13 October, 2017

On Violence

My value system strongly prefers a lack of suffering. To that end, I try to practice nonviolence.

But it wasn't always this way. Here are a few examples from when I was a child:
  • When I was young, I would play games with my friends where we would act out battles as fighters and wizards. We used long hardwood sticks as our swords and small rocks as our spells. It only count as a hit in our play if it also hit in real life. I always hit hard.
  • I practiced several martial arts in my youth, with the most emphasis on tae kwon do.
  • Both in school and at home, if I did something particularly considered wrong, I would receive corporal punishment. This included 'spankings' by a paddle and by a switch, as well as one case where I was thrown through a door.
  • We had a hill of dirt that the neighborhood kids would play upon. Whoever could stay at the top would be king of the hill; everyone else lost. The violence ratcheted up in this game to the point where one person rushed the hill with a literal fire axe. He won that day.
  • Even the practical jokes that my dumb friends played were particularly violent. Whereas some kids might wait for a mark to fall asleep and then paint their face, or put whipped cream on their hand and tickle their forehead, the joke favored by my friends was to take a sharp knife and aim it directly above a sleeping person's eyeball, then wait for them to wake up and see it looming above them.
  • On one occasion, I was in the restroom and could hear others coming to rush the door. My assumption was the the joke du jour would be them opening the restroom door unexpectedly while I was inside, so I reacted by buttressing the door shut with my bare hands. Instead, their chosen joke was to pierce the door with a longsword. It went both through the door and the palm of my hand. The emergency room visit that day was not fun.
It would have been good if I had matured away from violence, but, instead, I became an adult that viewed violence as not that big of a deal. I became a bully. I was violent with friends, with family, and in my relationships. I am not proud of what I did.

Over time, I slowly grew past violence. At first, it was a selfish change; I wanted more out of my life and I intellectually realized that refraining from violence was the best way to get what I wanted. It is somewhat surreal to read those past journal entries from a time where I avoided violence completely even while still being philosophically okay with the concept of using violence.

Eventually, as I became more philosophically literate, I began to change how I thought about violence. Over the course of a decade and a half, I went from being happily violent to being philosophically committed to nonviolence. It's a change of which I am both exceedingly proud and terribly embarrassed.

It's been seven years since I last exhibited violence out of anger. In the past seven years, I've only once exhibited threats of violence for what I felt was a justified reason.

I thought it might be helpful to list here some of the outbursts I experienced while I was still in the transition phase, in case it may help others who are also trying to curb what violent tendencies they may have.
  • At one point, I could feel myself getting angry. I felt it was important to lash out at an object rather than a person, so I punched through a window with my bare hands. It hurt. From my perspective at the time, this was an example of me holding back and being responsible by not harming another living being; but from the perspective of today, it just feels like a terribly violent moment during the period where I was actively trying not to be violent.
  • Another time, as I felt myself becoming especially angry, I decided to upend a cup of water rather than do anything actually damaging. To my mind at the time, I thought this to be a good escape valve; now I feel especially bad for the person that I got wet.
Eventually, I was able to curb these impulses entirely. I attribute the change mostly to the use of the "fake it 'til you make it" method, where I made myself be less violent for so long and so often that eventually I just wasn't violent anymore. It also helped to physically put myself into the shoes of those who are less advantaged — I did the food stamp challenge for a few weeks (while sleeping in a warm bed each night), I experienced a life of homelessness on the streets for a couple of weeks (while eating lavish dinners each night), and I went on trips to underprivileged areas to meet and interview real people and write about them in charity magazines and blogs.

Philosophical aside:
Today, I self-identify as a political pacifist, not because I think violence never works, but because I am doubtful that it has worked at the state level in any historical war. (I can imagine what a just war might look like, possibly with varelse, where extreme violence might be warranted, but I'm not sure that even WWII would qualify as a just war.) I am also vegetarian. I consider both pacifism and veganism to be closely related to the philosophy of nonviolence, which I endorse mainly because I desire suffering to be bad, and violence tends to create suffering.
By early 2011, I had finally become the nonviolent person that I had decided to philosophically become over ten years earlier. It amazes me that it took so long. It also embarrasses me to realize just how difficult it is to self-modify even behaviors that one is philosophically set against.

