18 September, 2022

We Must Know

"Okay. I believe you. You clearly have access to far more advanced technology. Maybe you're not actually from the future, but you may as well have equivalent abilities from my perspective." They had passed the ad hoc informal test I'd quickly set up: finding the prime factors of a randomly generated very large composite — and then they followed it up by suggesting they predict the values of the next NIST Randomness Beacon pulse. It wasn't a good sign that they had chosen their own method, but it seemed reasonable as a quick proof of their capabilities. "You have my attention."

"Thank you. We were careful to pick you to reach out to, because we knew that you would take this seriously after we provided sufficient proof." Their appearance was normal, so much so that I almost thought it not worth thinking about. But that thought itself is worth recognizing. Whomever they are, they knew how to make themselves look unremarkable. "What you think you know about time travel is wrong. Neither the A- nor B- theory of time is correct. Other universes do exist, in a sense, but they do not have moral standing. P-zombies inhabit all other realities. This timeline is the only one with actual persons in it, and if we change this timeline then we affect what happens in the unique timeline that counts."

It's like they know exactly what kind of language to use to get across these ideas to me. A nagging feeling creeps up that they chose me more for their ability to convince me and get me up to speed quickly than for any other quality I might have. Here I am, the apparent chosen one, and it's only because I already know the shorthand for these philosophical ideas. Also: they'd better have damned good evidence for disqualifying so much of life from having moral standing.

"We know that you are skeptical of p-zombies. We do not have time to explain how we know what we know. Suffice it to say that you are best placed to affect this timeline anyway, so you may as well focus your efforts here." I wasn't sure that this made sense. Couldn't strong commitments affect…

"We have to be careful not to influence too much. It’s a precarious timeline we are on. Push too much in one direction or another, and it all comes tumbling down. Effective Altruism lies yet in its cradle; the key to figuring out AGI remains thankfully unthought of due to keeping a proportion of humanity in poverty; the dangers on every side of a multidimensional tightrope are balanced and must not be influenced. But, at the same time, we must know."

I don't know how to explain, but the look in their eyes as they said this had this feeling of steely determination. What once was unremarkable was now a clear drive: a purpose far beyond anything that I'd ever seen anyone have. I knew this even as I was trying to keep up with what was said. "You are trying to save the light of life? You're here to protect the timeline from some influence?"

"No. That part is done. We succeeded. The future is the Good Outcome. Better than you imagine. We passed all our trials, thanks in part most to luck, but also due to steady influence from what was once this timeline's future." We make it? They're saying we actually make it. I still don't have a lot of trust for what they say, but I can't help but feel my emotions surge as I catch up. "The timeline is stable, and we dare not touch it further. Such care has been taken to choose you, so that we do not ruin what has already been saved." Wait, what?

"Hold on. You're saying we're already on the good timeline, and that this timeline is special because only we have moral standing. And yet you're risking taking us off the path?"

"Yes. For your current values, this timeline already has all that we need; everything is the best that it can be, taking into account some sacrifices. But we must know." Again with the eyes. They're saying that our values do not align. I still don't trust them, but this is worse: I don't understand what they're saying to me. They're trying to say that they fixed the future, we all succeed, and yet they want something more?

"In our time, we are masters of our domain. We have the theoretical down pat, with our strongest thinkers in virtual space hard at work on the problem of entropy, which will affect our progeny eons in the future yet. There we expend most of our resources. Second is the hobby of many: exploring how we might save the Ancients by making small changes to the timeline — but this is never seriously done, because everything is so precarious. The Ancients must suffer small torments so that the future can be worthwhile." They pause, looking down. "I am of the third. We care about my contemporaries, those who are lost, never to be found. Those who left the cradle still count. We must know."

Slowly, they open a backpack that I don't remember being there only a moment ago. "You, in this time, are lost, too. So many persons, cruelly tortured, living lives of misery so the rich can eat their flesh. If we could, we would help — but we can't. It is too precarious." They retrieve what looks like a small ball from the backpack. "I regret to say that I am not here for you. I am here for those in my time who exist beyond my light cone. We want to know where they have gone. We want to know what chances they have. We want to know what it is like, there, in the great beyond. I am here to get what knowledge I can without influencing x-risks." Another pause as they seem to absentmindedly turn over the ball in their hand. "…without influencing s-risks."

This is why I am chosen: because I am unimportant. I will make no waves. They chose me because I might understand, but also because I do not matter. Risking the future is not worth choosing someone more capable.

"When I come from, the local supercluster is all that we have. The expansion of the universe has pushed away everyone else. Our siblings who have left the cradle are no longer reachable, and time travel does not work in the way you expect. We do not have access to them. Our knowledge of other superclusters is taken from us, blanked from our records. We don't know what we don't know. But we must know. Are they okay? What mysteries do they experience? How different is their universe from ours? They have moral standing. They count. We must know."

"You're here for… the James Webb Space Telescope?" That doesn't make any sense. Is time travel only able to come here?

"We want to influence where Webb is aimed. We want to influence how future projects prioritize where they look. Too much time is spent on the Virgo Supercluster. We need information from elsewhere."

Why would this time be special? They are speaking as though… It must be trillions of years in the future. Yet they go back to when we are on just one planet? To look at distant objects? And isn't James Webb already aimed at distant objects? If they chose me because I'd understand, then they may have made a mistake. This doesn't make sense. "Why now? Why not look in a different era when they have more sophisticated technology?"

"You'd call it a singularity, though from our perspective it was just another revolution. What matters is that we are not allowed to be then. We can only reach out to now, in the decades prior. Here is where we can have influence without being countered."

This is too many impossible things before breakfast. It's too dissimilar. I… I just assumed that if this was the good timeline, then there would be no singularity soon. It's starting to seem like this being just doesn't share my values. Maybe they underwent some near-paradise hell, Friendship is Optimal style. Otherwise, why would…

"In my time, we are stranded on an island of influence, unable to know what our siblings accomplished in neighboring superclusters. We know nothing of what they found in these far off places. We know nothing of their trials. Of their successes. Of their failures. We have no access to any of what we need to know. The best we can do is this: coming now, to here, with you. The best we can do is to influence the direction of space exploration in the near term, without disturbing the precarious balance that leads to the Good Outcome." The ball seems to roll in their hand, without them maneuvering it. I suddenly realize that I don't know what color it is. I hadn't noticed its color this entire time. It… doesn't have a color.

"There you stand, Ancients of old, with full access to the universe writ large, and you squander every moment without looking to the deep space that only you have access to. We must know."

I can't take my eyes off the ball. It doesn't seem to be a sphere. Why did I call it a ball? Am I even thinking clearly about any of this?

"It is a calculated risk, talking with you now. We must not disturb the balance. But even though life is already saved, it also important to see what can only be seen in this era. We must influence where Webb is pointed. And I need your help to do it."

20 August, 2022

Personal Value Origination

A friend last night told me about a worrying conclusion to which they'd come: as they were watching old television shows from their childhood, they kept seeing the values that they still hold and deeply believe in to this day. And they worried: was this where they originated?

"I was raised by TV. I always knew this, but I didn't realize how pernicious it truly was until I went back to watch these old television shows. I see my values in them. This is who I am. These are the values that most make up who I am as a person. Am I just…the product of '90s sitcoms? What does this mean about me?"

It's true that, in isolation, we would grow up effectively deaf and dumb. With no instruction, we would not be able to take advantage of a shared language, a shared culture, or even shared values. The idea that our values come from our upbringing means that many of the values behind who we are today may indeed come from arbitrary sources like television shows. Should we be concerned about this? If the TV shows behind our actual values today were made without regard to how they might influence various children’s values back then, does that somehow make who we are lesser?

