singled this out as something that should fill me with utter dread, and so the filling out of the form becomes such a monumental task that I simply cannot move forward with filling it out.

Not all tasks are so monumental, but each task seems to have an outsized portion of dread attached that takes more effort than it should to complete. Ordinarily, I manage despite this. But in the past three weeks, it has built to a head: there are days where I’ve done little more than sleep. There are days where it takes all the effort in the world to just do the five hours of work I need to do in order to go on. There are weekends where, in order to enjoy the company of a friend for a few hours in the evening, I’ve literally sacrificed my entire day just to ensure that I can have those few moments of joy.

Although I’ve had a predisposition toward these types of things for my entire life, it has never been as bad as it has been these past three weeks. I wish I could point to a singular event that caused this. But even the precipitating event, being unjustly called racist and unwilling to work for a better society for all, was just the thing that pushed me over the edge. Nevertheless, this accusation consumed my thoughts, knocking over the precarious structures I had in place to allow me to function relatively well in society. It made me shut down. That’s when I had my mental breakdown.

Today, I am trying to pick up the pieces. But I will not be able to juggle what I once did, not until I rebuild the structures that allowed me to deal with my mental issues. To aid this, I will be making several changes in my life.

  • I’m cutting back on work significantly. Rather than have my fingers in lots of projects, I’m going to focus entirely on just Effective Giving Quest. This means I will be subcontracting out my current contractual obligations and turning down any other offers of work for the immediate future.
  • I’m planning on either resigning or cutting back significantly from my board duties. This will be a significant reduction in the number of hours worked for me.
  • I will be volunteering far less. This includes the intensive work I’ve put into WikiProject Effective Altruism and the works in progress I’ve had for the Effective Altruism Forum.
  • I will be using a therapist from here on out. Depending on what they recommend, I will be open to taking medication to help deal with these issues.
  • My days will revolve around three pillars moving forward: EGQ, exercise in and out of the house, and making time/space to spend on fun: with family/friends/books/games.

These are not small changes. While they will take time to implement, I do think that this is the best that I can do moving forward if I want to ensure that a breakdown like this never happens again.

By Katherine Hess.
(For small tasks in the immediate future, I will getting around the outsized feelings of dread not by eliminating the dread, but by putting a sticky note on these immense mental blocks in my mind, reminding me that this portion of my map does not correspond to the territory, and that doing these small tasks will not cause nearly as much discomfort as they appear to in my mind. Specifically, I will be accomplishing this by setting up trigger action plans associated with these small tasks, where the action will be noticing these sticky notes. From there, it will take mere courage to do these small tasks anyway. I'm not sure how effective this will work, but until a therapist recommends something different, this is the method I'll be using to at least reclaim the small things in my life that need to be done.)

To those I’ve let down, I am so very sorry. I will be sending personalized apologies in the coming weeks, alongside my expectations of how I can help mitigate any harms I’ve already caused and how we can set expectations moving forward so that this kind of thing does not recur.

To future me, reading this post in the future: I hope that I’m doing right by you as I make these rather extreme changes. While this will significantly reduce my output, I sincerely hope that by focusing on only a few avenues of change you will nevertheless be more capable of doing good than I am today, in this sad broken state. But even if not, I remain hopeful that these changes will at least make you happier and more capable of enjoying life that I am now. The former is something I am unsure of, but the latter is something that I honestly think these changes will genuinely come to pass. Wish me well, as I wish for you.

13 January, 2022

Cubic Star Number

Katherine's latest art project involves looking at the number of covid cases in our county every other day and making something that has to do with that number. On Monday of this week, there were 2140 cases per 100,000 residents in Montgomery County (averaged over the previous seven days). Katherine discovered that this was a "cubic star number", which she felt had an interesting name, but for which there was not a good explanation online. (Seriously, try looking it up yourself. No one seems to have ever written about it much at all (other than the A051673 OEIS sequence), and there certainly aren't any pictures of what the accompanying shape would look like.)


While making a three dimensional sculpture out of 2140 elements would be a little much for a series where she makes a new piece of art every other day, it did seem reasonable to make a much smaller cubic star number shape out of 120 marbles. So she did.

What you're seeing here is (as far as I can tell) the first picture of a cubic star number searchable on the internet. While diagrams of these may exist in yet-to-be-indexed books, I could not find such a picture in anything that refers to cubic star numbers (such as Gulliver's 2002 article Sequences from Arrays of Integers).

