26 September, 2021

Honoring Petrov Day by NOT Pressing the Button

Thirty-eight years ago, Stanislav Petrov disobeyed orders that may have caused a nuclear attack. I'll quote from Yudkowsky's retelling of Petrov's story:

On September 26th, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was the officer on duty when the warning system reported a US missile launch.  Petrov kept calm, suspecting a computer error.

Then the system reported another US missile launch.

And another, and another, and another. 

What had actually happened, investigators later determined, was sunlight on high-altitude clouds aligning with the satellite view on a US missile base.

In the command post there were beeping signals, flashing lights, and officers screaming at people to remain calm.  According to several accounts I've read, there was a large flashing screen from the automated computer system saying simply "START"….

Petrov decided that, all else being equal, he would prefer not to destroy the world.  He sent messages declaring the launch detection a false alarm, based solely on his personal belief that the US did not seem likely to start an attack using only five missiles.

Petrov was first congratulated, then extensively interrogated, then reprimanded for failing to follow procedure.  He resigned in poor health from the military several months later.

Each year, I and many others take a moment to think back to the day when the world as we know it almost died. Of all the traditions I follow, this is perhaps the most solemn. (In 2018, I attended a ceremony where the Future of Life Institute posthumously presented Stanislav Petrov the $50,000 Future of Life Award.)

From Petrov Day 2020.
This year, I have been invited to take part in an experiment of mutually assured destruction. LessWrong and the Effective Altruism Forum have decided to honor Petrov day by creating buttons on each site which, if pressed with the appropriate arming code, will take the other site down for the duration of the day. I was chosen by the EA Forum as one of the people trusted with the launch codes capable of taking down LessWrong's site.

To outsiders, this exercise may seem silly. It has the appearance of a mere game, but I think it is much more than that: it is a serious ritual, one where the stakes involve thousands of visitors to each site, one where defection will be public, one where we practice the very real act of not causing wanton destruction due to mistrust, carelessness, or flippancy. But yes, it is also a game: one with stakes we should not callously risk.

Last year, this experiment failed. LessWrong user Chris Leong pressed the button, taking down the site during Petrov Day 2020. The failure, I believe, was not entirely on his part, but also due to a poor choice of who would be entrusted with the launch codes. I am hopeful that the decision to trust me with the codes this year will not be in vain.

At the same time, I am cognizant that the concept of mutually assured destruction here is supposed to incentivize the other team to not press their button. This presents a dilemma to me: I honestly do not want to press a button that will take down LessWrong's site. But should I keep open the possibility, should LessWrong press their button to take down the EA Forum? In order for the threat of MAD to work, I must precommit to taking an action that might not make sense in the moment when I have to take it. But I abhor the idea of precommitting myself to such an action.

Homepage of the EA Forum today.
I'm not going to strike first. That much is certain. But I'm less sure about my stance on a retaliatory strike. I want to say that even if they fire first, I will not fire back. What use is there in additional destruction? But this intellectually seems like the wrong stance to take. This exercise is repeated each year; Tit for Tat does seem like the better policy. That requires precommitting to MAD. At the same time, I don't take precommitting to anything lightly.

So here I stake my claim: if the EA Forum goes down due to LessWrong pressing their button, I may press in retaliation. This is not an idle threat. I do think that I may press, just to ensure that future Petrov days don't undergo the same terrible defection. But I'm not precommitting. Hopefully, LessWrong will understand this to be a credible threat, even if not entirely likely. I am hopeful that this small amount of threat will be sufficient to prevent them from deciding to press their button.

(If you are reading this on Petrov Day, Sept 26, after 11 a.m. ET, you can see the button on LessWrong and the EA Forum's home pages if they are still up. Or, if one side has already defected, you will see that the other side's site will be taken down.)





38 years ago, Stanislav Petrov saved the world. This year, I was chosen by the Effective Altruism Forum as steward of...

Posted by Eric Herboso on Sunday, September 26, 2021

30 August, 2021

Review: Worth the Candle

Worth the CandleWorth the Candle by cthulhuraejepsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Writing reviews can be quite difficult. I serve three masters: the friend or stranger looking up this review on GoodReads to see if they should read this massive book; the googler who finds this entry on my blog because they want to read more about this great book that they've just finished; and future me, who wants to remember and keep track of some of the better books that present/past me reads.

So, in the spirit of the metafictional story Worth the Candle, I'll take each of these in order.

Alexander Wales' epic is both the greatest Isekai novel and the greatest LitRPG novel I have ever read. Juniper is rudely transported in media res from school to a strange world of magic and soft fantasy in the opening lines, and his subsequent adventures in the plane of Aerb plays out like a tabletop role-playing game, complete with HP, skills, and leveling up. Juniper is young, but has a passing understanding of rational-adjacent tropes, mostly because his childhood friend was a fan of learning about rationality online (as much as a teenager could). This means that the narrator, Juniper, is able to talk lightly about rationality using rationality language, even when it's clear that it's just a teenage-level understanding of the tropes. This results in a highly exciting adventure with believably flawed characters who try to do their best in the situation they find themselves in. The novel works at the level of the action, at the level of the narration, and at the metafictional level of the author, Alexander Wales, who writes in such a way that we get to see glimpses of what seem to be highly creative nonfictional elements behind the structure of the text.

Worth the Candle is long — very long — but if you're comfortable with reading a sprawling epic that weaves LitRPG with Isekai with metafiction all in the genre of Rational Fiction, then I highly recommend that you read this book.

However, despite my five star rating, I do have several complaints about the book. (It would be hard not to, given its epic length.) What follows from here are spoilers, so if you haven't read Worth the Candle yet, go do that first.

Jesus Christ, Wales. I don't know how much of the text came from working out your personal issues, but Gods damn I hope it helped to write through this story. It's unclear just how much the Dungeon Master in the story should be identified with Wales the author (do you really have a Dice Girls shirt?), but, to the extent that this is played straight, I honestly hope writing this book has been therapeutic.