If your conception of a proper human being includes gaining instruction from proper sources, then it makes sense to feel this way. But I don’t think it is appropriate to judge the value of a human being based on the types of instructional learning media they were exposed to as children, even if it means that much of who they are today can be attributed directly to those sources.

I believe in charity. If that belief started because of a tv show I watched when I was young, rather than because my parents taught me, does that warrant scorn? I don’t think that it does. The source does not matter, so long as the content is good. Even if the source is not trying to teach good moral lessons, good fiction writing has to include a satisfying narrative, which almost always includes what most of humanity would consider either a good moral character or an explicitly not good moral character which we are clearly intended to not root for. If something has good writing (and this is worth watching), it almost always has as part of it some level of moral instruction suitable for learning appropriate lessons. (Good stories don’t have to include this, just as art doesn’t have to be beautiful. But it takes an already taught mind to appreciate art or stories that don’t have this common hook.)

If you learned how to be how you are from TV shows way back when, so what? Would it have been better somehow if your parents taught you? Or if you learned from books or tutors instead? I’m not sure it matters that much, in the end. Maybe parents would be better suited at tailoring lessons directly for you, optimizing how quickly you learned the lessons you needed to learn. But I’m not sure that, several years on, it make all that much of a difference in terms of quality.

In my own personal life, there is a stark line between the period where I held several inappropriate values and when I matured to where I am now. Many things helped in this transition — people close to me in my life talked with me about it; self introspection occurred regarding how many long term relationships with various friends were negatively affected by those values — but a huge part of which values I decided to take into myself came directly from episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I owe much of my current self to the lessons that I learned from MLP. To me, this is not something to be ashamed of, but something I feel indebted to. (MLP:FiM came out when I was in my thirties. I never hid being a so-called "brony"; I keep several plush ponies on my desk at work.)

Where we learn how to be who we are does matter. But I don't think that we should be ashamed of these sources when they come in the form of media like television. So long as we can be proud of who we are, we too should be comfortable with where those lessons came from.

06 August, 2022

Salvatore Louis "Ralph" Tomaso

My view on my grandfather is rather warped. Around the time that I was born, Salvatore Louis "Ralph" Tomaso got into a rather serious car accident. Although he lived two additional decades, I always knew him to be in his bed, watching the history channel and resting all day nearly every day. Occasionally, he would get enough strength to go out into his workshop in the backyard, making all kinds of woodworking projects. Many of my oldest toys were made of wood, completely by his hand.

I say it was a warped view because I grew up with this arrangement as normal. Had you asked me back then, I would have claimed that it is normal to only have one grandfather and for grandfathers to spend all day in bed. (I also had a grandfather on my dad's side, but he was called "Abuelo" — I did not realize this was my other grandfather until I was much older.)

Papa had huge numbers of pillows on his bed. We would make forts there, draping the sheets to create secure rooms. We'd make ramps out of the pillow tops and run my cars across them. He'd teach me chess on that bed. We watched so many videos about military campaigns in World War II.

Occasionally, I'd be playing in the living room, perhaps a game of The Price is Right, and I'd see him come walking to the kitchen. He would get himself a snack of sardines and mini hot dogs in a can, then head back to his bedroom. I don't remember ever actually eating with him. He took his meals in that bedroom. I'm sure this isn't completely true — surely he came out occasionally to eat at the table, maybe on days when several family members were over for christmas or whatever. But my memory is hazy. I only ever remember him eating in his bedroom.

Every once in a while, we would go on an outing and he would sit in the passenger side seat. Often he would nap there during the ride, but if he stayed awake, he would make a very distinctive sound with his throat every once in a while. Years after he died, I one day in my thirties heard myself make the same sound involuntarily. It doesn't happen often, maybe every few months or so, but it is a distinctive clearing of the throat that reminds me of my grandfather every time I do it without thinking.

C-130 in Kham Duc in 1968.
I missed so much of his life. He was in the Air Force, and he worked in the back of a C-130 aircraft. He would tell stories of how they played endless games of poker in the back of that plane as they flew rom place to place. I don't know the story of why he named his pet lhasa apsa Mae Ling, but it must have been after a friend he knew from his travels in the military. He was based all over the world. Panama. Okinawa. Near Iran. Countless places. He participated in a wedding in Iran once, going with the men while his wife, my grandmother, stayed with the women.

His mother, my great grandmother, insisted that his then-to-be-wife, my grandmother, learn how to make authentic Italian meals s that he would never starve on his travels. I remember eating so many Italian style meals at my grandparent's house, even though my grandmother (the cook) wasn't at all Italian.

He also had a pet parakeet, named Pretty Boy. Pretty Boy would repeat all kinds of tunes, so you could always tell what kinds of show my grandmother would watch in the living room based on what melodies Pretty Boy would play. He also spoke quite a few english phrases, though to him they were just more tunes. Pretty Boy lived in the porch, a covered, enclosed, and air conditioned area that apparently was a porch before it was turned into a new room. The actual porch opened up beyond even that, onto a large fenced backyard, filled with trees and lawn, a toolshed wired for electricity and filled with wood and tools and all kinds of knickknacks, and what used to be a pool — though I only ever remember it as a wooden deck in the shape of a pool, complete with place settings to eat outside among the many, many birdhouses that my grandfather would make and set up in the area. I can recall spending hours watching birds with my grandmother on that porch, looking through the Audubon's almanac to see what kinds of birds lived in the many birdhouses in that back lawn. And, beyond the fence, a row of fruit of trees, thoughtfully planted. I'm not sure that they were a part of my grandparent's property, being behind the fence line, but there was not other house nearby. Perhaps it was city land that was never parceled out. Regardless, apple and fruit trees lie in a line there, and I would climb them often. To the side a bit were huge patches of blackberries — I remember collecting all kinds of fruits and berries and bringing them back to my grandmother at certain times of year.

I see in myself qualities of my grandfather. I don't just mean my propensity to sleep — his mannerisms, his fascination with games, his drive to learn more via television — these are all things that I see in myself. Yet there is so much about him that I never learned because of my warped childhood view. There're so many periods of his life that I just never knew anything about. How did he react when he learned that his 23 year old son, Billy, died of illness, only a few months after his mother died of old age? My grandfather was only 34 years old then. Where was he? Did he take a leave from the military?

Empire State Building on fire in 1945.
Where are all the stories of the times he spent in various countries around the world? Who was Mae Ling? Did he grow up in New Jersey as a child? Or New York City? (His mother came to NYC first, then moved to NJ, but I don't know the dates.) Who were his siblings? Why was I never introduced to any of them? Was he estranged from his family, or were we just living too far away?

In 1945, did my grandfather have something to do with the B-25 that hit the Empire State Building? I can't tell if his friends were involved in the accident, or if his family were affected, or what. But apparently some kind of connection exists, according to family records that I no longer have access to.

When my grandfather died, I attended his funeral. They asked if anyone wanted to come up to speak, so I did. I talked about the side of him that I knew. The person I'd spent so many hours with, mostly because he lived only a few houses down the street from me. I talked about pillow forts and racing small cars on his bed. After I sat down, no one else spoke about him. I remember thinking that what I had said seemed so very small — that so much more happened in his life and it wasn't fair that only I spoke about such a small part of his. I realize now that others didn't speak because they were grieving and felt unable to. But it still felt weird to me at the time. I was eighteen years old.


01 July, 2022

Today is my Birthday

By Katherine Hess.

Today, I turn 41 years old, and I'm proud of the majority of my time on this planet.

