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

17 January, 2022

From Obtuse Mental Health Issues to Acute

It can be difficult to talk openly about mental health. I’ve tried over the years to not shy away from talking about many of the issues in my life, many of which are quite serious. But when it comes to mental health, I tend to stay relatively quiet. I think this may be because I value my mental health more than any physical health or disability that I may encounter in life. It probably explains why I am a teetotaler, and why I take special care to exercise my brain far more often than my body.

Which is all why it still seems so difficult to me now to say the thing that I’ve come here to say. So I’ll just be out with it:

It came on suddenly.
I suffered a mental breakdown a few weeks ago.

If you asked me what caused it, I’m not sure I’d be able to give a good answer. There’s a lot going on in my life that has been causing me extreme stress. There are people who count me as an enemy despite my trying to work with them. There are issues with an employee I hired who is also family, and the relationship has grated as a result. There are undone tasks in my household which have dramatically hurt my ability to live well there. There are people I have let down, and my brain has not been able to make it up to any of them.

The extent of this problem has become severe. Since my ordeal in 2020, I have been instructed by a doctor to take life saving medication every day. Without these medications, I would die. So you would think that, even if other things in my life started falling down, at least when it came to life-saving medication, I would take it every day.

So far, this is true. I do take it each day, with my partner’s help. But my doctor retired last summer. Slowly, one by one, the prescriptions that they ordered for me started to expire. I no longer received the medications that I needed each day to live. Yet I found myself unable to call that doctor’s office. I could not get new prescriptions under another doctor’s name. One day, when my partner found out that I had only a few days left of a certain life-saving medication, she panicked and bought it online instead. The price was ~50 times as expensive as my co-pay would have been. But at least it meant I continued remaining alive.

This is what triggered awareness of just how bad things had become for me. After a few additional events like this, my mental capacities mostly shut down at the beginning of this year. I’ve been slowly picking up the pieces since.

Yesterday, I spoke with my family for the first time in quite a while. They were concerned because they had not been able to get in touch with me. I’d been avoiding text messages and email entirely since Christmas, with the exception of my EGQ email. I believe that every single other responsibility in my life, whether it’s shoveling snow or dealing with board issues, has fallen by the wayside during these three weeks.

By Katherine Hess.
For those that have never experienced something like this, I will try to explain my inner subjective experience. In a word, it is dread. But the dread is attached to something that should be innocuous. For example, I am owed ~$2700 by someone who wants to pay me. If they were to pay me without me having to do anything, I’d be happy about this. But I have to fill out a form, and that form fills me with dread. Not because it is a difficult form to fill out, nor because there’s some rational reason why I should be wary of it, but merely because my brain has singled this out as something that should fill me with utter dread, and so the filling out of the form becomes such a monumental task that I simply cannot move forward with filling it out.

Not all tasks are so monumental, but each task seems to have an outsized portion of dread attached that takes more effort than it should to complete. Ordinarily, I manage despite this. But in the past three weeks, it has built to a head: there are days where I’ve done little more than sleep. There are days where it takes all the effort in the world to just do the five hours of work I need to do in order to go on. There are weekends where, in order to enjoy the company of a friend for a few hours in the evening, I’ve literally sacrificed my entire day just to ensure that I can have those few moments of joy.

Although I’ve had a predisposition toward these types of things for my entire life, it has never been as bad as it has been these past three weeks. I wish I could point to a singular event that caused this. But even the precipitating event, being unjustly called racist and unwilling to work for a better society for all, was just the thing that pushed me over the edge. Nevertheless, this accusation consumed my thoughts, knocking over the precarious structures I had in place to allow me to function relatively well in society. It made me shut down. That’s when I had my mental breakdown.

Today, I am trying to pick up the pieces. But I will not be able to juggle what I once did, not until I rebuild the structures that allowed me to deal with my mental issues. To aid this, I will be making several changes in my life.

  • I’m cutting back on work significantly. Rather than have my fingers in lots of projects, I’m going to focus entirely on just Effective Giving Quest. This means I will be subcontracting out my current contractual obligations and turning down any other offers of work for the immediate future.
  • I’m planning on either resigning or cutting back significantly from my board duties. This will be a significant reduction in the number of hours worked for me.
  • I will be volunteering far less. This includes the intensive work I’ve put into WikiProject Effective Altruism and the works in progress I’ve had for the Effective Altruism Forum.
  • I will be using a therapist from here on out. Depending on what they recommend, I will be open to taking medication to help deal with these issues.
  • My days will revolve around three pillars moving forward: EGQ, exercise in and out of the house, and making time/space to spend on fun: with family/friends/books/games.

These are not small changes. While they will take time to implement, I do think that this is the best that I can do moving forward if I want to ensure that a breakdown like this never happens again.