I get that everyone has their own sex hangups. Maybe it's difficult for me to relate because I'm asexual, but the way that the DM kept pushing things made me feel uncomfortable. Yet this is on purpose; canonically, the author himself seems to be uncomfortable with his own desires of what to put on paper here, which makes for an extremely interesting expression of cognitive dissonance that we can see enacted diegetically.

What I liked most (and what I think the author himself may have liked most) was the setting. Aerb is such a mismatch of all kinds of weird rpg tropes, but it honestly feels like everything ties together well. We read about dangled threads early on which, when later explored, appear to fit in the world properly. Not seamlessly, of course, but that's on purpose: Aerb itself is not seamless, which is itself a plot point. I am disappointed that more of the threads weren't explored, but I wonder if here, too, that is intended: that these aspects only get fleshed out if the text needs them to be, yet ensures that they retain continuity with the whole nevertheless. This says something important, I think, about the ending: that Juniper will not actually get to go on. The life breathed into Juniper's existence, in the end, only happens when we (Thargox?) read it. This is not what the DM claims. It's unclear to me if the intended reading by the author is that the DM is honest here, or if we are supposed to notice that point of view does really matter. (I think it's the latter, but there's additional evidence of the former: the multiple Dahlia copies that we never see, the offscreen fleshsmith fight, and the timeskip post-Fel Seed all point to the diegetic characters experiencing events not in the POV.)

The ending feels rushed. A four year work like this must be hard on the author; I'm sure burnout was a real threat. But when so many threads started getting dropped, I at first blamed the author. Later, I saw that it was partially justified in-story, but even later that started to feel like lampshading to me. Yes, it made sense to skip things, and there were plot-relevant reasons for doing so, but also this is a fig leaf, created so that the author could rush through parts that (IMO) did not deserve to be rushed through.

If I were Wales' editor, there are several parts I would point out as needing additional attention. Some are minor, like both devil Fenn and Grakhuil keeping an arrow displayed in their home. Why the unnecessary callback here? It seems like it is because the weaker version occurred first, then the author decided not to stray from using the stronger version later since it made sense that that's what Fenn would do. If so, then this is a pure drawback of writing serial fiction, and should ideally be fixed. And some issues are major, like deviating from established point of view rules for no good reason. The vast majority of the story is told from Juniper's POV, even to the point where the author himself laments from not being able to write from Larkspur's POV, making him a weaker villain. When we occasionally do get the POV of non-Juniper characters, it always seems to be in the form of a letter than Juniper reads, or a narrator's explicit retelling from after the fact. And yet, at one point, we start to see several scenes (and chapters) from someone other than Juniper, and it's never explained why. Did the author forget? Was it a mistake that wasn't fixed because the author is committed to serial writing? Or perhaps was this another piece of evidence aimed at showing the ending would be as the DM claimed it would be?

I enjoyed the story immensely, even if I did think the harem concept was cringey. I think the author thinks it is cringey, too, which is why I think I'm okay with it. I really liked the exploration of unexpected rape; it felt real to the characters, even if it meant that Bethel got relegated to the background where we couldn't see her progress as much as I would have liked. But most of all I enjoyed the weird combination of explained and unexplained that caused me to tag this book on GoodReads as both hard fantasy and soft fantasy. Alexander Wales is an awesome worldbuilder, just like the DM, even more than he is an awesome narrator, just like the diegetic narrator. Now if only he were willing to write non-serially so we could get some of these amazing texts edited!

View all my reviews

09 August, 2021

Katherine Hess

Katherine and Jasper.
Using online profiles makes meeting people so much easier. By the time of our first conversation, I already knew she was smart and funny. But it wasn't until we actually spoke that I realized the extent of her wit. She had this uncanny ability to connect disparate ideas in just such a way to make a joke or observation that was entirely new to me, and I loved it. Katherine very quickly became one of the most enjoyable friends I've ever had the pleasure of spending time around.


Romance, on the other hand, was not something that I was looking for at the time. I had only just arrived in the local area the day before, and I really just wanted to get situated first before looking for anything romantic. But, being polyamorous, I've always felt open to friendships becoming something more, and meeting a new partner has never been a bar to my meeting others, so it wasn't too much of a stretch when, after meeting Katherine a few times, I realized that I didn't just want the friendship.


At the Kennedy Center.
One aspect of Katherine that cannot be missed when you meet her in person is her size. Katherine is fat, not in the colloquial sense where thin people complain about getting 'fat', but in the sense of actually being big. She is the largest human friend I've ever made, and this life condition of hers is one that affects her public and social life considerably. While her size is not nearly the most significant part of her, it is definitely something that most people who meet her will notice first. In terms of a disability, it affects much of how she has to interact in this world, from what kind of restaurant tables she can sit at to how many plane seats she has to purchase in order to fly to a different city. But despite the clear prejudice against size in our culture, she's nonetheless been able to thrive due to her intelligence and humor, which makes her stand out considerably amongst her peers in the teaching profession.


As a friend, she was an obvious pick. Anyone who can overcome such adversity and find success despite it is definitely someone that any of us should hope for in a friend. But romance was different for me. Back then, I did not yet come to love her as I do now. I gave her the chance to win my heart, and she subsequently did, but I wonder: was it because I was polyamorous? Was the fact that entering a relationship never blocks the possibility of entering into others a key consideration to why I opened up and pursued a romantic relationship with Katherine in the way that I did? Could it be that, had I not been poly, I would have not been open to romance with her merely because of her size?