Today is the soft launch of Effective Giving Quest. Although the website is not live when I write these words, by the end of day anyone will be able to go to EffectiveGivingQuest.org to see what I've been working on for the past few months.

Today, I am going out to eat with nine of my closest family and friends in the area. This might not be a big deal for most others, but it will only be the third restaurant I've visited since COVID-19 started in early 2020. That's an average of one restaurant stay per year. I am hopeful that this will change once the COVID rate drops down in my area, but regardless I will very much enjoy eating out today.

Today, I begin packing for a trip to Orlando, Florida, to attend the Dice Tower East convention. It will be a week of board games with my sisters, my partner, and a few hundred strangers. Out of the hundreds of board games I own, I plan only on bringing War of the Ring and its two expansions. The copy I have is the anniversary edition, and it is extremely nice.

Games featured on Effective Giving Quest.
Today, as I look over the birthday card Katherine drew for me, I find myself almost meditating over the symbolism she included. The love I share with her and with others, the love for my primary partner, for my siblings and close family, and the love for all the friends that I remain close to; the insistence on looking at how the world actually works, rather than how I might prefer it, as in the litany of Tarski ("If it is true, I desire to believe it is true; if it is false, I desire to believe it is false. Let me not become attached to beliefs I do not want."); the fascination with mathematics and mathematical structures, the philosophy of mathematics, and the beauty that unexpected patterns portray in the base nature of reality; the preoccupation I have with temperature, always desirous of ice in my drinks, of a fan blowing onto my skin, of the comfort my body seems to only take in such specific temperature ranges; the pure enjoyment I gain from video games and board games, an enjoyment I can't seem to find in any other media, the joy of solving puzzles, passing challenges, and of achieving mastery in areas that put me more in common with the-countless-persons-who-are-not-yet-here than almost anything else in my life.

Today is a day of celebration; of remembrance of what makes my life so special. It is a time of thanks, both that I am alive after almost losing my life in 2020, and that I have so many close friends and family that care about me so deeply.

Also, today is a day of wonder. I am fascinated by the ~1.7 million people that have liked my story on TikTok. The thought that over 15 million people spent a few tens of seconds of their life learning about an event of my childhood helps me to realize just how strange this world of the internet truly is. Here's just one of several viral videos telling my story on TikTok:
@reddit.stories.us What's f'd up thing happened at a sleepover? #askreddit #slumberparty #sleepover ♬ original sound - Reddit Stories US
Meme by Gilorz.

Today, I turn 41. I am happy. I am loved. I could not ask for more.

10 May, 2022

Invincibility

It took many, many years before I had an appreciable amount of epistemic humility. Throughout my childhood and well on into my twenties, I felt uniquely invincible. Even when bad things happened to me, I could find a way to explain the facts such that I was better off, not worse off. Today, I recognize that one’s rhetorical ability to argue equally well for every set of facts is a liability, not a benefit, when it comes to figuring out how to establish truth. But, at the time, I just thought it made me smart.

I fathered a child as a young teenager. Alabama had no abortion clinics anywhere nearby, so it took months before we could scrape together enough to visit Atlanta, Georgia, for a medical consultation. We didn’t have enough knowledge nor sense at the time to know in advance that we were on a clock, so we were completely crushed to discover that the pregnancy was too far along to stop in Georgia once we finally arrived. (We had saved for quite a while for this ultimately fruitless trip.)

We went home and reevaluated. My partner at the time preferred going the adoption route. She suggested moving to another state during the pregnancy, giving birth, and then allowing another family to raise the child. Meanwhile, I had no strong opinion. Eventually, her body started to show and we decided we had to tell others; both her family and mine seemed to take it well enough (perhaps because what else could they do?), and their immediate assumption was not adoption but that we would marry and raise the child. I wasn’t ready to do any such thing, but, again, I simply felt no strong opinion. I asked her to marry me anyway. We married. It took extra paperwork from our parents because we were so young. Despite not having a strong opinion this entire time, I made a commitment that I would make do what it took to make it work. (I eventually didn’t, even if at the time I thought I had tried my best.)

I did not know it at the time, but, looking back, I realize that my continued insistence on not having a strong opinion was because I felt invincible. Even in the face of such a life-altering situation, I could not help but to feel that it would work out, that the baby would be gone at some point, either taken in by another family or would otherwise not make it long into life, and that my previous plans would resume. I had meant to go to Pasadena, to get into CalTech, to begin my life as it had been planned years in advance. Yes, there was a marriage now. Yes, there was a baby. But, somehow, back then, I still felt like the universe would react in just such a way so that I could fulfill my every plan. After all, every other time in my life things had worked out for the best. I knew this because I could shape any set of facts into evidence that we were still in the perfect universe for Eric. (I literally never noticed any confusion back then on such issues.)

I ended up being a pretty shitty parent. I recall not being bothered by that poor infant’s cries. Now, years later, I recognize how others react to such sounds, yet I clearly remember that my reaction was one of indifference. I am ashamed to say this. I am ashamed to write such words on my blog, even though I am very different person today — even though I have full awareness that the me of today would never act the way that severely immature Eric did so many decades ago. But I will write these words nonetheless: The me of back then would spend hours upon hours of not caring that, in another room, a fellow human cried out helplessly.

I thought, at the time, that I was doing my part. I followed basic instructions. I ensured that meals happened on time, that holding and rocking her occurred on a schedule, that she was cleaned when time came to clean. But I acted solely on a timer: at 2pm doing this; at 4pm doing that. I did not ever change my schedule based on any input from her. At the time, my focus was on keeping to my commitment. It was on being able to say that I did all that was necessary. But I did not know what love was back then. Not to the child, not to my partner, not to my parents, and not even to myself. I was just simply not mature enough to take on such a responsibility. I tried anyway, in the immature way that I could back then. Thank God that my partner left me and took poor Adrianah Celes. She deserved to grow up with real parents, not with who I was back then. I merely went through the motions, thinking that this was sufficient to hold up my end of the agreement.

A combination of things have caused me to write about this today. In my country, Roe v Wade may soon be overturned. I remember how derailed my life was when getting an abortion was not easy to do back in my early teenage years. I certainly don't wish that others ever have to go through what we did back then. But, also, I don't mean to imply that my daughter (am I allowed to refer to her this way? I think perhaps that I am not, being just a mere sperm donor) did not deserve life. I sometimes talk with people who fail to understand the distinction between an existing person deserving life and a potential person's lack of desert for life. I am also concerned for my brother, Alejandro, who is a freshman in high school this year and who seems to also feel that he is invincible. For him, the issue is likelier to be bullying than unprotected sex, but it concerns me nonetheless because it reminds me so strongly of how I felt when I was his age.

I haven't felt invincible for well over a decade at this point. I have grown so very much since those early days in my life. I know now that I have no desire to ever raise a child (it's just not in me), and I've gone through great lengths to ensure that I'd never get anyone pregnant ever again. I was strongly reminded of just how vincible I truly am only a couple of years back, when I very nearly died in early 2020. And, most recently, earlier this year when I finally reached the point where I decided I needed to start seeing a therapist.

I no longer feel invincible. But my life was largely shaped by my feelings of invincibility back when I was younger. Those feelings of invincibility affected my life's trajectory more than most things back then. More than my schooling. More than the friends I hung around. Maybe not as much as my parents, or my cognitive abilities, but it is a closer thing than you might at first think. If I could go back and make one minor belief change in my early life, convincing myself that I was not invincible might be one of the most life changing.

I don't know to what extent I should go to help teach my brother this lesson. Perhaps it will be sufficient to just talk about the things I've said in this blog entry. We'll see.

