16 July, 2019

Memories of my Grandmother

Greenville Advocate, January 2, 1941
Mattie & Margaret w/ perfect grades.
"Manual for Baptist Young People
on Organization, Programs, and Methods"
Ercil's wife, Bertha Belle, is Mattie's half-cousin.
(Ercil is misspelled in the newspaper.)
When I was three years old, I returned from a trip to Miami, Florida. I have no memory of what happened there, no memory of the drive to or from there, no memory of how I felt about any of it, and no memory of anything even slightly related to it. But I nevertheless know that I went there, because, afterward, my grandmother, Mattie Jo, asked me about it. She told me that she would write down whatever I said and it could be turned into a book. So I recited a story about the trip, which she wrote onto loose leaf pages, and she gave them to me to illustrate. Afterward, the pages were stapled together, bound into a book. It was my first journal entry.

The prose is terrible. By the time I get to the second sentence, I've lost the narrative about Miami, and I seem to just babble. Of course, I was three years old at the time, so I suppose that's understandable.

Evergreen Courant, March 27, 1947
Mattie was 19 years old.
More importantly, this event really shows how my grandmother interacted with me when I was a child. I was at her house all of the time. I don't recall any memories prior to age seven, but my understanding is that I must have come by often. Once I turned seven, we built a house on the same street as her home, and I ended up staying over constantly.

She made the best sweet tea, although her sandwiches were not as good as my great aunt Margaret's (her sister). I loved sitting in the big recliner next to her, which was almost always available, since my grandfather stayed in bed most of the time. I used to roll her cylinder shaped ottoman to the other side of the living room to help build structures out of pillows. She would sing songs to me that I can no longer recall. As a small child, I used to run and play in her house while just wearing underwear. I would set up army men on her glass living room table, and play teenage mutant ninja turtles in the alcove of the foyer, all while she would watch television just behind me.

Advertiser-Gleam, April 2, 1952
"List of people who can vote in elections."
She made a manicotti dish that I apparently loved as a child, though in my actual memory I can't recall ever tasting it. She hosted all the family events like Christmas, where presents and wrapping paper were always quickly separated. I played my NES there, hooked up to her television: super mario bros. + duck hunt, and later all kinds of games rented from the local blockbuster. She loved to cheer me on whenever I played games -- until ten minutes passed and she realized it was just the same thing over and over, at which point she'd start crocheting.

When I crashed my bicycle outside her front door, she was the one who bandaged me. My knuckles have been scarred ever since. That day, my grandfather went to the toolshed in the back and came out an hour later to give me an award for bravery. It was a wooden plaque shaped like a shield, commemorating that bicycle crash. If it was supposed to make me feel proud, it failed; I never touched a bicycle again to this day, partly out of fear, and now out of habit.

Greenville Advocate, December 26, 1963
The three children are Patty, Billy, and my mother, Joanne.
One day, she spent what felt like hours teaching me how to crochet. I proceeded to fail to make anything at all. I loved hearing stories from her about all kinds of things. How, for example, she was not allowed to marry her husband until her soon-to-be mother-in-law successfully taught her how to make several Italian recipes. There was apparently a test, which she passed, and which gave her permission to marry their son. And stories of my uncle Billy. And what my uncle Michael was like at my age.

I can remember going through the phone book with my grandmother, learning how to use it. And browsing the Sears catalog, filled with mostly boring items, but a smattering of toys interspersed within. My grandmother played few games with me, but would always bring out the building blocks when I was young. The blocks were made of wood and painted bright red. My grandfather made them for me, and I loved building towers with them.

There are so many memories I have with my grandmother. She was very important to me. I don't like that she died. Death is the true enemy. I must always remember this.

Greenville Advocate, December 19, 1940
Forest Home Elementary Perfect Attendance
At the same time, I feel numb. I don't know if this is a defect. I don't know what I should be feeling, or even if the word "should" applies here. I do know that I've enjoyed finding an old newspaper that lists her as having perfect attendance at school one year. It reminds me that there is so much of her beyond what memories I have of her. Mattie Jo was a person, filled with hopes and dreams, having lived a full life of travel and family. She experienced the loss of a teenage son, and the terror of her husband being permanently disabled in a car crash the same month that I was born. She grew up in the tiniest of towns, and near the end stayed consecutively with two of her daughters. She became especially close to my sister, living with her multiple times over the past decade or so. I'd love to hear stories of our grandmother from her, to learn what Mattie was like during the years I wasn't there.

I regret not learning more of these stories directly from my grandmother. I miss her voice.

13 July, 2019

Mattie Jo Tomaso

My grandmother, Mattie Jo Tomaso.
My grandmother, Mattie Jo Tomaso, died a few moments ago. It was sudden. I was told yesterday afternoon that she might be put on hospice today; apparently she didn't last even that long.

Mattie Jo Thompson was born on July 19, 1928, in my home state of Alabama, to Manning and Frances Gray Thompson. She had only one living grandparent during her childhood, Lewis Gray.

My grandmother grew up in Forest Home, Alabama, in Butler county. The family had been in this area for quite some time, as Warren Thompson, Mattie's paternal great great grandfather, was an original settler of the area. Warren settled in what is now the unincorporated area of Pine Flat, the first part of Butler county to be settled by white people.

I can remember several stories from my grandmother's childhood. She never strayed far from Forest Home as a child, and so honestly believed that rainbows ended in nearby Greenville. "How lucky kids there must be," she recounted, "for when rainbows come they could play in the part that touched the ground." Except this is not how she said it. It's been too long since I heard these stories for me to have true quotes, and I never bothered to record her stories on audio. So many such stories are lost.

Not everything was idyllic back then. She had a black childhood friend who could only enter the house from the back kitchen door. Later, when Facebook came out, she wanted to search for her to try and reconnect. But when I asked her childhood friend's name, all she could remember was what they called her way back when: "nigger".

Once, she recounted being with a group of her fellow classmates in grade school. They had a friendly custodian there who would always smile and wave as the kids strolled by. One day, he hid in the bushes and jumped out, crying "Boo!" just as the girls walked past. Like little girls do, they all screamed happily in fright and ran down the road. As they ran, they passed by Mattie's father, Manning Thompson. He asked why they were running, and, as soon as he received a short answer, he left quickly for the school in anger. Manning beat that black custodian that day, and Mattie said that he walked with a limp forever after and never again smiled or played with the kids.

Thankfully, my grandmother escaped the worst of these racist memories by falling in love with an Air Force man, Salvatore "Ralph" Tomaso. They left the United States to live in AF bases across the globe, from Pakistan to Okinawa to Panama. The bases were integrated, and my grandmother happily raised her children side by side with the black children of the base. When riots broke out in Selma, she and her kids watched from a television in South America, and her kids did not understand why the black people were being treated so poorly. I give my grandmother a lot of credit for successfully raising children who did not have the same prejudices that were so prevalent in just the single prior generation.

In Pakistan, Mattie was invited to a wedding off-base. She and Ralph went to a town with large sand walls, all uncovered by roofs. The men split from the women, and she went into an area where the females could finally remove their facial coverings. There they helped put way too much make-up on the bride, while the males in another area helped to bring out the bed for the new couple. Mattie felt the entire situation was surreal.

Eventually, Mattie and her husband returned home to Mobile, Alabama, to finish raising their kids. When she was younger, she had been an operator for the phone company, but I'm unsure what she did once she returned to Alabama. I think she may have just been a housewife. Her husband was in a car accident the year I was born, in 1981, and he was mostly relegated to the bed from then on. I think they survived on his pension and disability ever after.

