26 December, 2021

Herboso Christmas Stories

After staying up all night on Christmas eve, I visited my family on Christmas morning to share breakfast, gifts, and stories. By noon, I left to go home and promptly fell asleep, not waking again until the 26th. Despite losing much of the day, I did really enjoy the time I was able to spend with my family, especially the stories portion.

My father spoke about the time he was a kid in Bolivia and fell in love with these cowboy boots in the shop window. He was told he would not be getting them for Christmas, but they were all that he truly wanted. (Natalia questioned: why cowboy boots? Because there were no super heroes in Bolivia in those days; cowboys were the super heroes.) On Christmas eve, he and his brothers got picked up in a truck to go somewhere a ways off. They jumped on the flatbed in the back and started onto Bolivia's version of a highway. To alleviate boredom, they decided to play marbles in the back of the moving truck. (Ale questions: is that like Beyblade? Yes, Ale. It is just like Beyblade.) Marbles were placed near the front edge of the flatbed, and my dad slowly backed up to get distance so he could shoot his marble. Alas, his calf bumped into the back of the truck, and he fell onto the asphalt. There his memory ends, but he was told that his head hit the ground hard, cars on the road stopped and people came to help, and he was eventually taken care of by a family member who was a doctor. Looking back, he is sure that he had a concussion. That night, as gifts were exchanged, he was not happy. He had the worst headache. But then, when he opened the present with the cowboy boots, his headache magically disappeared. He even got twin pearl-handled cap guns to go with it. (Natalia: That sounds like it would be uncomfortable. Dad: The color, Nani! There's no balls on the handle! Just the color!)

Susan talked about how everyone in the family would give her gifts, as the youngest in a large family. She especially enjoyed seeing the people who had nowhere else to go on Christmas visit them in Alexandria, Virginia. There was a spirit of kindness there that permeated the Christmas season for the Cadima family.

Natalia talked about one of her favorite Christmas memories: how Almita would make quesadillas on Christmas morning. Such simple fare: no more than tortillas with a thin spread of refried beans and freshly grated cheese popped into a toaster oven for a minute or two; yet Nani looks back on that time with much happiness. Alma has since passed on, but she remains as an integral part of the Herboso family mythos.

Ale spoke about a gift that he only has vague memories of: the soccer ball he received on Christmas morning some untold number of Christmases ago. He doesn't remember the ball exactly; he can't remember the color, for example. But it started him on a journey to becoming a soccer player, and his vague memory of the event counts as his favorite Christmas gift of all time.

I gave voice to several Christmas memories. Of the robot that I wanted as a child, like my dad's cowboy boots, which I was told I could not get but which I received anyway. (My father immediately dispelled notions of how complex the robot was: This was the 1980s, it's not the kind of robot you're thinking of, Nani!) I didn't bring up the time I was betrayed by my family when my uncle went on the roof and pretended to be Santa in order to convince me to go to bed instead of staying up. I started crying, begging them to tell Santa to go away and not visit me this year, because I didn't like how creepy it was that he was going to sneak into the house and reward or punish behavior that he should not have been able to see all year. But I did bring up the four consecutive years that I spent Christmas at a Chinese restaurant. Each time, I'd call a month in advance to ask if they'd be open and if I could get a tofurky there. They always said yes and presented me with lots of fixings on Christmas day, even though each time I called I was asking different unrelated Chinese restaurants in different states across different years.

I spoke about all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures I received one Christmas, but not about the Nintendo Entertainment System I opened one Christmas morning. (I also neglected to bring up that before the Nintendo Switch came out in March 2017, I went to a private screening event that January to play the Switch hands on months before the release date. It was my Christmas gift to myself that year.)

Visiting Columbus Memorial.
I spoke about when I spent Christmas in Louisiana with friends, in Florida with friends, and when I visited my father a few times. Once, I brought my friends with me, and we all enjoyed Christmas in DC. My dad said that the van we drove up in smelled like cannabis, though I have no memory of this and haven't ever done recreational drugs above and beyond caffeine before. I did not speak about the Christmas when I was in a house without heat and I turned on the oven with an open door to stay warm next to a tiny Christmas tree. I did not talk about the Christmas I spent shivering outside because I could not stand staying in my house, even if it was warmer than being outside. I did not speak of these not because I mind them being shared, but because it's better to share only some stories each Christmas, the better to have novel stories to share in future Christmases.

We then exchanged gifts and I went home to sleep. It was overall a short waking day for me, but it was good nevertheless. I had a good day.

23 December, 2021

Moral Cooperation with a Colleague

Oesterheld on Multiverse-wide cooperation
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the various ways that we deal with others that have values not aligned with our own. When Aumann's agreement theorem fails due to different object-level values, what’s the best way to proceed? We can't just double crux at that point. Self-modifying value handshakes? dath ilan-style pareto optimal deals?

What about when I have the upper hand? It’s a contingent upper hand, not a necessary one, so maybe I need to make decisions that benefit all potential alternate versions of me? (In what ways is this different from benefiting them-as-an-alternate-of-me?) Is this the main purpose of being gracious? I want to do the right thing at the meta level, taking into account the probability that I'm just wrong; does this mean that I should compromise object level values when there appears to be no game-theoretic reason to do so?

I have a person in my life that has a serious difference in object level values with me, and I’m in a position where I don’t have to compromise, even though interacting with them on issues that deal with those values isn't avoidable, is ongoing, and they care a great deal about this difference in our object level values. I'm considering compromising despite not needing to; but I'm also wary of setting up a perverse incentive for my future dealings.

I'm still thinking deeply on this. On the supposed value of graciousness. On when meta values should take priority over object level values. On how I'd feel if I were on the other end of this situation. (Badly, I'd expect. And powerless.) I really don't want to fall into the trope of someone who doesn't update properly.

I really need to continue thinking about this.

22 December, 2021

Review: Vampire Flower Language

Vampire Flower LanguageVampire Flower Language by Angela Castir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The problem with most romance stories is that the plot tends to revolve around a conflict that the characters see as big, but that the reader sees as small. This is because romance authors want there to be tension with the characters not being able to get together, but for the reader to desire them to be together anyway. The easiest way to achieve this is to set up a comedy of errors: a misunderstanding that would have been resolved had they been truthful, or, if the story is from before the 1990s, a misunderstanding that would have been resolved had they just had access to a mobile phone. Occasionally, the problem is a love triangle, so the conflict is because the characters aren't polyamorous; or the problem is that they live in different worlds. These stories are slightly better because they don't rely on the characters holding the idiot ball, but they never seem to reach the level of rational fiction, where the characters are thinking properly, and the conflict stems not from their errors in thought, but in differences in value.

Angela Castir (or, rather, the two-person-author team that calls itself Angela Castir) expertly navigates this hole by creating a rational romance story where the plot doesn't revolve around silly misunderstandings. (Don't get me wrong: misunderstandings do occur, but they are appropriate to the characters.) Instead, the tension of the romance story comes from the disconnect between the worldview of a baseline human during world war 2 and a very, very old vampire. Their story is realistic and sweet; heartwarming and heartwrenching. I expect fans of general vampire romance to be blown away by the sheer competence of the surrounding story and events; I expect fans of rational fiction to be blown away by the fact that the author was able to create a romance story in the ratfic genre. Regardless of where you come from, I expect you'll enjoy this story.

The remainder of this review has spoilers; please stop reading here and start reading the story itself if you haven't already. It's worth it! [Seriously, spoilers are ahead. Do not read further before reading the story itself.]

I love the themes present in this book. A gay romance in this time period would historically be seen (by humans) as entirely inappropriate in society, but the focus starts on vampire society instead, where the tension is a romance between a vampire and a human being considered inappropriate. The reader starts out thinking that this is the allegory: the inappropriateness from vampire culture's point of view mimics the inappropriateness from human culture's point of view. But by the end this reader expectation gets upended: the more important allegory here is of understanding. Can a relationship where people love each other persist when their values don't match? To what extent must those values change in order for the people to have a meaningful relationship?