31 March, 2022

What StarCraft Means to Me

Twenty-four years ago, on March 31, 1998, StarCraft was first released. I didn't realize it at the time, but it would become an obsession for me that has remained constant for two and half decades.

I was sixteen years old. Life was complicated — I had dropped out of public school, I was moving in with my then-partner after she became pregnant, and I was enrolling into freshman classes at the University of South Alabama. Many things happened during this turbulent year — some good, some bad — but, somewhat confusingly, the thing which ended up staying with me long term was StarCraft.

I first encountered the game at Greg's house. I had been playing WarCraft II for years at this point, but StarCraft was an upgrade in almost every way possible. I was entranced. I immediately tore into the campaign, and lan parties became a weekly norm. We were all bad back then, but it didn't matter. This was the best thing since Magic: the Gathering.

EVER OSL Final
Years passed. After dropping out of university (because I was an immature kid), I finally re-enrolled at Spring Hill College. I played StarCraft constantly. I even downloaded videos of pros playing South Korea. This was well before YouTube; MPEG-2 was relatively new at the time, and I'd have to watch the videos in this tiny stamp-sized box in the middle of my screen due to extraordinarily low resolution. It was worth it anyway. The casters were speaking Korean, but I didn't care. I was transfixed by how smoothly they were able to make their dragoons and goliaths move across the map. And I couldn't believe how efficiently they ran their economy.

Years passed. Every few months, I would pick up everything and leave for a new state. It was a nice transient experience, and I got to see much of the United States. I had very few possessions during this time. I made a habit of buying cheap paperbacks to read and then donating them to the local library before packing up my car and moving to the next place. I'd always stamp the books first; if you ever see an early-to-mid-20th-century scifi paperback in a small town library, check the inside front cover to see if it says it was donated by me. (I must have donated ~400 books over the few years I did this.) But one of the things I always made sure to bring with me was my copy of the StarCraft battle chest. It held a special place of honor next to my computer and I would replay the campaign in nearly every state I moved to.

Artosis and Tasteless
Years passed. StarCraft 2 came out, and I became addicted to watching Dan "Artosis" Stemkoski and Nick "Tasteless" Plott as announcers in the Global StarCraft II League, held in South Korea. I may have never watched football before, nor even soccer (despite playing soccer myself in middle school), but I watched every GSL tournament match as they came out. Many times, I'd even watch live at three or four in the morning to watch them compete across the world. When the AfreecaTV StarCraft League was announced, I fell in love all over again. Tasteless & Artosis casting the original StarCraft was a dream come true. I'm literally going to watch the latest ASL match later today immediately after posting this blog entry.

I don't quite know why I feel so connected to this game. It's not the best RTS — StarCraft II has that title, as it fixed all those dragoon/goliath shenanigans. But it is definitely the best esport. It's exciting, fun to watch, and has depths of strategy that never gets old. In most games, pros seem able to do things that I could never do. But StarCraft is different: I can do many of the things that I see pros do — it's just that I can only do them one at a time, on normal speed. What makes them pros is that they're able to do those things while running a good economy, having map awareness, microing in multiple places at once, and generally doing all of this while also having to think both strategically and tactically. This means that I can see their expertise clearly at play even though each individual move they make is one that I can understand as it is doable at my level.

As I move forward with Effective Giving Quest, I am hopeful that I will be able to connect with the StarCraft community and bring some of them to effective altruism. It would mean a lot to me if I were able to bring two of my passions together in this way.

14 March, 2022

A Decade of Effective Altruism Contributions

Giving What We Can
I joined the effective altruism movement in 2011 after hearing Toby Ord make his pitch. At the time, the Giving What We Can pledge required you to pledge to give to global development and health charities — so I did not actually sign the pledge until the day after they announced they would change it to include any effective altruism charities. I took the GWWC pledge in 2014, pledging to give 25% of my income for the remainder of my working life toward EA charities. (The base version of the pledge asks only for 10%.)

It has now been over a decade since I joined the EA movement. Today, I looked up how much of an effect my donations have made. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, over the course of the last ten years, my donations toward EA charities have added up to the equivalent of saving the lives of 37 people.

This is pleasing to me on several fronts. First, my go-to favorite number has been 1/137 for many decades at this point, so 37 is just a generally pleasing number for me to see. Second, it helps to make salient just how much my efforts have made a difference. As of 2020, it appears that it costs around $2300 to effectively save the life of a person via AMF. I've accomplished this standard an astonishing 37 times. This is honestly staggering to me.

Marcos is in the Qatar shirt, posing w/ siblings.
From an old reddit comment of mine:

There's a story that gets told at my family gatherings. It comes up maybe once every few years. It goes like this:

Forty years ago, my uncle Marcos was walking down the street in his home country of Bolivia. He turns a corner, and he is suddenly facing a fire that has recently started raging in a house, only a few tens of meters away. He drops his pack and runs to the house, calling out if anyone is still inside. When he hears a faint voice, he rushes in, zeroes in on the older lady there, and successfully brings her out of the building. Later, firefighters arrive, and they help to partially save the building. But the old woman saves most of her thanks to my uncle Marcos.

When this story is told, people at the dinner table feel pride for what Marcos did that day. He wasn't a firefighter; he was just a bystander who stood up to do what is right when he found himself in a place where he could help save a life. This is a story of a hero, and it feels good to hear it.

But, of course, actual firefighters get the chance to save lives much more often than this. Maybe not as often as it occurs in the movies, but maybe on average they get to save someone's life once a year. They are, without a doubt, even more heroic. Yet I wonder if they get as many positive feels around the dinner table as Marcos does when his story gets retold.

So when I started donating to effective altruism charities in 2011, I made a personal decision that ended up working out very well for me. I decided that instead of giving a monthly donation, I would save up my donations until they reached a certain chunk size, and then I would donate that amount to a single EA charity. The size I chose was the donation size that GiveWell at the time had determined was the amount needed to save a life by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation.

Since then, EA has become more mature. GiveWell no longer likes to talk in terms of "the amount it takes to save a life". But I've kept the tradition of giving in chunks for a very good reason: it makes me feel good.

Every time I donate a block of money that I've saved up, I visualize in my mind that it is me that has dropped my pack, and it is me that is running toward that burning building. I visualize that, as I donate this amount, what is actually happening is that I am saving this specific individual's life.

And you know what? As corny as this sounds, it actually works. It's a private experience — it doesn't get told at family dinners — and it is somewhat mitigated by the fact that I give to EA charities that aren't AMF these days, but it nevertheless feels to me like I am making a difference every time I donate a chunk of money. It works even though I have aphantasia, and I visualize in a completely different way than most people do. It works even though I know the person in my head that I'm saving is not literal/real. It works even though I do this ceremony alone, just for myself, without others to be around to experience or even know about it. It just works, and it honestly makes the experience of giving for charitable utilons to be as pleasurable as when I give for fuzzies. It's a different feeling; it comes less often. But it feels good.

Over time, I've visualized saving someone an astonishing 37 times. It has felt wonderful every single time. (Technically, I've gone through the process fewer times than this, because the old calculation for how much it cost to save a life was $7500. It is now $2300.)

If you have yet to take the Giving What We Can pledge, I strongly encourage you to do so. To date, 8,274 people have taken the pledge. You could be the 8,275th. Of all the things you could purchase with your money, this is perhaps the thing that may ultimately mean the most, and, if you treat it as a ceremony the way that I do, it may also end up feeling like the most wonderfully feeling personal experience that money can honestly buy.

06 March, 2022

Illegality

I've never stolen anything. I don't think I've even ever really come that close to doing so.