Star numbers are relatively well known. They're centered figurate numbers: you take one dot, then surround it with more dots in a certain shape, then surround that with dots, and so on, until you have a big shape of dots with a central dot in the middle. Gamers might recognize that a Chinese checkers board uses a star number shape of 121 spaces.

The star number polygon shown here consists of a hexagon with triangles on each side (i.e., a hexagram). But you don't have to use a hexagon on the inside. You could just as easily use a square, with four triangles on each side of that square. This square star number might not look as pleasing as the hexagram does, but it has interesting properties all on its own.

But I think things get even more interesting once you move into the third dimension. Instead of a square, you can use a cube; and, rather than making a stellated shape where a pyramid exists on every face of the square, you can merely place the pyramids on four of the sides, so that the front and back of the cube remain flat. In this way, you're extrapolating out what a two dimensional star number might look like if you literally pulled it out into a new dimension, but turned the triangles into pyramids while allowing the square to fill out a cube.

Almost no one talks about cubic star numbers. The closest I could find was a blogger referencing house numbers, which, to be fair, has a more distinctive shape to them. House numbers are closely related to cubic star numbers; rather than four pyramids, they exhibit just one. But it's easy to see how you can get to a cubic star number from the corresponding house number: just add three more pyramids and stick 'em on the sides.

Katherine chose to use the fourth cubic star number, 120. It consists of a 4x4x4 cube with four pyramids that each have a 3x3 base. This small cubic star number was created entirely out of marbles, using liquid silicone to connect them. It stands as a symbol of the much larger tenth cubic star number, 2140, which consists of a 10x10x10 cube with four pyramids that each have a 9x9 base.

I'm fascinated by Katherine's choices in what to display in this regular art series. COVID-19 has gotten pretty bad here in Montgomery County, Maryland, since the Omicron strain took over. We reached highs of 300 cases on this graph back in 2020, and that was scary because anything above 100 was considered high and worthy of shutting down schools. Now we hover in the ~2k range and people are demanding that schools remain open. She's dealing with the strain via creating art — I have to admit that that's better than my current method of shutting down nearly entirely.

I'm looking forward to seeing what else Katherine comes up with. I was fascinated by her prime factorization series, and this current series on the integers of covid cases seems just as good. I just wish we didn't have to keep spreading covid in order to generate these depressing numbers and associated fascinating art.

Cubic Star Number

Exploring the Integer of Seven Day Average Covid Cases per 100,000 People in my County Series. On Monday, January 10,...

Posted by Katherine Hess on Wednesday, January 12, 2022

26 December, 2021

Herboso Christmas Stories

After staying up all night on Christmas eve, I visited my family on Christmas morning to share breakfast, gifts, and stories. By noon, I left to go home and promptly fell asleep, not waking again until the 26th. Despite losing much of the day, I did really enjoy the time I was able to spend with my family, especially the stories portion.

My father spoke about the time he was a kid in Bolivia and fell in love with these cowboy boots in the shop window. He was told he would not be getting them for Christmas, but they were all that he truly wanted. (Natalia questioned: why cowboy boots? Because there were no super heroes in Bolivia in those days; cowboys were the super heroes.) On Christmas eve, he and his brothers got picked up in a truck to go somewhere a ways off. They jumped on the flatbed in the back and started onto Bolivia's version of a highway. To alleviate boredom, they decided to play marbles in the back of the moving truck. (Ale questions: is that like Beyblade? Yes, Ale. It is just like Beyblade.) Marbles were placed near the front edge of the flatbed, and my dad slowly backed up to get distance so he could shoot his marble. Alas, his calf bumped into the back of the truck, and he fell onto the asphalt. There his memory ends, but he was told that his head hit the ground hard, cars on the road stopped and people came to help, and he was eventually taken care of by a family member who was a doctor. Looking back, he is sure that he had a concussion. That night, as gifts were exchanged, he was not happy. He had the worst headache. But then, when he opened the present with the cowboy boots, his headache magically disappeared. He even got twin pearl-handled cap guns to go with it. (Natalia: That sounds like it would be uncomfortable. Dad: The color, Nani! There's no balls on the handle! Just the color!)

Susan talked about how everyone in the family would give her gifts, as the youngest in a large family. She especially enjoyed seeing the people who had nowhere else to go on Christmas visit them in Alexandria, Virginia. There was a spirit of kindness there that permeated the Christmas season for the Cadima family.

