13 February, 2020

Review: Mother of Learning

Mother of LearningMother of Learning by Nobody103

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hard sci-fi pioneer Hal Clement once said that science fiction is all about the setting. Mother of Learning is fantasy, but it really takes this idea to heart.

Mother of Learning has excellent worldbuilding in terms of how things work. Everything feels interconnected in ways that most fantasy authors fail. There are some notable issues, though: the author has a tendency to use occasional metaphors that don't make sense in this setting, some characters seem to be sexist and homophobic for no real reason. (In a fantasy setting where females are equally good at magic, it makes no sense that 1950s era ideas about females would be in _any_ character, and what is the point in making any characters anti-gay when this is a brand-new world that doesn't require that kind of prejudice? (If prejudice is desired, make a new prejudice! It's fantasy, after all, and the anti-gay sentiment was never a story beat.) (Thankfully these anti-gay/anti-female sentiments only occur four times in the story and could easily be removed.))

While these seem like strong objections to the story, and they definitely took me out of the story when they occured, they only happened four times in a story so long that, if the story were published, they would only appear less than once in each book of the series. The author has already said that they intend to go back and fix these issues (and the many typos throughout the story), so I do think that these problems will be fixed before too much longer. Ultimately, I am easily able to overlook these issues in favor of the excellent rational story and awesome worldbuilding. This is easily my favorite read in 2020 so far and has earned a place in the top ten rationality stories I have ever read.

If I had to complain about something that can't easily be fixed, it would be the lack of diversity of thought among major characters. If you blacked out the name of who is speaking, there would be several points where dialogue could be coming from any of a number of characters. But Hal Clement had the exact same problem: his dialogue was atrocious, and yet he was able to write some of the best hard scifi stories anyway just from worldbuilding alone, and the same is true here for Mother of Learning. Its flaws do not take away from the fact that this is a great story that I would recommend to anyone interested in rational fiction or hard fantasy.

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25 January, 2020

Today, I almost died.

The shower felt so good. Warmth running down my skin. Nasal passages clearing up. I rested, allowing my body to take it all in.

The coughs from my cold still came every minute or so. My throat needed a rest. So I decided to gargle -- that's a thing that people do, right? To soothe one's throat? But this water wasn't coming from a small cup; it was raining down with force from above. Holding the water in my mouth proved to be too much, and I breathed a small amount in.

Instantaneously my body put up warning signals. I coughed immediately with full force, but nothing came out. Short of oxygen already from attempting to store water in my mouth for gargling, I coughed again, somehow pushing out a volume of air that nonetheless seemed to have no oxygen in it. I gasped, dropping nearly to my knees, the water from the showerhead patting my back steadily as I nearly keeled over, seemingly encouraging me to get it out of my lungs.

Only a tiny amount entered my lung.
I probably wasn't in any real danger,
but it certainly felt that way.
A third cough ensued, this time with less force because I hadn't time to breathe in. It had been over ten seconds since I last took a breath, and I could no longer think beyond what I might be able to do to get this water from my lungs.

I tore open the shower door, hovered over the toilet, and forced myself to throw up. Water came up, but only from my stomach, and the ensuing breath sounded as though the gargling had succeeded in my lungs instead of in my mouth. My torso convulsed and another spasm pushed out yet more from my stomach. It was flowing, certainly, but the water I needed to come up was in a different pipe. I squeezed my torso before the next expulsion and...

I could breathe again. I had to do it in-between throwing up everything I'd consumed earlier in the day, but at least I could breathe. Thinking back, it felt identical to all the other expulsions, yet it must have come at least partly from my lungs, because successful breathing resumed immediately afterward.

A few minutes later, I stepped in the shower, finished cleaning up, and took care of the now exceedingly wet bathroom floor. Never again will I attempt to gargle using water pushed down into my mouth from a full-force showerhead. This blog entry is now written, so I'm going to use the next couple of hours to contemplate on my life now.