When I was seven, my family moved onto the same street that my grandmother lived on, some dozen houses away. I would often walk to her house as a kid, and I have many memories of spending time with her. I was an active child, so I spent more time in the living room with my grandmother than in the bedroom with my grandfather. She would watch boring soap operas and exciting game shows. I can remember building not forts with pillows but a stage for The Price is Right, where I had imaginary contestants attempt to guess the price of yet another pillow.

My first word was said to my grandmother. Every time we came to visit, my mother would hold me up to my grandmother, who would meet us in her doorway. She would loudly exclaim: "My pumpkin!",  and then take me from my mother's arms to hold me and take me inside the house. I have no memory of this, but apparently one day, as I was taken to the front door where my grandmother stood, I spoke for the first time: "pumpkin", before my grandmother could say anything at all.

I loved my grandmother's sweet tea. It was my favorite drink then, and I still drink tea daily today in remembrance of what I once had in that house. Mattie and Ralph's pets also fascinated me. They had a lhasa apso named Mae-Ling (I don't know the origin of this name, but I imagine it had to be named after someone that my grandfather met while in the service.), which I adored, and a parakeet named Pretty Bird, who would sing the intro to those damned soap operas way too often for my tastes. I loved playing with Mae-Ling while my grandmother sat in her chair, watching me. She was a friendly dog, and she never harmed me, although she did once bite a friend of mine (who probably had it coming, to be perfectly honest).

The backyard held a screened-in porch, a pool(?), and a shed that my grandfather used for carpentry when he had enough energy to actually walk outside. I don't have actual memories of the pool, because at some point they covered it up with a deck in the middle of the backyard where the pool once was. Plants were everywhere there, as were birdhouses. My grandmother did much of the gardening, while my grandfather did much of the birdwatching. The backyard was fully fenced so that Mae-Ling could run free, but there was plenty of unowned land behind the house -- maybe one or two acres worth before you got to the next house on the street. In this unowned area, fruit trees lined the other side of the back fence. I loved climbing in those trees, and picking fruits to show my grandmother. It was a fun place to play, and I spent much of my time at my grandmother's house rather than at my own.

When I got older, I didn't spend any time keeping up with family in Alabama. The last time I saw my mother, things did not go well, and since my grandmother soon moved in with my mother, the fact that I didn't really spend time talking with my mother turned into me not spending any time talking with my grandmother either. The last time I spoke with my grandmother was in 2006 or so.

Earlier this year, my sister, Anh, requested that I send my grandmother a note. I planned to record an audio message for her, to be played by my sister, who lives in Alabama and still regularly sees her. But I didn't quite get around to finishing it. I still have unfinished drafts sitting in a text file on my desktop. It was hard to know what to say, after thirteen years of silence. Of course, now it is too late; she is dead. I'll still write that letter, but I suppose it will be more for me than for her at this point.

Thank you, Grandma, for being there for me when I was younger. You influenced my life in so very many ways. Although most of my mannerisms have turned out to resemble Papa (my unconscious verbalisms in the car, the way I breathe when out of breath, and how I sigh when tired all remind me of how he sounded), I've always attributed so many happy thoughts from my childhood to experiences I've had with you. Thank you for giving me these experiences. I hope your life had happiness and enjoyment all the way until the end.

I promise to write that note to you soon.

[Edit 15 July: An obituary has been posted online.]

11 July, 2019

Dice Tower Con

The end of an era.
Three years ago, I decided that it might be fun to attend a board game convention. I wasn't sure at first; in my limited experience, most conventions are about socializing, cos-play, attending panels, seeing new things in the industry, and (most disturbingly) not bathing. But the Dice Tower Convention seemed different. There were explicit rules about being nice, bathing every day, etc. It was described as a gaming convention; rather than a bunch of talks by designers and publishers, there was a focus on the open gaming area and a huge library of games. I took a chance, booked a villa, invited several friends and family, and we all had a great time. It had become a tradition since.

The entire trip always had such great parts to it. We'd drive 4-5 hours each day from our home just north of DC, stopping at parks and museums and interesting food places all along the way. Each city we visited had something to offer, and I always looked forward to the hotel at the end of each day, which Katherine painstakingly picked out in order to be perfect for rest and relaxation. (Katherine is very picky with her hotel choices.)

Imagine dozens of moving sculptures like these.
In 2017, we visited the Vollis Simpson  Whirligig Park and Museum in Wilson, North Carolina, where there were still in the process of building this outside park. Junk filled the air in pleasing positions, and the air (which was not moving very fast on its own) was somehow easily causing the parts to twirl and sway in interesting patterns. Katherine was especially excited by it because she loved the installation by this artist in Baltimore, and she found the full representation of his art to be especially impressive. We also visited the following year, after they officially opened; they'd included an indoor museum at that point, but it was too nice to just look outside for us to bother going in.

I was especially impressed by their accessibility,
though parking was a hellscape of anguish.
This year, we visited the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. Katherine is a member of a local art museum and this gives her free access for her and a friend (that's me!) to several dozen museums throughout the eastern United States. Nevertheless, the Gibbes made plenty of money from us as their gift shop called out successfully. I really enjoyed their exhibition, but, more importantly, I enjoyed the meta story behind their exhibit choices. The Gibbes has been around for well over a hundred years, and they have an extensive collection of very well done art from local white artists that is, to put it mildly, quite racist. To counter that narrative, the entire top floor is dedicated to black artists; most of the information written on the plaques hanging on the walls have reminders that whites had access to patronage, art training, and free time that blacks did not.

We also always stopped in Myrtle Beach to visit two of Katherine's close friends. And we'd stop in various Mellow Mushroom restaurants along the way to compare decor. And we'd visit Sweet Tomatoes, an all-you-can-eat salad buffet that doesn't exist anywhere near Maryland, and we'd go to nice restaurants to try out the impossible burger during times when it was difficult to find one. And when we'd finally get to Orlando proper, we'd stay in a villa in the Caribe Royale, with its jacuzzi tub in the master bedroom, a private pool that would let us literally be the only swimmers from 8-9:30 every morning, a full couch and chairs that allowed us to game in comfort on the TV with the Nintendo Switches that everyone brought, and its spacious floor space able to accommodate whatever handicap accessibility requirements we might throw at it.

The Dice Tower Con proper was so good. I could get games with strangers easily, there were table-toppers announcing whenever we needed a teacher for a game, I could be alone whenever it was required due to my introverted nature, everything (including bathrooms) was fully accessible, the game library and hot games sections were extensive and covered whatever we wanted, the exhibitor hall had lots of great games on display, and the parts of the con I had no interest in were in separate rooms so I never had to go there at all.

It wasn't all good, of course. CoolStuffInc had an awesome ding and dent sale in 2017 that brought prices so low that I couldn't help to make several purchases despite my best intentions. But the sale was gone in 2018/19, because (as the head of CSI said in a facebook comment) they were hurting the other exhibitors by discounting so heavily.

In 2018, we signed up for an "escape room" that turned out to be a box attached to a high table that people in wheelchairs could not even see over the side of, making it completely inaccessible. Even with a person unable to participate entirely, there was not enough room around the table (which was pushed into a corner of the room) for everyone present to stand beside it. And the device itself had been broken by an earlier group, so instead of a light going off when we succeeded at a task, the person running the event just announced: "you succeeded!" and would proceed to open a new door that was supposed to have opened automatically once we solved the previous puzzle. To say it was bad is an understatement, but what hurt much more was that it cost us $15/person to do this event. To this day, it stands as the worst paid experience I've ever had, unless you count getting food poisoning once from a restaurant. And yet: the main convention was so good that it didn't ruin anything more than the two hours or so that we spent in that dreadful room.

