17 December, 2019

Feeling Self-conscious

We all have things that we feel self-conscious about. But it can be difficult to talk openly about such things while being cognizant of our privilege.

I don't want to compare my feelings of inadequacy with those of others. I know that I am extremely well off, but when we look at ourselves, we always seem to compare ourselves to the best of others. It's difficult not to feel inadequate in the fields where I just wish that I could be and do better.

This past weekend, Katherine accepted an award for the Maryland high school art teacher of year. While prestigious, it's not unexpected. The year before last, she won the Montgomery County high school art teacher of the year, and she's been extremely active in helping art educators state-wide for a while now. Yet, on the drive over, she expressed her feelings of self-consciousness. Despite knowing all that she has accomplished in her field, she still expressed feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Which is understandable. She's human, after all. But I couldn't help but to think of all the high school art teachers that I know, and of how many of them that just don't plain work as hard and as efficiently as Katherine does. To me, it is obvious why her peers have decided to recognize her as the most prominent secondary level art teacher in the state this year. But, in her head, the comparison is not to the average art teacher in her state, but to the idealized top art teachers that she can imagine. And, amongst that group, she feels quite inadequate.

Playing reference class tennis with myself would be a waste of time, but I can't help but to echo her feelings when it comes to the work I do in the field of effective altruism. There are so many effective altruists that have graduated from the top universities in the world, working at prestigious institutions and/or earning massive incomes. Comparing myself to these people on these terms can make me feel self-conscious.

I'd like to think that I'm intelligent. That I'm thoughtful when it comes to others. But can I really be a good judge of myself? If I am to avoid bias, I need some way of comparing myself using a proper reference class.

Recently, a friend got so upset with me for being so strongly inconsiderate that she ended up removing me as a friend on social media. If you had asked me only a day previous to this whether I could do something that would cause such a reaction from one of my friends, I would have maintained that that would be extremely unlikely. Yet it did occur, and I am at a loss to explain why.

Steelmanning her point of view, I suppose it was because I was saying something derogatory toward her while she was already down, and this was over the line because you don't kick a person when they're down. Saying it like this does make me seem like an asshole, I guess, though I still don't think that if I could redo the conversation that I would choose to act any differently. She is not doing well financially, and she was asking me for a moderately large loan to get out of what she called an emergency situation. My response was that I had given her over a dozen loans so far in the past decade of over $1k each and despite her numerous promises to repay, she had not made even the slightest attempt to repay any of it for several years. I reminded her of this as my explanation for why I could no longer loan her any money. I then gifted her a small amount, hoping that this might help her immediate emergency situation. Her response was to unfriend me, saying that I was an asshole for saying derogatory things about her while she was in a bad situation already.

Judging myself is inappropriate, because biases abound. But if I am to judge based on her perception of me…

I went on a first date with someone intelligent. During our discussion, I said something that, looking back, I really regret. I said that I felt like I wasn't very smart. What I meant was that, in the reference class of comparing myself to people I associate with in the EA movement, I am just not nearly as quick as they are. This is the wrong reference class. I know this. This is especially wrong when you're on a first date -- they don't yet know you, and they can't possibly understand the context behind such a stupid thing that you might say. Self-deprecation is not good. It's not funny; it's not helpful. I regret doing it. But I did; it just came out too easily. Thankfully, she looked past it. I guess other parts of the conversation at least made up for it.

Yet despite knowing that it isn't appropriate to say, I nevertheless still feel it. I really do. I'm not nearly as effective as I could be. I don't read nearly as much as I could. I don't give nearly as much as I'd be able to if I just worked as hard as I'm capable of. When I speak to peers about money, I can't help but to realize that they're making $200k or more each year, while at my peak I've only had a salary in the $115k range. Now, working directly for EA charities, I earn far less than that, but I consider the difference as a form of in-kind giving. But, again: this is the wrong reference class. In comparison to the world at large, I am extremely affluent. I have the luxury to be able to quit a job and spend six months before deciding what I want to do next. I know this; but what I feel is inadequacy. I went to a great college. I had absolutely top-notch philosophy teachers; I was able to read to my heart's content in the best philosophy library in the state of Alabama. But what I end up comparing myself to are peers that graduated from Ivy league institutions. It's maddening to know that this doesn't matter; that their education in terms of both breadth and depth is not dissimilar to my own, especially considering how much autodidactic extra-curricular stuff I went through. But what I know is not what I feel.

What makes it worse is that I cannot really talk about this with anyone. In the context of a conversation with a person in the same room with me, saying these things just makes me look like an ass. I mean, can you imagine? "I feel so stupid and poor and uneducated," Eric unthinkingly complains, despite being the literal opposite of all three. And so I write my feelings on my blog instead, feeling safe in the knowledge that no one I know (and no one that I don't know) reads anything I write here. It's like this is my own private journal, kept locked in a box under my bed, except I put it online with my name next to it, and no one cares because why would they? This is a safe space. I can say my true feelings here, even if those same feelings would make me look like an absolute ass if I ever said them to my actual friends in real life.

