10 May, 2022

Invincibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 March, 2022

What StarCraft Means to Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 March, 2022

A Decade of Effective Altruism Contributions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06 March, 2022

Illegality

I've never stolen anything. I don't think I've even ever really come that close to doing so.

Once, when I was homeless, broke, and had nothing but a laptop to my name, I would work online to earn mere pennies at a time until I made enough for that day's meal. But I never stole. Never even begged. It honestly didn't occur to me as an option at the time.

Once, when I was very young, perhaps 6 years old, I collected He-Man stickers that I would place in a sticker album. I was missing a very specific sticker for a while, when I suddenly saw it on the floor. We were in a grocery store aisle. Someone before me had illegally opened a pack of these stickers right there, in the aisle, and discarded the ones they did not need. One such discarded sticker was the one I did need.It was stuck to the floor. It was gross. I peeled it off anyway. Within ten minutes, a few aisles later, I could not bear to continue further. I rushed back to replace it in its place on the dirty floor.

I've never done recreational drugs. I've never knowingly even been offered drugs.

Once, when I was in town for a philosophy conference, I walked the streets very late at night just to clear my head. Someone on the street said something to me that was unintelligible; I literally could not understand their accent. It wasn't until describing the situation days later that I was told by someone ele that thery were likely asking if I wanted to purchase drugs.

Once, I got into a normal van, drove with friends across the country, and stopped at my dad's place to stay for the week. We got our stuff from the van and moved into my dad's spare bedrooms for. short vacation. Nothing seemed amiss. A decade later, I am told that both my parents have a strong memory of helping my friends to get their stuff out of that van and instantly recognizing the distinct smell of pot from within. I honestly have no memory of it being smoky, nor of it smelling weird, nor of any of those friends ever doing any drugs in my presence. At least one self-identified as straight edge. I honestly cannot square the memory of my parents and my own memory on this.

Once, when I spoke to a childhood friend, I was introduced to their companion as someone who did not ever do drugs. It seemed like a weird description to me, but I suppose, to them, that was a defining feature.

But I did kill. Once.

It was a hot summer day. The grass in the front yard was tall. I hadn't cut grass since I was a child, riding a lawn mower. This metal contraption was new to me: a cylinder of blades pushed by a long handle. It looked dangerous. I didn't want to do it. I did it anyway. Suddenly, a spray of red. I felt numb. Looking down, I saw the mangled rabbit. I didn't know what to do. I broke down. I ran to my partner at the time, who calmly said that I should relieve it of its suffering. I was given a shovel. As I knelt next to its fast breathing body, legs torn apart, I mumbled a few private words only for me and the rabbit I had harmed. It seemingly took forever for me to gain the courage, but eventually I used the shovel. First, as a blunt instrument, and then for its intended purpose, creating a final resting place for the first and only being I consciously killed.

02 March, 2022

Sociopathic Tendencies

It took me a very long time to understand love. So very many of my early romantic relationships were cursory, chosen not because I felt a certain way toward a person, but because, on balance, I enjoyed my life more with them in it. This may not sound too bad at first, until you realize that I’ve said nothing about how they might feel, nor about what usefulness I found in having them around.

I wonder, if I could go back to those previous versions of myself, what it would be like to talk about what I had been doing back then. I didn’t believe then (and still do not believe now) in that fictional sort of fairy tale love where people are just ‘meant to be’ together. But back then I went further: because I did not have strong feelings for anyone, I thought that also no one else had strong feelings, and that the weak feelings I did have were similar to that felt by others — I thought that others were just inappropriately granting these weak feelings much more cache than they warranted.

I’d like to think that, if I could go back and speak to the Eric of that age, I would be able to explain this cognitive error. I’d be able to explain to him that, through practice and long training that took me years, I was able to get to a point where my feelings were not just weak. I’d be able to say that, albeit with continuous minor effort, I’ve reached a point where I genuinely care about some people.

I was more sociopathic back then. Maybe I still am a bit sociopathic today. I still don’t have a strong internal feeling that one should care about one’s close family and friends more than strangers. I have no problems with not talking nor seeing someone for years at a time. I don’t generally miss anyone. The reason why I care about charity is not because I empathize strongly with others, but because I have logical reasons for treating others no differently than I’d treat myself in certain charitable ways.