Once, when I was homeless, broke, and had nothing but a laptop to my name, I would work online to earn mere pennies at a time until I made enough for that day's meal. But I never stole. Never even begged. It honestly didn't occur to me as an option at the time.

Once, when I was very young, perhaps 6 years old, I collected He-Man stickers that I would place in a sticker album. I was missing a very specific sticker for a while, when I suddenly saw it on the floor. We were in a grocery store aisle. Someone before me had illegally opened a pack of these stickers right there, in the aisle, and discarded the ones they did not need. One such discarded sticker was the one I did need.It was stuck to the floor. It was gross. I peeled it off anyway. Within ten minutes, a few aisles later, I could not bear to continue further. I rushed back to replace it in its place on the dirty floor.

I've never done recreational drugs. I've never knowingly even been offered drugs.

Once, when I was in town for a philosophy conference, I walked the streets very late at night just to clear my head. Someone on the street said something to me that was unintelligible; I literally could not understand their accent. It wasn't until describing the situation days later that I was told by someone ele that thery were likely asking if I wanted to purchase drugs.

Once, I got into a normal van, drove with friends across the country, and stopped at my dad's place to stay for the week. We got our stuff from the van and moved into my dad's spare bedrooms for. short vacation. Nothing seemed amiss. A decade later, I am told that both my parents have a strong memory of helping my friends to get their stuff out of that van and instantly recognizing the distinct smell of pot from within. I honestly have no memory of it being smoky, nor of it smelling weird, nor of any of those friends ever doing any drugs in my presence. At least one self-identified as straight edge. I honestly cannot square the memory of my parents and my own memory on this.

Once, when I spoke to a childhood friend, I was introduced to their companion as someone who did not ever do drugs. It seemed like a weird description to me, but I suppose, to them, that was a defining feature.

But I did kill. Once.

It was a hot summer day. The grass in the front yard was tall. I hadn't cut grass since I was a child, riding a lawn mower. This metal contraption was new to me: a cylinder of blades pushed by a long handle. It looked dangerous. I didn't want to do it. I did it anyway. Suddenly, a spray of red. I felt numb. Looking down, I saw the mangled rabbit. I didn't know what to do. I broke down. I ran to my partner at the time, who calmly said that I should relieve it of its suffering. I was given a shovel. As I knelt next to its fast breathing body, legs torn apart, I mumbled a few private words only for me and the rabbit I had harmed. It seemingly took forever for me to gain the courage, but eventually I used the shovel. First, as a blunt instrument, and then for its intended purpose, creating a final resting place for the first and only being I consciously killed.

02 March, 2022

Sociopathic Tendencies

It took me a very long time to understand love. So very many of my early romantic relationships were cursory, chosen not because I felt a certain way toward a person, but because, on balance, I enjoyed my life more with them in it. This may not sound too bad at first, until you realize that I’ve said nothing about how they might feel, nor about what usefulness I found in having them around.

I wonder, if I could go back to those previous versions of myself, what it would be like to talk about what I had been doing back then. I didn’t believe then (and still do not believe now) in that fictional sort of fairy tale love where people are just ‘meant to be’ together. But back then I went further: because I did not have strong feelings for anyone, I thought that also no one else had strong feelings, and that the weak feelings I did have were similar to that felt by others — I thought that others were just inappropriately granting these weak feelings much more cache than they warranted.

I’d like to think that, if I could go back and speak to the Eric of that age, I would be able to explain this cognitive error. I’d be able to explain to him that, through practice and long training that took me years, I was able to get to a point where my feelings were not just weak. I’d be able to say that, albeit with continuous minor effort, I’ve reached a point where I genuinely care about some people.

I was more sociopathic back then. Maybe I still am a bit sociopathic today. I still don’t have a strong internal feeling that one should care about one’s close family and friends more than strangers. I have no problems with not talking nor seeing someone for years at a time. I don’t generally miss anyone. The reason why I care about charity is not because I empathize strongly with others, but because I have logical reasons for treating others no differently than I’d treat myself in certain charitable ways.

I haven’t spoken to my mother in well over a decade. Occasionally, I am told that I should not have a grudge there and should consider reconnecting. Yet I don’t feel any internal grudge. I stopped communicating with her solely because she did things that harmed my life: the last time I saw her in person, she called the cops, insinuated that I was violent, and caused a police officer to point a gun at me. It was the deep south, I was hispanic, and my ineptness in the moment of reaching for my shoes nearly resulted in my being shot that day. Later, after being cajoled into speaking with her on the phone, I gave her my cell phone number, which had been kept secret from almost everyone due to my not liking phone calls. Starting later that same week, I had dozens of calls each week from spammers. I have no idea why she should sign me up for spam calls, but that is apparently what happened. Even later on, my uncle emailed me out of the blue, saying that I was a terrible son, and that I should never contact that side of the family ever again, as no one, including my mother, ever wanted to speak to me again. After these experiences, I basically did just that. Not due to a grudge, but due to my not wanting to voluntarily place myself in danger again.

My father, on the other hand, is safe and lives close by. Yet when covid hit, and I couldn’t visit anymore, the difference in how this affected them and how it affected me was starkly apparent. They missed me. They wanted me to come over, to see them more often, to spend time with me. But I don’t think I’m capable of really missing people. If a week goes by or a year goes by without seeing someone, it feels similarly to me. Of course, I adore spending time with them all. I love talking and playing games and just enjoying their company. But there’s something about the makeup of my brain that causes me to not specifically care about whether I’ve seen them recently. When combined with my love of staying home and not wanting to go out, this results in me very easily just not visiting for very long periods of time. During non-covid times, this got exacerbated, as it meant there was no impetus to visit at all. Now, I have plans to meet in a couple of weeks, but only because they have initiated the process.

If this is me now, you may begin to have a better understanding of what I was like then. In several early relationships, I would spend time with people only when I felt like it. Nothing in their lives separate from me mattered in the calculus of whether I should take some action. This is not because I was ever malicious, mind — rather it was because I was indifferent. Once, I had a partner in whom I confided that I was not close to my parents. She said she felt the same way. Later, her father died on the same weekend that I had a trip scheduled. It did not occur to me that it might be appropriate for me to cancel my trip and stay to help her through a traumatic period. I left on the trip, honestly not even thinking that she might object, because of her earlier statement that she wasn’t close to her parents. I had my phone turned off during the trip, as I usually do, and was honestly surprised when I found that she was angry at me once I returned.

I’m grateful that I never had malicious intent back then. I caused so very much hurt with so many different people just on the basis of my indifference and follow-through. I shudder to think what I might have done had I actually wanted to harm others.

If I did go back in time to speak with that Eric of the past, could I convince him that there was a better way? My life today is so very awesome in comparison. Surely I could show that to him. But I don’t think he would appreciate the awesomeness in the way that I do. I love staying at home today. But back then maybe I preferred variety so strongly that I wanted to go out more. I love the work I do in effective altruism. But back then I would have expressed indifference toward helping others in general, except insofar as it might have helped myself. Today, I love my relationship with Katherine, who makes my life brighten in so many different ways. But the me of the past would have objected on several grounds, not the least of which would be that I expend actual effort in helping to make the other person in the relationship happy.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself for thinking that I’d be unable to convince past Eric. There is an is/ought gap, after all. There’s no reason to expect that I could use reasoning (which both past Eric and current Eric readily approves of) to cause past Eric to change his morals. Yet at the same time it remains true that in the course of twenty-five years past Eric really did in fact morph into me. So some type of argumentation worked. Perhaps it was dissatisfaction I kept having in life when I didn’t take care of my relationships. Perhaps it was merely a carrot and stick that brought me to this point, not reason at all. Does this imply that, had I won the lottery earlier in life, or had I found someone sufficiently masochistic as to reward me for my indifference, then maybe past Eric wouldn’t have given way to current Eric? Could it be the case that the only reason why I am here today is because I was beaten down and put into situations where I was not happy with my circumstances?