14 November, 2019

Pay the Rent First

When you don't have much money, sometimes you have to prioritize which bills you can pay first. Should you pay the electricity bill? Or water? Food? Or rent?

If you're really desperate, then it can become a delicate balance of always staying ahead of eviction or the lights going out. But there's a narrow band of poverty where this is a legitimate question, where the answer always remains the same: Always pay the rent first.

If enough money comes in to pay bills eventually, but they don't come in quite enough time, then you always want to pay rent first because that's the most important thing to keep you okay. Other bills can be paid late, and you can get assistance at a food bank for meals, but not paying your rent can have devastating consequences.

Sometimes I think about charity this way. It can be nice to give to a direct charity like Animal Equality, giving you that warm feeling of knowing that your money is working directly on helping to make animals' lives better. But sometimes it's better to think about paying the rent first, before going to the movies or eating out.

Animal Charity Evaluators
Animal Charity Evaluators is an organization evaluator; it (among other things) looks at organizations that are potentially highly effective and looks into whether they actually are among the top tier of animal advocacy organizations using an effective altruism framework. ACE's job is to find and promote the best animal charities, so usually when people go to ACE's website, what they're looking for is a recommendation for which animal charity they should give to.

Yet before you give to those recommended charities, it may make sense to first give to the organization that is actually doing the work of finding and promoting the best charities and interventions that help animals. By paying the rent first (donating to ACE before donating to its recommended organizations), you can ensure that the best opportunities for giving in the animal advocacy space will continually be identified and the best charities will be incentivized to not just be among the best today, but to always move forward as well, to stay in that designation as an ACE top recommended charity.

This is why I'd like to ask those of you who are already planning to donate to an animal advocacy charity to donate a portion of that amount first to Animal Charity Evaluators. It's not as sexy as donating to direct aid organizations, but it's nevertheless important to pay the rent first.

I should mention a few caveats here.
  1. First, while moving donations can potentially be much more effective than merely increasing your donations, in the case I lay out here this is not true. If you're already giving to a top charity, moving it to ACE might or might not be more effective. My argument would follow effective altruism philosophy more clearly if I instead made the ask for people to increase their donation by giving to ACE, rather than moving money from one top charity to another. But others are already making asks like that; I'm trying to focus instead on the idea of paying rent before spending on movies, rather than spending solely on movies. This scenario doesn't have an analogue of increasing one's donations, so it doesn't apply here.
  2. Second, I'm on the board of directors for Animal Charity Evaluators, so that may color how you interpret my suggestion to give to ACE. I would argue that the reason why I'm on the board of ACE is because I believe it is so very highly effective and so sought it out; it's not the case that I'm only recommending ACE because I happen to be on its board.
  3. If you really took this argument to the extreme, you might want to extend the analogy to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, at which point you might argue that you need to first spend money on oneself before spending anything on charity. I'm not averse to these kinds of arguments, but I do think that saying so to the audience likely to read this blog post sends the wrong message. In general, people allocate far too little to the most effective causes, so arguing that we should spend on ourselves first isn't the best argument to be making, even if it technically is true.
  4. If you need more info before donating, I highly recommend that you read about ACE's room for more funding or my colleague Allison Smith's pitch for donations to the organization before the giving season starts, at which point all marketing efforts ACE makes will be made toward giving to its recommended organizations and funds.
  5. If you're single, it actually isn't that difficult to live without paying rent, so long as you pay for a gym that has showers and a post office box. In that case, you should probably pay for your gym membership and post office box first, before any other bills. I wouldn't recommend it, though.

04 November, 2019

Remembering Final Fantasy VI

Twenty-five years ago, I was twelve years old. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was my most prized possession, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was my favorite game on the system. I proudly displayed a folded certificate that proclaimed "I brought light to the dark world", and I was eager to see what the next big game was going to be.

At the time, I was looking for a bigger adventure. Something that could engross me with puzzles rivaling A Link to the Past, but which would have more textual substance to it. I wanted a story with characters I could fall in love with. I wanted a villain that could both horrify and fascinate me. Unbeknownst to me, what I wanted was an RPG.

Enter Final Fantasy VI.

It hooked me from the opening scene. I felt awe at the initial setup of the story and continued to be awed by the depth of the story from moment to moment. Story beats kept coming at hour 1, hour 2, hour 3, and so on, but when it really grabbed my attention was the moment when (spoilers!) the villain won the final battle. I thought I had done something wrong. Did I wait too long for Shadow? Everything went to hell and suddenly I was starting again from scratch in a ruined world. The story overwhelmed me. Themes of suicide, of love, of hatred, of all kinds of things treated me like an adult. I experienced so many emotions on playing this game, and I could wait to replay it once I finally finished it. I kept a save game right before Kefka and made a habit of beating the final boss each night so I could listen to the exceedingly awesome ending theme song while I fell asleep.

I performed a playthrough where I got everything and leveled up to the maximum; I did a playthrough where I beat the game with only three characters. I worked my way through a low-level playthrough; I even played so sloppily on one playthrough that I got into a soft-lock in the opening part of the game with several parties of moogles that all got dropped to 1hp with not enough items to actually allow me to beat the scenario.