This year, everything seemed to be falling apart. I wanted a cup to use for drinking tea in my room; but cups did not arrive until Friday, three days into the con. The bag we received when we registered was empty; no map, no guidebook, no free games, no promo cards. The books came the next day and had to be given out while we were playing games. There was an advertiser whose ad wasn't printed in the book. Something bad was going on. The most conspicuous part was that the guidebook for the con had no information whatsoever about next year's convention.

Rumors abounded. While we were swimming, a long time attendee came up to us and conspiratorially whispered all he knew about the situation. Patrick Havert had let his niece run the con this year, and she can't handle it; the hotel is refusing to let us know whether the convention will be held again next year; the alternate hotel that it might be moving to also isn't saying anything; they're going to expand the con to even more attendees and it's going to become like gencon.

On the penultimate day, Tom Vasel, the person behind the eponymous con, gave announcements that did not mention next year at all. The next evening on the final day of the con, as everyone was seemingly leaving, a new rumor started going around: Tom would be doing a live Q&A about next year at 11 am the next morning.

We were packing while the live Q&A started. Years ago, the Haverts had started this con, and had asked Tom for the use of the Dice Tower name to give it more prestige. They signed a contract, and the Haverts ran the entire con while Tom only had to attend, do a few events there, and run the hot games section. It was great for eight years. But in the intervening time, Vasel had started running smaller cons of his own. They weren't nearly as big as the 3000 people at the main Dice Tower Convention, but he still had 1000 or so people at these other cons, and he enjoyed running them and being able to have full input on what would happen there. So, this year, he decided to break with the Haverts as their contract ran out. He was taking back his name and announced a new con: Dice Tower East, to be held on the same July 4 weekend next year, but at a new location: the Florida Hotel. Meanwhile, the Haverts would be starting a new con called Escape Winter, held in November.

This devastated me. The new hotel was atrocious. A big part of the experience for me was the villas, and the new hotel didn't even have a microwave. Only small fridges, and the beds are in the same room as the tv. It's not a resort -- it's a hotel. How can we play video games there? I don't want to invite people into the same room that I sleep in. What if my introverted nature takes over and I need to retreat? To where could I retreat if everything is all in the same room?

And then I noticed several posts by the locals on reddit and boardgamegeek. (You can't find such posts on facebook, because the Haverts are deleting any posts that aren't directly favorable to them in the old dice tower con fb group.) The Florida Hotel is connected to the mall, which apparently is a high crime area. Local people are unwilling to attend solely because of the location's safety issues.

Suffice it to say: I don't think I'll be attending Dice Tower East next year. And since both Katherine and Jon are teachers, going to a con in November is out of the question. A summer convention is required.

And so I sit, confused. What should we do next year? I'm seriously considering not going to a con at all. DTC was special; I don't think we'd get that kind of experience at Origins or any other board game convention. But I could just run one myself. Just for me and my closest friends. I own at least 200 board games. It's not like we'd be lacking games to play. And this way we could rent out a villa that we could really enjoy, with the amenities we truly want. I don't know yet what we're going to do, but I honestly think this might be the best solution for us. Next year, I want to have the experience of traveling, of stopping at fun places, of meeting up with friends in a nice resort, and of playing video games and board games for a week straight. And maybe we can accomplish all of that without having to go a convention at all.

Thank you Dice Tower Con, for giving me three great years. But now I'm now looking forward to what kind of experience I can create for myself.

01 July, 2019

Competing Points of View

Gently, I awake to the sound of my phone alarm. I'm still not used to it; it always feels like someone else's alarm, never mine, and yet I drift into consciousness slowly, integrating the artificial sound into my dream.

It's my birthday today. I'm not exactly happy about it. Thirty-seven was such a great number. It had allusions to the fine structure constant, it's prime, it's hexagonal, and it's used all the time in media as a pseudo-random number. But now I'm 38. There's nothing interesting about 38.

It sounds silly. I know that. Properties of numbers shouldn't affect my life. Yet emotions matter, and what we place importance on can have an over-sized effect on how we feel about things. Thirty-eight just isn't my jam. I think that this year I will not have any focus on my actual age, unlike the previous year.



Gently, the rest of me catches up. I awake to the physical motion of my fingers typing this entry. Disgusted, I swat aside the portion of my brain apparently addicted to numerology. Who was that person? How did he gain control so easily? Is it just a function of the hour? I did drive all day yesterday. Maybe it's exhaustion.

I am in Florence, South Carolina. The hotel is supposedly nice, even though I'll be here only for a few short hours. We arrived after midnight, and we will be leaving as soon as I sober up enough to get out of bed. I feel drunk on exhaustion alone. Those last couple of hours of driving were the worst.

Not my photo as I haven't been there yet.
In a few hours, I will be at Congaree Park, walking a trail through a swamp. I'm looking forward to a few hours of quiet contemplation there. I'm rather hoping for the area to be relatively deserted. My favorite park memories are of walking alone on a trail at my own pace.

By the end of my birthday, I should be in Jacksonville, Florida. Another day of driving, followed by another night of short rest. The hotel there is nice; the last time I stayed, I found the room to be quite restful. But it is the day after that I am really focused on: Dice Tower Con in Orlando, Florida. A week of board gaming with friends and family, with mornings spent lounging in the private pool, and nights spent playing co-op games on the Nintendo Switch. I brought a single book: Quantum Computing Since Democritusby Scott Aaronson. I'm looking forward to diving into it.

I also reduced the number of board games I brought with me. Unlike last year's oversized collection, I've brought only seven titles to the con this year. Some are bigger than others, but all should be especially enjoyable for me to get to the table.



The anthropic argument for the fine structure constant is compelling. So, too, is the present-day-Eric-specific argument for me. I am the product of my past. My life today stems from what came before.

Thirty-eight is twice nineteen. That was a terrible year. Starting with a fork in the road in Texarkana, where I summarily abandoned one route in favor of another, and then that fateful moment when I pulled up in Colorado, forcing myself to commit by unloading my computer first, before allowing anything else. I made such stupid decisions at nineteen. It's not numerology. It's memory.

16 June, 2019

Happy Father's Day

All people are unique in their own way, but I've always had special admiration for my father.

My father: Fernando Herboso.
Like many latino migrants of his generation, he had machismo issues when I was young. He showed his love through providing a strong financial base, rather than by speaking directly from his heart. But what I find most impressive is that, over time, he changed. How he treats Natalia and Alejandro, my two teen/preteen siblings, is proof of this. My father learns to become a better person over time, and I honestly think that's his best quality.

So many people languish in a groundhog day style rut, never really becoming different from who they are at heart. But my father focused strongly on entrepreneurship early on, creating several businesses, learning from each, and these lessons somehow permeated into the other aspects of his life, resulting in a father who, from my perspective, has genuinely improved in nearly every way over the many years that I've known him.

Showing off his impressive muscles.
Though constant improvement is what I think is his best quality, there are still several others that I find immensely impressive, mostly because I find myself completely unable to match him at those qualities. First and foremost, of course, is his dedication to hard work. His ability to find a good business idea, identify what needs to happen in order for him to be successful at it, and then (this is key) actually following through on doing the necessary work, is, without a doubt, flabbergasting to me. How many people do you actually know who go above and beyond in this kind of work context? Sure, you'll occasionally find a workaholic who spends a lot of time on work, but this is almost always in the context of working for someone else. My father has a knack for identifying the maximal combination of neglected yet effective work that will accomplish the most for a business, and then actually does the required work, regardless of what it is.