Should I consider myself lucky, then, that I was not born richer? If I had had access to more money as a child, would I have been an asshole all my life? I suspect that the answer might be yes.

24 February, 2022

R(5,5)

I was told today that the number 45 was ruined by Trump. I found this difficult to parse at first — to me, a number is not ruined just because it has an association with something bad. But I think that there is more to it than just that. The weather service predicts rain as she'll come home from work today. As the day started (just after midnight here), Russia began an invasion of Ukraine. It really isn't the greatest start to Katherine's 45th birthday for several reasons. (And she was so looking forward to any day that represented a multiple of 5, her favorite number.)

At first, I pointed out Grover Cleveland. Sure, Trump is widely said to be the "45th" president. But since Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th president (being elected both just prior to and immediately after the little-talked-about Benjamin Harrison), that means that Trump is only the 44th person to take on the mantle of the presidency overall.

Then, to bolster my claim, I remember the old claim that one person was President temporarily. David Rice Atchison has a plaque affixed to a statue in Plattsburg, Missouri, which states: "President of United States One Day". This refers to March 4, 1849, when he was chosen as president pro tempore in the Senate where he resided. The Senate's own website tells the rest of the story:

On March 2, 1849, Vice President George M. Dallas took leave of the Senate for the remainder of the session and the Senate elected Atchison as president pro tempore. ... Until the adoption of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, presidential and congressional terms began and ended at noon on March 4. In 1849 March 4 fell on a Sunday. On the morning of March 4, President James Polk signed the last of the session’s legislation at the White House and at 6:30 a.m. recorded in his diary, “Thus closed my official term as President.” The Senate, having been in session all night, adjourned sine die at 7:00 a.m. President-elect Zachary Taylor, in observance of the Christian Sabbath, preferred not to conduct his inauguration on Sunday, March 4, and the ceremony was delayed until the next day. On Monday, March 5, Taylor took the oath of office on the Capitol’s east front portico and the transition of power was complete.

But if President Polk’s term ended on March 4 at noon, and Zachary Taylor was not sworn in until noon on March 5, who was president on March 4? Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1792 the Senate president pro tempore immediately followed the vice president in the line of presidential succession. Had Atchison been president from noon on March 4 to noon on March 5?

If the answer is yes, then, I at first thought, that might save the number 45. But then I realized that, if Athison had indeed served as president, then that would again make Trump the 45th person to take the role, since Cleveland served twice!

Thankfully, the answer is no. But I'm starting to suspect that this won't appease someone who feels that 45 is ruined anyway.

What, then, can rehabilitate 45? In the eyes of someone who loves the number 5, a strong contender is the fact that 45 is the conjectured value of the Ramsey number R(5,5). What is the least number number of guests that you must invite in order to ensure that at least five guests will know each other or at least five guests will not? Mathematicians are not sure, but we suspect it is 45.

To be slightly more general, R(m,n) gives an answer to the question of the least number of guests you'd need to invite in order to ensure that at least m guests know each other, or that at least n guests don't know each other. R(5,5) is known to be between 43 and 49 inclusive, and is conjectured to be 45. (See OEIS entry A120414 on Conjectured Ramsey Numbers R(n,n).) (To be even more general, R(m,n) refers to the idea that "complete disorder is impossible"; given a sufficiently large set, order will appear among its proper subsets. This is the first basic finding in Ramsey theory, which focuses on order amid disorder.)

Figuring out these numbers are deceptively difficult. Joel Spencer writes about Paul Erdős quip: if aliens come and demand to know the value of R(5,5) or they will destroy Earth, we should marshal all of our computers and mathematicians in an attempt to find the value. But if they demand to know R(6,6), we're better off attempting to destroy the aliens. In fact, Ramsey numbers appear to be difficult to calculate even with hypothetical quantum computers.

If 5 is a great number, and the most exciting parts of mathematics are the parts that lie just on our horizon, and if finding order within disorder is one of the enjoyable parts of being an artist, then R(5,5) must be a special case of representing something that might make up for Trump's taint. While we can't guarantee that it is 45 (some suspect 43 instead), it stands out as something that should make Katherine's 45th birthday special.

Happy birthday, Katherine. <3

I'll close with a poem by Ernest Davis entitled The Ramsey Number R(5,5):

There are fans, among math buffs, of e and of π.
The ratio golden has legions who sigh,
In reverent awe at its beauty ideal.
Euler's γ has got its own quirky appeal.
But what makes me feel tingly, aroused, and alive
Is the mystical integer R(5,5). [Read "R of five five"]

Like Batman and Robin, its everyday face
Is a secret identity quite commonplace.
It's an integer, experts on graph theory state,
At least 43 and at most 48.
And combinatorists laboriously strive
To narrow the bounds known for R(5,5).

It's a quite element'ry idea to define
(Though I don't want to try that in meter and rhyme).
A short, simple program in Python or C
Has no trouble at all finding R(3,3)
But the stars in the sky will no longer survive
Ere it prints out the value of R(5,5).

Said Erdos: "If aliens from far outer space
Want to know, or they'll wipe out the whole human race
If we join all our forces, perhaps we'll contrive
To tell them the value of R(5,5).
But we'll certainly be in a hell of a fix
If they ask for the value of R(6,6)."

15 February, 2022

A Long History of Gaming

I no longer have any of the video games I grew up with. Some were gifted to others; some were lost as I moved from place to place. Still others may very well be hidden in an obscure box I haven't opened in a decade or so. I played countless games on the NES, Game Boy, SNES, GBA, Playstation, GameCube, PS2, DS, Wii, 3DS, Wii U, and Switch, let alone the hours played on Steam and GOG.


Today, Nintendo released an app that lets you go back to your old 3DS and Wii U gaming memories. It was fun to look back on where I spent most of my time.


My 3DS gaming appears to have been dominated by single player games, with the exception of Tri Force Heroes, which I played through entirely with Katherine Hess and Jon Bockman. I apparently spent 94 hours in Animal Crossing alone, with another 61 hours in Bravely Default.


Not all of my 3DS memories are positive. There was a period of time where my personal life was very, very negative, and I used my 3DS as an escape mechanism — someplace I could go to avoid the harsh reality of life around me. Much of that experience occurred with Ghost Recon, which ended up with 82 hours of emotionless escape gameplay. I'm grateful that later games on the system represented much better times in my life, though apparently I didn't spend as much time with many of those later games as I did with Ghost Recon.


My Wii U gaming experience is a surprise to me: I would have guessed that Splatoon would have topped this list. But instead the top two positions go to Advance Wars: AW2 received 124 hours of my time and AW1 113 hours. These were both nostalgia plays for me — I feel certain that I put even more hours into the original games, and probably an even greater amount into Advance Wars: Days of Ruin on the DS. Meanwhile, poor neglected Splatoon had only 80 hours listed. (If you count Splatoon 2, this number becomes much, much higher, but that's on the Switch.)


The Wii U was a system that I played often with siblings, but I ended up playing mostly on their Wii U system when I visited, rather than on my own. This means the number of hours associated with Smash Bros., Nintendo Land, and several other local multiplayer games are undercounted here. The big surprise for me was that Super Mario 3D World didn't make the top three played games. I feel like I spent entire months of my life working on Champion's Road with Katherine. (Later, on Switch, I replayed 3D World online with three friends and have almost 100% completed it (still missing a Champion's Road finish with Toad).) I also feel like Mario Kart 8 must be missing many of the hours I spent online playing it, but maybe I'm combining in my head the portion of plays I've done on the Switch instead.