The protagonist's sister is not okay with homosexuality, to the extent that she eventually refuses to be close to her brother, even while loving him; this matches the protagonist's refusal to be close to his partner, even while loving him. Seeing this parallel is what causes the character to update toward being more comfortable in his relationship, so that he does not make the same error that his sister does. More importantly, at the reader level, we now see that the value mismatch which we thought was a huge divide for the majority of the book should instead be considered a minor hurdle. It's not just the characters who update on this revelation: the readers are intended to update as well.

The Julius storyline introduces a truly alien alien: a character whose value function seems to be set in the way an AI might. As the reader is given access to Julius' internal thoughts, this seems like the scariest part of the story. A slightly misaligned AI, valuing its expectation of one's happiness rather than a person's stated goals, can easily go wrong. You see this manipulation occur freely and easily with Red (a mere human), and it is only because William (the vampire) is more competent that things do not immediately fall apart. Even so, William's competence is not sufficient to be immune to Julius' machinations; I expect that Julius was given away by their previous owner on purpose for this reason. When the story jumps ahead in the epilogue, we see that Julius has been somewhat reigned in, not by William's competence, but by Red's morals being forced onto Julius. We readers don't see Julius' internal state in the epilogue, so it is left ambiguous whether the situation is actually better or worse here, but its appropriate for the story to end here anyway, as the story we've been following is not Julius' story, but William and Red's story.

I was enthralled by the worldbuilding, but my favorite part of the book was how characters would ask questions that I, too, would ask if I were in that situation. This allowed me to partially self-insert myself into the story, a feat that is exceedingly rare in romance novels, given that I am poly and asexual. I really appreciated the way that characters sought out information. What I didn't like was that so much of that information remained hidden, even to the end! I recognize that further stories in this world are going to be told, and so it is appropriate to leave dangling threads. But it was unsatisfying all the same. I am left wanting more!

One note I would give to the authors for future stories: please consider restricting the reader's point of view to a single character. Although it would have made for a different book, had the entire novel been written from Red's point of view, then that could have included a mystery element for the readers: is William sincere? Should we also want Red to run away? But by letting us see into William's mind, this possibility is lost completely. I recognize that's not what you were going for, so it's unfair to complain about this. But this could have been done at least with Julius and it would not have changed the story too much. By letting us see into Julius' mind, we get access to knowledge that cuts the tension too much. I honestly believe it would have been better to never allow us access to Julius' thoughts, so that readers could be honestly divided on whether Red's or William's point of view were best. This would have added to the tension of the split that occurred. I hope in your next book you take care to only allow the reader access to more limited points of view to allow for more mystery in your story beats.

Even if this weren't an exceedingly well written book, I would still recommend it for the novelty of being in the rational romance genre. However, this book is genuinely well written, with rational characters and tension that realistically flows from the worldbuilding set up by the authors. I enthusiastically recommend this to anyone interested in either rational fiction or vampire romance.

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20 December, 2021

Loving Life

A small selection of why I'm not depressed.
I love life.

Sometimes I read posts by people who are depressed. A common theme is that they feel that life is not worth living. At times, I have wondered if I have depressive tendencies: I’m lazy to a fault; I spend much of my free time sleeping; it takes a lot to get me in a good mood; my idea of a day well spent involves lots of playing games while at home and ordering in so I don’t have to cook. On a 0–10 scale where 0 is no happiness and 10 is all the happiness, I’d consistently rate myself at 1. Yet maybe this is more because I can imagine a lot more happiness than I’ve ever felt, as opposed to me being less happy than I’d otherwise expect.

But when it comes to life, I’d always prefer more of it. This is the primary reason why I avoid ever saying that I am depressed, no matter how down I may get.

Life just has so much to offer. How amazing is it that we can reason about obvious necessary truths sufficiently far that we can make unexpected discoveries about other not-at-all-obvious necessary truths? In the latest Star Trek: Discovery episode, much is made of the aphorism that “all is possible”. Yet isn’t it so much more amazing that we can discover for ourselves that some things are not just contingently false, but necessarily impossible?

I’ve also been watching Ted Lasso, where a common theme is about the intersection of virtue ethics and deontological ethics. As a consequentialist, I find it fascinating to see how flawed protagonists work within a world where they believe certain actions are right, even while I, as a viewer, think they are just plain wrong. I know that I’m reading more into the writing than was intentionally put there; Plato was certainly right when he said that some poets can’t see the beauty in their own poetry. But watching shows like this makes gives me an enjoyment of life that is outsized from the quality of show it is. Ted Lasso is nowhere near the epitome of good television (The Wire it is not), and yet it, like other shows at its level of quality (Friendship is Magic; She-Ra; etc.) still give me significant enough enjoyment that I’d strongly prefer to continue watching them than to end my life, ceteris paribus.

Fiction aside, I really enjoy video games. Even not-so-great games give me thrills that I don’t get elsewhere in life. I just finished Grandia, which irritated me for not being nearly so challenging as I might like (even with zero-attack weapons, it’s just way too easy to beat the final boss), but I still really enjoyed it. This generalizes, I think. So much in life consists of these simple pleasures: seeing the trees change as they grow; feeling the wind in my hair when I go fast; finding an unexpected result in recreational mathematics; slipping on the most luxurious socks in the world; competing at your best in the Bee Game League; interacting with siblings during the holidays. There’s just so much enjoyment to get out of life.

Much of that enjoyment comes from Katherine. She truly is an ideal partner for me. She supports me in every way that I need to be supported, and the things she needs help with correspond closely to the things that I most able to help with, with few exceptions (e.g.: dishes!). I get a lot out of relaxing with her; debating with her; dissecting reality with her; imagining with her. I love the way that we interact when it comes to her art. I love the way that we mesh when we decide on what food to eat. I never imagined that I would be as satisfied with a partner as I am with her.

Yet: even though I think it wrong to ever call myself depressed, I must nevertheless wonder: why do I experience such lows? Lows that make it so impossible to open my own mail that it sits for months unopened until I get the strength to open it all at once? Lows that prevent me from being able to fill out forms even when there’s a huge incentive for doing so? (I am reminded of being in college and being presented with a form that I had to sign and turn in. I was told explicitly: sign this and you get $2k for tuition; don’t sign it and you don’t get the $2k. I was told that there was absolutely nothing negative that came from me signing it. I read the document and it did not require me to do anything that I found morally questionable. It was just a document they needed signed in order to process this particular scholarship. I left that document on the top of my desk all semester long. I can remember putting it on top of my game controllers so that I’d have to physically move it anytime I wanted to play a game. I still never signed it, due to a combination of akrasia and some kind of weird psychological aversion to signing documents in general. At the end, my counselor forged my signature in frustration, a clear case of a perverse incentive that carries me through to today.)

I have been told by friends that I sometimes have trouble with “adulting”. Others have said that I have executive functioning issues. None of these people are professionals, but I see this myself: I feel anxious during times when I probably shouldn’t; and, conversely, there are situations where I’d expect most people to be anxious where I don’t feel anxious at all. Maybe this has nothing to do with depression at all, but is instead symptomatic of some alternate condition that I’m not familiar with.

Regardless, I know that I love life. Life is varied and full of surprises, regardless of where you look. I’m not a poet, but there are people who go deep into poetry, taking pleasure from a short succession of words alone. I’m no musician, but some people memorize the discography of entire genres, finding beauty in details that I know nothing about. To a mathematician, there is unparalleled joy in realizing that you can find a certainty of truth in unexpected contexts; to a person of faith, there is a similar joy in having faith regardless of where reason might otherwise take you. There is all of this and more: the vastness of space; the game of solving good detective novels before the third act; the wind whipping through one’s hair as you rollerblade on the street; the simple joy in having a nicely plated meal on a tablecloth even when you're eating a meal all by yourself. There is simply too much on offer for me not to love life.