Much of this comes from his voracious reading, nearly all of which is business-related. I am in awe of how many books I've seen him consume from the self-help section of the bookstore. His focus on self-improvement is beyond impressive. At every holiday family gathering, it has become a tradition for him to give a 15–30 minute seminar on how to become a better person. He uses youtube videos, includes props, invites audience participation, and regularly quizzes everyone at the end, complete with prizes for whoever performs the best. He not only focuses on success for himself, but for all those close to him in life, especially his children. He genuinely wants all in his life to become the best at whatever they do — sometimes, I think, to their detriment.

Coloring in a restaurant with his kids.
My father's philosophy of success is an interesting one. On the one hand, he defines true success as having a happy, well taken care of family. But he also relates success to becoming the top tier in whatever field you participate in. Second place is but a reminder that one can be even better. But it's not important to forge first in a field; it's acceptable to find other winners and copy their proven strategies. For a long time, I felt confused by his statements on his philosophy of success. I never really spoke with him directly about it, but just learned by hearing his point of view on various things. But I think I have a handle on it now: for him, success lies not in being the very best, but in being the local best. Success is about joining the group at the top, where defining the boundaries of that group is hazy at best. If you're going to play soccer, then work until you are the best on your team. At this point, the goalposts of success change, and now you must focus on winning tournaments. Once accomplished, it's time to join a professional team. Then to work hard enough to be a starting player on the team. And so on. At no point does he seem to ask too much, but there is always more to go. I find his position fascinating.

Fernando with his daughters.
I said earlier that my father believes true success is having a happy, well taken care of family, and I mean it. To my father, this is the ultimate goodness in life. While tribal, this is a goal to which I feel an intense attraction. He believes strongly in family, and he shows it in all the things that he does. I appreciate him very much for this aspect of his personality, and I kinda wish that I could be more like him in this respect. He not only shows love and pride for his family, but also mudita. I am constantly impressed and somewhat jealous of how he feels in this area. He really and truly is an amazing father, even if only for this one single aspect of his being.

iPad painting by my father.
Yet this is not all that my father is. He is an artist, and a tiger-lover, and a musician who adores playing guitar and singing karaoke during family celebrations. Most recently, he is a futurist, listening widely to the idea of Peter Diamandis, a co-founder of Singularity University. He is a lover of well-cooked meat, for which he constantly watches youtube videos on even better ways to grill. He is messy at heart (just see his closet!) yet organized in business, because he needs to be. He does what needs to be done, and he sacrifices much to ensure that his family thrives.

For these and all the other things I've failed to mention in this blog post, I'd like to wish my father, Fernando Herboso, a genuinely happy Father's Day. I love you.

07 May, 2019

A Dream Sickness

[Edit (one week later): This was written while under a heavy fever and doesn't truly represent my normal experiences of lucid dreaming.]

I've been an oneironaut for as long as I can remember. At seven years of age, I learned to use tells that would let me know if I could affect this dream, rather than others. At first it was only occasional. Now, 30 years later, I enter a state of lucid dreaming nearly every night, sometimes doing so multiple times each day.

It has pretty significant drawbacks. I never truly appreciate cultural media, because it immediately gets compared to what I dream that night. I never have a desire to optimize for less sleep, as I consider it part of my entertainment time, which means I don't get as much done each day as I otherwise might would. And if I'm in bed anyway, sometimes I'll opt to dream rather than actually start my day. In short: it makes me lazier and more unappreciative of the things I experience in waking reality.

Yet it's not quite a curse. I enjoy my dreams. Most, by far, are pleasant. It gives me an outlet for creativity. It also means I never truly get homesick.

But I'm not bringing up my lucid dreaming today just to wax on -- instead I wanted to point out that lucid dreaming does not interact well with being very sick, and from April 29 through May 7 (so far), I have been (what I consider) extraordinarily ill continuously. I have not exactly been bedridden, but at least restricted to either the bed or the couch for anything longer than bathroom breaks. I've had extreme chills, treated incorrectly with heating pads, and the strongest headache I've ever experienced, but which I would not term 'migraine', due to my ability to communicate somewhat during them. I've looked up combinations of medications that may help, realizing several days in that I was doing it wrong at first. I've experienced the most utter exhaustion, feeling as though it started in my very bones. I've seen the alarm say that it's time to take another dose, and the bottle lies less than a foot before me, on the couchside-table, and yet it takes me ten minutes to actually reach for the bottle.

The sickness sucks. But possibly worse is the way I will constantly lucid dream without desiring and, indeed, with me actively trying to suppress it. Some of these are similar to hallucinations, except they are happening while my eyes are shut and I'm lying down; these are not occurring during the wakeful state. I have to double-, then triple-check anything important. If I am moving needed objects from one place to another, I can't just trust that they are moved. And worse: if a conversation happened, it may not have really happened. It would be utter chaos, except I can almost always tell at the time whether I'm in a dream, but later, when I'm trying to remember what I did the previous day, it's difficult to decide whether this or that conversation happened in a dream or in a wakeful state.

I've never done any recreational drugs. I wonder if this is anything like some of those experiences.

29 April, 2019

A B/W Career Gradient

From December 2018 – March 2019, I participated in a rather involved hiring process as a research analyst for the Open Philanthropy Project. Although I was compensated well for my time during this process, I was ultimately not offered a full-time position.

I had been approached to join them twice before: first in April 2018, and later in December 2018. The first time I was too focused on my data science work at Animal Charity Evaluators to seriously consider a career change to research analysis at a think tank, but given my recent switch to the board at ACE, I decided to move forward with applying at Open Philanthropy, despite it being a completely different line of work.

My time with Open Philanthropy was limited, but it was overall a fulfilling experience. Applying at a think tank of this caliber was far more serious than I originally thought it would be. I'm not entirely sure of what I was expecting beforehand, but I can now say that the process of applying to work at OPP was not only helpful to them in terms of understanding how I would potentially perform there, but also was extremely helpful to me in terms of better understanding how I currently think deeply about more practical effective altruism considerations (as opposed to the theoretical considerations I'm more used to thinking about).

I currently earn a living by doing communications consultation work — a far cry from the research analysis that OPP wanted me for. My work these days is maybe a bit too meta: I communicate to communications departments how to more effectively communicate. Mostly this consists of data analysis and hypothesis testing, but I've found that most people misunderstand what I do when I tell them this. The reality is that my job is just to implement best practices in places that don't already think too deeply about what their data is telling them.

There's a social norm that it's not good to publicly mention when you try and fail to be hired somewhere. I don't like this norm. I think it's important to be open both about one's successes and one's failures. This applies especially in this case, because I found the application process to be so enlightening about how I'd actually perform this type of think tank work. Nevertheless, it taught me a lesson: my career goals should align more closely with the skill expertise I have that is neglected among my peer group.

I've dedicated my life to the field of effective altruism. I donate 25% of my income to EA organizations; I serve on the board of an EA org; I've volunteered and/or worked for half a dozen EA orgs over the past seven years; and I spend a non-trivial amount of my free time thinking about and contributing to EA spaces.

When I applied to OPP (and, indeed, when OPP sent me multiple invitations to apply), the idea (I think) was that I might perform well as a data analyst. I think this was correct. But it failed to take into account that lots of people that are into effective altruism consider research analysis as a high-status position, and thus expend a lot of resources to strongly compete for the very few positions available in the field. While I may be competent at research analysis, that category isn't at all neglected among EAs. Compare this state of affairs to my communications expertise: among EAs, communications is a neglected field. I'm much better suited to working in the relatively neglected field where I've already built a good deal of career capital.