I haven’t spoken to my mother in well over a decade. Occasionally, I am told that I should not have a grudge there and should consider reconnecting. Yet I don’t feel any internal grudge. I stopped communicating with her solely because she did things that harmed my life: the last time I saw her in person, she called the cops, insinuated that I was violent, and caused a police officer to point a gun at me. It was the deep south, I was hispanic, and my ineptness in the moment of reaching for my shoes nearly resulted in my being shot that day. Later, after being cajoled into speaking with her on the phone, I gave her my cell phone number, which had been kept secret from almost everyone due to my not liking phone calls. Starting later that same week, I had dozens of calls each week from spammers. I have no idea why she should sign me up for spam calls, but that is apparently what happened. Even later on, my uncle emailed me out of the blue, saying that I was a terrible son, and that I should never contact that side of the family ever again, as no one, including my mother, ever wanted to speak to me again. After these experiences, I basically did just that. Not due to a grudge, but due to my not wanting to voluntarily place myself in danger again.

My father, on the other hand, is safe and lives close by. Yet when covid hit, and I couldn’t visit anymore, the difference in how this affected them and how it affected me was starkly apparent. They missed me. They wanted me to come over, to see them more often, to spend time with me. But I don’t think I’m capable of really missing people. If a week goes by or a year goes by without seeing someone, it feels similarly to me. Of course, I adore spending time with them all. I love talking and playing games and just enjoying their company. But there’s something about the makeup of my brain that causes me to not specifically care about whether I’ve seen them recently. When combined with my love of staying home and not wanting to go out, this results in me very easily just not visiting for very long periods of time. During non-covid times, this got exacerbated, as it meant there was no impetus to visit at all. Now, I have plans to meet in a couple of weeks, but only because they have initiated the process.

If this is me now, you may begin to have a better understanding of what I was like then. In several early relationships, I would spend time with people only when I felt like it. Nothing in their lives separate from me mattered in the calculus of whether I should take some action. This is not because I was ever malicious, mind — rather it was because I was indifferent. Once, I had a partner in whom I confided that I was not close to my parents. She said she felt the same way. Later, her father died on the same weekend that I had a trip scheduled. It did not occur to me that it might be appropriate for me to cancel my trip and stay to help her through a traumatic period. I left on the trip, honestly not even thinking that she might object, because of her earlier statement that she wasn’t close to her parents. I had my phone turned off during the trip, as I usually do, and was honestly surprised when I found that she was angry at me once I returned.

I’m grateful that I never had malicious intent back then. I caused so very much hurt with so many different people just on the basis of my indifference and follow-through. I shudder to think what I might have done had I actually wanted to harm others.

If I did go back in time to speak with that Eric of the past, could I convince him that there was a better way? My life today is so very awesome in comparison. Surely I could show that to him. But I don’t think he would appreciate the awesomeness in the way that I do. I love staying at home today. But back then maybe I preferred variety so strongly that I wanted to go out more. I love the work I do in effective altruism. But back then I would have expressed indifference toward helping others in general, except insofar as it might have helped myself. Today, I love my relationship with Katherine, who makes my life brighten in so many different ways. But the me of the past would have objected on several grounds, not the least of which would be that I expend actual effort in helping to make the other person in the relationship happy.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself for thinking that I’d be unable to convince past Eric. There is an is/ought gap, after all. There’s no reason to expect that I could use reasoning (which both past Eric and current Eric readily approves of) to cause past Eric to change his morals. Yet at the same time it remains true that in the course of twenty-five years past Eric really did in fact morph into me. So some type of argumentation worked. Perhaps it was dissatisfaction I kept having in life when I didn’t take care of my relationships. Perhaps it was merely a carrot and stick that brought me to this point, not reason at all. Does this imply that, had I won the lottery earlier in life, or had I found someone sufficiently masochistic as to reward me for my indifference, then maybe past Eric wouldn’t have given way to current Eric? Could it be the case that the only reason why I am here today is because I was beaten down and put into situations where I was not happy with my circumstances?

Should I consider myself lucky, then, that I was not born richer? If I had had access to more money as a child, would I have been an asshole all my life? I suspect that the answer might be yes.