Thank you to my family here, especially my brother and sisters, and my father and new mother, who constantly seek to make my life better through simple interactions. Thanks also go to my old family, including my mother, who did much to raise me well when I was young, even if she no longer is capable of having a relationship with me today, and also to the rest of that side of the family, who, through no fault of their own, I have not seen in some time. Thank you, Katherine and Terry, who are able to enrich my life through little more than conversation, and yet continue to do much else for me on top of this. Thank you to my many friends that I see only rarely and mostly online; to Jon for his closeness in intent and dedication; to Dorek in his contemplation and natural action; to Matt, Greg, Jason, Russ, Davids, Kevin, Carlos, and so many others for their past inclusion even if we no longer interact much; to Amber, Allison, Stephanie, Laura, Rosemary, Amanda, Day, and several others for their severe impact on my current personality; and to Robin for being there for me in times when I rarely deserved it. Thank you, Jasper, for opening me up more in love than I previously thought possible, and to Adrianah, whose nonpresence has influenced me more than some others' presence. To all of you, and especially to you, Katherine, I give thanks for making my life as wonderful as it is. The pleasures of life may come from all sorts of places, but it is from fellow beings like you that end up meaning the most to me.

I love life, and as a corollary: I love you all.

15 December, 2021

Review: Octo

OCTOOCTO by Z. Albert Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While definitely not perfect, let me go ahead and recommend that you not google this story and just start reading blindly. Much of the value in this rationalist sci-fi horror story comes from not knowing what will happen next, so if you consider a 4 star review from me sufficient to entice you to read a rationalist sci-fi horror story, then do so now. Spoilers are ahead.

With that said, Zeno Albert Bell is in desperate need of a professional editor. It seems that every idea they’ve come up with has made it into the text, and I don’t just mean this in terms of word choice. Still, the ideas themselves are great, reminiscent at first of Hal Clement-style Needle aliens, but done in a rational hard-sci-fi way. The end result is (and the spoilers start to get heavy here, so stop reading this and go read the book if you’re going to at all) lovecraftiam kaiju hard sci-fi, and that is legitimately hard to do.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the story is the inclusion of css+javascript to spruce up the text. Creatures who only understand some spoken words have other words of dialogue obscured in the text, although we as readers can still hover over the text or otherwise copy it in order to know, narrator style, what is said behind these obscured words. Later, anti-memetics come into play, causing the relevant text to change before your very eyes, as you read along. While some other authors use this as a way to permanently change text, messing with what was previously written as a kind of mind fuck, Bell is kind enough to not use cookies, and they allow readers easy access to replay potentially missed material just by refreshing and starting from the top of the page again. While these effects aren’t what I’d call accessible, I nevertheless appreciate them for those of us capable of seeing it; they're cute effects that are done quite well. It’s also foreshadowed appropriately without spoiling; early chapters include vibrating text for explosions or flashing text for warning readouts. This prepares the reader for more advanced text-based shenanigans later without spoiling just how significant those textual changes will end up becoming. Hopefully the text modifications that occur throughout the story are sufficient to train the reader to be able to handle the final chapter, which perhaps requires a bit more patience than some readers may give it.

Octo is not my favorite story, but its level of uniqueness and excellent presentation make up for the authors seeming unwillingness to edit the story into something half as long with a much tighter narrative arc, with the end result being a hearty recommendation from me. But I may be being too hasty: it's not entirely clear to me, but there is the distinct possibility that the author Bell is trying to make a meta narrative here: the protagonist’s view on patience may be a commentary on the readers' views on patience. Without getting too spoilery, the protagonist is willing to wait, but the text itself does not: as you read at the top of your screen, you start to notice text moving lower down, where you haven't gotten to yet. Later in the book, you start to notice that text is disappearing, or moving away from you, or changing before your very eyes. There starts to be a race between your ability to read and the text's ability to change. Bell is careful to allow you to reset if you refresh the page, so you never really miss out on anything, but there's clearly something going on with rewarding impatient readers more and more — until the final couple of chapters, when everything flips, and suddenly you start to miss out on text if you go too fast. The final chapter really underlines this: after reading, you have to wait several moments if you want to see the last parts of the book.

I'm fascinated by the idea that the connections between what the text itself rewards readers for doing has such consonance with what the protagonist clearly prefers. The points of views of humans are so fast in comparison, and when you get the point of view of a feline, you can just feel the irritation of wanting to go even faster. These points of view at the character level match that of the trained reader, and this makes the alienness of the protagonist even more stark.

And this is why I'm not quite sure of what I said earlier about the author needing a professional editor. This theme of patience — of rushing and not rushing and being rewarded at different times for different things while the characters themselves see reality at different rates — this is echoed and subverted continuously at the literary level by the author including unkilled darlings that the reader dare not fast forward through. I'm not going to claim that this is necessarily intentional; as Plato pointed out in The Republic, many poets will write poetry that has qualities the authors themselves do not always see. But regardless of its intentionality, there is a direct parallel between the unlocking of the library and the written inclusion of scenes that can’t be skipped. The animal scenes are great — be sure to hover over every “meow” — but their inclusion doesn’t have a payoff in future chapters. In any other book, this content would be cut. As great as these ideas are, any author would cut them and put them into a different short story, rather than keep them in Octo. The fact that this author does not cut them is what gives me pause. Is this intentional? Are we including fun and well written chapters that really should be cut on purpose? Is this a commentary on patience, making the reader deliberately have to wait?

I don't know. Maybe the author is just a beginning author and doesn't realize that you can cut great ideas like this and incorporate them into their own short stories, separate from this book. Maybe they have yet to realize that great writing requires major amounts of cutting. But maybe the author is playing a level above me, and these chapters are here on purpose to show you what it means for the protagonist to be okay with waiting. This story has a lot to do with alien thinking, and this might be yet another way to make the reader feel like they are reading about an alien. Seeing events from the points of view of a canine or feline feels alien. That the cat wants to rush through the situation, wants you to skip text and dialogue that you can, if you slow down, also read, has a distinctly alien feel. And that the entire sequence is just dressing, a side story, not relevant to the ongoing plot, feels even more alien still. Maybe I shouldn't give the author credit for this, but including sub-par editorial parts felt almost right to me. It was irritating, but they were well written and entertaining. It felt like reading small short stories occasionally right in the middle of the book. It felt appropriately alien.

With that said, the pacing and narrative structure was terrible due their inclusion. The writing goes through successive sections that are fast and slow, with no regard to what the narrative arc demands. If a movie were made this way, people would walk out. As it is, I imagine most readers may opt out. But if you struggle through — if you are okay with seeing an action scene pause mid-scene while you watch a short entertaining commercial before the action resumes — then you will enjoy Octo. It genuinely puts you into a place where you can start to appreciate something so incomprehensibly alien.

I also want to give a shout-out to that great ending. The IRL aliens take pity and expend resources on letting the instanced beings play out their story, but it’s not at all clear whether the simulation will do anything to help them solve their library problems. I personally read it as a tragedy: this simulation won’t have the humans attack the library, and so can’t possibly show how the humans in the real world destroyed it — but I can also see how someone else might think that the lateral thinking nature of how upraised humans think might be sufficient to help solve the problem of fixing the library without the simulation ever giving rise to the specific acts that humans used the first time around. Either way, the ending is great, because we don’t care: the story follows the protagonists of the simulation, reminding us of who we the readers should truly be concerned with.

I eagerly look forward to Z Albert Bell's next project. Just, please, Bell, if you're reading this: do consider using an editor to help you parse your overly creative brain’s ideas down to what is needed for the story’s own purposes. You can always use the cut ideas in even more stories, you know!

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19 November, 2021

Lighting for the Lazy

There's a phenomenon that occurs only to the lazy, like myself. I'd like to share it here so that go-getter types could also know of the experience.

Each room in my house has several lights. In the master bathroom, a half dozen lightbulbs are just above the mirror; in the kitchen, several inset ceiling lights help to illuminate my cooking; in the main room, flush mounts and floor lamps predominate. When the house was first moved into, all of these fixtures held working lights. But, as time passes, light bulbs fail. I could replace them. But why bother? The other lights work well enough without them.

How many lights?
One by one over the years, a light bulb will peter out, never again to provide lumens for our nighttime activities. To some people, this would be intolerable; but, to me, what does it matter, really? I usually keep all the lights off in the daytime anyway, thanks to several large windows throughout the house. A small nightlight keeps the bathrooms visible with no windows installed. And at night, the only light I need is that from my computer screen. Or my television set. Or my Switch. (My partner, an artist, requires extremely bright light, but it is solely directed toward her art-making, and isn't on unless she's working.)