I celebrated the 25th anniversary of this game earlier this year by reading through Clyde Mandelin's excellent translation comparison of Final Fantasy VI. I especially appreciated the better understanding this translation comparison gave me of Locke's relationship with Rachel.

When I was in my teens, parts of this game affected me so much that I would use themes from it to explain how I felt about people in my life. When I had the chance to name an actual person coming into being in this world, I chose a name from this game, not because it was my favorite character, but because that character stood up for what they believed in, abandoning a position of power to instead do what was right.

Once, when a partner left me, they chose to leave a note not on the refrigerator, nor on the bed, but instead next to my copy of Final Fantasy VI, assuming, I suppose, that that is where I would head first after receiving such a dear john letter. (It wasn't, btw, and it took quite a very long time before I found that letter.)

During several of my lowest moments in this world, I would turn to music to help me to not feel so depressed. Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of Final Fantasy VI, is one of the composers to whom I would turn almost every time (the other being Yasunori Mitsuda, for his work on both Chrono Trigger and Xenogears). I don't do this quite as much anymore, perhaps partly because I don't endure long bouts of depression any longer, but I do occasionally play covers of their songs to make me smile.

Final Fantasy VI remains as one of my favorite video games of all time. It defined a moment of my childhood and reappeared in various forms during several major moments of my life. So I salute the game, 25 years later, as being the touchstone that it was for me in my life.

02 November, 2019

Blizzard's Next Step

It's important to never move the goalposts. If you have an expectation, write it down. Commit it to text, so that when the time comes, you don't inadvertently change the goalposts after the fact.

I did this with the Blizzard situation. I've thought a lot about this, because it significantly affects my life. The last three weeks of not opening any Blizzard games is the longest period of time that I've not opened a Blizzard game in almost 11 years. I've been a fan of their games since 1998. I've had a longstanding policy of never preordering games from any company with the exception of Blizzard and Nintendo. The amount of trust I've put into Blizzard in my life is significant. So when this whole situation went down, I committed to text exactly what I found wrong about the whole thing.

First, it is important for me to be realistic. Blizzard, as a company, has to be able to move into the Chinese market. To expect otherwise is the same as just giving up on them completely. So I was not expecting them to badmouth China, or to say that the Chinese position is wrong. But I was hoping that they would apologize for handling the situation so poorly. That they would make up for it by committing resources to help those hurt by the protests in Hong Kong, perhaps by donating to a charity working on providing financial assistance to the victims of accident or illness there -- something nonpolitical, which did not take a stance against China, but which actively helped the people in that area to be better off, even though they may be protesting the Chinese government.

This may seem overly specific. Expecting charitable help didn't seem out of the question to me; it seemed like a way that they could try to make amends while simultaneously not speaking out against China. It seemed reasonable. The other part that I wanted was for them to explicitly disavow themselves from NetEase's Weibo post. This was the clencher for me. NetEase made a post that was completely and utterly unacceptable. It was made on official accounts for the game itself. This seems like the kind of thing that Blizzard needs to explicitly disavow, or else it reflects directly upon them as a company.

Well, now Blizzcon is over. J. Allen Brack gave a corporate-sounding apology in the opening ceremony. It isn't great; Jai Dhyani points out that it is missing several aspects of what a genuine apology from a person should look like. But this is a company, not a person. It's still lacking, but not as severely, I think, as Dhyani intimates.

Blizzard explicitly told its employees that they are welcome to participate in the protests. Some did. Blizzard explicitly allowed any and all protests to occur, so long as they didn't harm people. This happened; disruptions occurred, and Blizzard allowed them. No one was kicked out for protest-related activities. Twitch chats were full of pro-Hong Kong sentiment; to my knowledge, the only people banned from chat were the ones who were spamming. No content bans occurred.

Brack also clarified in a PC gamer interview that NetEase is not a Blizzard arm. It is an entirely separate company, and they are not legally allowed to tell them what they can or can't put on NetEase's official social media accounts. When asked about the comments NetEase made, Brack made clear: "We did not authorize it. We did not approve it. We would not have approved it had they asked."

Blizzard has made clear that the pro-China rhetoric on social media is not from them and they are not in favor of it being posted. They have made clear that they are okay with free speech from employees and contractors, so long as it isn't something political during an official stream that's supposed to be about the game. They acknowledged that their original punishments were too severe, and they've reduced them significantly. So what does this mean in terms of what they have yet to properly apologize for?