It seems a silly thought today. Today, I know her. I love her. She is so very amazing that to think something as silly as her size might have been the obstacle to me getting the chance to be with her is distasteful in the extreme. But, at the time, there was not yet the love that I feel now. Back then, I had not yet gained the knowledge of her that I have today: her personality, her charm... Back then, I only knew that she was well read because she would make witty references that I would catch; I only knew she was quick thinking because every topic we talked about would be highlighted with a joke or pun made at just the right moment. I enjoyed her company, and even if I had not been poly, that would have remained true. But had I not been poly, would I have remained open to romance with Katherine? I ask myself because I do not know. It is unsettling to think so. How lucky I am, then, that I did not think of relationships in terms of zero sum at the time. How lucky I was to think that no single partner has to be everything to me.


Thankfully, I did pursue her romantically, and I cannot stress how much this changed my life. Katherine is amazing. She is the closest friend I've ever had. She complements me perfectly: she's strong in the arts and in reading people, the two fields where I'm weakest, and yet she is still highly competent in the fields I'm strongest in: math and logic. She is an artist, but went to a liberal arts school and focused more on being a polymath than in learning to know any one field. She's read more books than I have, and that's quite a feat. She's a social wizard; she has to be, I suppose, in order to make up for the social prejudice against people of her size. She's a great teacher, but, more importantly to her career, she's an excellent leader of teachers. Winning high school art teacher of the year in the county and then the state was impressive enough, but following it up with the highest state award given to any art teacher here, the 2020 Maryland Art Educator of the Year, was enough to really solidify just how much she does to help others in her profession. She's also an amazing artist in her own right, having displayed art across five states, winning several awards for pieces both big and small.


My love, Katherine.
I cannot stress just how lucky I am to have found Katherine. My prior relationships pale in comparison to the things she's brought to the table in terms of romance, friendship, and deep support. On at least one occasion, she has already saved my life; I honestly believe that I counterfactually would have died had she not been there to know what to do. She's also helped to financially support me when I needed it most; after I left my last high-earning (to me) part-time for-profit job at $94/hour, I decided to look for the perfect nonprofit job opportunity before jumping into another for-profit position. This process took many, many months; had I just had my own savings to work from, I think I would have caved and taken a job elsewhere. But instead, Katherine supported me enough to allow me to start my own new effective altruism charity. Any utility our society gains in the future from this work would not have happened if not for Katherine. Most importantly, though, Katherine has supported me emotionally: she's comforted me at my lowest points; she's helped me soar during my highest points; she's cheered for me whenever I've succeeded and helped pick me up each time I've failed. She gives the most thoughtful gifts. She's always up for a video or board game. She's been the best partner I could ever have imagined that I would ever have, and she's accepted me entirely into her life just as deeply as I have accepted her into mine.


I could not be happier with Katherine as my partner. <3

18 July, 2021

My Thoughts on Race

Here's a pic of Jasper
so that this discussion on race
doesn't bring you down too much.
(I was going to put a pic of
Race Bannon, who my
adopted grandfather voiced,
but that seemed too flippant.
)

I'd like to say a few things about race here. But, before I do, I want to make clear where I'm coming from. This means that the first several paragraphs of this blog entry will consist of my personal experiences. These probably won't be relevant to most readers, so if you want to skip ahead, feel free to scroll down to the Black Lives Matter fist logo.


I live in the United States, where the dialogue around race has been ramping up for a while now. Every time a black person in very publicly killed by cops, most of my coworkers become too upset to focus on work, so we effectively take the day off. The seemingly weekly occurrences under Trump of abuses in various forms paralyzed my colleagues and eventually drove them to a state where we are all agreed and dedicated toward ensuring that we create a better world for all. I am vaguely in favor of this, although I have strong concerns about the toleration of alternative political views. I'm not in the Republican Party, but I'd like to keep open dialogue with people who are, and I'd like to work together with them to help create a better world, even if they vote for Trump. But things have progressed so far at this point that I don't reasonably believe that this kind of relationship would be easy to maintain with friends, with colleagues, or even with family. This scares me.


See full results.

The dominant expression of minority experience around me is the black experience. I care for and wish to help magnify that expression, but it is not one that I personally share. I am racially mixed, with the preponderence of my ancestry coming from indigenous americans, specifically the Quechuan Andean natives in South America. (Unfortunately, this family history is lost. I know no one from this community at all, similar to how many American black families are unable to trace their connections back to the African continent.) The second largest ancestral group is Italian; my maternal grandfather is ~100% Italian. The third largest is hispanic, with Basque Country Spanish roots that traveled to the area now known as Bolivia in South America; these ancestors first came via successive conquistador waves in the 1500s where the name Herboso is listed on the manifest. The fourth largest is English; I can trace my maternal grandmother's side all the way back to a knight under the 1st Earl of Leicester in the mid 1500s. On census forms, I indicate that I am of mixed heritage, of both native and white race, with hispanic origin. Although 1% of my DNA does come from the African continent, I don't self-identify as black nor do I live the black experience, even though my skin color is decidedly not pure white. If anything, I am mostly taken to be vaguely middle eastern when people glance at me in an airport.


I have experienced personal racism myself, but a combination of luck and rhetorical skill has kept that racism from negatively affecting my life. The closest is probably when my mother callously called the cops on me in the Deep South of Alabama; they subsequently suspected me of having a weapon that I might shoot them with, so they pulled a weapon on me and instructed me to slowly move away from an obstructed view. Thankfully, the officer was cautious enough that a shot was not fired.


On several other occasions, I've had households call the cops on me for walking through the neighborhood at 3 a.m.; this was a habit of mine in many of the neighborhoods I live in. But on each of those times I was found with a book in my hand and I was friendly enough with the officers that they grew to know me and expect these very late night calls. I remember one officer pulling up to me one night and immediately calling out my name. He had a smile on his face, and our conversations were always short and civil, so it was never anything more than a slight inconvenience. (I've never had someone call the cops on me in my neighborhood here in Germantown, Maryland, even though I do almost all of my neighborhood walking between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.; I'd like to think this is because I live in a more progressive area now than I ever used to.)