Eventually, rooms with several light fixtures get down to their last working light bulb. One day, they, too, will break, and work will have to get done. I will have to purchase new light bulbs and replace the entire rack. But light bulbs these days last years, so I am not too worried. The day will assuredly come, but perhaps not this year. Perhaps not even next year.

Here, we teeter on the edge. Where once our rooms were bright, now the occasional flicker catches my attention. On some days, this is exciting. It is living on the edge. I feel as though I am in a dramatic video game, stalking the halls of a long disused factory, with only a few scattered lights still functional. On other days, it feels emblematic of our general aging: slowly, we are shutting down, the prime of our light long past.

My home isn't as bad as this real hospital.
What's weird about this is that I've experienced this scenario several times in my life. I can remember clearly in my twenties feeling this same emblematic-of-aging gestalt, even as I feel it now. I don't think it has anything at all to do with my actual age. It's just that I have a dim memory of the rooms being brighter, and yet now they are so poorly lit that, although life is still functional, the experience of the room has an entirely different feeling to it. What's really fascinating is what happens after: when the last of the bulbs goes off in a room, that gets me to replace all the bulbs in the house. The change is quite literally palpable: you can feel in your fingertips just how much more bright everything is. The mood changes significantly. Life renews, like an early Spring day.

I don't think that non-lazy types can really fully appreciate how this feels. I am told that pumpkin spice has popularity specifically because it goes away and only comes back once each year. (I don't see the appeal, but to each their own.) Something similar is going on here for me, but on somewhat larger time scales. I enjoy the feeling of going from almost no lighting to full lighting. It is reinvigorating in a way that just keeping full lighting all the time is not. I like how the house undergoes seasons of its own, sometimes with dark shadows in particular corners, and yet other times with lighting all around, illuminating every corner to see. It is as though the house is a living, breathing thing, its breaths interspersed throughout years rather than seconds, and with lighting rather than gasps of air.

Being lazy has its drawbacks. But this — the effect over years from delaying replacing light bulbs — is not one of them.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go install all these bulbs I just received from Amazon.

08 November, 2021

On the surreality of .999 repeating...

When I was in grade school, I often had late evening talks with my friend, Peter. Topics of discussion varied wildly from day to day, sometimes about video games like Doom, sometimes about girls, and sometimes about math. On one specific evening, we talked about infinitely small numbers.

I think the topic held our attention because the books we had access to said, in no uncertain terms, that the decimal expansion .9̅ is equivalent to 1. This left no room for a smaller value, in between .9̅ and 1, but which nevertheless was distinct from 1. We found this perplexing, as there seemed to be nothing logically incoherent with the idea of having an infinitely small positive value which we could subtract from 1 — yet the textbooks made it clear that that resulting difference could not be .9̅, since .9̅=1.

This idea is not unique. Many people make the same error, thinking that .9̅ should be strictly less than 1. In the sci.math newsgroup, the main FAQ's top entry for decades showed that .9̅=1. When I took a look at sci.math just now in November 2021, one of the most recent entries is literally someone making the argument that they are distinct. This is a topic that gets brought up again and again, and there's always someone more knowledgeable around that works tirelessly to correct these misunderstandings. (I used to be that guy on the old skeptic forums, though thankfully not on math ones.)

But in order to tread new frontiers in mathematics, you sometimes have to take a "yes, and..." approach. Sometimes when you do so, you're able to reach new ground that later ends up bearing significant fruit. This is how it was with negative numbers, this is how it was with imaginary numbers, and maybe something similar could be said with the idea of a positive number so small that even adding an infinite number of them together will not sum up to 1.

I first discovered the concepts in Berlekamp, Conway, and Guy's Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays back when I was working my way through Feynman's Lectures on Physics. I had been gifted a very nice three volume set as a teenager, and while the first book wasn't terribly difficult to get through, I was having trouble understanding books 2 and 3. At the time, I had dropped out of school, and so my only way to read these Feynman lectures required me to first teach myself more complex mathematics. I went to the local library, taking out texts that would help me to get through what Feynman had written, and, occasionally, I'd use the internet to supplement my understanding. Back then we did not have 3Blue1Brown; the best online math explainers were merely paragraphs of html text alongside slowly loading jpgs. So it was hard going. Nevertheless, I kept at it and eventually learned what I needed in order to properly enjoy my boxed set of Feynman lectures.

Hackenbush girl from WWfYMP.

It was during one of these online math excursions that I came across Andy Walker's excellent late 1990s-era html maths-explainer: Hackenstrings, and the .999?=1 FAQ. Walker walks us through a simplified version of Conway's Hackenbush idea, showing the beginnings of what we now call surreal numbers. Here, Conway and Knuth take seriously the idea that there could be a positive number so small that adding it to itself infinitely many times would never add up to any traditional real number. This is the first time that an infinitesimal is taken seriously enough to warrant the creation of a new system of numbers. (At least it's the first time since limits replaced infinitesimals in our teaching of calculus.)

At the time, I was too immature to think that I should purchase for myself Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays, but I ever so much wish that I had. It's an amazing book and well worth the read.

If you're interested in learning more, I highly recommend this excellent video by Owen Maitzen that does an absolutely amazing job of explaining Hackenbush. While it's an hour long, this is nevertheless one of the most entertaining introductions to a new type of math that I've seen anyone on the internet create. (He's even composed a soundtrack that suits his video perfectly!) Well done, Owen.

26 September, 2021

Honoring Petrov Day by NOT Pressing the Button

Thirty-eight years ago, Stanislav Petrov disobeyed orders that may have caused a nuclear attack. I'll quote from Yudkowsky's retelling of Petrov's story:

On September 26th, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was the officer on duty when the warning system reported a US missile launch.  Petrov kept calm, suspecting a computer error.

Then the system reported another US missile launch.

And another, and another, and another. 

What had actually happened, investigators later determined, was sunlight on high-altitude clouds aligning with the satellite view on a US missile base.

In the command post there were beeping signals, flashing lights, and officers screaming at people to remain calm.  According to several accounts I've read, there was a large flashing screen from the automated computer system saying simply "START"….

Petrov decided that, all else being equal, he would prefer not to destroy the world.  He sent messages declaring the launch detection a false alarm, based solely on his personal belief that the US did not seem likely to start an attack using only five missiles.

Petrov was first congratulated, then extensively interrogated, then reprimanded for failing to follow procedure.  He resigned in poor health from the military several months later.

Each year, I and many others take a moment to think back to the day when the world as we know it almost died. Of all the traditions I follow, this is perhaps the most solemn. (In 2018, I attended a ceremony where the Future of Life Institute posthumously presented Stanislav Petrov the $50,000 Future of Life Award.)

From Petrov Day 2020.
This year, I have been invited to take part in an experiment of mutually assured destruction. LessWrong and the Effective Altruism Forum have decided to honor Petrov day by creating buttons on each site which, if pressed with the appropriate arming code, will take the other site down for the duration of the day. I was chosen by the EA Forum as one of the people trusted with the launch codes capable of taking down LessWrong's site.

To outsiders, this exercise may seem silly. It has the appearance of a mere game, but I think it is much more than that: it is a serious ritual, one where the stakes involve thousands of visitors to each site, one where defection will be public, one where we practice the very real act of not causing wanton destruction due to mistrust, carelessness, or flippancy. But yes, it is also a game: one with stakes we should not callously risk.

Last year, this experiment failed. LessWrong user Chris Leong pressed the button, taking down the site during Petrov Day 2020. The failure, I believe, was not entirely on his part, but also due to a poor choice of who would be entrusted with the launch codes. I am hopeful that the decision to trust me with the codes this year will not be in vain.

At the same time, I am cognizant that the concept of mutually assured destruction here is supposed to incentivize the other team to not press their button. This presents a dilemma to me: I honestly do not want to press a button that will take down LessWrong's site. But should I keep open the possibility, should LessWrong press their button to take down the EA Forum? In order for the threat of MAD to work, I must precommit to taking an action that might not make sense in the moment when I have to take it. But I abhor the idea of precommitting myself to such an action.

