13 January, 2023

A Ten Year Anniversary

I met Katherine ten years ago, on January 13, 2013.

We met online. Before she'd sent her first message to me, she'd already learned quite a bit about me. Back then, OKCupid was not as worthless as it is now. I'd first joined back when it was called TheSpark — it was common to go online there and take personality tests (I think I first found it when I searched for a way to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test online (yes, I realize it's a junk test today, but remember this was the same year google was created and I was just a kid)) — and by this time I had answered thousands of questions on my OKC profile, allowing anyone looking me up there to get to know all kinds of things about me prior to ever having to talk to me. Honestly, I miss that kind of interaction today. All too often when I meet someone new I don't have nearly as much information about them as I did back in the early '10s.

From Randall Munroe's xkcd 2521.
That opening message was about the status games we all inevitably play, and how my veg*nism plays into that. We spoke of McClane's shoelessness in Die Hard; of using syringes to inject toothpaste back into a tube; and of the moniker "bolt" having two contradictory meanings: being loyal in the sense of being bolted to one's closest friends and being skittish in the sense of potentially bolting from them. Katherine felt that both senses of the word applied to her.

Within a few back and forth messages, we had already graduated to sharing made-up-on-the-spot fiction about toothpaste tube refilling and I was seriously impressed by her quick wit and creative mind. She made me laugh from the very start, and perhaps that is what made me fall for her so quickly. A few days later we had a very long phone conversation, and soon we were seeing each other regularly. It was perhaps the most important turning point in my life.

Personally, I prefer prime anniversaries to those considered significant merely because of base ten. But Katherine's preference is for increments of five, so this is the second such anniversary we'll have and I'm especially looking forward to it on that basis. Katherine means the world to me, and I'm so happy to be able to celebrate this anniversary with her. <3

15 December, 2022

Disability

I live with a disabled partner. Sometimes, it's just…hard. Things that other people take for granted don't always apply in our family. Simple tasks sometimes take extra time. Moderate tasks can be difficult to perform regularly. Hard tasks can be impossible.

Thankfully, I am an able-bodied person, and so I can pick up a lot of the slack when it comes to chores or dealing with heavy or far-away things. But this cuts to the core of my personal struggle: where exactly do I draw the line between offering my help and allowing my partner the opportunities to be self-reliant? It seems like the appropriate threshold is different from day to day, mostly based on how many spoons my partner has available. Yet knowing where this threshold lies on a given day is opaque to me unless my partner explicitly shares where the line is.

I am thankful that we are fortunate enough to have sufficient help beyond just us. Recently, we installed a stair lift to make it much more easy to travel between floors in our home, and this has greatly increased our quality of life. Almost as important are the emergency services officials in our community; twice this month they have been extremely helpful when we have needed it most. But at the same time, I find myself worrying; needing outside help two times in a month is two times too many. I feel as though I need to find additional solutions — like the amazingly helpful stairlift — that will help to ensure that we can get by even on bad days.

Currently, my partner uses canes to get around in the house. I think that will likely continue. But when it comes to being outside the home, I believe that we may need to switch to a wheelchair. I know this will only be positive for us. It will allow a level of mobility that has been lacking as of late. Yet at the same time I find that it brings somewhat unpleasant emotions. Without good reason, I sometimes emotionally feel as though I am somehow failing my partner, merely because we are needing to turn to additional expensive devices. I'm enormously grateful that we can afford these things, but it's not the price that is seemingly getting to me. It's more the unjustified feeling that, somehow, if I were a better partner, I'd have been able to make things better without resorting to these devices.

Things are just really hard in my personal life at the moment. I am doing my best, but it scares me that perhaps my best is not good enough.

05 December, 2022

Motivated Reasoning

I do not feel well at all.

I first encountered effective altruism in 2011. Since then, I've personally given nearly $100k (in both direct and in-kind donations) to what I've considered effective causes, and I've raised tens of millions of dollars via the orgs I've worked with. I did all of this because I strongly believe it to be the right thing to do. I've dedicated an entire decade of my life to EA organizations. I moderate the r/effectivealtruism subreddit; I organize the EA wikiproject on Wikipedia; I've served on two boards of EA orgs; I've worked at several EA orgs and volunteered at several more. Quite frankly, the field of Effective Altruism has been my life for as long as I've taken charity seriously. It is perhaps what has defined me the most for a very long time.

But the betrayal of SBF makes me feel sick to my stomach. The mere possibility that there may have been some in the movement who knew SBF was crossing a line haunts me. Before, I suppose I had an unreasonable blind trust that others in EA would cooperate in the prisoner's dilemma, that superrationality would hold sway, that I could trust my fellow EAs to be honest. And maybe I still can trust these things. As far as I know, the fraud stops at SBF and those running FTX. But even if I'm 95% sure of this, the 5% chance that others are like him makes me feel ill.