I've been called a "vicinity friend" before. I'm not sure how to take the allegation. The idea is that some people maintain relationships across space and time, valuing the friendship beyond mere acquaintance. But others are friends only so long as they are forced together through other means: neighbors who are close while they live next to each other, but who never contact each other again once one of them moves. Coworkers who are friendly but who never keep contact once someone moves to a new job. Well, for me, I have no problem whatsoever with not contacting people that previously were close to me. After that incident with my mother, I basically didn't speak to her ever again. This is not because I don't appreciate what she did for me in my early life; she was key to helping me grow into the person that I am today. Certainly, the books she read with me when I was young did much to help me learn and influenced my personality. But, at the same time, it doesn't grate on me nor bother in any way to not contact her, nor to have not contacted the other people on that side of my family for decades on end. Does this make me bad at relationships? Does it make me a bad friend? Does this have something to do with my aphantasia?


I ask these questions because they are relevant: I don't personally empathize with strangers well. On a naive, personal basis, the death of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor feels the same as any other tragedy to me. It is horrible; an utter travesty. But the same as when someone dies of a car accident when we could so easily spend the requisite money to have self-driving cars that would dramatically reduce the extreme fatality rate of car accidents. I have a difficult time understanding the way that others are able to get so personally distraught over these killings. Maybe this has to do with my work in effective animal advocacy. To my eyes, a literal holocaust occurs every day in the form of factory farming. But I can't let that affect my life to the degree that I can't effectively live, or else I would constantly be in a state of trauma. So instead I am able to enjoy video games in my offtime even while knowing that animals are constantly being tortured and prematurely killed for the smallest of profits and that some of my fellow citizens are callously killed by police when the police had no real reason to kill them. (Some might call this white privilege (and human privilege); but I think it may have more to do with the fact that I just don't empathize well with any group. If people named Eric who looked vaguely middle eastern but were actually mixed native, white, and hispanic were being killed and showcased on news reports constantly, I think I'd feel exactly the same way that I do now. It seems to me to be less white privilege and more of a privilege that I get from being a 'vicinity friend'; it's almost as though my general lack of automatic empathy with others is the culprit here, as it means that I don't self-identify as being in the same group with others of any kind, regardless of their species or race.)


If you've read this far, then you must certainly empathize with others better than I. So far, I've merely talked about who I am and where I'm coming from when it comes to race issues. I have no idea why anyone other than myself would ever be interested in the above; I wrote it mostly for myself; writing helps me to organize my thoughts on hazy issues and more clearly examine the reasons behind what I think. I expect that the person reading this paragraph is probably just myself, later on in life.


Above are my thoughts on where I'm personally coming from. What follows are my thoughts on a few selected race issues. This section is more important because it shows what ideas and ideologies I'm committed to in the organizations that I have a leadership position in. Note that just because I believe X does not mean that an organization I run or that I serve on the board of also believes X. Organizations, by necessity, follow different rules and have different agendas than those who are in a leadership capacity, partly because there are multiple perspectives among the leadership teams of every organization I work with, and partly because the stance of an organization should not just be the stance of the individual at the top of it.


First, the obvious: minorities tend to be discriminated against in society. I can't believe I have to write this out, but after seeing one too many people argue that meritocratic success implies that some races just are naturally more inferior than others, I can't not be explicit about this. I recognize that racial differences exist; the best marathon runners tend to come from a particular Kenyan tribe, the people who live in the Arctic are able to hold their body heat much more efficiently, &c. In principle, I am open to the scientific possibility that one such difference might be that one racial population might be demonstratably less fit for specific outcomes than another racial population. But I am disgusted by the allegation from (for example) a subset of the Astral Codex Ten crowd that blacks are less intelligent than whites. (I should mention that I am an ACX reader here, mostly because I value reading highly competent takes even from people I disagree with ideologically.) The data might be consistent with this theory, but it by no means shows it to be true; there are too many other factors that need to be corrected for. And, even if some future scientific meta study did show such a link, that would not change anything about how we should act toward any groups. Differences in education clearly account for much more of a range than race ever would, and so it would still be inappropriate to prejudge a member of a disadvantaged group because they could easily be an outlier for their group. But this is all moot anyway, as the science isn't even capable of discerning such possibilities in the near future; there are too many confounding factors. And, in the absence of a reason to believe otherwise, we should assume equality on the types of things that society values most.


Second, on a just world: oppression of any kind is not okay. Just as the concept of divine right should feel dated and wrong to all readers here, so, too, should the idea that there is justification to artificially hold back some subgroup. We all should be allowed to participate equally in all aspects of our shared culture. This means that I am staunchly against racial oppression, but also any other form of oppression.


The difference between the rich and the poor stand out to me as being especially important here; this should not be happening. While I recognize that capitalism has lifted a significant proportion of the world community out of devastating utter poverty, the point to which they have been lifted is still dramatically lower than the point at which the ordinary American lives. I don't feel confident about a solution here; I'm sympathetic to the idea that capitalism and competition within a developing country is helpful, though maybe alongside high tariffs, but to the extent that it exacerbates the divide between the haves and the have-nots, I am very unhappy. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of a system that has successfully shown itself capable of using a planned economy to lift its poorest citizens out of poverty, so despite being very unhappy with capitalism, I feel it might be useful in developing countries.


Despite mostly being on the far left politically, there are some leftish takes on oppression that I strongly disagree with, such as cultural appropriation. There are easy examples where cultural appropriation is clearly wrong, like when a culture believes something is sacred and another culture callously desecrates it. This is why it would be rude and uncalled for for me to draw a picture of Muhammad, even though only a minority of Muslims believe it would be inappropriate. There's just no need for me to do this. At the same time, I do not think it should be made illegal; plenty of rude things are not illegal, and this should be one of them. Another example is the choice to scuplt Mount Rushmore on the sacred black hills of the Lakota people. Just...why? It's unnecessarily aggressive to desecrate a specific mountain of another culture like this.