Homepage of the EA Forum today.
I'm not going to strike first. That much is certain. But I'm less sure about my stance on a retaliatory strike. I want to say that even if they fire first, I will not fire back. What use is there in additional destruction? But this intellectually seems like the wrong stance to take. This exercise is repeated each year; Tit for Tat does seem like the better policy. That requires precommitting to MAD. At the same time, I don't take precommitting to anything lightly.

So here I stake my claim: if the EA Forum goes down due to LessWrong pressing their button, I may press in retaliation. This is not an idle threat. I do think that I may press, just to ensure that future Petrov days don't undergo the same terrible defection. But I'm not precommitting. Hopefully, LessWrong will understand this to be a credible threat, even if not entirely likely. I am hopeful that this small amount of threat will be sufficient to prevent them from deciding to press their button.

(If you are reading this on Petrov Day, Sept 26, after 11 a.m. ET, you can see the button on LessWrong and the EA Forum's home pages if they are still up. Or, if one side has already defected, you will see that the other side's site will be taken down.)

38 years ago, Stanislav Petrov saved the world. This year, I was chosen by the Effective Altruism Forum as steward of...

Posted by Eric Herboso on Sunday, September 26, 2021

30 August, 2021

Review: Worth the Candle

Worth the CandleWorth the Candle by cthulhuraejepsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Writing reviews can be quite difficult. I serve three masters: the friend or stranger looking up this review on GoodReads to see if they should read this massive book; the googler who finds this entry on my blog because they want to read more about this great book that they've just finished; and future me, who wants to remember and keep track of some of the better books that present/past me reads.

So, in the spirit of the metafictional story Worth the Candle, I'll take each of these in order.

Alexander Wales' epic is both the greatest Isekai novel and the greatest LitRPG novel I have ever read. Juniper is rudely transported in media res from school to a strange world of magic and soft fantasy in the opening lines, and his subsequent adventures in the plane of Aerb plays out like a tabletop role-playing game, complete with HP, skills, and leveling up. Juniper is young, but has a passing understanding of rational-adjacent tropes, mostly because his childhood friend was a fan of learning about rationality online (as much as a teenager could). This means that the narrator, Juniper, is able to talk lightly about rationality using rationality language, even when it's clear that it's just a teenage-level understanding of the tropes. This results in a highly exciting adventure with believably flawed characters who try to do their best in the situation they find themselves in. The novel works at the level of the action, at the level of the narration, and at the metafictional level of the author, Alexander Wales, who writes in such a way that we get to see glimpses of what seem to be highly creative nonfictional elements behind the structure of the text.

Worth the Candle is long — very long — but if you're comfortable with reading a sprawling epic that weaves LitRPG with Isekai with metafiction all in the genre of Rational Fiction, then I highly recommend that you read this book.

However, despite my five star rating, I do have several complaints about the book. (It would be hard not to, given its epic length.) What follows from here are spoilers, so if you haven't read Worth the Candle yet, go do that first.

Jesus Christ, Wales. I don't know how much of the text came from working out your personal issues, but Gods damn I hope it helped to write through this story. It's unclear just how much the Dungeon Master in the story should be identified with Wales the author (do you really have a Dice Girls shirt?), but, to the extent that this is played straight, I honestly hope writing this book has been therapeutic.

I get that everyone has their own sex hangups. Maybe it's difficult for me to relate because I'm asexual, but the way that the DM kept pushing things made me feel uncomfortable. Yet this is on purpose; canonically, the author himself seems to be uncomfortable with his own desires of what to put on paper here, which makes for an extremely interesting expression of cognitive dissonance that we can see enacted diegetically.

What I liked most (and what I think the author himself may have liked most) was the setting. Aerb is such a mismatch of all kinds of weird rpg tropes, but it honestly feels like everything ties together well. We read about dangled threads early on which, when later explored, appear to fit in the world properly. Not seamlessly, of course, but that's on purpose: Aerb itself is not seamless, which is itself a plot point. I am disappointed that more of the threads weren't explored, but I wonder if here, too, that is intended: that these aspects only get fleshed out if the text needs them to be, yet ensures that they retain continuity with the whole nevertheless. This says something important, I think, about the ending: that Juniper will not actually get to go on. The life breathed into Juniper's existence, in the end, only happens when we (Thargox?) read it. This is not what the DM claims. It's unclear to me if the intended reading by the author is that the DM is honest here, or if we are supposed to notice that point of view does really matter. (I think it's the latter, but there's additional evidence of the former: the multiple Dahlia copies that we never see, the offscreen fleshsmith fight, and the timeskip post-Fel Seed all point to the diegetic characters experiencing events not in the POV.)

The ending feels rushed. A four year work like this must be hard on the author; I'm sure burnout was a real threat. But when so many threads started getting dropped, I at first blamed the author. Later, I saw that it was partially justified in-story, but even later that started to feel like lampshading to me. Yes, it made sense to skip things, and there were plot-relevant reasons for doing so, but also this is a fig leaf, created so that the author could rush through parts that (IMO) did not deserve to be rushed through.

If I were Wales' editor, there are several parts I would point out as needing additional attention. Some are minor, like both devil Fenn and Grakhuil keeping an arrow displayed in their home. Why the unnecessary callback here? It seems like it is because the weaker version occurred first, then the author decided not to stray from using the stronger version later since it made sense that that's what Fenn would do. If so, then this is a pure drawback of writing serial fiction, and should ideally be fixed. And some issues are major, like deviating from established point of view rules for no good reason. The vast majority of the story is told from Juniper's POV, even to the point where the author himself laments from not being able to write from Larkspur's POV, making him a weaker villain. When we occasionally do get the POV of non-Juniper characters, it always seems to be in the form of a letter than Juniper reads, or a narrator's explicit retelling from after the fact. And yet, at one point, we start to see several scenes (and chapters) from someone other than Juniper, and it's never explained why. Did the author forget? Was it a mistake that wasn't fixed because the author is committed to serial writing? Or perhaps was this another piece of evidence aimed at showing the ending would be as the DM claimed it would be?

I enjoyed the story immensely, even if I did think the harem concept was cringey. I think the author thinks it is cringey, too, which is why I think I'm okay with it. I really liked the exploration of unexpected rape; it felt real to the characters, even if it meant that Bethel got relegated to the background where we couldn't see her progress as much as I would have liked. But most of all I enjoyed the weird combination of explained and unexplained that caused me to tag this book on GoodReads as both hard fantasy and soft fantasy. Alexander Wales is an awesome worldbuilder, just like the DM, even more than he is an awesome narrator, just like the diegetic narrator. Now if only he were willing to write non-serially so we could get some of these amazing texts edited!

View all my reviews

09 August, 2021

Katherine Hess

Katherine and Jasper.
Using online profiles makes meeting people so much easier. By the time of our first conversation, I already knew she was smart and funny. But it wasn't until we actually spoke that I realized the extent of her wit. She had this uncanny ability to connect disparate ideas in just such a way to make a joke or observation that was entirely new to me, and I loved it. Katherine very quickly became one of the most enjoyable friends I've ever had the pleasure of spending time around.

Romance, on the other hand, was not something that I was looking for at the time. I had only just arrived in the local area the day before, and I really just wanted to get situated first before looking for anything romantic. But, being polyamorous, I've always felt open to friendships becoming something more, and meeting a new partner has never been a bar to my meeting others, so it wasn't too much of a stretch when, after meeting Katherine a few times, I realized that I didn't just want the friendship.

At the Kennedy Center.
One aspect of Katherine that cannot be missed when you meet her in person is her size. Katherine is fat, not in the colloquial sense where thin people complain about getting 'fat', but in the sense of actually being big. She is the largest human friend I've ever made, and this life condition of hers is one that affects her public and social life considerably. While her size is not nearly the most significant part of her, it is definitely something that most people who meet her will notice first. In terms of a disability, it affects much of how she has to interact in this world, from what kind of restaurant tables she can sit at to how many plane seats she has to purchase in order to fly to a different city. But despite the clear prejudice against size in our culture, she's nonetheless been able to thrive due to her intelligence and humor, which makes her stand out considerably amongst her peers in the teaching profession.

