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.