06 January, 2020

Recurring Dreams

Reading an account of another's dream is uninteresting. On this basis alone, I recommend not reading this blog entry. But I cannot ignore the things I experience in the dream state; they are too powerful, recurring often, impacting how I live out a significant (but not majority) number of my waking days. (If it influences your choice on whether to read this, know that a large portion this post goes into more than just the mere content of my dreams.)

Pictured: what I imagine others' dreams are like.
I'm an oneironaut. I'm able to choose what happens in dreams, or at least I confabulate my dream actions, which I am told is not something that most people do. However, I can't choose the setting of any of my dreams. They feel random to me, even though once I am in them, I can explore them at will.

One of the interesting parts of any dream I have is that dividing line between when I am not thinking about whether it is a dream and when I am actively asking whether it is a dream. Soon after is the answer to my question: learning whether I am indeed in a dream. But that dividing line is not so significant as the moment before I think to question and the moment that I do.

Many of my dreams are unique, but I have several recurring settings. Today, that setting was a house that is entirely invented, but which felt like a house I had previously lived in. It's particularly strange because even after I determined that it was a dream, even after I went through all the dream actions I desired, even after I opened my eyes and started looking around the room in my wakened state, I still sincerely thought that my dream was of a former house that I had lived in. It took several minutes before I recognized that this house had never been real, and that the reason it felt so familiar was because it was a home that I had dreamed of living in many dozens of times before, the last of which was over five years ago.

I can clearly see the makeup of this house in my head. The floor plans are mostly sensical, and it seems like it could very well be an actual house. But my awake self has never visited such a place. Still, it felt like an old home to me. So many things happened in that house. I can remember specific events, features, furniture, guests. One item in particular was a word game.

It is this word game that makes me want to write this down in a blog post. Some parts of the game are silly -- dreamlike. For example, each player had a hollow sphere to hold their pieces. The top hemisphere of this was bright orange. But other features made it an actually interesting game. The requirement was to provide a noun that matched a category on the left; if animal was the category, cat would be an acceptable response. But on the right you had a different type of category, a descriptive numerical one like too many, or an alarming amount. The player had to provide two words on the right: a number and another noun, like three birds. This would need to fit the description better than the opposing player's response. After being scored, the completed words would stay together, and could be used in future rounds as responses rather than creating new words. What made this word game unique was that the number of tiles provided was immense. There was no hand; you could spell anything you wanted from your entire collection of pieces. But as the rounds pass, the tiles would become fewer, and the descriptions on the right would become more specific, like not quite a dozen, or three times however many of these are in this room plus the opponent's number. This meant that a successful strategy would need to conserve tiles to be used for specific needed numbers, even while the left hand category is constantly asking for new words that you likely haven't made yet. The winner was determined by a combination of points on how well you responded to each category and how many (and what type) of tiles you had left over when another player ran out of tiles.

This is not a publishable game. It has too many pieces, requiring a set for each player. And the pieces would have to connect in some way so that they didn't break into tiles after being used. The game designer would need to provide a distribution of tiles that would account for needing to spell out numbers quite frequently, and there are certainly some letters that are used far more often there than others. (Not to mention the need for many s tiles for all the plurals.) And the right hand categories would need to get progressively restrictive in an interesting way that involves other players, without being so difficult that the game ends prematurely -- the only way I can think of doing this well is to make the number of starting tiles huge so that when you get to that stage you aren't immediately stumped.

What I find interesting here is how this is a game that I feel like I've played multiple times in this dream house, in several previous dreams. Each time I play it, the rules get more specific. I think more about how turns should be structured, how powers might steal completed words from the opponent, how end game strategy might hinge on knowing in advance what the opponent's categories will be even while being in the dark about your own, and how you can specifically use numbers or words that would make an opponent's upcoming turn particularly difficult.