As a friend, she was an obvious pick. Anyone who can overcome such adversity and find success despite it is definitely someone that any of us should hope for in a friend. But romance was different for me. Back then, I did not yet come to love her as I do now. I gave her the chance to win my heart, and she subsequently did, but I wonder: was it because I was polyamorous? Was the fact that entering a relationship never blocks the possibility of entering into others a key consideration to why I opened up and pursued a romantic relationship with Katherine in the way that I did? Could it be that, had I not been poly, I would have not been open to romance with her merely because of her size?

It seems a silly thought today. Today, I know her. I love her. She is so very amazing that to think something as silly as her size might have been the obstacle to me getting the chance to be with her is distasteful in the extreme. But, at the time, there was not yet the love that I feel now. Back then, I had not yet gained the knowledge of her that I have today: her personality, her charm... Back then, I only knew that she was well read because she would make witty references that I would catch; I only knew she was quick thinking because every topic we talked about would be highlighted with a joke or pun made at just the right moment. I enjoyed her company, and even if I had not been poly, that would have remained true. But had I not been poly, would I have remained open to romance with Katherine? I ask myself because I do not know. It is unsettling to think so. How lucky I am, then, that I did not think of relationships in terms of zero sum at the time. How lucky I was to think that no single partner has to be everything to me.

Thankfully, I did pursue her romantically, and I cannot stress how much this changed my life. Katherine is amazing. She is the closest friend I've ever had. She complements me perfectly: she's strong in the arts and in reading people, the two fields where I'm weakest, and yet she is still highly competent in the fields I'm strongest in: math and logic. She is an artist, but went to a liberal arts school and focused more on being a polymath than in learning to know any one field. She's read more books than I have, and that's quite a feat. She's a social wizard; she has to be, I suppose, in order to make up for the social prejudice against people of her size. She's a great teacher, but, more importantly to her career, she's an excellent leader of teachers. Winning high school art teacher of the year in the county and then the state was impressive enough, but following it up with the highest state award given to any art teacher here, the 2020 Maryland Art Educator of the Year, was enough to really solidify just how much she does to help others in her profession. She's also an amazing artist in her own right, having displayed art across five states, winning several awards for pieces both big and small.

My love, Katherine.
I cannot stress just how lucky I am to have found Katherine. My prior relationships pale in comparison to the things she's brought to the table in terms of romance, friendship, and deep support. On at least one occasion, she has already saved my life; I honestly believe that I counterfactually would have died had she not been there to know what to do. She's also helped to financially support me when I needed it most; after I left my last high-earning (to me) part-time for-profit job at $94/hour, I decided to look for the perfect nonprofit job opportunity before jumping into another for-profit position. This process took many, many months; had I just had my own savings to work from, I think I would have caved and taken a job elsewhere. But instead, Katherine supported me enough to allow me to start my own new effective altruism charity. Any utility our society gains in the future from this work would not have happened if not for Katherine. Most importantly, though, Katherine has supported me emotionally: she's comforted me at my lowest points; she's helped me soar during my highest points; she's cheered for me whenever I've succeeded and helped pick me up each time I've failed. She gives the most thoughtful gifts. She's always up for a video or board game. She's been the best partner I could ever have imagined that I would ever have, and she's accepted me entirely into her life just as deeply as I have accepted her into mine.

I could not be happier with Katherine as my partner. <3

18 July, 2021

My Thoughts on Race

Here's a pic of Jasper
so that this discussion on race
doesn't bring you down too much.
(I was going to put a pic of
Race Bannon, who my
adopted grandfather voiced,
but that seemed too flippant.

I'd like to say a few things about race here. But, before I do, I want to make clear where I'm coming from. This means that the first several paragraphs of this blog entry will consist of my personal experiences. These probably won't be relevant to most readers, so if you want to skip ahead, feel free to scroll down to the Black Lives Matter fist logo.

I live in the United States, where the dialogue around race has been ramping up for a while now. Every time a black person in very publicly killed by cops, most of my coworkers become too upset to focus on work, so we effectively take the day off. The seemingly weekly occurrences under Trump of abuses in various forms paralyzed my colleagues and eventually drove them to a state where we are all agreed and dedicated toward ensuring that we create a better world for all. I am vaguely in favor of this, although I have strong concerns about the toleration of alternative political views. I'm not in the Republican Party, but I'd like to keep open dialogue with people who are, and I'd like to work together with them to help create a better world, even if they vote for Trump. But things have progressed so far at this point that I don't reasonably believe that this kind of relationship would be easy to maintain with friends, with colleagues, or even with family. This scares me.

See full results.

The dominant expression of minority experience around me is the black experience. I care for and wish to help magnify that expression, but it is not one that I personally share. I am racially mixed, with the preponderence of my ancestry coming from indigenous americans, specifically the Quechuan Andean natives in South America. (Unfortunately, this family history is lost. I know no one from this community at all, similar to how many American black families are unable to trace their connections back to the African continent.) The second largest ancestral group is Italian; my maternal grandfather is ~100% Italian. The third largest is hispanic, with Basque Country Spanish roots that traveled to the area now known as Bolivia in South America; these ancestors first came via successive conquistador waves in the 1500s where the name Herboso is listed on the manifest. The fourth largest is English; I can trace my maternal grandmother's side all the way back to a knight under the 1st Earl of Leicester in the mid 1500s. On census forms, I indicate that I am of mixed heritage, of both native and white race, with hispanic origin. Although 1% of my DNA does come from the African continent, I don't self-identify as black nor do I live the black experience, even though my skin color is decidedly not pure white. If anything, I am mostly taken to be vaguely middle eastern when people glance at me in an airport.

I have experienced personal racism myself, but a combination of luck and rhetorical skill has kept that racism from negatively affecting my life. The closest is probably when my mother callously called the cops on me in the Deep South of Alabama; they subsequently suspected me of having a weapon that I might shoot them with, so they pulled a weapon on me and instructed me to slowly move away from an obstructed view. Thankfully, the officer was cautious enough that a shot was not fired.

On several other occasions, I've had households call the cops on me for walking through the neighborhood at 3 a.m.; this was a habit of mine in many of the neighborhoods I live in. But on each of those times I was found with a book in my hand and I was friendly enough with the officers that they grew to know me and expect these very late night calls. I remember one officer pulling up to me one night and immediately calling out my name. He had a smile on his face, and our conversations were always short and civil, so it was never anything more than a slight inconvenience. (I've never had someone call the cops on me in my neighborhood here in Germantown, Maryland, even though I do almost all of my neighborhood walking between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.; I'd like to think this is because I live in a more progressive area now than I ever used to.)

I've been called a "vicinity friend" before. I'm not sure how to take the allegation. The idea is that some people maintain relationships across space and time, valuing the friendship beyond mere acquaintance. But others are friends only so long as they are forced together through other means: neighbors who are close while they live next to each other, but who never contact each other again once one of them moves. Coworkers who are friendly but who never keep contact once someone moves to a new job. Well, for me, I have no problem whatsoever with not contacting people that previously were close to me. After that incident with my mother, I basically didn't speak to her ever again. This is not because I don't appreciate what she did for me in my early life; she was key to helping me grow into the person that I am today. Certainly, the books she read with me when I was young did much to help me learn and influenced my personality. But, at the same time, it doesn't grate on me nor bother in any way to not contact her, nor to have not contacted the other people on that side of my family for decades on end. Does this make me bad at relationships? Does it make me a bad friend? Does this have something to do with my aphantasia?

I ask these questions because they are relevant: I don't personally empathize with strangers well. On a naive, personal basis, the death of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor feels the same as any other tragedy to me. It is horrible; an utter travesty. But the same as when someone dies of a car accident when we could so easily spend the requisite money to have self-driving cars that would dramatically reduce the extreme fatality rate of car accidents. I have a difficult time understanding the way that others are able to get so personally distraught over these killings. Maybe this has to do with my work in effective animal advocacy. To my eyes, a literal holocaust occurs every day in the form of factory farming. But I can't let that affect my life to the degree that I can't effectively live, or else I would constantly be in a state of trauma. So instead I am able to enjoy video games in my offtime even while knowing that animals are constantly being tortured and prematurely killed for the smallest of profits and that some of my fellow citizens are callously killed by police when the police had no real reason to kill them. (Some might call this white privilege (and human privilege); but I think it may have more to do with the fact that I just don't empathize well with any group. If people named Eric who looked vaguely middle eastern but were actually mixed native, white, and hispanic were being killed and showcased on news reports constantly, I think I'd feel exactly the same way that I do now. It seems to me to be less white privilege and more of a privilege that I get from being a 'vicinity friend'; it's almost as though my general lack of automatic empathy with others is the culprit here, as it means that I don't self-identify as being in the same group with others of any kind, regardless of their species or race.)