Natalia talked about one of her favorite Christmas memories: how Almita would make quesadillas on Christmas morning. Such simple fare: no more than tortillas with a thin spread of refried beans and freshly grated cheese popped into a toaster oven for a minute or two; yet Nani looks back on that time with much happiness. Alma has since passed on, but she remains as an integral part of the Herboso family mythos.

Ale spoke about a gift that he only has vague memories of: the soccer ball he received on Christmas morning some untold number of Christmases ago. He doesn't remember the ball exactly; he can't remember the color, for example. But it started him on a journey to becoming a soccer player, and his vague memory of the event counts as his favorite Christmas gift of all time.

I gave voice to several Christmas memories. Of the robot that I wanted as a child, like my dad's cowboy boots, which I was told I could not get but which I received anyway. (My father immediately dispelled notions of how complex the robot was: This was the 1980s, it's not the kind of robot you're thinking of, Nani!) I didn't bring up the time I was betrayed by my family when my uncle went on the roof and pretended to be Santa in order to convince me to go to bed instead of staying up. I started crying, begging them to tell Santa to go away and not visit me this year, because I didn't like how creepy it was that he was going to sneak into the house and reward or punish behavior that he should not have been able to see all year. But I did bring up the four consecutive years that I spent Christmas at a Chinese restaurant. Each time, I'd call a month in advance to ask if they'd be open and if I could get a tofurky there. They always said yes and presented me with lots of fixings on Christmas day, even though each time I called I was asking different unrelated Chinese restaurants in different states across different years.

I spoke about all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures I received one Christmas, but not about the Nintendo Entertainment System I opened one Christmas morning. (I also neglected to bring up that before the Nintendo Switch came out in March 2017, I went to a private screening event that January to play the Switch hands on months before the release date. It was my Christmas gift to myself that year.)

Visiting Columbus Memorial.
I spoke about when I spent Christmas in Louisiana with friends, in Florida with friends, and when I visited my father a few times. Once, I brought my friends with me, and we all enjoyed Christmas in DC. My dad said that the van we drove up in smelled like cannabis, though I have no memory of this and haven't ever done recreational drugs above and beyond caffeine before. I did not speak about the Christmas when I was in a house without heat and I turned on the oven with an open door to stay warm next to a tiny Christmas tree. I did not talk about the Christmas I spent shivering outside because I could not stand staying in my house, even if it was warmer than being outside. I did not speak of these not because I mind them being shared, but because it's better to share only some stories each Christmas, the better to have novel stories to share in future Christmases.

We then exchanged gifts and I went home to sleep. It was overall a short waking day for me, but it was good nevertheless. I had a good day.

23 December, 2021

Moral Cooperation with a Colleague

Oesterheld on Multiverse-wide cooperation
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the various ways that we deal with others that have values not aligned with our own. When Aumann's agreement theorem fails due to different object-level values, what’s the best way to proceed? We can't just double crux at that point. Self-modifying value handshakes? dath ilan-style pareto optimal deals?

What about when I have the upper hand? It’s a contingent upper hand, not a necessary one, so maybe I need to make decisions that benefit all potential alternate versions of me? (In what ways is this different from benefiting them-as-an-alternate-of-me?) Is this the main purpose of being gracious? I want to do the right thing at the meta level, taking into account the probability that I'm just wrong; does this mean that I should compromise object level values when there appears to be no game-theoretic reason to do so?

I have a person in my life that has a serious difference in object level values with me, and I’m in a position where I don’t have to compromise, even though interacting with them on issues that deal with those values isn't avoidable, is ongoing, and they care a great deal about this difference in our object level values. I'm considering compromising despite not needing to; but I'm also wary of setting up a perverse incentive for my future dealings.

I'm still thinking deeply on this. On the supposed value of graciousness. On when meta values should take priority over object level values. On how I'd feel if I were on the other end of this situation. (Badly, I'd expect. And powerless.) I really don't want to fall into the trope of someone who doesn't update properly.

I really need to continue thinking about this.

22 December, 2021

Review: Vampire Flower Language


Vampire Flower LanguageVampire Flower Language by Angela Castir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The problem with most romance stories is that the plot tends to revolve around a conflict that the characters see as big, but that the reader sees as small. This is because romance authors want there to be tension with the characters not being able to get together, but for the reader to desire them to be together anyway. The easiest way to achieve this is to set up a comedy of errors: a misunderstanding that would have been resolved had they been truthful, or, if the story is from before the 1990s, a misunderstanding that would have been resolved had they just had access to a mobile phone. Occasionally, the problem is a love triangle, so the conflict is because the characters aren't polyamorous; or the problem is that they live in different worlds. These stories are slightly better because they don't rely on the characters holding the idiot ball, but they never seem to reach the level of rational fiction, where the characters are thinking properly, and the conflict stems not from their errors in thought, but in differences in value.