By Katherine Hess.
(For small tasks in the immediate future, I will getting around the outsized feelings of dread not by eliminating the dread, but by putting a sticky note on these immense mental blocks in my mind, reminding me that this portion of my map does not correspond to the territory, and that doing these small tasks will not cause nearly as much discomfort as they appear to in my mind. Specifically, I will be accomplishing this by setting up trigger action plans associated with these small tasks, where the action will be noticing these sticky notes. From there, it will take mere courage to do these small tasks anyway. I'm not sure how effective this will work, but until a therapist recommends something different, this is the method I'll be using to at least reclaim the small things in my life that need to be done.)

To those I’ve let down, I am so very sorry. I will be sending personalized apologies in the coming weeks, alongside my expectations of how I can help mitigate any harms I’ve already caused and how we can set expectations moving forward so that this kind of thing does not recur.

To future me, reading this post in the future: I hope that I’m doing right by you as I make these rather extreme changes. While this will significantly reduce my output, I sincerely hope that by focusing on only a few avenues of change you will nevertheless be more capable of doing good than I am today, in this sad broken state. But even if not, I remain hopeful that these changes will at least make you happier and more capable of enjoying life that I am now. The former is something I am unsure of, but the latter is something that I honestly think these changes will genuinely come to pass. Wish me well, as I wish for you.

13 January, 2022

Cubic Star Number

Katherine's latest art project involves looking at the number of covid cases in our county every other day and making something that has to do with that number. On Monday of this week, there were 2140 cases per 100,000 residents in Montgomery County (averaged over the previous seven days). Katherine discovered that this was a "cubic star number", which she felt had an interesting name, but for which there was not a good explanation online. (Seriously, try looking it up yourself. No one seems to have ever written about it much at all (other than the A051673 OEIS sequence), and there certainly aren't any pictures of what the accompanying shape would look like.)

While making a three dimensional sculpture out of 2140 elements would be a little much for a series where she makes a new piece of art every other day, it did seem reasonable to make a much smaller cubic star number shape out of 120 marbles. So she did.

What you're seeing here is (as far as I can tell) the first picture of a cubic star number searchable on the internet. While diagrams of these may exist in yet-to-be-indexed books, I could not find such a picture in anything that refers to cubic star numbers (such as Gulliver's 2002 article Sequences from Arrays of Integers).

Star numbers are relatively well known. They're centered figurate numbers: you take one dot, then surround it with more dots in a certain shape, then surround that with dots, and so on, until you have a big shape of dots with a central dot in the middle. Gamers might recognize that a Chinese checkers board uses a star number shape of 121 spaces.

The star number polygon shown here consists of a hexagon with triangles on each side (i.e., a hexagram). But you don't have to use a hexagon on the inside. You could just as easily use a square, with four triangles on each side of that square. This square star number might not look as pleasing as the hexagram does, but it has interesting properties all on its own.

But I think things get even more interesting once you move into the third dimension. Instead of a square, you can use a cube; and, rather than making a stellated shape where a pyramid exists on every face of the square, you can merely place the pyramids on four of the sides, so that the front and back of the cube remain flat. In this way, you're extrapolating out what a two dimensional star number might look like if you literally pulled it out into a new dimension, but turned the triangles into pyramids while allowing the square to fill out a cube.

Almost no one talks about cubic star numbers. The closest I could find was a blogger referencing house numbers, which, to be fair, has a more distinctive shape to them. House numbers are closely related to cubic star numbers; rather than four pyramids, they exhibit just one. But it's easy to see how you can get to a cubic star number from the corresponding house number: just add three more pyramids and stick 'em on the sides.

Katherine chose to use the fourth cubic star number, 120. It consists of a 4x4x4 cube with four pyramids that each have a 3x3 base. This small cubic star number was created entirely out of marbles, using liquid silicone to connect them. It stands as a symbol of the much larger tenth cubic star number, 2140, which consists of a 10x10x10 cube with four pyramids that each have a 9x9 base.

I'm fascinated by Katherine's choices in what to display in this regular art series. COVID-19 has gotten pretty bad here in Montgomery County, Maryland, since the Omicron strain took over. We reached highs of 300 cases on this graph back in 2020, and that was scary because anything above 100 was considered high and worthy of shutting down schools. Now we hover in the ~2k range and people are demanding that schools remain open. She's dealing with the strain via creating art — I have to admit that that's better than my current method of shutting down nearly entirely.

I'm looking forward to seeing what else Katherine comes up with. I was fascinated by her prime factorization series, and this current series on the integers of covid cases seems just as good. I just wish we didn't have to keep spreading covid in order to generate these depressing numbers and associated fascinating art.

Cubic Star Number

Exploring the Integer of Seven Day Average Covid Cases per 100,000 People in my County Series. On Monday, January 10,...

Posted by Katherine Hess on Wednesday, January 12, 2022