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.