I wasn't friends with him. We merely served on the same board of directors. Maybe it is unreasonable to think this, but I cannot help but to feel like I should have known. With knowledge of how things eventually ended up, maybe the things I experienced should have clued me in, but they seemed reasonable at the time.

But today I caught myself practicing motivated reasoning. A person I think highly of mentioned that purchasing Wytham Abbey is not consistent with doing effective altruism. Usually I just ignore these comments and move on, but for some reason I decided to try to explain why it might have been thought to have positive expected value. Keep in mind that I do not even know for sure that it is _true_ that CEA bought the place. I just started generating possible reasons unnecessarily. It was only a few minutes later that I realized that this is motivated reasoning. Even if my arguments were true, I had not thought of them at all until this situation had come up, and I gave them as responses to defend something when I don't even know if it is a good thing or not. What am I even doing by tweeting in this way?

There is a difference between being clever and being wise. Maybe it is clever to be able to come up with reasons for things. But it is not wise, for if you can equally come up with reasons for two sides of a dilemma then you do not have reason to choose either side. If you can just explain things, regardless of how things end up, then you don't have true understanding. Instead, you must be able to register your own confusion in order to tell the difference between fiction and reality.

What should have happened today is that I should have registered confusion. I should not have rushed to come up with explanations for things that I do not even know. I should have been modest. I should have not have commented.

It's true that I am clever. But I am so very far away from being wise. I feel sick by what has happened; I feel hurt and deceived and taken advantage of. The org I founded has experienced a huge loss from this entire FTX debacle and I am seriously wondering how I can in good faith continue forward with raising money for causes where I am no longer quite as confident in all of the people running them.

I still believe in the arguments underlying EA. I have for years, and they still ring true. But I am much less confident that my fellow EAs would cooperate in the prisoner's dilemma. I find myself looking with just a smidge more suspicion that the posts written on the EA Forum may not be completely honest. Really, the truth is that each time I look at EA content on Twitter or anywhere else these days, I find myself feeling not entirely well. 

Perhaps I just need to step back for a bit. (But how can I even do that when I need to continue raising money with the org I run?)

12 November, 2022

SBF

I feel dismayed. Shocked. I feel so stupid.

I'm not sure why I trusted SBF. I guess you just naturally trust someone you've worked closely with. Someone who's donated significant funds that not only helped me directly, but several of my friends and fellow effective altruists.

Now, unless I'm severely mistaken, almost all the evidence I'm seeing points toward SBF having inappropriately used funds and then lying about it. He apparently stole not only the savings of thousands of innocent uninvolved people, but also tainted the very donations that I and several others have used over the years to do as much good as we possibly could. He's jeopardized the funding and lives of many effective altruists today, in many cases where people have already spent funds they were expecting but will now no longer get. He has destroyed the savings of anyone who foolishly held those savings in FTX or its related affiliates. Perhaps worst of all, he has tarnished the brand of effective altruism so incredibly badly that I honestly have to take stock and determine to what extent this reputational damage affects the fundraising work that I'm currently doing.

Sam had been a pillar in Effective Giving Quest's strategy. TSM FTX is a major esports team; FTX's purchase of Good Luck Games and subsequent holding of the Storybook Brawl world championships planned for this December had been planned to be a breakout position for EGQ. SBF's direct funding was going to allow EGQ to raise funds from game developers, streamers, and other gaming professionals without ever having to take a percentage to pay our own bills. Instead, we are now having to reevaluate our strategy and figure out how to move forward in a new environment where searching for "effective altruism" brings up fraud as the very first top story on Google and litters the first SERP from the fourth result onward.

I knew he spent his weirdness points in a weird way. I didn't think that mattered; I still don't. But other than that, I never caught on to him seriously being this dangerous. I didn't catch it for the years I worked at ACE, not even when we served on the board at the same time. I didn't catch it later when I looked into using FTX for my personal use. I didn't even catch it while I was prepping for calls with him about my new venture, Effective Giving Quest.

If it turns out that I'm wrong, that he's been unfairly characterized as doing fraud, then I'll later apologize for having said much of this. But the evidence I'm seeing now seems to indicate that fraud really did take place, and I just feel so monumentally tricked.

One of the only solaces I have comes from a short note from David Reinstein: 
"…[T]he sad fall of FTX makes motivating effective giving, outreach, and engagement more important…. Previously, a pushback against ‘motivating effective giving’  and making mainstream giving more effective was ~‘we have so much money already, and the core EA billionaires are much better aligned than the general population will ever be’. If that argument is valid, I think ‘it should work in both directions’ … so the corollary is ‘if we have fewer billionaires/less funds, the above should be more relevant’."

While I continue to feel badly, some relevant comments from Eliezer Yudkowsky, Peter Wildeford, & Kevin Cornbob remind me that maybe I'm not so much to blame as I currently feel:



Comment from Kevin_Cornbob on the EA Forum.