Mariachi Mario, by Lorenzo Mendoza

But, for most cases of cultural appropriation, I disagree with the predominant leftist take. I do not think that just because the appropriated culture is a minority culture means that appropriation is automatically wrong. For example, a white person wearing traditional Mexican dress doesn't qualify as being bad to me just because it involves a majority culture in America using a minority culture's attire. But I do believe that a white person wearing a native american headdress does count as bad, because the culture they took the headdress from considered that headdress as a badge of honor that it would be wrong to wear if it were not earned. This is bad in the same way that it would be bad to wear a military ribbon that you did not earn.


I think the key insight for me is that I think in terms of Earth culture, rather than some individual country's culture. I was not born in Mexico, but I am nevertheless from Earth, and so it is my culture, too. While it would be inappropriate for me to desecrate something that others feel is holy, or to wear a badge of honor that I did not earn, I don't think that ordinary parts of other cultures on this planet should be restricted for me, as I wish to celebrate them as well. (With that said, I should mention that this is mostly an intellectual opinion. I don't celebrate any cultures in my personal life — no xmas trees, no fireworks, no porch pumpkins — so I understandably also never actually dress up in other cultures' attire or celebrate anything in particular. It's just that the reason I don't do cultural appropriation is because I have no reason to bother doing so, not because I think that it is wrong.)


Slide from The Equity Collaborative.

Third, on critical race theory: I believe in incremental progress. There's a lot about critical race theory that I like. I agree that race is a social construct (though I also believe that socially constructed categories are meaningful and can be predictive). I agree that racism doesn't just occur in isolated acts of racist people today, but that systemic institutional racism also exists in the forms of rules and regulations of the state, habits of the population, and background ideas that most people don't consciously think about. (Denying this seems crazy to me, and this in particular is one of the biggest problems that I see with the effective altruism community today: that a significant vocal minority of them treat the idea of institutional racism as less credible than human-caused climate change.)


However, when it comes to critical race theory's stance on incremental change, I take issue. I agree that actions taken expressly to help black people have, at times, ended up helping white people, too (or even: instead). But I do not feel that this means that incremental progress is, in principle, an inappropriate way to solve the problem.


There is a similar debate in animal advocacy. The abolitionists believe that everyone must be vegan now. We have to stop any and all animal abuse immediately because it is wrong, and half-measures are worthless. Meanwhile, the welfarists argue that incremental change helps. If we can help to reduce the amount of suffering undergone by animals in the near term, then it is unethical not to attempt to do so. In the field of effective animal advocacy, almost all EAAs are welfarist. We believe that helping to promote the institution of a new law that increases the amount of space that farmed animals are allocated to live their lives in will at least reduce the suffering of each individual somewhat, and the scale of the problem is so massive that the additive reduction in suffering across all farmed animals as a result is so massive that such a campaign might be worthwhile.


You might then be able to predict how I feel about incremental change when it comes to race relations as well. Of course, I do not believe that small changes are necessarily better than large changes. I want to advocate for equal treatment of races, and I'm willing to advocate for huge changes if and when advocating for them seems likely to make a big difference. But I do not feel that the entire system must be upended in order to help put blacks on the same level as whites. Instead, I am reminded of the situation Machiavelli was in.


Niccolò Machiavelli lived in the early 1500s in what is now Italy. Back then, kings were commonplace. Your neighboring city likely had a different king, and war seemed to be eternally occurring. New princes took over each time a monarch was deposed, at least until the next war had a new prince installed a few years later. The people suffered for this. Constant war meant death, injury, starvation. It was better, Machiavelli thought, for one monarch to stay in power without a future uprising, even if that monarch wasn't an ideal ruler. And so The Prince was written. Modern society calls evil plots machiavellian, but I don't think Machiavelli deserves this. He was trying to reduce suffering (and also trying to save himself, but people can have multiple simultaneous goals when writing a text).


I am especially proud of the American experiment. We have a system where our government's leaders undergo a regular peaceful transfer of power. While this is not unprecedented, it is surely an exemplar of what can be done with a strong constitution. There are drawbacks, of course: rich people have too much power and that power rarely is transferred; disagreements on slavery nearly ended the experiment in a civil war; Trump. But these are also successes: Trump came and Trump went, and we did not fall apart in the meantime. Lincoln gave a speech that started "fourscore and seven years ago" referencing 1776 as a the birthdate of the union, even though prior to Gettysburg the birthdate of the union was widely considered to be 1789. This was to reinforce the Declaration of Independence's remarks on equality over the Constitution's 3/5ths clause. (Leo Strauss points out that Lincoln was following Machiavelli here: when you build a castle wall, the bricks at the edge should be crenellated, not leveled off. This is so that if you decide to increase the size of your castle in the future, the bricks will continue to alternate. It will not be obvious that there is a seam where your castle wall used to be. Future generations can then think of your increased castle size as being natural and right and the way it always has been, rather than unnatural and a mere addition to your holdings. If you want to reinforce your rule, doublethink is required. Even though 1776 was never considered America's birthday before the civil war, Lincoln made it so in a famous address that was reprinted across the nation. Today, schoolchildren learn 1776, not 1789, and so the crenellated brick illusion Lincoln used has worked, and the recombined union of the North and South both have kids that primarily learn about the Declaration of Independence.)


An uncrenellated extension.

We, too, should solve problems using methods like this. I and most of the people I know are progressives; we look to the future. But many of our countrymen are conservatives; they look to the past. If we want to meaningfully reach them on issues of race, we cannot just talk about upending the entire system. We have to use rhetorical techniques that place racial change in a positive light for people who look primarily to tradition as something important. We must use the creneallated wall that previous generations left for us. We must embrace incremental change —not small change, but incremental nonetheless. Otherwise we risk revolution, a thing so scary that Machiavelli taught evil to prevent. Revolution is not pretty. When I hear fellow leftists calling for revolution, I am reminded of the anti-vaxxers who say that polio is not that big a deal. The reason we don't have those horrible diseases anymore is because we vaccinate. The reason we don't have violent revolution anymore is because we use incremental change. Please, I implore to you: consider the effects that come from riots, from chaos in the streets, from real revolution. The worst president in the history of the United States (excepting maybe Andrew Jackson) was just voted out last year. Yes, there was an insurrection on January 6. But we survived. The system works. Use the system. Change the system not by overthrowing it, but by using the crenellated edges. We can stamp out racial oppression within the system, if we but work together on this.