In the past seven years, there has only been one experience where I've exhibited a threat of violence. I've worried about and replayed the issue in my head multiple times, wondering if I did the right thing, and whether I would do the same if I encountered the situation again.

It was five years ago. A young teenage cousin of mine kept bullying both myself and those around me. It was small stuff, repeated endlessly. Stealing my phone when I wasn't looking so he could play games. Then the following week stealing my laptop. He'd do the same to his other cousins, taking their balls or other toys when no adults were looking. My reaction was always relatively meek. Eventually, he escalated. One day, at a birthday party of our cousin, he started threatening to destroy a board game piece, so that we would stop playing that game and instead play some other game with him. I explained to him that destroying the game was unacceptable behavior, but he doubled down, saying I wouldn't do anything to him even if he did it.

A part of me is proud of this moment. In the past, this behavior would have made me angry. But I realized in that moment that I was finally at the point where I could look at situations like this coolly. I thought for a second, then said: "If you attempt to destroy this board game, I will physically restrain you." He grabbed the piece from the table and started to break it — but I grabbed and held him before he could do so. I was gentle, but firm. His impression of me as someone meek evaporated that day, and he never treated me or my siblings that way in my presence again.

On the one hand, it was just a board game piece. It would have easily been replaced. Was it justified for me to react in the way I had? It did help to teach him not to bully his cousins in front of me. But I was in my thirties; he was barely a teenager. I'm honestly not sure if I acted completely appropriately.

Regardless, I am sure that I acted without anger. It feels good to know that I can honestly call myself a non-violent person now. I'm proud that seven years are about to pass where I have been completely free of violence.

06 October, 2017


I keep finding myself using disgust as a reason to deny moral value.

Intellectually, I realize this is a mistake. I'm consequentialist (at least I think I want to be, maybe), and when I look at Haidt's Julie/Mark-style situations, I typically answer as a consequentialist would. When making most moral decisions in my life, I try my best to avoid using disgust to make my decisions. And yet, disgust creeps its way into my moral landscape.

To understand why this happens, I first need to distinguish between myself (Me1), who acts in ways that I act, and the person (Me2) that I wish I could be, who acts in ways that I wish I would act. I don't currently live life to the fullest; I don't fully enjoy the pleasures of life that I could. I don't help others in need as much as I should. I don't do the proper amount of exercise, nor eat the diet that would best suit my body. There is so very much I would change, if I could get around my akrasia.

Yet it's not enough to look at who I am (Me1) and who I want to be (Me2). There's also who I want to want to be (Me3) -- this is the person that I wish I could want to be. If I'm going to take ethics seriously, then I should want to follow the demands that seem so obvious to me. I should want to help others as effectively as is sustainable and marketable for me.

As an example, I (Me1) spend a modest amount of time each week working directly with effective altruism organizations. I wish that I (Me2) would instead reorganize my life so that I could devote more time to EA stuff. But, deep down, I feel as though I (Me3) should instead wish to do as much as I possibly could do to help the EA cause.

And yet, this rundown of desires and meta-desires is not enough to fully describe how I feel about this, because there is an even deeper version: Me4, who feels disgust at the idea of dramatically changing Me1 to Me3. From Me4's point of view, it would be almost like committing suicide if I actually followed through with changing myself from Me1 to Me3Me4 represents how I feel about how I would want to want to change myself. Despite my attempts to avoid using disgust in moral considerations as I look as my desires through Me2 and Me3, I nevertheless end up acknowledging disgust when looking at my meta-meta-desires.

When a change is small enough, I'm okay with it. I get up each day only slightly feeling as though I may have died the previous night. But when I think back to the Eric of ten years ago, I cringe. I am so very, very different from that person. I think of him as an ancestor, not as me. When I think about the future Eric ten years' hence, I do not want him to be so different. I want him to share my values! Don't get me wrong: I don't mind extrapolating my volition. There are surely facts in the world that would cause me to do things differently were I to truly understand them. If future Eric makes different decisions because he's learned more true facts, then I count that Eric as myself -- it's just that he's in a better position to know what to do.