I think that this means that they've disavowed themselves from some of the more egregious acts. They're corrected on the overly strong punishment. They've said that they cannot legally tell NetEase what to do about the bad social media posts. From my original set goalposts, it is unreasonable to expect them to be explicitly anti-China. So, from my vantage point, they have:
  • Included what the actor did wrong, by clarifying that the pro-China rhetoric cannot legally be changed by them, that the punishments they made were too excessive, and that they failed to properly explain why they had to take a neutral stance on the political issue.
  • Included a causal explanation of the underlying issues that led to the action, by having NetEase be so connected to the Chinese government, unable to tolerate an anti-China stance..
  • Acknowledged the hurt that their action caused, by making several statements to this effect.
  • NOT explained any lessons learned; they appear to instead want to not go into it very deeply. I think this might be okay for a company to do, even if an individual apologizing shouldn't have this as an option.
  • NOT made enough restorative actions to mitigate/compensate for the harms done. They did reduce the punishments to the point that they feel is fair, and I think I'm lightly in agreement with them on the fairness aspect of the punishment. But although NetEase was responsible for the worst of the pro-China sentiment, and although NetEase is a separate company than Blizzard altogether, they are nonetheless linked by the games they publish, and it seems appropriate for Blizzard to compensate for the harms enacted by NetEase in the same way that you or I might purchase carbon credits to compensate for the harms enacted by our airline company. Blizzard has yet to do this.
  • NOT described sufficient actions that address the underlying issue in an attempt to prevent it from recurring in the future. They have taken some actions on this front, by being more clear about when and where their commitment to free speech applies. But there seems to be no way to both sell their games in China while simultaneously limiting the kinds of things that their producer in China will say about things like the Hong Kong protests. This is something Blizzard hasn't done, but which I'm not sure they have the capacity to accomplish at all; thereby meaning that we shouldn't expect them to do what they literally cannot do, and so shouldn't expect them to figure out how to correct the underlying issue.
I want to make it clear that the standard I am giving Blizzard above is a corporate standard. If you're an actual human, you have to make it right, even if you can't. You do as much as you can to make it right, and when you fail, then that's just too bad for you. You separate from the aggrieved and move on. But a company cannot act this way without going out of business. Expecting it to is equivalent to expecting the business to bankrupt itself. This might be a moral hazard, but it is the best we have when it comes to companies, rather than people.

So, in summary: Blizzard has done a lot to make up for this brouhaha. But there are things it has yet to do that it should if it wants to genuinely make up for what has happened. Blizzard still needs to make restorative actions that either mitigate or compensate for the harms done. Looking back at my original goalposts, this makes sense to me. Everything else is either already done by Blizzard or it would be inappropriate to actually expect Blizzard to take those types of actions.

What Blizzard needs to do is to take some kind of charitable action in the Hong Kong region. It doesn't need to be political in nature; that would be inappropriate for a company trying to sell games in the China region. But it does need to help the people of Hong Kong, in way of showing that Blizzard is not against them in the same way that NetEase's Weibo post implies. Blizzard needs to pick a charity that helps to pay for medical expenses, or does something that directly helps the people who may or may not be involved in the Hong Kong protests. And it needs to be a charity that is NOT explicitly pro-China. It must be politically neutral.

If Blizzard does this, then I think that it will have done enough. I'm still not exactly happy with Blizzard. I'm certainly not going to preorder from them anymore. And I might not spend as much as I've already spent on their non-starcraft products. But I may resume spending on my favorite game of all time. And I'll once again look forward to the high-quality games that Blizzard has long been known for. So please, Blizzard: do something to compensate for this situation. Give to a Hong Kong charity. I promise that these goalposts will not be moved.

24 October, 2019

Uncomfortable with Blizzard

Watching Day[9]TV's 10 year anniversary broadcast, I can't help but feel sad. Don't get me wrong; I love learning about behind-the-scenes info on things that I remember enjoying over the years. But it really hits home that I have a very long history of enjoying StarCraft, and I just cannot help but to feel sick to my stomach about the company behind it: Blizzard.

Put simply, at a Hearthstone tournament, a player expressed their approval of the Hong Kong protests. Blizzard responded by taking away that player's earnings, banning them for a year, and firing the casters who allowed him to say this on air. The official Blizzard response in China was even more extreme, saying "We will always respect and defend the pride of our country."

After days of not saying anything, even internally, Blizzard eventually reduced the punishments, but they did not give any disapproval of China's stance. This was not enough of a walkback for me, and neither was it enough for several US senators and many others.

It makes me feel legitimately sad. StarCraft is a not insignificant part of my life. I've spent many many thousands of dollars on Blizzard products. But I don't think I can support Blizzard any longer. And it hurts.

(Even though it gives them no money, it feels even weird to watch WCS. It's a part of my life. It's been building up all year. I can't imagine not watching it. But it just feels so very, very icky.)

15 October, 2019

Divisions of My Lines

I've spoken before about the dividing lines that make up my lives. Much of that introspective essay was about how the divisions mean something to me (and honestly it's a much more interesting read than this blog entry). But today I want to make a much smaller point, perhaps too small to matter, but hopefully of some interest:

My life seems to be divvied up into different video games that I've played.