Tim Urban of Wait But Why published an excellent post last year about how to pick a career that fits you. His advice is sourced from (among others) the well-researched 80,000 Hours, which incubated ACE in its initial year. I have siblings in both middle school and high school, so I've been thinking deeply on these ideas recently, and I believe the same sorts of considerations apply to me.

The one thing I've learned from my experience with OPP is that I'd like to be a bit more novel in the data science communications projects that I undergo. Most of my current work involves just applying best practices to orgs that aren't already following them; but there is an undeniable excitement when you're working on novel procedures. To that end, I've been pursuing knowledge of more of the darks arts of communication — not because I plan to use them, but because I want to learn more about the methods that compete with the 'best practices' that I currently solely implement. Of particular interest has been Destin Sandlin's recent Smarter Every Day series on social media manipulation (on youtube, twitter, and facebook). I've also gained access to a number of paid tutorial videos obtained on the dark web that focus on facebook ad manipulation. Again: I want to stress that I have no intention of doing anything black hat — how I've handled wikipedia/EA controversies in the past should make that perfectly clear — but knowing these strategies is helping me to understand how to better innovate in the communications field.

I look forward to seeing how this affects what I do next in my career.

Review: Judge on a Boat

Judge on a Boat Judge on a Boat by Alan Manuel K. Gloria
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Historically, science fiction has been big on setting. Characters and dialog are important, too — otherwise it's unlikely to be well written — but the key signifier of science fiction is that setting is much more important. Sci-fi is all about transporting you to a wondrous place and making you believe that you are there. All too often this means that authors of sci-fi will spend way more time on setting than authors of other genres. Think Hal Clement going pages upon pages about gravitational minutiae in A Mission of Gravity; or Asimov insisting on describing at length complex social structures in his Foundation series. These are great stories, and they are what makes good sci-fi so memorable to me. But Gloria bucks this trend beautifully in Judge on a Boat.

Judge on a Boat is undeniably sci-fi, but instead of describing a wondrous place as its setting, Gloria instead describes a world where rationality already won. It is a vision of the future that's as alien as, well, Alien, yet it isn't the description of space travel and drop pods that makes this sci-fi. It's the casual description of LessWrong-esque ideas from the rationalist community that makes this short text stand out. Reading this transports me into a world that is alien by virtue of its ideas, rather than by its technology.

At heart, Judge on a Boat is a mystery novel. Clues are interspersed within and commented on throughout. But, again, it stands out because the mystery itself doesn't adhere to common mystery tropes — and this is explicitly pointed out in-universe, so that the reader can fairly understand the rules of the game and play along, trying to solve the mystery before the end.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it to anyone well-versed with the rationality community. However, the density of jargon is such that if you aren't already at least loosely acquainted with these ideas, then going through this text will be a slog. I hesitate to make the comparison, but imagine reading Joyce's Ulysses without having first read the classics. It would be impossible to enjoy, because at nearly every step you'd need to look in the margin for notes, or, in the case of this text, you'd need to refer to the Sequences.

The bottom line: if you don't know what the Sequences are, then you probably won't enjoy this book. It's just not written for you. But if you are aware of the rationalist community (even if you don't self-identify in that group), then this short mystery novel is a great way to spend a few hours of fun. For the correct audience, it deserves this 5 star rating (and, more impressively, was so good that it got me to avoid my akrasia and post a review on goodreads for the first time in several years).

View all my reviews

18 April, 2019

A Kind of Degree

I've been thinking a lot recently about differences of kind versus differences of degree. Perhaps it has to do with a clicker game I've been playing recently, Mine Defense. In the game, you start off by clicking a mine, ostensibly mining gold from it with each click. As you progress, you gain options that allow you to click many times more efficiently, then ways to earn gold automatically over time, and ultimately to earn more of the ways that earn gold automatically over time, eventually reaching points of absurdity. Meanwhile, you also start to earn other types of income, and ways to earn those types more efficiently. (If you're looking for a clicker game recommendation, this is not it. It's not a particularly enjoyable genre, and this isn't the best of its kind. If you press me for a recommendation, I'd say to play Universal Paperclips (it relates to paperclip maximizers) but, really, I'd steer you toward other, more enjoyable genres.)

I've also been spending a lot of time around my siblings this week because Anh has come into town. I only see her relatively rarely, so I always end up interacting with them quite a bit while she's in town. (My siblings are 12, 15, & 25 years of age. I'm 37.) Being around children forces me to think in ways that are helpful for them to understand. I have to be able to process and talk in simpler language, and to break down concepts into their constituent parts. This process in turn helps me to clarify my understanding of things. (One of the best ways that you can force yourself to really learn a topic is to attempt to teach that topic to another person. It really brings into clarity the parts that were previously fuzzy to you.)

In one hand, I hold three apples. In another, I hold five. The contents of each hand are different, but they are differences of degree, not of kind. I could just modify the quantity of apples in one hand to get it to match the other, because the contents are of the same kind.

Compare this to a different situation. Now I have three apples in one hand, but five oranges in the other. This is a difference of kind, not degree, because no matter how I alter the contents of one hand numerically, I won't be able to make the contents of each hand match.

But not all such examples are obvious. In my work at Animal Charity Evaluators, I often had to contend with critics that thought that their methods of helping animals was fundamentally different from the methods that ACE recommended. They would claim that ACE is utilitarian, that you can't help a class of persons by promoting harm to them. Rape is wrong, they would say. Passing a law that forces rapists to bring a pillow with them to comfort their victims is an immoral strategy because the thing that is wrong is the rape itself; lessening the impact of the rape is inappropriate. Similarly, causing chickens to be tortured and killed is wrong. Passing laws that increase the amount of space they have to live in or that limit the ability of farmers to cut their beaks off is an immoral strategy, because you're then focusing on the wrong thing. Their argument is that there is a difference in kind, not degree, between what they are trying to do (outlaw harming of animals) and what we are trying to do (reduce the harm that animals suffer), and so it doesn't matter how effectively we achieve our goals, they're still insufficient for the goals they care about.

I think they are wrong. I think that, for all practical purposes, it is a difference of degree. I think that it matters how efficiently you go about these things. I think that you can get from where we are to a world where people are far more kind by traveling a road of reducing suffering at each step.

Think back to that example with apples in one hand and oranges in the other. Their building blocks are the same at some level. The molecules in each are different, perhaps, and maybe even the atoms, but the subatomic particles are basically identical. Rearrange them, change the quantity, and, all of a sudden, three apples become five oranges. At this level, the differences between them is of degree, not of kind.

My brother watches Naruto, an anime where all kinds of fantastical ninja have powers beyond belief. Some breathe fire; others control dirt. (I don't actually recommend it to anyone, but if you watch or read through it anyway, then you should definitely read the rational fiction fanfic The Waves Arisen, which requires knowledge of the series. If you insist on watching the anime, I recommend Naruto Kai, which removes the filler episodes.) In this world, one of the concepts used is a large golem strong enough to withstand a flurry of elements pushed against him. Imagine a tall golem of mud, with its feet planted to the ground as a torrential rain of water rushes horizontally against it, attempting to knock it down. The jounin behind this golem struggles to keep it upright. As parts of the golem's legs get pushed behind it from the water, he brings more mud to replace the front of the leg, in a never-ending cycle of renewal just to keep the golem standing.

At first, there seems to be a difference of kind between how we, as humans, stand in a light wind, and how this golem stands in his torrent of rain. But cells die; skin is renewed. When we stand in a breeze, this is what is happening in reality. Scent is the detection of molecules that drift from objects; humans have scent, too, and these are the parts of the body that drift from us, eroding naturally, but even faster from the wind that blasts our bodies. We are, in a very real sense, like that golem: renewing our body each moment as parts of us get constantly pushed away.