And yet: I do not remember ever thinking about this game in the waking world. All of this was done in a dream state. Even though it is a bad game, it is not hilariously bad. It's just... not good. That seems pretty impressive for a game created entirely in a dream. As I woke today, I had the thought: Oh, I should pack this game to go with me when I meet Jon next weekend in Virginia. It took several minutes to realize that this is not a real game that exists in the real world.

Games such as these are just a set of rules. In my dream, I followed those rules. Was I not playing the game in my dreams, then? Not just playing a dream game, but the actual game itself. If, in the dream, I had computed 23*34, then wouldn't it be true to say that I had multiplied for real in the dream? In that same way, I think I was playing the real actual game in my dream; I wasn't just playing a dream game. How often does this happen? That a game would be designed and played in a dream, before ever being brought into reality?

I suspect it happens often. How many times have I heard of people getting inspiration from dreams on complex ideas.... The recreational math I do is simple enough to solve in the waking world; perhaps if I attempted harder puzzles I could leverage my dreams to attack them. Others seem to be able to do this, even if they aren't able to do lucid dreaming. I wonder what kind of problems work well in dreams, given that rules can be broken there. Is there some way I can repurpose my dreams to accomplish work that would be relevant in my waking life?

My intention is to start testing. I know, for example, that writing is completely out of the question in dreams. If I write something down in a dream, it doesn't stay there for when I look at it again. But if an object is placed in a room, I can look away and when I return my gaze the object remains. So I can record and manipulate data; I just can't do it using writing. But what specific kinds of things can I keep in mind? Could I place an octopus, for example, to stand in for an eight? Would that even be useful? How many items can I manipulate before the first item becomes unrecognizable?

Test one will be to look up some easy to solve puzzle online that requires manipulating several elements. I will deliberately not look up the answer, and will only look at the question and components right before going to sleep. Then, in my dream state, I will try to solve the puzzle by manipulating the elements. The puzzle should have a unique simple answer, which will be clear to me when I wake. Then, in the waking world, I will check to see if the answer is correct, and, if so, then how many entities have to be kept in mind while manipulating elements to arrive at the correct answer. Then I can do future tests to see what the limit of my dream logic's manipulable elements actually are.

Put 10 sugar cubes in 3 cups, w/ odd # in each. »Answer
One stumbling block will be that the manipulation of elements will have to be basic -- something that I can do in a dream that won't change on me later. This means it can't be word manipulation, like "seeing what you saw", nor unusual combinations, like most lateral thinking puzzles. I'm afraid that if I have to use an object in a way that doesn't mesh with my animal brain, then it will disapparate in the same way that writing does in my dreams. Will this limit what kinds of things I can solve in the dream world? Certainly, but as yet I'm not sure what would or would not qualify here.

Another concern I have is my inability to influence the setting of each dream. What if the objects I need to manipulate make no sense in the context of the setting I happen to dream in that night? Will this make it more difficult to manipulate? Or less? These are all questions that need to be answered.

But for now I suppose I should refocus on the waking world. I need to figure out what real games I should bring for when Jon visits this side of the country this weekend.

17 December, 2019

Feeling Self-conscious

We all have things that we feel self-conscious about. But it can be difficult to talk openly about such things while being cognizant of our privilege.

I don't want to compare my feelings of inadequacy with those of others. I know that I am extremely well off, but when we look at ourselves, we always seem to compare ourselves to the best of others. It's difficult not to feel inadequate in the fields where I just wish that I could be and do better.

This past weekend, Katherine accepted an award for the Maryland high school art teacher of year. While prestigious, it's not unexpected. The year before last, she won the Montgomery County high school art teacher of the year, and she's been extremely active in helping art educators state-wide for a while now. Yet, on the drive over, she expressed her feelings of self-consciousness. Despite knowing all that she has accomplished in her field, she still expressed feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Which is understandable. She's human, after all. But I couldn't help but to think of all the high school art teachers that I know, and of how many of them that just don't plain work as hard and as efficiently as Katherine does. To me, it is obvious why her peers have decided to recognize her as the most prominent secondary level art teacher in the state this year. But, in her head, the comparison is not to the average art teacher in her state, but to the idealized top art teachers that she can imagine. And, amongst that group, she feels quite inadequate.