But if his values are as different to mine as mine are to the past Eric of a decade ago, then he is not just me in a different time period. No, then he is more like my offspring. A person close to me in many ways, but who is decidedly not me.

This feeling of hidden discontinuity comes about from feelings of disgust at the idea of suicide. I don't want to die. I don't want future Eric to hold such disparate values. The entire reason I hold the values I do is because those are the values that I would instantiate into infinity. I would make them the rule in extended space, in the far reaches of the future, etc. Of course, I don't mean to so universalize wrong principles, so I'm not saying that the vocalization of my values is what is sacrosanct. Rather it is the ideas behind them, of equity, fairness, etc., that I dare not express too succinctly in words. To the extent that I am mistaken in true facts about the world, the way that we would express those values might change -- but the values themselves would not should not.

To the extent that I should change my mind in the future, there is no reason not to also make that shift today, so there is no reason to suspect that future Eric should have reason to change value systems that I would not also consider reasons to change my current value system. While I am in favor of changing one's mind in the face of new facts, I am not inclined to change my value system unless there is good reason to do so (moral trade might make it better for my values if I vector-average with others' values (even acausal trade could make this happen); learning the basis of why I have a value might cause me to hold that value less or more strongly; etc.).

I do not want to die. I do not want future Eric to not be me. I do not really want Me3 to actualize. Yes, I'd like to self-improve to Me2. But Me3 is too far, even though Me3 is the better man.

It is the disgust of Me4 at the idea of committing suicide that causes me to not wish to change beyond my current desire to move from Me1 to Me2.

Death occurs much more often in a single life than most people realize. I want to be a better me, but Death is the enemy. I must become better without committing suicide.

23 May, 2017

In Memory of Jorge Herboso

Jorge Herboso
My uncle died a few weeks ago. He had not been doing well. A bug bite from several months previous had given him significant problems, but he had avoided going to the doctor for a prolonged amount of time. It grew infectious and supposedly was subsequently fixed, but this lax attitude of not going to the doctor when he really should may have played a part in why he died so prematurely.

He died in Bolivia. The original plan was for him to go there for only a couple of months. I helped to buy him a chromebook so he could continue to get online easily while he was there. But he fell ill again, and his delay in going to the doctor caused him to extend his stay by two months. Near the end, he was writhing in pain at home, but still had not gone to see a doctor over the issue. My father, from a hemisphere away, had to call family in a nearby city to get them to force Jorge to go in to see a doctor.

A part of this is machismo. Some of it is the idea that nothing will happen to us. Another portion was Jorge's strong religious belief, and his desire to not use traditional medicine whenever he could get away with it. I used to participate heavily in skeptic forums dealing with beliefs just like that. Although I don't post in skeptic forums much anymore, I still occasionally post links to whatstheharm.net whenever I hear a friend or family member talk make the case that there's no harm in allowing people to believe incredulous things.

Carlos, Sylvia, Ruperto, Jorge, Marcos, Chalo, and Fernando
My strongest memories of Tio Jorge are from when I was a child. I remember interacting with him several times in Alabama, especially during a family reunion we had in the late nineties.

I loved the way he would yell out a grito mexicano whenever he was particularly into a song. I loved the way he would smile and laugh when in the company of his brothers. I loved how, when my father would talk about him, it was always to complain about how giving his brother was, to the point of it being to his detriment.

I did not like as much how he would mostly speak Spanish in my presence, despite knowing English, so I could only really understand him only a small portion of the time we spent together. I did not like how he wore his religious beliefs on his sleeve later in life, nearly always commenting on whatever the topic of conversation was by bringing up God in one way or another. I did not like how he physically spanked me when I was very young. I did not like how he shied away from traditional medicine in times when he needed it most.

Jorge was exceedingly kind in his last years. He openly welcomed others into  his home that badly needed the help. He would find them jobs and work to help get them back on their feet. He helped run an Emmaus Retreat, where immigrants can go to help amend broken marriages in a Catholic setting. He did much to try to make the world a better place, and I am very sad to see him die so early on in life.