Having said my piece arguing against the notion that incremental progress is worthless (part of the critical race theory tenet on interest convergence and the liberal critique), let me also briefly mention CRT's insistence that counter-storytelling is necessary to portray truth. This idea comes from critical theory, the general precursor to CRT. Critical theory teaches that structures in reality are in place to help one group over another, so any time we want to look for truth, we first have to disregard what the existing structures tell us and instead be critical by specifically looking for the underprivileged point of view to get at truth. Now, I want to make clear that I'm not against the idea of counter story telling in general. I adore Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. My favorite historical stories of London come from the papers that survived the 1666 fire, since that caused historians to pay attention to the scraps left by the common people. Part of the reason why I write a public journal is because I want there to be a record of someone in my position for future historians to be able to look back on.


(I imagine a far future where the galaxy is fully populated, and a child is assigned to look back at something written at the dawn of the space age, back when all of humanity still lived on Earth. This child is now writing a book report in elementary school after having insufficiently browsed through these very words. (This sounds crazy until you realize that even if .00001% of children get this assignment in the far future, that means that billions and billions of children will be assigned to read blogs of people that live in this time period, and there are only so many blogs around, so odds are that someone will write a book report on this someday.))


But when it comes to determining truth, I just don't agree with the basic assumptions that critical theory makes. Not all structures are in place to advantage certain groups. Even when it is the case that a structure does advantage one group, that doesn't mean that it was placed there with the intention of doing so. So while counter storytelling can be useful, it should not be used as the primary way of getting at truth. Traditional methods of evidence, liberal enlightenment methods of open discussion of free ideas, and philosophical methods like the principle of charity are all still valid and good ways at getting at the truth. I am not okay with the idea that only a black person can talk meaningfully about black things for the same reason that I am comfortable with listening to researchers when they tell me that aquarium fish prefer dark wallpaper on the back of the aquarium, or that chickens are not happy unless they can peck at the ground. Just because someone is human does not mean that they cannot come to true conclusions about nonhuman animals, and just because someone is white does not mean that they cannot come to true conclusions about issues that affect black people. The idea in the anti-racism community that we must defer to black voices on anything that affects blacks is well-meaning, but can be terribly counterproductive. Minorities already have to bear the burden of explaining and thinking about these things in their everyday life; it is appropriate to allow non-minorities to take up these responsibilities when they can, and that requires allowing non-minorities to reason about issues that affect minorities. This aspect of critical race theory just seems plain wrong to me. Counter storytelling is not the final arbiter of truth, but just a useful additional tool that should have a place alongside other tools for getting at truth.


Reading of Voltaire..., by Lemonnier

I am especially concerned here about the extent to which critical race theory stands committed against the free open discussion of ideas. This is a liberal idea from the Enlightenment that says that when you allow a forum for people to discuss ideas openly, then the result is that the better ideas rise to the top. If the goal is to find truth, then open discussion does a good job of getting us closer to truth, but at the cost of allowing ideas that we disagree with to be in the open forum.


Not all CRT adherents are against free open discussion, but some of the main originators of CRT are. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, authors of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, write: "Unlike traditional approaches to civil rights, which favor incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory calls into question the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and the neutral principles of constitutional law." I'm aware that some crazy Fox news-style people have taken this quote out of context. If you see crazy right wing people quoting this, please don't take the things they say about it seriously. But there is a very real critique here that is serious: that CRT specifically goes against the Enlightenment tradition of using free open discussion to get at truth. Instead, some anti-racists advocate for counter-storytelling alone, some going so far as to say that racist voices (meaning voices which aren't specifically antiracist) should be silenced or otherwise deplatformed.


Not all antiracists believe this, of course. But enough believe it to the point that it does concern me. I believe strongly in Hall's expression of Voltaire's sentiment: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." When Westboro Baptists hold up those despicable homophobic signs at their demonstrations, I may be sad to know that they feel that way, but I'm also proud to live in a civilization that nevertheless allows them to congregate and express themselves in this manner. I am deeply concerned that the ACLU has had uprisings that have resulted in some of its members advocating for specific outcomes rather than the free speech that it has always traditionally fought for. In 2017, far-right groups applied for a permit to rally in front of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The government forced them to rally instead outside of the core of the city. The ACLU of Virginia stepped in and successfully defended the rights of the far-right group. When word of this got to ACLU headquarters, "[r]evulsion swelled within the A.C.L.U..... The A.C.L.U. unfurled new guidelines that suggested lawyers should balance taking a free speech case representing right-wing groups whose 'values are contrary to our values' against the potential such a case might give 'offense to marginalized groups.'" I don't like the direction that this is heading in.


C'mon, Puerto Rico designers. /c:

I believe strongly that prejudice is bad, and that prejudice is pervasive. I think we need to do a lot to correct the problem, as it is embedded everywhere in our lives. I see it in the disproportionate funding of schools that comes from our system of locally funding schools. I see it in the fiction that I watch and read when clueless authors think that a 'normal' background character should be white, cis, and of average size. I see it also when the supposed 'woke' author unnecessarily makes all of the characters 'diverse', breaking my suspension of disbelief when 95% of the people who randomly survive a plane crash are LGBTQ and 40% are trans. I see it in myself as a polyamorous person, when I look back to what types of people I've dated over the years. I see it in the board games I play, when Istanbul has no depictions of women, or when Puerto Rico literally uses brown cubes to represent slaves that you can purchase to succeed in the game. We clearly need to fix our culture. This is why I'm in favor of spending a lot of time and effort on figuring out what we can do in the organizations that I lead to help support the disadvantaged. But, at the same time, I want to ensure that we don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. I don't agree with all of the tenets of critical race theory. I don't agree with all of the things that the antiracist movement seems to be pushing for. To the extent that we can create good, I agree that we should. But let's be careful about how we do so.