If you've read this far, then you must certainly empathize with others better than I. So far, I've merely talked about who I am and where I'm coming from when it comes to race issues. I have no idea why anyone other than myself would ever be interested in the above; I wrote it mostly for myself; writing helps me to organize my thoughts on hazy issues and more clearly examine the reasons behind what I think. I expect that the person reading this paragraph is probably just myself, later on in life.

Above are my thoughts on where I'm personally coming from. What follows are my thoughts on a few selected race issues. This section is more important because it shows what ideas and ideologies I'm committed to in the organizations that I have a leadership position in. Note that just because I believe X does not mean that an organization I run or that I serve on the board of also believes X. Organizations, by necessity, follow different rules and have different agendas than those who are in a leadership capacity, partly because there are multiple perspectives among the leadership teams of every organization I work with, and partly because the stance of an organization should not just be the stance of the individual at the top of it.

First, the obvious: minorities tend to be discriminated against in society. I can't believe I have to write this out, but after seeing one too many people argue that meritocratic success implies that some races just are naturally more inferior than others, I can't not be explicit about this. I recognize that racial differences exist; the best marathon runners tend to come from a particular Kenyan tribe, the people who live in the Arctic are able to hold their body heat much more efficiently, &c. In principle, I am open to the scientific possibility that one such difference might be that one racial population might be demonstratably less fit for specific outcomes than another racial population. But I am disgusted by the allegation from (for example) a subset of the Astral Codex Ten crowd that blacks are less intelligent than whites. (I should mention that I am an ACX reader here, mostly because I value reading highly competent takes even from people I disagree with ideologically.) The data might be consistent with this theory, but it by no means shows it to be true; there are too many other factors that need to be corrected for. And, even if some future scientific meta study did show such a link, that would not change anything about how we should act toward any groups. Differences in education clearly account for much more of a range than race ever would, and so it would still be inappropriate to prejudge a member of a disadvantaged group because they could easily be an outlier for their group. But this is all moot anyway, as the science isn't even capable of discerning such possibilities in the near future; there are too many confounding factors. And, in the absence of a reason to believe otherwise, we should assume equality on the types of things that society values most.

Second, on a just world: oppression of any kind is not okay. Just as the concept of divine right should feel dated and wrong to all readers here, so, too, should the idea that there is justification to artificially hold back some subgroup. We all should be allowed to participate equally in all aspects of our shared culture. This means that I am staunchly against racial oppression, but also any other form of oppression.

The difference between the rich and the poor stand out to me as being especially important here; this should not be happening. While I recognize that capitalism has lifted a significant proportion of the world community out of devastating utter poverty, the point to which they have been lifted is still dramatically lower than the point at which the ordinary American lives. I don't feel confident about a solution here; I'm sympathetic to the idea that capitalism and competition within a developing country is helpful, though maybe alongside high tariffs, but to the extent that it exacerbates the divide between the haves and the have-nots, I am very unhappy. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of a system that has successfully shown itself capable of using a planned economy to lift its poorest citizens out of poverty, so despite being very unhappy with capitalism, I feel it might be useful in developing countries.

Despite mostly being on the far left politically, there are some leftish takes on oppression that I strongly disagree with, such as cultural appropriation. There are easy examples where cultural appropriation is clearly wrong, like when a culture believes something is sacred and another culture callously desecrates it. This is why it would be rude and uncalled for for me to draw a picture of Muhammad, even though only a minority of Muslims believe it would be inappropriate. There's just no need for me to do this. At the same time, I do not think it should be made illegal; plenty of rude things are not illegal, and this should be one of them. Another example is the choice to scuplt Mount Rushmore on the sacred black hills of the Lakota people. Just...why? It's unnecessarily aggressive to desecrate a specific mountain of another culture like this.

Mariachi Mario, by Lorenzo Mendoza

But, for most cases of cultural appropriation, I disagree with the predominant leftist take. I do not think that just because the appropriated culture is a minority culture means that appropriation is automatically wrong. For example, a white person wearing traditional Mexican dress doesn't qualify as being bad to me just because it involves a majority culture in America using a minority culture's attire. But I do believe that a white person wearing a native american headdress does count as bad, because the culture they took the headdress from considered that headdress as a badge of honor that it would be wrong to wear if it were not earned. This is bad in the same way that it would be bad to wear a military ribbon that you did not earn.

I think the key insight for me is that I think in terms of Earth culture, rather than some individual country's culture. I was not born in Mexico, but I am nevertheless from Earth, and so it is my culture, too. While it would be inappropriate for me to desecrate something that others feel is holy, or to wear a badge of honor that I did not earn, I don't think that ordinary parts of other cultures on this planet should be restricted for me, as I wish to celebrate them as well. (With that said, I should mention that this is mostly an intellectual opinion. I don't celebrate any cultures in my personal life — no xmas trees, no fireworks, no porch pumpkins — so I understandably also never actually dress up in other cultures' attire or celebrate anything in particular. It's just that the reason I don't do cultural appropriation is because I have no reason to bother doing so, not because I think that it is wrong.)

Slide from The Equity Collaborative.

Third, on critical race theory: I believe in incremental progress. There's a lot about critical race theory that I like. I agree that race is a social construct (though I also believe that socially constructed categories are meaningful and can be predictive). I agree that racism doesn't just occur in isolated acts of racist people today, but that systemic institutional racism also exists in the forms of rules and regulations of the state, habits of the population, and background ideas that most people don't consciously think about. (Denying this seems crazy to me, and this in particular is one of the biggest problems that I see with the effective altruism community today: that a significant vocal minority of them treat the idea of institutional racism as less credible than human-caused climate change.)

However, when it comes to critical race theory's stance on incremental change, I take issue. I agree that actions taken expressly to help black people have, at times, ended up helping white people, too (or even: instead). But I do not feel that this means that incremental progress is, in principle, an inappropriate way to solve the problem.

There is a similar debate in animal advocacy. The abolitionists believe that everyone must be vegan now. We have to stop any and all animal abuse immediately because it is wrong, and half-measures are worthless. Meanwhile, the welfarists argue that incremental change helps. If we can help to reduce the amount of suffering undergone by animals in the near term, then it is unethical not to attempt to do so. In the field of effective animal advocacy, almost all EAAs are welfarist. We believe that helping to promote the institution of a new law that increases the amount of space that farmed animals are allocated to live their lives in will at least reduce the suffering of each individual somewhat, and the scale of the problem is so massive that the additive reduction in suffering across all farmed animals as a result is so massive that such a campaign might be worthwhile.

You might then be able to predict how I feel about incremental change when it comes to race relations as well. Of course, I do not believe that small changes are necessarily better than large changes. I want to advocate for equal treatment of races, and I'm willing to advocate for huge changes if and when advocating for them seems likely to make a big difference. But I do not feel that the entire system must be upended in order to help put blacks on the same level as whites. Instead, I am reminded of the situation Machiavelli was in.

Niccolò Machiavelli lived in the early 1500s in what is now Italy. Back then, kings were commonplace. Your neighboring city likely had a different king, and war seemed to be eternally occurring. New princes took over each time a monarch was deposed, at least until the next war had a new prince installed a few years later. The people suffered for this. Constant war meant death, injury, starvation. It was better, Machiavelli thought, for one monarch to stay in power without a future uprising, even if that monarch wasn't an ideal ruler. And so The Prince was written. Modern society calls evil plots machiavellian, but I don't think Machiavelli deserves this. He was trying to reduce suffering (and also trying to save himself, but people can have multiple simultaneous goals when writing a text).