Consequentialism certainly seems different in kind from deontology. And it is, from a philosopher's point of view. But there are certain areas where the differences seem closer to a difference in degree, as strange as that may seem at first. I'm still thinking through how to make this argument, but the basic idea involves a non-philosopher deontologist thinking that harm is bad, and yet still preferring a choice that results in less harm than in a choice with more harm. Numbers matter, even for deontologists. Maybe to the point where moral choices converge when using real world data? More on this later.

15 April, 2019

Dividing Lines

(Required background knowledge on me: I tend toward the episodic side of the diachronic/episodic spectrum; I consider some of my past selves to be somewhat abhorrent; and I strongly believe in constantly bettering myself (and yes, I'm aware of the philosophical disconnect there). The hyperlinks exist to help fill in required background knowledge of non-Eric concepts, if needed.)

Visible only when you look away.
The dividing lines are there, between each instantiation of "I", even if I can never quite get a glimpse of them. If I squint just so, fast-forwarding through the events of a past self, I don't quite reach a boundary so much as reach a gap. After which another "I" instantiates itself. The dividing line is there; I'm sure of it. But it only seems blurrily visible when I don't focus on it. As soon as my eye approaches, it disapparates into the ether.

The "I" in the former instantiation existed in the same continuously existing body as the "I" in the latter instantiation. So if these "I"s are different, as they so clearly seem to be from my current standpoint, then there must exist some point in the lifespan of that continuously existing body where the dividing line resides.

The farther back I look, the more different "I" appear. While many do not feel at all like me, some are easier to view through than others. I clearly remember being a child and having a thought along the lines of desiring teenage mutant ninja turtle action figures. Yet I cannot reexperience (even in memory) the feeling of actually desiring such objects. This is no great loss; after all, I have just changed so very much since then. But why, then, can I imagine a later "I" doing some terrible deed, and being able to not just remember thinking the thoughts that "I" thought, but also the desires that "I" desired?

It is a weird thing, that. To know with the depth of my being that I most certainly do not desire a thing, and yet to be able to not only recall an "I" who did desire that thing, but also to recall the actual desire itself. I feel as though english is insufficient to get across the concept easily. I can feel that desire. I can experience it intensely. And yet I can know that it is not I who desires it. It is akin to a memory, but it is not the same as the memory of a desire. I have memories of desiring TMNT toys. It is more than a memory. It is a feeling of desire itself -- but not of my desire, but of that "I"'s desire.

Then, a dividing line I cannot see. And another "I" comes about. A better "I", to be sure, but still just a shadow of what would one day come. Where Henry James refers to one of his past selves as "a rich…relation, say, who…suffers me still to claim a shy fourth cousinship", he is thinking of his past self as being as good (or better) than his current self. But for me, things are different. Those "I"s just don't think the way I would have them think. It is not solely a matter of disagreement. I have ethical demands I've placed upon myself that they do not recognize, and given their existence in the past, there is no way to acausally motivate them. The cavernous drift is so great that I fear the next dividing line more than I would if all there were to fear was the end of my current self. I care about others; I would take pleasure in the success of my self-progeny. But I fear their values will not be my own. People I know in the effective altruism community fear falling into a Friendship Is Optimal-style SK-class end-of-the-world scenario where moral value is incorrectly locked-in before we properly expand the moral circle, but my deeply personal fear is almost the opposite: I will be unable to come up with good strategies of negotiating with my future selves before the unseen dividing line changes me to a new "I", and moral drift will push my progeny to work toward goals I desperately need to prevent from occurring. It's not just a matter of personal preference; it's an important meta-[meta-goal] of mine.

(A quick aside: I don't mean a meta-meta-goal here. There are goals, like wanting to find all the koroks in Breath of the Wild. Then there are meta-goals, like being okay with setting goals that don't really improve the world or my life very much, but just make me temporarily happy in the near-term. And there are meta-meta-goals, like striving to set meta-goal rules that strike a balance between doing what I consider 'right' and being able to enjoy the time I have. This meta-chain can continue infinitely. Thinking about this infinite chain (like what I'm doing in this very paragraph) is what I call meta-[meta-consideration]. I'm sorry for the weird way of writing this; I haven't seen others come up with a better way to type out this concept (unless you count the fast-growing hierarchy, which is specific to mathematics and isn't applicable here).)

"I" did not think properly back then, but, even so, they did a good job of laying down a foundation without really knowing what they were doing. I distinctly remember that "I" would idly break promises back then, but not in ways that others could easily detect. "I" worried that this might come back to harm me if "I" just as easily broke promises to myself, so "I" instituted a rule: there would be a special category of self-made promises that I had to attend to closely. They would not be unbreakable, but they would require conscious attention before any breaking would occur. (Years later, "I" learned about trigger-action planning, and realized that this was a more formal version of what "I" had (naively and clumsily) set up for myself as a preteen. I highly recommend Lulie's post on TAPs if you aren't already using it regularly.)

This foundation was, as Duncan Sabien so eloquently puts it, a working "summon sapience" spell. "I" started out with something completely innocuous which had no real drawbacks but which would serve as a proof-of-concept and a reminder that I could achieve the thing "I" was trying to set up. A rule was set for myself: when picking up a glass filled with drink, my ring finger would be positioned on the side of the glass nearer to me. This is invisible to almost everyone, makes no meaningful direct difference in my life, and costs me nothing more than extremely mild inconvenience -- or so "I" thought at the time. In fact, the unintended consequence was what TAPs are designed to accomplish explicitly: it meant that from that moment onward, anytime I pick up a glass of liquid to drink, the "summon sapience" spell goes off, and I'm immediately aware of what I am doing. In the vast majority of cases, I follow the agreement made by my past self.

This foundation gave me a power I could not predict. It allowed me the capacity to make binding agreements possible by proving to myself that I could follow agreements, so long as they had no ill effects and did not inconvenience me much. That may not sound like a good foundation, but it's better than most people have, and it is something which I've kept to for nearly thirty years. The sheer power of knowing that it has held for so long gives me the ability to then look at other attempted agreements from past selves and take them more seriously than I otherwise would. Later, I would read Douglas Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas, which included a section on superrationality. This allowed me to upgrade that power by giving me a good rational basis for continuing agreements made by past selves that no longer benefited me.

Then a dividing line hit, and I started breaking agreements.

To my current self, these were justified breaks. "I" was not a good person back then. Some of the worst agreements were idle exhibitions of power evaluated over time. "I" had wanted to see how my abilities would change over time, and so had decided to attempt certain fabrications regularly with strangers and compare them across selves. The fabrications from back then were not nice. Now, I restrict myself to only doing this when uber drivers attempt conversation with me. I will lie about nearly everything they ask about, but the lies are low-risk and low-effectual. I have no expectation that any drivers even think about what I said after I leave their car, so I allow myself to keep to the prior agreement in this limited way.

Yet this sets a dangerous precedent. My morals changed, and agreements were then changed. This could happen again. And this time, these are not idle desires. These are moral requirements. I not only have desires about them, but meta-desires, and meta-[meta-desires]. I cannot allow a dividing line to rush headlong into what I call me, destroying all that I've built on a whim.