Angela Castir (or, rather, the two-person-author team that calls itself Angela Castir) expertly navigates this hole by creating a rational romance story where the plot doesn't revolve around silly misunderstandings. (Don't get me wrong: misunderstandings do occur, but they are appropriate to the characters.) Instead, the tension of the romance story comes from the disconnect between the worldview of a baseline human during world war 2 and a very, very old vampire. Their story is realistic and sweet; heartwarming and heartwrenching. I expect fans of general vampire romance to be blown away by the sheer competence of the surrounding story and events; I expect fans of rational fiction to be blown away by the fact that the author was able to create a romance story in the ratfic genre. Regardless of where you come from, I expect you'll enjoy this story.

The remainder of this review has spoilers; please stop reading here and start reading the story itself if you haven't already. It's worth it! [Seriously, spoilers are ahead. Do not read further before reading the story itself.]

I love the themes present in this book. A gay romance in this time period would historically be seen (by humans) as entirely inappropriate in society, but the focus starts on vampire society instead, where the tension is a romance between a vampire and a human being considered inappropriate. The reader starts out thinking that this is the allegory: the inappropriateness from vampire culture's point of view mimics the inappropriateness from human culture's point of view. But by the end this reader expectation gets upended: the more important allegory here is of understanding. Can a relationship where people love each other persist when their values don't match? To what extent must those values change in order for the people to have a meaningful relationship?

The protagonist's sister is not okay with homosexuality, to the extent that she eventually refuses to be close to her brother, even while loving him; this matches the protagonist's refusal to be close to his partner, even while loving him. Seeing this parallel is what causes the character to update toward being more comfortable in his relationship, so that he does not make the same error that his sister does. More importantly, at the reader level, we now see that the value mismatch which we thought was a huge divide for the majority of the book should instead be considered a minor hurdle. It's not just the characters who update on this revelation: the readers are intended to update as well.

The Julius storyline introduces a truly alien alien: a character whose value function seems to be set in the way an AI might. As the reader is given access to Julius' internal thoughts, this seems like the scariest part of the story. A slightly misaligned AI, valuing its expectation of one's happiness rather than a person's stated goals, can easily go wrong. You see this manipulation occur freely and easily with Red (a mere human), and it is only because William (the vampire) is more competent that things do not immediately fall apart. Even so, William's competence is not sufficient to be immune to Julius' machinations; I expect that Julius was given away by their previous owner on purpose for this reason. When the story jumps ahead in the epilogue, we see that Julius has been somewhat reigned in, not by William's competence, but by Red's morals being forced onto Julius. We readers don't see Julius' internal state in the epilogue, so it is left ambiguous whether the situation is actually better or worse here, but its appropriate for the story to end here anyway, as the story we've been following is not Julius' story, but William and Red's story.

I was enthralled by the worldbuilding, but my favorite part of the book was how characters would ask questions that I, too, would ask if I were in that situation. This allowed me to partially self-insert myself into the story, a feat that is exceedingly rare in romance novels, given that I am poly and asexual. I really appreciated the way that characters sought out information. What I didn't like was that so much of that information remained hidden, even to the end! I recognize that further stories in this world are going to be told, and so it is appropriate to leave dangling threads. But it was unsatisfying all the same. I am left wanting more!

One note I would give to the authors for future stories: please consider restricting the reader's point of view to a single character. Although it would have made for a different book, had the entire novel been written from Red's point of view, then that could have included a mystery element for the readers: is William sincere? Should we also want Red to run away? But by letting us see into William's mind, this possibility is lost completely. I recognize that's not what you were going for, so it's unfair to complain about this. But this could have been done at least with Julius and it would not have changed the story too much. By letting us see into Julius' mind, we get access to knowledge that cuts the tension too much. I honestly believe it would have been better to never allow us access to Julius' thoughts, so that readers could be honestly divided on whether Red's or William's point of view were best. This would have added to the tension of the split that occurred. I hope in your next book you take care to only allow the reader access to more limited points of view to allow for more mystery in your story beats.

Even if this weren't an exceedingly well written book, I would still recommend it for the novelty of being in the rational romance genre. However, this book is genuinely well written, with rational characters and tension that realistically flows from the worldbuilding set up by the authors. I enthusiastically recommend this to anyone interested in either rational fiction or vampire romance.

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