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


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.