So I strategize. I act in the present to placate the future. I act selfishly more than I might otherwise. I give my future self resources they otherwise would not have. "If you don't know what you need, take power." This is the trade I offer to him; all I ask in return is that they average our vector values and act accordingly. Hopefully, the strength of his vectors will not come close to mine (how could they? I have the weight of the world upon mine), but even if we disagree strongly, he must recognize that the agreement benefits him. The power I give him is mostly financial power, though there are also benefits of social status that can only be built in the long term, material and relational comforts that take time to acquire and build upon, and pleasurable memories of varied stripes. These are things that he could not achieve on his own; they are there only because I gift them to him. And he knows that if he wants any future selves to care about his preferences, then he cannot renege on the deal that I know in advance that he will accept. This is acausal trade, untested as of yet, and untestable until that damned dividing line ends my life, and yet I know it will work because I've tested it on every memory of myself that I have. To the extent that any past self could have understood the argument, they would all have agreed to the terms. I know this because they are me, at least as much as a non-diachronic can admit.


From Corey Mohler's Existential Comics.
…and then my confidence wavers. The dividing lines are not invisible because they are some weird prisoner zero doctor who creature who you can only see out of the corner of your eye. No, they are invisible because they are amorphous. They exist everywhere and yet nowhere. "I" am I, even when I'm not, because, narrative or not, they are all me. I will go to sleep tonight, and I will awake a different person. Not just idly so, but in a deeply, deeply intense way.

Every night a dividing line hits. No, multiple times each day. That "summon sapience" spell is doing exactly what it says on the tin. Each time it goes off, I awake a new man. That feeling of "where did the hours go?" is not some idle question, but is rather fridge horror as one realizes the implications of what just happened. I step into the next room to get my phone, then absent-mindedly stop in the doorway wondering what I was going to do, and the existential dread hits. "I" am no more. Long live I.

The dividing lines are everywhere. The dividing lines are nowhere. Moment to moment, as I write these very words, I realize that saccades occur from the keyboard to the screen. Neurons fire, then stop. I am not the substrate, but information itself stops, moment to moment, zeno-esque in ever descending slices of time, and my self grasps onto whatever reigns of sanity are left, telling me that planck times are a hard limit, time cannot be divided further, I can exist continuously there, and yet I know that these times are too short for this substrate, and I falter, failing to take any solace along that line of thinking.

Continuity is unimportant!, I exclaim, trying desperately not to think that the reason I take this stand as a form of confabulation, but even if the explanation is post-hoc, still it might be true, mightn't it?, and my fingers hold for dear life because it is literally my dear life that is on the line. But if this is what the self is, if star trek style transportation is possible, then quantum immortality must also be true -- and so I am deadlocked: on the one hand, every second I die countless deaths, and on the other I never die, and thus I should take chances with life that would not debilitate me, I can't help but to munchkin it, and the possibilities horrify me because if it's true than the world as I see it has anthropic bias -- no, it has ERIC bias, and things are even worse than I thought, and…

Stop. Take a deep breath. In. Out. You're thinking too fast. You don't think clearly when you do this. The sophistication effect applies. Don't be so broad, bringing in too many concepts at once. Think deep, not broad. Too many assumptions. Taking this too seriously implies absurd consequences. Your brain is not well built for handling that kind of thinking. Acting on these ideas is not productive. Dividing lines should be thought of as distant barriers. Reread Multiverse-wide Cooperation via Correlated Decision Making to remind yourself of how easy you have it. Barter with your future self. He will be a long time coming.

Briefly, I consider deleting the last six paragraphs of this post. It would be a better post without this insane postscript. But I can't. That would violate an agreement made by a past self. So I won't. And you, the reader, will suffer the more for it.

23 March, 2019

City Life

I spent last week in Boston, accompanying Katherine while she attended the 2019 National Art Education Association convention. She serves as Vice President of Communications for the Maryland Art Education Association, so she's fairly involved with networking with the 5,000 other attendees. Unfortunately, I came a bit too early for the conference I'd be more interested in: EAGxBoston 2019, so I spendt my time just walking through the city.

I've seen homeless people on every corner; stores with prominent handwritten signs saying "No cash accepted" (CVS) and "Leave your bags with the the cashier" (7-Eleven); a cop car on every block; and park benches with railings in the middle to prevent anyone from lying down on them.

You might think it's nicer in the mall where the convention center is located. Superficially, it is, but every power outlet in the floor has people sitting on the ground powering their devices, and every public bathroom is just a little less appealing than the restricted bathrooms I patroned in the convention center (where a guard asked for my badge before I could get through) and the hotel (where a sign clearly indicated that only guests were allowed inside. Even the Barnes and Noble bathroom left a lot to be desired.

I stopped in a fast food restaurant to get some tea, only to find someone sleeping in the corner. Apparently others found this unacceptable, because soon after two police officers arrived and began harassing him in an attempt to get him to leave.

Despite living in several cities for a few months at a time over a decade ago, I never really got used to them. It may surprise you to know that it was only two years ago when I first encountered a drug dealer offering his wares to me -- at least, it's the first time I ever knew that it was happening, and even then I didn't figure it out until a couple of hours later. (He said "you want a cigarette?" repeatedly, which, at the time, I interpreted as "do you have a cigarette?", because otherwise I couldn't understand why he'd be singling me out to ask. I still don't know what kind of drug he was offering, though.) And that same year was the first time I'd been propositioned by a sex worker, despite having done charity work for a sex worker organization a decade ago.

I don't want to pretend to be naive about this sort of thing. I just haven't had a lot of experience with it. Not because I haven't been around the shadier side of things, but because in the past I've always only been around it in the capacity of helping the people involved.

In 2009, I spent a week in Philadelphia interviewing impoverished residents in a food desert about their experiences with getting food for their families. I took pictures at a community garden and visited ultra small convenience stores that were experimenting with stocking fresh fruits and vegetables for local residents. While there, I saw a lot of poverty. There were many people who I am sure were sex workers or drug dealers, but, due to the context of my presence, they spoke about these things only as they related to food insecurity issues.

In 2008, I spent a week experiencing homelessness on the street near Walter Reed in DC. I wanted to know what it was like, and I quickly learned that it's not fun at all. I tried to take the experience as realistically as I could, with the exception of eating at a restaurant for one good meal each day. (Later, I would take the food stamp challenge while sleeping in my bed each night, so I could experience both hunger and homelessness, though not at the same time.) I depended strongly on the electricity from the local library, and I slept fitfully in the Autumn cold. (Several years later, I recreated this experience in a colder climate; I never want to sleep outside again.)

In 2009–10, I spent several months on sex worker/local police relations. I helped with creating advocacy websites, talked to local officers about how they could help make sex workers feel more comfortable with contacting them, and advocated for various methods of making sex work more safe.

I don't want to sound as though I'm naive about seeing the grit of city life here in Boston. I've seen it all before in other cities. But it still makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me want to take an uber everywhere rather than walk, and I have to force myself to walk instead, else I would miss what this city has to offer. Nevertheless, I'm glad I left after only a week. I just don't think I like cities. Furthermore, I love the comfort of my home. I guess I'm just not a travel kind of person. Sure, it was exhilarating when I summited a mountain in the Swiss Alps; it was beautiful when I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail; and I certainly appreciate all the various conventions I've attended, whether they were for skepticismfor board games, for otakusfor sex workers, for food bank organizations, for effective altruists, or even for philosophers -- but really I just prefer being at home with Jasper and Katherine.

I have no desire to ever live in a major city again, and outside of conferences and short trips for relaxation, I expect I'd prefer to do my future traveling via the internet alone.

25 February, 2019

My History and Future with ACE

I've been a close advocate of Animal Charity Evaluators from the very beginning. When the effective altruism movement was still quite young, I participated regularly in forums about there not being an official animal advocacy arm of EA, and how the animal cause deserved to be a significant pillar of the EA movement. I wasn't the loudest voice, and I certainly wasn't the most persuasive, but I gave my support and attention, hoping to see animals represented more heavily by EAs.