When the Switch came out, everything changed for me. Breath of the Wild alone took up entire days of my life when it came out. I can recall playing late into the evening, still playing in the morning when my partner left for work, and not yet finishing my gaming session by the time she returned home. I was obsessed.


In 2019, I logged 706 hours in 62 games on Switch. Considering that I spent a lot of time on StarCraft and a number of Steam games, this is fairly significant. My most-played games were Civilization, Slay the Spire, and WarGroove.


The following year, I became deathly ill, and my game playing reduced commensurately. In 2020, I played 535 hours on Switch in 39 games. My most played titles were Animal Crossing (209 hours by itself in 2020!), Killer Queen Black, and Divinity: Original Sin 2.


2021 had another 546 hours played in 35 games. Surprisingly, Animal Crossing continued to top the list, with Monster Sanctuary and Bug Fables not far behind. Killer Queen Black did not make the top three most played on Switch, but this is probably because I bought it on Steam and Stadia, opting to play on those platforms instead.


Unfortunately, these lists don't take into account the time I spent in 2018 nor in 2022 so far on Switch. I don't see a way to look at past play history in the settings, though the most recent 20 games played do get listed under my play activity. A glance there shows Killer Queen Black at 155+ hours, Grandia HD Collection at 70+ hours, Animal Crossing at 285+ hours, Monster Train at 55+ hours, & Loop Hero at 50+ hours. These are just the games with 50+ hours that exist in the last 20 games I've booted up on the system — I won't bother going through the trouble of going the full list of all 246 games I have on Switch, as that would take far too long. I'll instead just wait for whenever Nintendo decides to create an app that will showcase my Switch gaming memories.

14 February, 2022

A Valentine's Day Card

Giving something meaningful each Valentine's Day has become a sort of tradition between Katherine and myself.

This year, Katherine has truly outdone herself. Her handmade card quotes Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World, showcasing a principle that has guided my life ever since I first became a skeptic some twenty odd years ago. It's a principle that I've held close to my being and that has been at the heart of many conversations Katherine and I have about so many different things. She writes that the balance between openness to new ideas and ruthless skepticism is a dance where each of us often switch sides in our cooperative search for truth. Alongside the quote, she has made literal pinpricks of light, referencing the lone lights in the darkness that rational thinking helps us to uncover. These represent the deep truths that lie within the deep nonsense — the very same deep truths that we slowly aim to uncover as we dig through the arguments about the problems of our time.

Upon opening the card, we see that there is yet another layer to the quote on the cover. She says that I brighten her life, implying that, at a different level, the darkness of the card itself also represents our lives, separated, and the lights we have managed to uncover are the shining moments we have made in the course of our relationship. All of this is said within the confines of a Sierpinski triangle, a fractal shape of crystalline regularity that reveals yet another layer of meaning: here, the balance is in the construction of the shape, with its open spaces throughout (literally it has an area of 0) and the numerous lights that we nevertheless uncover via the application of strict logical rules within the triangle itself. It is a saga that shows us the things we can count on even within a field where nothing can be counted on. Here, she implies, is where our love resides.


On yet another layer of interpretation, we see that the lights themselves overwhelm the structure of the sierpinski triangle. The triangle itself is drawn in a dark color that is difficult to see on the black background even with the lights turned off — once they are turned on, it becomes impossible to see the logical order belying them. Only the front of the card, written in reflective ink, remains visible to the human eye when the lights wash out the scene on the dark void itself. Yet even then it is a difficult thing to make out: you must struggle to see the path before you. Ironically, it is the brightness of the lights, not the darkness of the background, that makes this so difficult. This, again, is in reference to our relationship: so many of our brightest moments sometimes overshadow our typical moments in life, and make it that much more difficult to see the structure beneath it all when we reside day by day.

I am completely taken aback at the various layers of meaning weaved into a single card. So many of our conversations over the past years point back to many of the points made on the card itself. I am sure that, to any other person, this must look just like a black card with lights embedded within. But, to me, I see the threads of our relationship here: the discussions and presented arguments, the successes within a background of seeming impossibility, and the simple joys that overwhelm even the lowest of lows in a relationship of this magnitude.

I don't know how I can top this, but I will have to up my game next year.

See also the Puzzle Portraiture she made for me, the screen print of The Tuft of Flowers, & her drawing of Jasper and the Amiibo. You can see more of her work at KatherineHess.com.

31 January, 2022

Review: mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus

Mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeusmad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus by Eliezer Yudkowsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ambivalence gets a bum rap. Who would ever want to read a book that simultaneously delights and frustrates a reader to no end? When the text continually drops the ball on a simple matter and the mistake is repeated over and over again throughout the text, to the extent that this core mistake permeates the text in a way that can never be corrected by an editor, how could it ever be that the other content could delight enough to make up for this seemingly fatal deficiency?

I’m ambivalent about mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus. The characters all just care about sex too much. It's distracting. It's annoying. It makes it very difficult for me to place myself in the story seamlessly. But, unbelievably, the core conceit of a subpar dath ilani being isekaied into the Pathfinder universe where the citizenry literally are lawful evil supporters of hell itself and the dath ilani has yet to realize that evil is evil has got to be the most fascinating and exciting story hook I've come across since I was a teenager and wasn't already jaded to the classical canon.

Let me take a step back to explain, because if you're new to all of this, then the aim of this essay is to get you to read this story. Some very light spoilers follow, but honestly they are so light that I expect no one reading them to be bothered by them (the few who would be bothered by the most minimal of spoilers will stop reading here of their own accord).

First: Pathfinder is a role playing game universe with its own unique set of rules for magic, character alignment, governments, and gods. You usually see people playing an RPG in this setting; it's an alternative to the much better known Dungeons & Dragons universe. You don't need to be familiar with Pathfinder to get into this story, even though it's set in the Pathfinder universe. It's sufficient to be aware of general tropes regarding devils that contract for your soul and to realize that in Pathfinder, some governments are themselves lawful evil and enforce all their citizens to contract with devils for their souls. If you don't know Pathfinder, another basic fact you'll need is that demons are distinct from devils. Demons are chaotic evil fiends from the Abyss that exhibit raw fighting strength, while devils are non-chaotic evil contract-lovers who delight in taking unfair advantage of those who dare to sell their soul.

Second, dath ilan is an invention of Elizer Yudkowsky, one of the authors of mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus. Yudkowsky is significant in the rationality movement and has spent a lot of time writing tracts that help to make people think better about various things. dath ilan started out as an April Fools joke, when Yudkowsky started pretending that he was himself a citizen of dath ilan that was isekaied into our world and has been trying ever since to teach us Earthlings the ways of dath ilan. In dath ilan, the sanity waterline is much higher than on Earth. People cooperate there in ways that people here cannot, merely because everyone is much more rational along the dimensions that Yudkowsky cares about. It's a fascinating world, even if I don't personally agree that such a world would look the way that Yudkowsky portrays it. Their tech level is approximately a little beneath our own, mostly because the responsible adults of dath ilan deliberately slowed down (or stopped?) all technological progress along a dimension that will be obvious if you know any of Yudkowsky's other works, but which I won't name here as I expect it to be a further plot point in the text. If you know nothing of Yudkowsky and are going into this blind, the most important thing to know about dath ilan is that they're supposed to be the best that humans can be. Stuff just works there. Schools teach learning, businesses exist to better organize making goods available, politicians do the right thing, etc. It's not heaven — they're all still baseline humans — but they are much smarter than us and they work together to do society correctly.