01 July, 2021

Snippets of Birthdays Past

July 1st, 1981. I am delivered slightly after midnight, at nearly the exact middle of the year, 183 days into a year of 365. The doctor delivers me via Caesarean section. Unbeknownst to my mother, the doctor has chosen this date specifically so that my mother and I might share a birthday. She does not realize until days later that I am born on the same day of the year that she was.


1984. I am three. My parents and I visited Miami, Florida, to see family on my father's side. My abuelo spoke no English, but we bonded anyway by watching Looney Tunes together. Later, I will tell my grandmother about the trip, which ends up being my first narrated diary entry.


1988. I am seven. The front yard of my grandparents' house has a huge pile of dirt (as tall as I am!) from the work done in their back yard. My best friend at the time, Greg Cochran, helps me to dig tunnels and edifices in the dirt pile that we then use to play with figurines from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers. The big gift that year feels like the Nintendo Entertainment System, but in reality it is the new house that my father built just down the street from my grandparents' place. Before finalizing the design of the building, my father asks me: is there anything special you'd like in the house? I tell him I want a secret passage, and the first thing he shows me in my new room is that there is a tunnel from my bedroom closet to the guest bedroom closet.


1990?. I don't know my age. My elementary teacher asks the class what their favorite color is, intending to say that each color means something about each person's personality. I'm not yet familiar with skepticism as a field, but it feels wrong to me. I don't have a favorite color, so I decide to answer flippantly, specifying the glow-in-the-dark halloween orange that you most often see on the uniforms of workmen on the side of a road. I am told that I am being obsequious for my malicious compliance, so I go home that night and resolve that, from then on, orange will be my favorite color. To this day, it continues to be a color in almost every outfit I wear each day.


1993. I am twelve. Summers are a welcome break from school. I use a pair of three-tonged cultivators as my implements of choice as I climb the quarter-mile long cliffside. It is only ten feet tall, but its sheer vertical dirtface continues for well over 1500 feet. There is real danger to falling: it is situated on a roadside, so tumbling down the cliff may result in rolling into the street, which occasionally has traffic. But although I sometimes lose my grip with one hand, the other stands strong, and my feet find purchase on roots and other minor outcroppings that keep me from falling.


1994. I am thirteen. I am in love with Final Fantasy VI. Over the next decade, I will play this game so many times that I am able to memorize the script. I challenged myself to win with only three characters; to win with as low levels as possible; to collect every item and level up every party member. I would later name my daughter after a character in this game. The main reason I consider myself a gamer today is because the epic that is FFVI affected me so deeply.


1996. I am fifteen. I am sulking. Earlier this year, I was expelled from the Alabama School of Math and Science for repeatedly being with a girl, Laura. It was a boarding school I'd been attending since July 1993 that had fairly explicit rules that were supposed to discourage sexual activity. We broke them, became suspended, and then ignored suspension to break them again. Later, I will invite Robin to the high school prom, only to ignore her calls the day of. I am extremely not proud of the person I was back then.


1997. I am sixteen. I've been with Amber for over six months. I couldn't get enough of her. She is an explorer, and I follow her everywhere. The city of Mobile, which once was just the big town I lived closest to, became a labyrinth we would move through each week, seeing this and that, walking through any doors that were left open, so that we could see what was inside and do what teenagers do. Those first eighteen months are ones I'm proud of. I am a good boyfriend; I am a good friend. But I make poor choices, and by my next birthday, things will turn sour.


1998. I am seventeen. Amber is pregnant. My mind was very confused at the time. I think I thought that actions never really had consequences, so the world must somehow work itself out so as to not too terribly effect me. I guess I assumed that the pregnancy would end without a child, or that Amber would move away to give birth and give away the child, or some other such nonsense. Instead, I will end up marrying her out of misguided obligation and becoming a father to an infant that I will never really end up knowing. Starting in June 1998, I become less and less of a good boyfriend. Less and less of a friend at all.


1999. I am eighteen. I live alone in a two-bedroom house. Amber is gone, along with Adrianah, the five-month old child that I will never see again. She has done a great favor to the child, to herself, and even to me. I was not ready to be a father. In fact, even now, twenty-two years later, I am still not father material. I know that I would be a terrible father, and so I am glad to have ensured that I'd never make that same mistake again. (Today, I am happy, at least, to know that Adrianah Celes has been able to grow up in a good, stable family these past 22 years, though I've never spoken to nor seen her since.) By this point, I had dropped out after less than a semester of college. Every day is spent sulking in my home. My friend Greg brings me groceries, because I am too depressed to leave the house. For some reason, I think that if I leave, I might miss Amber coming back, which I don't really want, but which keeps me from leaving the house anyway. It will be another couple of months before I get the strength to leave the house. When I do, I go to Barbara's house and watch Star Trek: Voyager on VHS lying on her couch for hours on end while she's at work.


2000. I am nineteen. I live alone in a McMansion. My parents are separated. My father has left the area. My mother would have stayed in the house they used to inhabit, but she is afraid of my father breaking into the home while she is sleeping, so she instead stays with her mother. This leaves the house empty, so I live there on my own. You might think this would mean I would throw huge parties, but instead it just means that I watch endless episodes of Saturday Night Live on Comedy Central while I eat doritos on the couch.


2001. I am twenty. I live with Allison in Colorado. She is submissive, which is apparently what I wanted in a partner back then. I spend my birthday playing Chrono Cross while receiving fellatio. Later, I will spend a week eating nothing but Hot Pockets for the duration while she is gone. I have still not yet learned to cook my own food, and it will be years yet before I'm forced to start. However, she has instilled within me a love for journaling, which I've kept to this day.