I am especially proud of the American experiment. We have a system where our government's leaders undergo a regular peaceful transfer of power. While this is not unprecedented, it is surely an exemplar of what can be done with a strong constitution. There are drawbacks, of course: rich people have too much power and that power rarely is transferred; disagreements on slavery nearly ended the experiment in a civil war; Trump. But these are also successes: Trump came and Trump went, and we did not fall apart in the meantime. Lincoln gave a speech that started "fourscore and seven years ago" referencing 1776 as a the birthdate of the union, even though prior to Gettysburg the birthdate of the union was widely considered to be 1789. This was to reinforce the Declaration of Independence's remarks on equality over the Constitution's 3/5ths clause. (Leo Strauss points out that Lincoln was following Machiavelli here: when you build a castle wall, the bricks at the edge should be crenellated, not leveled off. This is so that if you decide to increase the size of your castle in the future, the bricks will continue to alternate. It will not be obvious that there is a seam where your castle wall used to be. Future generations can then think of your increased castle size as being natural and right and the way it always has been, rather than unnatural and a mere addition to your holdings. If you want to reinforce your rule, doublethink is required. Even though 1776 was never considered America's birthday before the civil war, Lincoln made it so in a famous address that was reprinted across the nation. Today, schoolchildren learn 1776, not 1789, and so the crenellated brick illusion Lincoln used has worked, and the recombined union of the North and South both have kids that primarily learn about the Declaration of Independence.)

An uncrenellated extension.

We, too, should solve problems using methods like this. I and most of the people I know are progressives; we look to the future. But many of our countrymen are conservatives; they look to the past. If we want to meaningfully reach them on issues of race, we cannot just talk about upending the entire system. We have to use rhetorical techniques that place racial change in a positive light for people who look primarily to tradition as something important. We must use the creneallated wall that previous generations left for us. We must embrace incremental change —not small change, but incremental nonetheless. Otherwise we risk revolution, a thing so scary that Machiavelli taught evil to prevent. Revolution is not pretty. When I hear fellow leftists calling for revolution, I am reminded of the anti-vaxxers who say that polio is not that big a deal. The reason we don't have those horrible diseases anymore is because we vaccinate. The reason we don't have violent revolution anymore is because we use incremental change. Please, I implore to you: consider the effects that come from riots, from chaos in the streets, from real revolution. The worst president in the history of the United States (excepting maybe Andrew Jackson) was just voted out last year. Yes, there was an insurrection on January 6. But we survived. The system works. Use the system. Change the system not by overthrowing it, but by using the crenellated edges. We can stamp out racial oppression within the system, if we but work together on this.

Having said my piece arguing against the notion that incremental progress is worthless (part of the critical race theory tenet on interest convergence and the liberal critique), let me also briefly mention CRT's insistence that counter-storytelling is necessary to portray truth. This idea comes from critical theory, the general precursor to CRT. Critical theory teaches that structures in reality are in place to help one group over another, so any time we want to look for truth, we first have to disregard what the existing structures tell us and instead be critical by specifically looking for the underprivileged point of view to get at truth. Now, I want to make clear that I'm not against the idea of counter story telling in general. I adore Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. My favorite historical stories of London come from the papers that survived the 1666 fire, since that caused historians to pay attention to the scraps left by the common people. Part of the reason why I write a public journal is because I want there to be a record of someone in my position for future historians to be able to look back on.

(I imagine a far future where the galaxy is fully populated, and a child is assigned to look back at something written at the dawn of the space age, back when all of humanity still lived on Earth. This child is now writing a book report in elementary school after having insufficiently browsed through these very words. (This sounds crazy until you realize that even if .00001% of children get this assignment in the far future, that means that billions and billions of children will be assigned to read blogs of people that live in this time period, and there are only so many blogs around, so odds are that someone will write a book report on this someday.))

But when it comes to determining truth, I just don't agree with the basic assumptions that critical theory makes. Not all structures are in place to advantage certain groups. Even when it is the case that a structure does advantage one group, that doesn't mean that it was placed there with the intention of doing so. So while counter storytelling can be useful, it should not be used as the primary way of getting at truth. Traditional methods of evidence, liberal enlightenment methods of open discussion of free ideas, and philosophical methods like the principle of charity are all still valid and good ways at getting at the truth. I am not okay with the idea that only a black person can talk meaningfully about black things for the same reason that I am comfortable with listening to researchers when they tell me that aquarium fish prefer dark wallpaper on the back of the aquarium, or that chickens are not happy unless they can peck at the ground. Just because someone is human does not mean that they cannot come to true conclusions about nonhuman animals, and just because someone is white does not mean that they cannot come to true conclusions about issues that affect black people. The idea in the anti-racism community that we must defer to black voices on anything that affects blacks is well-meaning, but can be terribly counterproductive. Minorities already have to bear the burden of explaining and thinking about these things in their everyday life; it is appropriate to allow non-minorities to take up these responsibilities when they can, and that requires allowing non-minorities to reason about issues that affect minorities. This aspect of critical race theory just seems plain wrong to me. Counter storytelling is not the final arbiter of truth, but just a useful additional tool that should have a place alongside other tools for getting at truth.

Reading of Voltaire..., by Lemonnier

I am especially concerned here about the extent to which critical race theory stands committed against the free open discussion of ideas. This is a liberal idea from the Enlightenment that says that when you allow a forum for people to discuss ideas openly, then the result is that the better ideas rise to the top. If the goal is to find truth, then open discussion does a good job of getting us closer to truth, but at the cost of allowing ideas that we disagree with to be in the open forum.

Not all CRT adherents are against free open discussion, but some of the main originators of CRT are. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, authors of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, write: "Unlike traditional approaches to civil rights, which favor incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory calls into question the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and the neutral principles of constitutional law." I'm aware that some crazy Fox news-style people have taken this quote out of context. If you see crazy right wing people quoting this, please don't take the things they say about it seriously. But there is a very real critique here that is serious: that CRT specifically goes against the Enlightenment tradition of using free open discussion to get at truth. Instead, some anti-racists advocate for counter-storytelling alone, some going so far as to say that racist voices (meaning voices which aren't specifically antiracist) should be silenced or otherwise deplatformed.

Not all antiracists believe this, of course. But enough believe it to the point that it does concern me. I believe strongly in Hall's expression of Voltaire's sentiment: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." When Westboro Baptists hold up those despicable homophobic signs at their demonstrations, I may be sad to know that they feel that way, but I'm also proud to live in a civilization that nevertheless allows them to congregate and express themselves in this manner. I am deeply concerned that the ACLU has had uprisings that have resulted in some of its members advocating for specific outcomes rather than the free speech that it has always traditionally fought for. In 2017, far-right groups applied for a permit to rally in front of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The government forced them to rally instead outside of the core of the city. The ACLU of Virginia stepped in and successfully defended the rights of the far-right group. When word of this got to ACLU headquarters, "[r]evulsion swelled within the A.C.L.U..... The A.C.L.U. unfurled new guidelines that suggested lawyers should balance taking a free speech case representing right-wing groups whose 'values are contrary to our values' against the potential such a case might give 'offense to marginalized groups.'" I don't like the direction that this is heading in.

C'mon, Puerto Rico designers. /c:

I believe strongly that prejudice is bad, and that prejudice is pervasive. I think we need to do a lot to correct the problem, as it is embedded everywhere in our lives. I see it in the disproportionate funding of schools that comes from our system of locally funding schools. I see it in the fiction that I watch and read when clueless authors think that a 'normal' background character should be white, cis, and of average size. I see it also when the supposed 'woke' author unnecessarily makes all of the characters 'diverse', breaking my suspension of disbelief when 95% of the people who randomly survive a plane crash are LGBTQ and 40% are trans. I see it in myself as a polyamorous person, when I look back to what types of people I've dated over the years. I see it in the board games I play, when Istanbul has no depictions of women, or when Puerto Rico literally uses brown cubes to represent slaves that you can purchase to succeed in the game. We clearly need to fix our culture. This is why I'm in favor of spending a lot of time and effort on figuring out what we can do in the organizations that I lead to help support the disadvantaged. But, at the same time, I want to ensure that we don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. I don't agree with all of the tenets of critical race theory. I don't agree with all of the things that the antiracist movement seems to be pushing for. To the extent that we can create good, I agree that we should. But let's be careful about how we do so.