I expect that something similar applies to other people. Surely this is not so strange. There's the Blockbuster era, where every weekend was a different game. I played at my grandmother's house, oblivious to everyone else around me. There's Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, played at my own home, too small to really play well, inviting my father to help me beat an especially difficult battle against Shadow Link. There's Final Fantasy VI, when I finally felt grown up, reading Relativity: the Special and General Theory and pop-science books on physics of all kinds, including flatland and the meditation on the tater tot. There's Chrono Trigger, when I started going more into mathematics, getting stuck on the very first book of the Feynman Lectures on Physics. There's Final Fantasy VII, when I started talking about planets of various sizes, and Final Fantasy VIII when tried to reinvent myself in a new school. There's Command & Conquer: Tiberium Sun, where I acted so hatefully and regretfully. There's FF IX, played in solitude, and Chrono Cross, played in the mountains while I ate hot pockets for two weeks straight. There's a period of no gaming at all where everything blurs together in a haze of unremembered nonsense. There's the purchase of a 3DS, sad and defeated. The purchase of a Wii, trying desperately to regain my sanity. The Wii U, covered in friendship and glad caress. And the Switch, lazy and eager.

I remember buying the PS2 with my own money and thinking it a big deal. Playing it in a home without heating, way too interested in rekindling lost worthlessnesses.

I remember the GameCube, almost always on, ever excited and constantly fulfilled, but only in the worst of ways.

I remember Suikoden, on the large television in the game room, played late at night when no one is looking.

I remember Majora's Mask, with a cloth to catch spare drops from my pen.

I remember Culdcept, played achingly, but with thoughtfulness.

I remember Picross, lovingly enjoyed.

Listening to music from any of the games I've played, so long as they were long enough to represent a period of time in my life, will instantly take me back to those times. Strangely, the reverse tends not to be true. If you ask me about some past event, I often have trouble remembering the details. What state was I in during 9/11? Did I take the PSAT? LSAT? Was I in the hospital that time? Or was that just another dream? But if I was playing a game during that time, then merely play the music and I am instantly transported back.

I wonder how other experience this sort of thing. Or if they experience it via media in the way that I tend to. But in the meantime, I'm going to youtube to play a few songs from interesting times in my past.

10 October, 2019

Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom

Yesterday, a friend came to me with a financial request. This isn't unusual for me. I've publicly posted about my 25% giving pledge in the past, and my donations are on record with various EA sites, so it's not unusual at all for me to receive emails and facebook requests from people asking for money. I never give to these strangers, of course. My pledge is to give to effective organizations. But friends are a different matter. When friends are in trouble, you should help them.

The problem is that this particular friend has repeatedly needed help. They have repeatedly asked for loans, which I've given them. But they have not been nearly as good at repaying those loans.

In the grand scheme of things, it's not that much money that they've "borrowed" from me. Under $20k, over a period of a decade or so that hasn't been repaid. But, all the same, it is too much for me to go on supporting them like this.

They did not take the news well. I tried to explain my reasoning; I tried to not just say no, but to also explain about how the lack of trust on repayments is the reason for my not loaning them money, and not because I thought ill of them in other respects. In return, I was called vile names. They reminded me of past wrongs I did, saying that I had not changed from those days. They told me how horrible they thought I was, how terrible I was being right now, and how downright mean it was for me to leave them in the lurch like this.

The entire experience has left me feeling rather unwell. I am ashamed to admit that I sent a very small token amount to them. It only incensed them further.

Would the same thing have happened in branches where I had acted differently?

11 August, 2019


Money is a good thing. We all are individually better off when trade is eased, even if it also causes inequality. I approve of money as a concept, despite its long-term drawbacks upon society. Somehow I have a modicum of faith that those issues will eventually be addressed. We're going to figure out how to make the extreme inequalities go away, sooner or later.

But it is another deceptively application of money that gives me pause. It is something so fundamental to the idea of money that I'm not sure how it could be solved without also taking away trade altogether. This idea, considered an unrelenting positive by most, is fungibility.

When I give money to someone else, they can use that money for whatever they want. Money reserved for one purpose can easily be spent on another purpose, simply by virtue of every base unit of currency being the same as any other. If I give you $10 to purchase chips for the party, you can instead spend those individual bills on something else entirely, and then purchase chips using a completely different set of bills. When you donate to a charity, requesting that they money be spent on X, they can just take the money previously allocated to X and reduce it by whatever amount you donated, effectively making your donation pay for something other than X.

Several state in the United States of America have infamously done this with programs like lotteries or gambling establishments. Before a vote to legalize gambling, the promise is made that tax money from gambling will go toward funding schools. But schools are already funded before this vote; once money from gambling comes in, the legislature will reduce the amount that gets allocated to schools from other sources. This results in some states where the amount of money that schools get will actually decrease once they start getting funded by gambling taxes.

This isn't the fault of gambling, or of charities having restricted funding, even though both ideas are poor ones (I think). The fault is that money can be moved from area to area too easily. Sure, this is good for trade, and it makes it easier to plan ahead, and it has all kinds of benefits. But it also causes ethical issues. Often, I've stopped to give cash to someone on the street, and a traveling companion will say something against it, maintaining that the money would be spent on drugs. Don't get me wrong; there are good reasons to instead spend that money on truly poor people in developing countries, and there are solutions available, like giving away gift cards to local eating establishments. And there are good reasons for valuing individual choice, resulting in the idea that if they decide to spend the money on things that are 'bad' for them, it should be their choice to do so -- giving a gift card to a fast food restaurant instead would be like gifting calves in developing countries rather than the cash that is needed for them to replace their thatched roofs.