Playing reference class tennis with myself would be a waste of time, but I can't help but to echo her feelings when it comes to the work I do in the field of effective altruism. There are so many effective altruists that have graduated from the top universities in the world, working at prestigious institutions and/or earning massive incomes. Comparing myself to these people on these terms can make me feel self-conscious.

I'd like to think that I'm intelligent. That I'm thoughtful when it comes to others. But can I really be a good judge of myself? If I am to avoid bias, I need some way of comparing myself using a proper reference class.

Recently, a friend got so upset with me for being so strongly inconsiderate that she ended up removing me as a friend on social media. If you had asked me only a day previous to this whether I could do something that would cause such a reaction from one of my friends, I would have maintained that that would be extremely unlikely. Yet it did occur, and I am at a loss to explain why.

Steelmanning her point of view, I suppose it was because I was saying something derogatory toward her while she was already down, and this was over the line because you don't kick a person when they're down. Saying it like this does make me seem like an asshole, I guess, though I still don't think that if I could redo the conversation that I would choose to act any differently. She is not doing well financially, and she was asking me for a moderately large loan to get out of what she called an emergency situation. My response was that I had given her over a dozen loans so far in the past decade of over $1k each and despite her numerous promises to repay, she had not made even the slightest attempt to repay any of it for several years. I reminded her of this as my explanation for why I could no longer loan her any money. I then gifted her a small amount, hoping that this might help her immediate emergency situation. Her response was to unfriend me, saying that I was an asshole for saying derogatory things about her while she was in a bad situation already.

Judging myself is inappropriate, because biases abound. But if I am to judge based on her perception of me…

I went on a first date with someone intelligent. During our discussion, I said something that, looking back, I really regret. I said that I felt like I wasn't very smart. What I meant was that, in the reference class of comparing myself to people I associate with in the EA movement, I am just not nearly as quick as they are. This is the wrong reference class. I know this. This is especially wrong when you're on a first date -- they don't yet know you, and they can't possibly understand the context behind such a stupid thing that you might say. Self-deprecation is not good. It's not funny; it's not helpful. I regret doing it. But I did; it just came out too easily. Thankfully, she looked past it. I guess other parts of the conversation at least made up for it.

Yet despite knowing that it isn't appropriate to say, I nevertheless still feel it. I really do. I'm not nearly as effective as I could be. I don't read nearly as much as I could. I don't give nearly as much as I'd be able to if I just worked as hard as I'm capable of. When I speak to peers about money, I can't help but to realize that they're making $200k or more each year, while at my peak I've only had a salary in the $115k range. Now, working directly for EA charities, I earn far less than that, but I consider the difference as a form of in-kind giving. But, again: this is the wrong reference class. In comparison to the world at large, I am extremely affluent. I have the luxury to be able to quit a job and spend six months before deciding what I want to do next. I know this; but what I feel is inadequacy. I went to a great college. I had absolutely top-notch philosophy teachers; I was able to read to my heart's content in the best philosophy library in the state of Alabama. But what I end up comparing myself to are peers that graduated from Ivy league institutions. It's maddening to know that this doesn't matter; that their education in terms of both breadth and depth is not dissimilar to my own, especially considering how much autodidactic extra-curricular stuff I went through. But what I know is not what I feel.