2002. I am twenty-one. I live briefly with my grandmother for a few months. During the period surrounding my birthday, I am fired (then rehired) nearly a dozen times in a span of three months. I work at a call center cold-calling people to get them to sign up for a credit card. Most of my colleagues only manage a sale each day; I'm able to get four each day reliably. My strategy involves ending calls as quickly as possible if I can tell they won't switch, and focusing only on calls where I have a chance of making a sale. In practice, this means that I sit reading my book while call after call comes in, with my voice automatically droning as boringly as possible the opening lines of my pitch. Only when they show interest do I set the book down, and this only happens once per hour so. The rest of the time I read, ignoring my job for the most part. The manager hates me. But I make way more sales than anyone else, so the manager loves me, too. By Wednesday of each week, I tire of working, so I tell the manager that I won't be coming in on Thursday or Friday. He tells me that this is against company policy, and he has to fire me -- but that I'm welcome to reapply on Monday and he'll rehire me. We do this for three months straight. And then, on one particular Monday, I don't feel like going to work. So I instead stop by Spring Hill College and ask to join the classes that just started that same day. They say yes, and my first day of classes occurs on the same day I applied. Soon after, I decide to make my journal entries public online.


2003. I am twenty-two. I was supposed to spend my birthday in South Dakota, digging dinosaur bones. Instead, I ended my trip early and came home after digging up only a scapula of a triceratops. My sister, Anh, greets me in the car with several balloons. I feel loved.


2005. I am twenty-four. My summer is spent reading Aristotle's Ethics with a group of fellow students at the local Barnes & Noble. Each night is spent at my mother's house. It is the last extended length of time I will spend with my mother. In a couple of months, I will move in with Stephanie.


2006. I am twenty-five. I live with Stephanie. I am so very much not a good boyfriend. Shawn Allin, my first college friend and chemistry teacher, committed suicide a month earlier. It is the second suicide I've had happen to someone close to me. The first was only a few years previous, while I was teaching Tae Kwon Do. She was presented with her newly earned belt. She looked proud. But that night she hung herself with the same belt. I'm not a fan of suicide.


2007. I am twenty-six. I live in Maryland for the first time. I'll leave for elsewhere later, but Maryland will eventually end up my permanent home. I finish my first published book. It's on email marketing techniques. I'll later publish other texts on social media, and will go on to speak at conferences on how to properly use social media at food banks. My lifelong career in communications has begun.


2008. I am twenty-seven. I live with Rosemary. It is my first romantic relationship that was net good overall. I am now the webmaster of a national nonprofit with over $150 million in revenue. Life has become routine, but I am happy. I feel successful.


2010. I am twenty-nine. I live with Robin. She helps me to learn how to be a better friend and partner. Much of my growth in terms of what I can offer in a friendship matures during this time, partly due to her influence, and partly due to My Little Pony. Looking back, I certainly was not yet what I'd consider to be a good friend (nor even a good person, really!), but I was definitely changing, and I greatly appreciate this time in my life.


2011. I am thirty. I don't live with Amanda, but we spend enough time together that it may as well be so. I treat her more as an accessory than a friend. I think at the time I just wanted companionship romantically, without any other attachments.


2012. I am thirty-one. Six months earlier, I learned about Effective Altruism, which has since dominated my life choices. I was listening to a podcast with Toby Ord and Luke Muelhauser while trekking through a flat portion of the Appalachian Trail, fascinated by the discussion. That night I slept outside in the rain, sitting in a camping chair that I brought on my back, with a 'tent' draped above me, held aloft only by my head. My iphone was the only light as far as I could see, and I used it to listen to podcasts on all kinds of philosophical positions on charity and what we should be doing with our lives. It has been nearly ten years since that day and I still am fascinated and moved by the tenets of effective altruism.


2013. I am thirty-two. I live with Katherine. Jack has just died. I am sad, but life has become much, much better for me. Katherine is, by far, the best thing to have ever happened to me.


2015. I am thirty-four. I attend my first effective altruism conference and am extraordinarily excited by it. These are my people. Meanwhile, at home I remain happy with Katherine, and at work I greatly enjoy the company of Day.


2018. I am thirty-seven. Check out this awesome puzzle portrait I received as a gift this year.


2019. I am thirty-eight. My grandmother is dead. I haven't seen the maternal side of my family in years. I stop for a moment to wonder if this is a mistake. What is it about me that makes it so that I don't think much of going for long periods of time without talking to people that I used to care deeply about? Is this just another facet of my aphantasia, or is there something deeper going on?


2020. I am thirty-nine. I am weak. I survived sepsis only a few months earlier, followed by several life-saving operations. Although I had gone this far in life without ever taking medication more than a dose of tylenol once or twice a year, from now on I must take pills every single day. For the first time, I start to feel like I am finally older.


2021. I am forty. I feel strong. COVID-19 has dominated my life for the past sixteen months. I haven't seen family, outside of two occasions for my father's side of the family, and two occasions for Katherine's mother, for the past sixteen months. But later today I will go to a physical restaurant for the first time since the end of 2019. I will see my family in person. I will celebrate the dismissal of all that lost time. I will tell my family about the charity that I'm starting. I will give gifts to my siblings and parents for the missed birthdays, the missed Christmas, the missed everything. I am looking forward to being able to give on my birthday, rather than to receive. I am happy.


202X. I will be older. Hopefully wiser. It is my wish that my success continues. That my partner and I continue to support each other in all that we do. That my family is happy and forward-looking. That no more deaths haunt these future years. I wish that our long term future is secured; that the alignment problem is solved or finally looks solvable; that lab-grown meat supplants killed meat as the cheapest meat source; that poverty declines ever further worldwide. And, maybe, if I can get past the akrasia, I'll finally pull the trigger on cryonics.