But it makes things feel weird to me. Boycotts, for example, occupy a strange place in my mind. On the one hand, if a soft drink company does something absolutely terrible, like fund death squads in Columbia, or if a pineapple company violently overthrows the government of Hawaii, we might want to stop (and get others to stop) buying from them, with the end goal being to get these (and other) companies to not do these sorts of things in the future. However, it becomes less clear to me when the problem is with the owner of a company, rather than the company itself. Is there a justification for a boycott there? Or is this unfairly punishing the company for something that the owner is doing that we do not like?

And here it becomes complicated. Because if I pay you to run an errand, and then you use those funds to pay a company which I was boycotting, does that mean I broke from boycotting?

I've been chided before for giving cash as a gift. "It's not memorable", they've said, and they're correct about that. But I always thought that the goal was to maximize the chances of getting something that the recipient would appreciate, and that seems to be maximally possible with cash (and/or btc). "At least buy a gift card", they would say, but that defeats the purpose. Yet, over time I have been worn down, and now I tend to purchase things that say something about the relationship between myself and that person, only supplementing these thoughtful gifts with cash on the side.

Recently I received cash for my birthday. I was told to spend it on something special. Instead, I spent it on repaying a debt. But I still purchased something special, with later funds that otherwise would have been spent on repaying that debt. So did I buy something special with my birthday money?

In The Good Place, characters are in the afterlife, discussing what kinds of purchases are good or bad. They point out that there are so many externalities with even the smallest purchases that any exchange of goods might indirectly be causing extreme suffering. They say "indirectly" here, and I think that's the word most people would use, but if we take fungibility seriously, then isn't it really just directly causing suffering rather than indirectly? An indirect chain implies that the decision on what the last link funds isn't the same as the decision on what the first link funds. Yet if money is truly fungible, then the last link is equivalent to the first link, and any decision made on the first directly carries over to what the last does. You might be ignorant of what your money is funding, but you are directly responsible for it, not indirectly responsible for it.

Of more relevance to me today, however, is my pledge to give between 25% and 33% of my income to effective causes for the rest of my life. I've kept to this pledge even when working directly at an effective charity. But when I work at a charity, I take an extreme pay cut. Should this count as part of my pledge? My last full-time non-charity job paid $105/hour. If I take a job with an effective altruism charity that only pays $52/hour, then am I effectively donating half of my income without even giving away any of my money directly?

I'm not sure how seriously I should take fungibility and fungibility-adjacent ideas when it comes to ethical decisions. I feel like this is something I just need to think about more. Michael Sandel had some interesting thoughts along these lines, though not specifically about what I've written here. And there are some classic texts from Mill and others who explore related ideas. Maybe I need to review the literature a little more to see what others have to say on these topics.

05 August, 2019

A Yearning

I wish I could have back the mother who read to me when I was young. I want the comfort of feeling loved, without the baggage of feeling attacked or judged. I would like to be cared for solely due to who I am, separate from the consideration of my choices in life.

I am lucky to have a number of people who care about me. I have friends who, upon hearing I am feeling down, will contact me to see what they can do to cheer me up. I have loved ones who care for my well-being, and always have nice things to say to me. I have my paternal family, who invites me over often, and who will just spend time with me with no expectation beyond that. I have Jasper, who will curl up beside me, snuggling in his fur coat, always ready to comfort me in grey times. I have Katherine, who loves and takes care of me during good times or bad. I have my fiction, which takes me away from the world and allows me to self-modify my feelings for hours at a time upon demand.

But I don't have my grandmother, who died too quickly, and perhaps without knowing how much I appreciated her. And I don't have my mother, who cared once about me for no reason other than that I was her son, but who now cannot speak to me without bringing up horrors of the past. Thirteen years ago, when I last saw her, it was for just a few days. I was planning to move across the country on a Sunday, but on Saturday morning she changed her mind and kicked me out a day early. She called the police, who showed up not knowing the situation, which meant that when I stupidly bent down to put on my shoes when they asked me to go outside, the result was a gun pointed directly at my body, with the safety turned off. I talked my way out of it, as I always have been able to do, but how easily might I have been killed in that moment? Or arrested, with my unique name placed online, so that any who googled me would see it? How differently would my life have turned out had that occurred?

I don't trust my mother to just be loving with me. The last time I gave her my phone number in the hopes of reconciliation was eleven years ago; by the next day that mobile phone had dozens of incoming spam calls each day. I had to turn it off within a week. I don't know why or how she would do such a brazenly strange thing to me, but I learned to never give her my phone number again.

Ten years ago, I received a message from my uncle, who told me that no one in my maternal family cared for me any longer, and that I should never contact them again. I don't know if he said this on his own, or if it came from my mother. I have no reason to doubt either possibility. But it convinced me to leave well enough alone, and I have ever since.

My only contact since then has been my sister, who lives in Alabama still, and sees my mother regularly. I tried desperately to cultivate a relationship with her in good faith, but outside of occasional visits, she does not spend time with me. She does not take calls, or play games, or interact with me at all. I don't know why this is so. She acts as though she cares when I see her in person, for a few days each year. But that is all I get -- and perhaps that is all I deserve from that part of my family.