If you want to see more about my uncle's life, please visit his online rememberance page.

15 May, 2017

Pinpricks of Light to Start my Day

I use this as my visual alarm clock.
7:00 a.m.
Katherine leaves the house to start her day at school. The sound of the front door closing is my cue to get up.
7:45 a.m.
My eyes are finally able to stay open for more than a few seconds at a time. I put on my shoes and fill a bottle with tea. I have to leave soon. I browse through the most recent podcasts to decide on what to listen to this morning.
8:10 a.m.
My visual alarm goes off. The sun shines through a window upstairs, illuminating the stairwell and precisely hitting a disco ball hung at the bottom of the stairs that reflects the light into a hundred directions. The sight of pinpricks of light throughout the living room tells me it's time to call an Uber for work.
9:15 a.m.
I am nearly done with my Uber ride. I travel from Germantown, md, to Alexandria, va, thrice each week. Uber costs constitute a large portion of my monthly expenses, but it's worth the expense if I can get to where I need to go quickly and easily. The metro has been involved with too many accidents lately for me to be comfortable using it.
10 a.m.
I'm at work in VA. I go through emails, plan out what I need to do over the next 7-8 hours, and set priorities for the week.
12 p.m.
Lunchtime. I walk to a nearby restaurant and eat. I generally refill my drink at least twice, so the only requirements are that they have vegetarian options and free refills. While I'm there, I check my ACE emails to see if I need to respond to anything urgent.
5:00 p.m.
Work is over. I go downstairs to the company gym. No one else ever goes here after work, so I have the entire place to myself. I turn on a podcast to fill the room with sound and start working out. I spend about thirty minutes each on cycling and walking, then spend ~5 minutes each on five or so different weightlifting machines. In total, I spend about an hour and a half. I time each machine not by a clock, but by the length of various podcast episodes, so my times aren't always exactly the same.
6:30 p.m.
I take a shower at work. It feels especially good after working out. In contrast, morning showers feel like a chore. But post-workout showers are soothing.
7:00 p.m.
I am playing my Nintendo Switch while in an Uber headed home. This is the best portable gaming system I've ever owned, and it works perfectly for long Uber rides. Usually I lose track of time so well that I'm surprised when we finally take the off ramp near my house.
8:30 p.m.
Dinner is cooked. Today's meal is an "Ultimate Cheeseburger" Velveeta Cheesy Skillet, made with vegetarian Morningstar Farms Meal Starters Grillers Crumbles, with a Pillsbury Crusty French Loaf and a Dole Salad Kit. Television is watched while we eat. Depending on my workload, I may do some tasks for ACE after my meal.
10:30 p.m.
Gaming commences. Usually I do a few rounds of Hearthstone, StarCraft, Heroes of the Storm, or anything else that doesn't take the television set.
11:50 p.m.
Now that the television is available, I either play on the Switch or watch shows that no one else in the house enjoys. This continues until I'm sleepy enough to go to bed.
4:00 a.m.
I am in my dream world, which I seem to place much more value on than most people. Here, storylines continue that I have been building for decades. I live out another life in my dreams, unconnected to this one, but equally important to me. I know that it is not real, because I can direct the flow of action there in ways that I cannot do here. But for this same reason, I am in love with my dream world, and am always happy to get to experience it. It's not as good as reality, but it is better than any tv show or fiction novel that I've ever read.

The above describes a typical Monday. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I work from home instead. On weekends, I do my best to not work at all, and instead meet with friends to play board games or visit with my family for celebrations. This past weekend was somewhat somber; although my cousin Bianca had her first communion and Susan was able to celebrate mother's day, the mood was determined mostly by my Tio Jorge's recent passing. Death is an enemy that I think of often. It takes far too many of us.

The specific products mentioned above are not sales pitches for others; I included this level of specificity solely so that when I reread this journal entry several years' hence I will be able to fully remember these specific things.

08 May, 2017

Obligations By Accident

I've often found myself falling into new habits by accident.

