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.