I am lucky to have so many friends and family here. It is perhaps too much to also ask that I have a relationship with my mother. I am too scared to even try, because it would not be worth it if all my mother had to say to me was harsh words. I don't know how to love as others say they do. I don't grok the idea of 'unconditional love', as though that were a good thing. I'm also unable to identify with the pst the way that others do; to me, my life is the life that here and now, not the life I held when I was young and stupid. Today, I do what I can to be a source for good in the world, and I do not identify as the person who cared not for the world back then. We share memories, but we are not one. So it is not worth it if I gain some small amount of displayed affection when I also have to accept condemnation for a past I no longer even agree with.

I wish at least that I could have memories of the reading my mother did with me. Reading that she must have done. There's no way that I could have learned to read so quickly had she not read to me. But when I look back in my own memories, the memories I share with past selves who did not respect memory, those happy moments which I know must be there are instead obscured. All I can catch in the cloudy mist are snippets of a sharp tongue: beratings for choices that past self made, yelling at me for a lack of subservience, turning her back to show her displeasure. My search for happy memories is successful only in the meta; knowledge that certain things had to have occurred, memories of watching VHS tapes long since lost which showed what was supposedly me, smiling. But actual memories? Direct, non-meta, honest-to-goodness images in my own head are all unreliable at best. I remember events that did not happen. Impossible occurrences that must have only existed in my imagination. I remember childhood friends who may or may not have been imaginary friends. I recall wishing wells that always worked; trips to an aunt's house that never happened. The first real memories I can truly count on are from a time when that relationship with my mother was already broken. Light bulbs removed, so I could not read; breaking confidences that harmed me socially. At best, I find faint praise in small snippets, always of the thing I am sick of: my brain. Or flashes of neutral experiences: sitting, bored, while she did something on a computer in a car lot.

What I want, maybe, is selfish. New memories, where it can just be a mother and a son, with what I imagine is a pulsing emotive feeling shared. No information need even be exchanged; just a hug would be sufficient.  But (1) that can't happen, not without also bringing discord into my life that I've long since pushed past, and (2) it is extraordinarily selfish of me. No thought here is given to what she may want. I honestly have no idea what that might even be. It has been too long since I've communicated with her at all, let alone communicated in a way that wasn't her being accusatory to me. A mere thirteen years since we spoke last, compared to maybe 19 or 20 years since I last remember her saying something actually positive to me, without an undertone of accusation. And (3): just because a relationship could be repaired does not mean that it should be repaired. It would be wrong for me to attempt reconciliation with many of my past relationships that did not end well. Perhaps it is the same with my mother. I may yearn for that comfort of feeling loved, without the baggage of feeling attacked or judged, but if it causes stress or discomfort to her, then it is not worth it. I no longer wish for anyone to feel pain at my expense. Not to the extent that I believe it would cause her.

If I were to die soon, at least let it be known that I cared enough to not cause even more undue suffering. I am not that person who once was; I am me, and I do my best to atone for those ancestors.

23 July, 2019

Grief Methods

What really sucks about my experience of my grandmother's passing is that I have no one I can talk to about her. All I can do is think in my own head, or write on this blog, or speak with people who never knew her.

A starcraft celebrity I watched once each week for the past 10+ years passed this weekend. Unlike my grandmother, he had a lot of friends who then spoke about and grieved for him over Twitch, YouTube, Reddit, TeamLiquid etc. Listening to others talk about his passing just reinforces how alone I feel about grieving for my grandmother. No one has posted anything online. No one has shared any news.

It would be inappropriate for me to reach out. The people closest to a person hurt the most; for me to go to them would be a burden. Instead, I should go to someone less close. Except there is no one in my community that knew her and simultaneously someone that I could talk to about it.

The maternal side of my family wants nothing to do with me. I received a facebook message 13 years ago from a family member there telling me that they all hated me, and that I should never contact them again. The last time I spoke with my mother, she decided to kick me out 24 hours earlier than the day we had planned for me to leave; she notified me of this by sending police into the house. I don't know what she told the police, but the first thing they did after announcing their presence was to pull a gun on me. I no longer feel comfortable around my mother. I'm afraid of her. I don't want to risk ruining my life by interacting with her. None of my other family there would be appropriate to speak to either, for various reasons.

I want to hear stories of my grandmother. But the only person I could talk to is my sister, and she doesn't like to play games with me online anymore. I'm not entirely sure why. I enjoy spending time with her, speaking with her, and playing games with her. But friendship is a series of mutual decisions to spend time with each other, and apparently it is not mutual for us any longer.

I don't mean to complain here. Especially not having to do with my sister. Whereas I was close to my grandmother decades ago, she was close to our grandmother for the past few decades. It certainly has hit her harder than it has hit me. And so it is inappropriate for me to reach out. Instead, I continue to watch people grieve about Geoff Robinson, and I continue to wonder what it would be like if I had the ability to consume content like that about my grandmother.