For reference, this is the awkward SBF I remember dealing with. He honestly did not strike me as the kind of person who would do what he apparently ended up doing, utilitarian or not.
@benthamite #crypto billionaire sbf ❤️s #effectivealtruism ♬ sonido original - Benthamite

EDIT ~12 hours later:
After thinking about it more, there were definitely more signs than I alluded to above. Nothing ever made me think: "this person will do something as serious as fraud", but there was at least one major instance where he took a serious action that felt rather wrong to me. I guess… I felt that it did not rise to the level of seriousness where this ever needed to be shared, or where I felt I should stop trusting him in other capacities. I suppose I felt that everyone makes mistakes, and just because this was what I might call a moral mistake, it maybe was made up for by his other actions and qualities. Maybe this kind of thing should have tipped me off. But it didn't. I still had moderate trust. Perhaps because I believe in assuming good faith, even in situations where it's difficult to see what that good faith might have been.

31 October, 2022

Halloween Anxiety

Eric as Steve (Minecraft).
Halloween has always been a stressful holiday for me. As a child, I was never particularly gregarious, so the dressing up and going from house-to-house thing never really appealed to me. And I've never been much for sweet candies, so most of my haul as a kid wouldn't be eaten by me. But this isn't why I consider Halloween stressful.

The lowest point of my life was in 1999. The previous year my then partner and I experienced a teen pregnancy. I mistakenly thought that the right thing to do would be to marry her and become a father. In my mind, once we decided to have the child, there was no other choice for me. But I was not then (and am not now) made for that kind of life. I experienced no parental attachment beyond feeling that I was responsible for my child's welfare. I experienced no joy in a marriage to the first longterm girlfriend I'd ever had. I could not handle college at a young age; I dropped out after only one semester. I could not handle working a steady job, either — even at my best, where I found success in what I did, I would leverage that success not into furthering my career, but in prioritizing my personal time. (At one call center, I was the best performing employee on Monday+Tuesday, where I would do as much in those days as the second best employee would do all week, but then I'd spend Wed–Fri completely slacking off, and letting the company know I had no intention of doing more.)

I was not smart enough at the time to take any action that would change things. I naively felt that the world must have intended for me to struggle as a young father, so I did. I felt like the world intended me to be married to this person whom I knew only by chance, so I did. I did nothing to improve our lot past the status quo. I languished. Depressed, but, at the same time, unemotional. I cried only when no one could see me looking.

My teenage partner was not really older than I. She had no more life experience. But, somehow, she was able to see through the situation and realize it to be something she had the power to change. It took a long time, but she eventually managed to gather up the courage to end our partnership. She left in late September 1999 without saying a word. She took what was then our child (afterward: her child) and started a new life without me.

She left a note, placing it in the one place that I suppose she felt I'd be sure to find it: on my gaming console, which I used often. But, lacking that note, and absent any verbal explanation from her, I naively did not understand where they had gone that first day. Nor the next. Nor the next. It wouldn't be until much later that I found the note. In the meantime, I only just slowly started suspecting what she had done.

Right in the middle of this time was Halloween 1999. At the time, I thought she might just have gotten angry and left for a few days to stay with family. I opted to leave the light on for her each evening, in case she were to come back late at night. I'm sure the reader knows where this is going, but I honestly didn't understand at the time.

People — children — kept knocking on my door. I didn't understand. Perhaps I was too fraught. It didn't occur to me that it was a holiday, though the costumes should have tipped me off. But I was too upset and scared to answer the door, so I just let them knock. Every time, they would eventually go away, but in the meantime I would cower in an inner room, too emotional to even look out the window. Minutes would pass, and another knock would startle me — it was a neverending hell of my own making. I was not thinking clearly back then.

What my then-partner did was the best thing for her; the best thing for our daughter; and the best thing for me. But I did not realize this until much later. Once I finally found the note, I switched from feeling scared and anxious to being sad and anxious. I stopped going out. I didn't go to the library, nor the school, nor my job, nor any grocery store. Slowly I ate the remainder of everything left in that house. Once all the food was gone, I went hungry for days before a friend went to the store on my behalf and purchased additional food with my money. By the time that food had run out, my family had been notified of what had happened, and they took over from there. I lived in a daze for months, not really understanding what I was to do with my life at that point. I felt lost, not just metaphorically, but even physically, in my own home. Like I was a stranger to it, even though it had served me as a dwelling for my first seven years before I'd ever moved there as a nupital home in my teenage years.

Ever since on each Halloween I'd mostly made a point to keep my lights off, my curtains drawn, and anything resembling decorations absent. For years afterward I made a point to be alone on Halloween, declining any and all invitations. Occasionally, this wouldn't work out, and I'd try to be cordial and celebrate with family when I was in town, and, later, I tried to be more normal when I moved into a home that was surrounded by lots of families trick-or-treating. But even during the times when I'd dress up, I never really got rid of that anxiousness surrounding the holiday.

Orange is my favorite color, but Halloween is perhaps my least favorite day of the year.