What makes it worse is that I cannot really talk about this with anyone. In the context of a conversation with a person in the same room with me, saying these things just makes me look like an ass. I mean, can you imagine? "I feel so stupid and poor and uneducated," Eric unthinkingly complains, despite being the literal opposite of all three. And so I write my feelings on my blog instead, feeling safe in the knowledge that no one I know (and no one that I don't know) reads anything I write here. It's like this is my own private journal, kept locked in a box under my bed, except I put it online with my name next to it, and no one cares because why would they? This is a safe space. I can say my true feelings here, even if those same feelings would make me look like an absolute ass if I ever said them to my actual friends in real life.

14 November, 2019

Pay the Rent First

When you don't have much money, sometimes you have to prioritize which bills you can pay first. Should you pay the electricity bill? Or water? Food? Or rent?

If you're really desperate, then it can become a delicate balance of always staying ahead of eviction or the lights going out. But there's a narrow band of poverty where this is a legitimate question, where the answer always remains the same: Always pay the rent first.

If enough money comes in to pay bills eventually, but they don't come in quite enough time, then you always want to pay rent first because that's the most important thing to keep you okay. Other bills can be paid late, and you can get assistance at a food bank for meals, but not paying your rent can have devastating consequences.

Sometimes I think about charity this way. It can be nice to give to a direct charity like Animal Equality, giving you that warm feeling of knowing that your money is working directly on helping to make animals' lives better. But sometimes it's better to think about paying the rent first, before going to the movies or eating out.

Animal Charity Evaluators
Animal Charity Evaluators is an organization evaluator; it (among other things) looks at organizations that are potentially highly effective and looks into whether they actually are among the top tier of animal advocacy organizations using an effective altruism framework. ACE's job is to find and promote the best animal charities, so usually when people go to ACE's website, what they're looking for is a recommendation for which animal charity they should give to.

Yet before you give to those recommended charities, it may make sense to first give to the organization that is actually doing the work of finding and promoting the best charities and interventions that help animals. By paying the rent first (donating to ACE before donating to its recommended organizations), you can ensure that the best opportunities for giving in the animal advocacy space will continually be identified and the best charities will be incentivized to not just be among the best today, but to always move forward as well, to stay in that designation as an ACE top recommended charity.

This is why I'd like to ask those of you who are already planning to donate to an animal advocacy charity to donate a portion of that amount first to Animal Charity Evaluators. It's not as sexy as donating to direct aid organizations, but it's nevertheless important to pay the rent first.

I should mention a few caveats here.
  1. First, while moving donations can potentially be much more effective than merely increasing your donations, in the case I lay out here this is not true. If you're already giving to a top charity, moving it to ACE might or might not be more effective. My argument would follow effective altruism philosophy more clearly if I instead made the ask for people to increase their donation by giving to ACE, rather than moving money from one top charity to another. But others are already making asks like that; I'm trying to focus instead on the idea of paying rent before spending on movies, rather than spending solely on movies. This scenario doesn't have an analogue of increasing one's donations, so it doesn't apply here.
  2. Second, I'm on the board of directors for Animal Charity Evaluators, so that may color how you interpret my suggestion to give to ACE. I would argue that the reason why I'm on the board of ACE is because I believe it is so very highly effective and so sought it out; it's not the case that I'm only recommending ACE because I happen to be on its board.
  3. If you really took this argument to the extreme, you might want to extend the analogy to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, at which point you might argue that you need to first spend money on oneself before spending anything on charity. I'm not averse to these kinds of arguments, but I do think that saying so to the audience likely to read this blog post sends the wrong message. In general, people allocate far too little to the most effective causes, so arguing that we should spend on ourselves first isn't the best argument to be making, even if it technically is true.
  4. If you need more info before donating, I highly recommend that you read about ACE's room for more funding or my colleague Allison Smith's pitch for donations to the organization before the giving season starts, at which point all marketing efforts ACE makes will be made toward giving to its recommended organizations and funds.
  5. If you're single, it actually isn't that difficult to live without paying rent, so long as you pay for a gym that has showers and a post office box. In that case, you should probably pay for your gym membership and post office box first, before any other bills. I wouldn't recommend it, though.