In 2002, I was working at a call center hawking credit cards. I would regularly outperform most of my peers using a strategy that differed greatly from what they taught new hires. Rather than attempt to sell to each person that answered the phone, I did my best to get each person answering the phone to hang up on me. This greatly reduced call times and allowed me to reach far more people in a given workday. In the rare instances when someone did not hang up, I reasoned that they must have some minimal interest from the first few keywords I said in my initial boring spiel, and so used that hook to get them to sign up. In a work environment where my colleagues were getting an average of one sale each day, I was getting 3-5 daily.

I was not much interested in working long hours, so I told my manager at the time that I'd rather work 2-3 days each week than the full 40 hours. I figured that since I did more sales in those 2-3 days than others did in a full week, it would be an easy pitch. But they were limited by corporate rules and didn't really have the leeway to let me do as I wanted. I then asked, somewhat jokingly, what if I just quit halfway through the week; would they be willing to rehire me the next week since I'm skilled at the job? To my surprise, they said yes. And so I would work until Tuesday or Wednesday each week, quit, and they'd rehire me the following Monday. It was their way of keeping me while still not going against what corporate had mandated.

This rather strange situation resulted in a happy circumstance. One Tuesday, I quit, as I did each week, and I drove past Spring Hill College on my way home. Because I had technically had no work obligations for the future, on a whim I decided to stop by and see if they'd let me start classes. The first day of classes had been that Monday, so I would be entering rather late, but they were excited to accept me anyway, and I went to my first class the very next day.

In 199X, I was driving across the country to someplace new to start over. I wasn't yet sure where I'd go; I had contacted two places announcing my intention to move in: one in Utah and one in Colorado. I was halfway there when I reached the intersection of interstate highways where I'd need to choose one destination or another. There was more traffic in one direction, so I chose the other. This small happenstance resulted in my living in Colorado for a few years.

In 201X, I had been living long-term in a hotel. A fire came, burning several of my possessions, and convincing me that I should perhaps move to a real house. On a whim, I did a nationwide craigslist search for the cheapest rent home that included all utilities and had hi-speed internet access. The cheapest ad at the time was in Tennessee, so I sent them an email, had a quick call over the phone, and moved in three days later.

A few weeks ago, I had to stay a little late after work. It was a Friday night, and by the time I was ready to leave, the Uber fares had surged through the roof. I was unwilling to pay the extra price, and didn't really feel like taking the metro, so I instead decided to use the gym downstairs. I worked out for two hours and so thoroughly enjoyed myself that I decided to workout after work more often. Now I use the gym 2-3 times each week for a couple of hours after work.

When I think of the many choices I've made in life, I often wonder about what might have been. How easily I might have moved into an academic career in philosophy, or stayed as a high school dropout for my entire life. How I came to identify with the effective altruism movement even while I was working for an extremely ineffective charity. How I came to have a relationship with my father when I could have so easily not contacted him or interacted with him at all. And yet so many more things in my life came about just by chance, not choice. Not just the above items, but the chance that allowed me to be good at math, rather than sports. To be born in relative affluence, rather than in a developing country. To have met such wonderful people in my life, mostly because I happened to be born and lived near them.

It is because of these many accidents that I really think hard about how I should negotiate with my future selves. I fear value drift, and yet they deserve consideration as much as I. So much of who I am and what I value is just from chance. Should I be multiplying our vector values so that we can work toward the same goals? Or is it enough for me to just allow them to be different, even if I disagree strongly with their beliefs? What duties do I owe them beyond what I would owe my neighbors? What duties do they owe me?

Even more keen is the past: What obligations have I been ignoring that have to do with my past selves? I clearly remember making a promise to build a theme park centered on dinosaurs when I grew up. Yet I don't see any chance of my ever fulfilling such a strange promise. What about that earlier intent to earn a PhD? Or the prejudiced leanings of someone who used to use the word "gay" as a derogatory term?

I see the moral arc of my life as trending upward, but it is perhaps unfair for my present self to be the one judging that. Would my earlier self see it trending downward? What of my far future self? Am I justified in just being a bad neighbor to my temporal selves? I tolerate Trump supporters in my community, but not really among my close friends. Am I being hypocritical here?

These are tough questions. I need to think on them more. This is the least I owe to my other temporal selves, both past and future.