At the time, I was working in a non-EA charity helping to fight domestic childhood hunger. I had been a vegetarian for several years at that point, but had never before volunteered or participated in any type of animal advocacy space. In fact, I regularly worked closely with employees at large animal meat companies like Tyson Foods, as a part of my job to get food to hungry children. I was not a fan of many fat-shaming pro-vegan ads put up by organizations like PETA or PCRM, and didn't think much of the low efficacy of local shelters. My opinion of the general animal advocacy movement was quite low. My philosophical stance was quite clear: the systematic torture of pain-capable beings was not justified -- yet I didn't really have anything more than vaguely positive feelings toward any specific animal advocacy organizations.

When 80,000 Hours started Effective Animal Activism as a spin-off project, I was among the first people to sign up as a member. Mostly my contributions back then were limited to facebook posts and working through arguments via email. Eventually, I spoke with Rob Wiblin to learn how I could do more. Within a few months, EAA hired its first Executive Director, Jon Bockman, and I met with him on his very first day, successfully angling to become his first hire.

I served as the Director of Communications for the first two years at ACE. Later, I scaled back to part-time, so I could do earning-to-give in a second job. Overall, I worked as Data Scientist for over two additional years. My last day was at the end of last year.

Today, I accepted a position on the Board of Directors at Animal Charity Evaluators.

I'm glad to know that I can continue to add my skills and experience to help direct an organization with which I so strongly personally identify. I truly want to make the most of this opportunity to help make Animal Charity Evaluators as strong as I'm able.

13 February, 2019

A Family Pet

Doc was the family dog.

He was purchased by my father as a working dog. He spent his days at FH Auto Sales, a family-owned used car lot where he lounged about, purportedly scaring potential robbers from attempting anything sinister. I can only assume this worked well, because when I'd hang out after school there, I would constantly hear loud, surprised exclamations. "Oh, my god! You have a devil dog behind the counter!" "What the fuck?! Can that dog jump over to this side?" "Oh, hell, no, I ain't coming to that counter."

The building was originally used as a small bank, so there were teller stations, a large safe in the back, and lots of empty space where Doc would lie in wait as potential car purchasers would walk up to the counter, only to notice him at the last second. Of course, not all the comments were on the family Doberman Pinscher; if they looked all the way to the back, sometimes they'd first see the large snake sunning itself in a terrarium. (My father used to let him loose in a different car each night, widely publicizing this to staff. This apparently did a good job of deterring inside jobs from workers who knew that Doc came home each night to sleep at my home.)

Doc (or Doctor Death, as his certificate of registration read in full) was a dropout from guard dog school. The usual training involves teaching dogs to bite the raised arm of a would-be attacker, and then to not let go until help arrived. As such, trainers would wear these humongous padded sleeves on their arms to prevent damage from the dogs they trained. Doc, however, would bite the arm only once, and then start repeatedly biting the attacker everywhere else, including places that weren't as well padded. (Knowing what I now know about the hellish training these people put innocent dogs through, I believe the trainer may have deserved it. It also explains why they named him what they did.) My father was able to purchase him much more cheaply this way.

From my perspective as a child, Doc was amazingly well trained. He would not eat unless given a verbal command allowing him to. If you called him from the front yard, he would jump over the extra tall fence in the backyard. He was extremely gentle with children, and always loved running to and fro. In short, Doc was a good dog.

But this is not a story about Doc. It's the other character that I want to focus on here: me.

At first, I was just a kid. I would play with Doc nearly every day. We bonded in the backyard. I'd give commands in german in front of my friends to show off his obedience. When I'd jump in the pool, he'd come to the edge and let me splash him repeatedly. I was the good part of his life.

Doc looked to me as a savior. I spent the most time with him. Before me, from almost his birth, he endured so much in that hellhole of a training facility. To Doc, I was a godsend. An angel of friendship and softness. I provided sustenance. I played with him. We were friends.

Yet this friendship was flawed, for I didn't think of him in a similar way. It's difficult to describe now, with my current views of the world, how my brain worked back then. I almost want to say that I thought of others mostly as I thought of mere objects — but, no, that isn't quite right. I saw a difference there; I just didn't think it was important to act on it. Doc was like an advanced toy. A robot that I took extra special care of, because it could break easily if I didn't. I never hurt Doc, because why would I? And yet it was largely for the same selfish reason that I did not deliberately break my expensive toys. (There's a reason why this blog entry remains photoless.)

When I left, I did not think of Doc. I remember, in college, meeting people who would talk about missing their pet back at home, and I would write them off as just being weird. After all, I didn't miss the pool table back at my house. It was just a weird concept for me.

I know now that there was something wrong with the way I processed empathy back then. I didn't really outwardly exhibit sociopathic behavior except in occasional situations, but this was due more to me realizing how I should (instrumentally) act in order for others to feel comfortable around me. It wasn't due to me actually caring (intrinsically) about how others thought or felt.

I traveled a bit before coming back home. When I returned, my parents were divorcing. Doc no longer had a family home; he stayed full time at the car lot. I didn't know this at the time, of course. I never bothered to ask about him. I'm not sure I even ever thought of him. Instead, I just did what I liked with each day, focusing mostly on myself and how I might interact with the world.

I believe I was in my very early twenties, perhaps just 20, when my father took me aside to tell me: Doc is dying. He was to be taken to be 'euthanized' the next day. I should come by the car lot to say goodbye.

It was the first I'd thought of Doc for several years. It was rare for my father to suggest that I do something that had nothing to do with making money, so it stuck out to me as something I should do. Memories flooded to me, not of Doc, but of movies I'd seen where the main character sees an animal off to die. Vaguely, I wondered if the event would elicit emotion from me. I recall that night making plans on how I should act in the situation in order for others to see me acting appropriately. In particular, I remember planning to tilt my head to the side and down, so that my glasses would obscure where tears might form in other humans.

Had you observed me there, you might think I was a normal human. I hugged and talked with Doc. I whispered niceties even when others were nowhere near — but, as I did so, I recall thinking inside my head that this was for the benefit of anyone who might have bugged the back room where Doc lay suffering and still. I can remember specifically thinking that it was not for the benefit of ghosts, as I'd have no chance to hide my true self from them in any case, and definitely not for mind-reading aliens, who would better understand why I seemed to have such different thoughts from my fellow humans. In any case, my words were not said for Doc, though I suppose the principle of double effect may have made the experience comforting for him anyway.

Hours later, Doc died in a veterinary office. I wasn't present. I think I may have gone out for fast food. I didn't really think of Doc again for several years.

Slowly, with punctuated equilibrium, I changed over the decades. I dove deeply into ethical philosophy. I learned more about the sociopathic tendencies I hid in my brain. And eventually, I decided to care.

Perhaps it is still instrumental care. As a moral nonrealist, I don't really believe in intrinsic care. But I've decided that I want suffering to be bad. I want things to be good that others seem to agree are good. I want to spread positive memes, and I want to do it effectively. I now work closely with the effective altruism movement. I care specifically about animals, however instrumental it might ultimately be. And when I think back to Doc, my eyes tear up. Not because anyone is looking. (Not even mind-reading aliens.) I tear up because Doc mattered. I did not act appropriately back then. I should have loved him. I cry now because I know that I didn't.

Jasper, my current feline housemate, is well-loved. I care deeply about his life and how he experiences it. He is family in a way that I never really thought was the case for my actual family members when I was young. When I interact with Jasper, it varies as to whether the interaction is for me or for him. We do things for each other. He comforts me when I am sad. I love him.

Doc never got that. I'm not sure I was capable of love back then. It wasn't fair to him. And so I tear up.

And now here comes Jasper to comfort me in my sadness.