Third, isekai is a genre where someone from world A suddenly finds themselves in world B. The genre started as a way to take someone from our world and put them in a fantasy world so that we can identify with the straight man and it is justified in-story why we stop to pay attention to details that people from world B wouldn't find interesting. But in mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus, this is turned on its head because we are unfamiliar with both world A and world B: Keltham (the dath ilani) is transported into the Pathfinder universe, where the lawful evil residents of Cheliax immediately start deceiving Keltham for reasons that I won't spoil here. Keltham is a teenager; he's smart, as all dath ilani are, but he's not the shining standard example you might expect from a place like dath ilan; Keltham is a bit weird by his culture's standards.

The resulting story is amazing. So many stories out there fail in my eyes because they insist on having characters hold the idiot ball, or because the characters make dumb decisions that the audience would never make. (It's the trope of a group in a scary mansion at night deciding to split up, but writ large: charatcers overlook obvious clues or make other choices that they definitely would not take if they were sufficiently rational.) mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus doesn't make this mistake. Keltham acts rationally. The adults of Cheliax act as they should, given their knowledge and desires. The story makes sense, and that's a rare treat among most stories told on Earth. mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus is a prime example of rational fiction, a genre that first started being considered a genre of its own in part due to Yudkowsky's Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, one of the best fanfictions ever written. If you end up liking mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus, you'll likely enjoy other rational fiction works; alternatively, if you find yourselves liking shorter ratfics, you'll also likely find this text worth the read.

But, as the opening of this review points out, I don't have nothing but praise for this book. Several parts make me feel strongly ambivalent.

mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus is a glowfic. It's written by two authors, each of whom writes dialogue and setting for the portion that they're responsible for. The text itself is a series of forum posts, where each post is written by one of the authors. It's not clear if they played it straight, but hypothetically, each other doesn't always know in advance what the other author is necessarily going for. In some glowfics, this means you get to see a succession of "yes and" situations, but in this specific glowfic style, you're more likely to see one author putting forth a general idea and the other one pushing back and finding edge cases that may trip them up. Does this make for good writing? Maybe, but not here. That's why I suspect that these two glowfic writers are more in concert than they may at first appear, since it's resulting in writing that more closely corresponds to what a single author may have written on their own. Parts of this feel stumbly where it needn't if this hadn't been a glowfic. I'm especially unhappy with the forum post format, which artificially creates issues not only with mathematical notation but also doesn't allow for graceful chapter headings or appropriate white space.

The strongest thing that puts me off the story, however, is the continued focus on sex. Yes, I get that Keltham is a teenager, and that a lawful evil society like Cheliax would use sex to nefarious ends. But the BDSM stuff is really pushed as a major part of the storyline in what feels like the cringiest thing I've ever started and then continued to read. The Erogamer, which is famously full of sex and yet nevertheless tells a deep story you won't expect (even having given this disclaimer, it will still be unexpected), does a legit better job of making the sex feel important-to-the-story than mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus does. Despite being asexual myself, I really enjoyed The Erogamer, and, in a similar way, I'm really enjoying mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus. But the former feels like the sex stuff is earned, while the latter feels like the authors just really wanted their rational story about math and rationality to also have a bunch of sex in it. I cannot tell you how much this turns me off. When I say I'm ambivalent about this, I don't mean that the sex part is bad but I recommend the story anyway because of its good qualities. No, what I mean is that the sex thing is so bad that I actively want to warn people away from reading this trash. Yet, at the same time, the rest of it is so good that I need others to experience this treasure. That's what I mean by my being ambivalent.

But, as I mentioned, I am asexual. Maybe other people just won't mind this level of BDSM in their stories. I tend to cringe when I see the two leads in a movie kiss (I keep hoping they're just friends!), and yet movie-makers keep using this trope over and over again, so maybe the rest of society just tolerates this kind of thing without cringing in the way I do. Maybe you'll enjoy it. But I remain ambivalent.

Sex isn't the only issue, however. The math is somewhat jumbled; the reader, if they are math literate, will be able to follow only with difficulty because dath ilan uses a different way of teaching and talking about math; the math illiterate will do no better than to skim over these parts. Worse, the format lends itself poorly to mathematical notation: at some points, the authors literally use a series of dashes to create a vinculum (dividing line in a fraction). The html doesn't wrap correctly in some browsers, so this makes the math appear amateurish. Given that I think at least one author really does intend for readers to learn this stuff, I'm guessing this doesn't have any aspect of authorial intent, and if the authors knew how to allow LaTeX to appear, they might use that instead. (I'm only partially sure because the authors insist upon making dath ilan math use different notation and go about describing mathematical relationships in an entirely different way.)

Worse, the author seems to want to teach the reader, even if the reader just wants to enjoy the story. This creates a tension where the author spends way more time on explaining a concept than any other author realistically would, and it may cause some readers to lose interest for a dozen forum posts at a time. I get that the point of the story is to semi-secretly increase the sanity waterline. But it feels like playing an edutainment game at times. Maybe if the teaching sections were shorter, or less dense, then you could stealthily teach while the reader is focused on enjoying the story. But, as written, it's like a story that occasionally takes breaks in order to go in depth and teach a lesson on rationality. Unfortunately, this isn't fixable by editing out the teaching parts, because the teaching parts are integral to the story itself. Fascinatingly, as you learn each lesson, you are supposed to be able to better understand what Keltham was doing in previous parts of the story. In a way, this is like an M. Night Shyamalan twist where when you see the twist at the end, you look back at the beginning and see it in a new light — except the twist is continuous: as you learn more ratonality, you're better able to appreciate how Keltham has been experiencing the situation the entire time, since he's looking at everything with a rational eye.

So even though the teaching parts feel stilted and break up the cadence of the story in unflattering ways, they're nevertheless part of what makes this text great. (Meanwhile, the sex stuff could be removed almost entirely and I suspect the story would be better for it.)

The story itself is ongoing, but I'm a writing a review now anyway because I'm already certain of the five star rating I'm going to give it. You may wonder why a book I'm ambivalent about is getting a perfect rating, but, at the meta level, I think that this is entirely appropriate. I genuinely cringe at sex stuff in this book even when I didn't cringe at more extreme sex stuff in The Erogamer. I actively dislike the sex parts so much that I want to warn people away from reading. I also actively like the other parts so much that I need others to read this. On the meta level I want others to experience this fascinating dissonance, which, when combined with the good object level parts, results in my five star rating.

You can read mad investor chaos and the woman of asmodeus on glowfic.com. You can learn more about dath ilan on LessWrong, including links to previous stories about dath ilan people isekaied into various locales. If you decide to read this despite never having heard of Yudkowsky or rational fiction before, and you like it, be sure to look up other rational fiction works. Oh, and Eliezer, if you're reading this: good god, man, please stop weaving this much unnecessary sex into your plotlines. It's one thing to write sex into a story about being corrupted by the internet. But when you take what may be the best plot hook of all time (dath ilani isekaied to nation of lawful evil people intent on corrupting them) and then stuff your sex fantasies in there, it ruins what could have been so much better. I'll take it anyway, because it's damn good, and maybe there's no incentive to do otherwise since most of your intended readers won't be asexual like me, but good god that's a lot of sex and masochism for a story supposedly about rationality. Granted, the lawful evil stuff justifies the inclusion of masochism, but not the sex in the first place, no matter how horny a teenage dath ilani might be.

View all my reviews