20 July, 2019

Opulence and Giving

To some people, this post will seem like boasting. To others, it will seem that I am not doing quite enough. Either way, I want to be more open about these things which society has otherwise deemed as "inappropriate to share" with an audience like this. I don't believe sharing things like salary or donation amounts should be inappropriate, and the only way I know to combat it is to share more openly myself. If, after sharing, you feel uncomfortable with what I've said, I invite you to think about why that discomfort exists and to consider opening a dialogue with me about it.

In 2011, I first encountered the Effective Altruism movement. It wasn't called that at the time; I was a part of the initial discussions about choosing the name, which, to be honest, we never thought would become the public face of the movement. (Others in my same position have called themselves a "founder" of the movement; I'm not sure I'd go that far, even though there was certainly very, very few people talking about things in the forums back in those days.)

In 2012, I quit my job at a large national nonprofit, frustrated that I had no ability to help it become more effective in the ways that really mattered. I wanted to focus on more EA centric work. By 2013 I had found my new focus: Animal Charity Evaluators.

Yet it wasn't until 2014 that I took the Giving What We Can pledge and started donating what I consider a large percentage of my income. Between 2014 and today, I have donated between 25% and 33% of my annual income to EA organizations/causes. At first, this was not much; as a startup, ACE did not pay nearly as well as the larger nonprofit I'd quit the year before. But I quickly decided to work only part-time at ACE so that I could get a job elsewhere. My hourly wage outside of ACE during these years was between $60–$110/hour.

The key phrase I want to focus on above is "quickly decided". Here I was, an eager advocate of EA who had quit their job in frustration, starting work as the second paid employee of what was then a small three-person organization, and yet one of the first things that crossed my mind was: I need to make more money than this. 

To me, donating between a quarter and a third of my income is a big deal, though it certainly isn't that impressive compared to many of my peers in the movement. I know several other EAs who regularly donate in the 50% (or more!) range, some who have more money than I do, and some who make less. They sometimes write about how easy it is to live on less, and I am constantly amazed by it. But, for some reason, I enjoy my comforts too much. I enjoy money too much.

As I type this, the heat outside reaches 100 degrees fahrenheit. Yet I sit in a house cooled to 68°. I know this is bad for the environment, bad for my finances, and so many others would be quick to point out that increasing the thermostat to something closer to 72° would be only a minor temperature difference that would translate into a major power difference. Yet I can't help it: I require comfort. I can't not have thermostat at 68°, and, if I'm being honest, I actually consider it a compromise because I'd prefer 65°.

I own a Nintendo Switch with about 200 games. I haven't bought these games at auctions or deal sites; they're all digital, purchased via Nintendo's eshop. I own somewhere around 250 board games, at least 90% of which were purchased brand new. I collect desk toys, plushies from franchises I enjoy, and I own nearly every amiibo ever created. I subscribe to netflix, hulu (the no commercials version), amazon prime video, hbonow, cinemax, cbs all access, dc universe, youtube premium, and I fully expect to pay for disney's streaming service when it comes out. The amount of money I spend on wasted trivialities is immense, especially for an effective altruist.

I'm embarrassed of this opulence when I speak to fellow EAs. I play online games with a few people in the movement. One plays Switch, but always buys physical so they can resell after playing and get their money back. Another literally only owns the five or so games that they regularly play. Yet another doesn't play online with me anymore because they're still on the previous generation of systems. Why? Because spending less on frivolities means accomplishing more good in the world. Do I really need to own yet another game when the money for that purchase could instead have gone to help save the life of a real person in need?

I've talked before about the idea of visualizing what my donations accomplish. I look at $7k and think to myself: this is equivalent to me running inside of a burning building and saving a stranger from certain death. I am a hero for this. This really and truly matters.

But then the latest video game comes out, and I purchase it.

For the last few months, I've been mostly just freelancing, taking jobs here and there, but not working much at all. I'm surviving mostly on savings and the help of others. Eventually, I would like to get a job at an EA organization, but I'm not rushed about doing so. Much of my free time is spent on writing a book which may or may not be published. I couldn't do this if I didn't have money. What would my life be like if I couldn't quit a job because of frustration with their mission? Would I have become as entrenched in the EA movement if I had had to keep working there for monetary reasons? And what about today, where I'm taking a hiatus between jobs of multiple months, waiting until I find the perfect opportunity for me? How could I do such a thing without the social safety net I have from my social position in life?

We need a universal basic income so that others can have the same types of opportunities to do good as I have had. We need a society where people can choose to do the type of work they want to do, rather than be forced to work at whatever job they have to.

I believe all this, and yet simultaneously I feel shame at my opulence. I can't work effectively without having downtime filled with the games and temperature that I love. I can't do good for others without what seems like abject waste for myself. Am I broken in this way? Or is this just how I am, blamelessly? I don't know. I'm not even trying to fix it right now. Instead, I'm focusing on writing a book, while spending time on rather expensive hobbies, and just coasting until I find the perfect EA position for me on the EA job board. This is embarrassing to me, and I would not feel comfortable typing any of this into the effective altruism forum, despite it being true. So it gets posted here instead, to be lost in a sea of journal entries that no one ever reads, while I continue to figure out how to grieve for my grandmother's death.

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.