29 September, 2012

Review: The Robots of Dawn

The Robots of Dawn The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With the introduction of Daneel's friend Giskard, the precursors of psychohistory begin here in the Robots of Dawn. As the next novel in Asimov's scifi series, this whodunit will please mystery fans and fans of the great Asimov epic alike. Not only are the events of this book integral to what occurs in future books, but the twist in the ending will take you by surprise, even after providing several clues you'll likely miss.

Those who are rereading the Asimov series of scifi books will truly appreciate the storyline of this novel. While Daneel was introduced earlier, and philosophical ideas from previous books do have importance in the overall epic story arc, this is the first book in the series to really show events start to come to pass.

Of particular interest is the fridge horror in this novel. First time readers will not catch it, as you need knowledge gained in future books to really understand what is going on, but rereaders of Asimov's scifi series will find themselves aghast while plans to populate the galaxy through sending robots ahead of humans are discussed.

This is definitely well worth the read if you intend to experience the whole of Asimov's scifi series.

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28 September, 2012

Confabulation Bias

This entry was originally posted on LessWrong. It is reposted here for reference only.

Earlier this month, a group of Swedish scientists published a study that describes a new type of bias that I haven't seen listed in any of the sequences or on the wiki. Their methodology:
We created a self-transforming paper survey of moral opinions, covering both foundational principles, and current dilemmas hotly debated in the media. This survey used a magic trick to expose participants to a reversal of their previously stated attitudes, allowing us to record whether they were prepared to endorse and argue for the opposite view of what they had stated only moments ago.
In other words, people were surveyed on their beliefs and were immediately asked to defend them after finishing the survey. Despite having just written down how they felt, 69% did not even notice that at least one of their answers were surreptitiously changed. Amazingly, a majority of people actually "argued unequivocally for the opposite of their original attitude".
Perhaps this type of effect is already discussed here on LessWrong, but, if so, I have not yet run across any such discussion. (It is not on the LessWrong wiki nor the other wiki, for example.) This appears to be some kind of confabulation bias, where invented positions thrust upon people result in confabulated reasons for believing them.
Some people might object to my calling this a bias. (After all, the experimenters themselves did not use that word.) But I'm trying to refer less to the trick involved in the experiment and more toward the bias this experiment shows that we have toward our own views. This is a fine distinction to make, but I feel it is important for us to recognize.
When I say we prefer our own opinions, this is obvious on its face. Of course we think our own positions are correct; they're the result of our previously reasoned thought. We have reason to believe they are correct. But this study shows that our preference for our own views goes even further than this. We actually are biased toward our own positions to such a degree that we will actually verbally defend them even when we were tricked into thinking we held those positions. This is what I mean when I call it confabulation bias.
Of particular interest to the LessWrong community is the fact that this bias apparently is more susceptible to those of us that are more capable of good argumentation. This puts confabulation bias in the same category as the sophistication effect in that well informed people should take special care to not fall for it. (The idea that confabulation bias is more likely to occur with those of us that argue better is not shown in this study, but it seems like a reasonable hypothesis to make.)
As a final minor point, I just want to point out that the effect did not disappear when the changed opinion was extreme. The options available to participants involved agreeing or disagreeing on a 1-9 scale; a full 31% of respondents who chose an extreme position (like 1 or 9) did not even notice when they were shown to have said the opposite extreme.

24 September, 2012

Review: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This story of intrigue and multiply nested political moves plays out on a backdrop of somewhat familiar fantasy tropes without falling into the trap of using traditional soft fantasy concepts such as a deus ex machina. I was very impressed with the strategy involved by nearly every player in the well-named game of thrones, and found myself on the edge of my seat several times throughout the story.

My only complaint is that I watched the tv adaptation first, making me anticipate several events which are clearly supposed to be major surprises. If you at all have the capability, I strongly recommend reading these books before watching the television series (though both are quite good).

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23 September, 2012

Effective Altruism

Everyone agrees that charitable giving is generally a good thing, but few actually take the time to figure out where best donations should go. Thankfully, some organizations fulfill this basic societal need.

Giving What We Can is a non-governmental organization that offers objective comparisons between charities in order to determine which groups are more cost-effective in terms of creating good. This is not an idle distinction; even among aid programs that focus on extreme poverty, the difference between charities' effectiveness is not a factor of ten or a hundred—it can reach a factor of ten thousand to one.

This extreme deviation between truly cost-effective charities is what makes Giving What We Can such a useful tool. Their detailed analysis and reporting of results helps to give direction to people who wish to ensure their charitable donations accomplish as much as possible.

However, their data collection doesn't stop there. They also look into further characteristics, such as whether a charity is approaching diminishing returns or whether their lapsed donors might be easily replaced. Oxfam, for example, is definitely a worthy cause, but Giving What We Can correctly points out that giving to them is not nearly as effective as giving to an organization that has a much more difficult time of convincing donors, yet entertains a more impressive rate of effecting good, such as the Against Malaria Foundation.

It is through in-depth analysis like this that Giving What We Can establishes itself as the best charity evaluation organization available today.

Recently, I wanted to spend some time thinking about how I might be able to estimate the cost-effectiveness of a large and broad charity like Oxfam. What follows are some ideas I had while brainstorming. Keep in mind that most of my ideas never got parsed into properly grammatical English, but I've included my notes here anyway in case others might find it useful.

We want to underestimate the total expected VPD, because there is less certainty in a continuance of funding from a broad organization than a group that has a singular mission whose funding ratio we can have confidence in. Therefore, all estimations must be under, not over.

A first run through would start by:

  • itemize each way they spend money last year.
  • determine value per dollar for each individual item.
  • assign these value per dollar as weights for each item.
  • Sum over the product of each vpd weight by percent allocated to get total vpd.

100% = $100
25% funds * 4vpd = 4(25%)vpd = 1 vpd
$25 * 4vpd = 25*4 v = 100 v

However, broad charities like Oxfam sometimes move in and out of different areas, and might use varying percentages, since they have no clearly stated specific mission. (look this up to verify previous sentence). So we need to find confidence levels of the percentages. Some will have low variance, meaning we can be confident in the level of funding for that area. Some will have high variance, meaning we cannot depend on the percentage level remaining the same in future years.

So let's clarify the equation with new info. (look up proper way to express sum in document form)

SUM sub i ( Ci * Fi * Vi ) + Fr(Rr)
Ci = ith item confidence level. range [0,1].
Fi = ith item funding percentage. range [0,1].
Vi = ith item vpd. Possibly in DALY units?
Fr = funding percentage that goes toward revolving projects.
Vr = average vpd of all revolving projects oxfam so far funded.

Ci will be 1 for all projects they continually fund year in/year out at the same rate. If rate drops for ith item each year, underestimate appropriate number. Zero, maybe? If ith item revolves from project to project, set Ci to zero as it is included in special term R.

Fi will be funding percentage of ith item last year.

Vi is vpd (in DALY) of ith item.

Fr refers to percent of funding that tends to go toward revolving projects, and is not consistent year to year.

Vr is expected vpd of a new project. We can use average vpd of all revolving projects oxfam so far funded.

n order to estimate the cost-effectiveness of a broad charity, we must find a way to assign a value per dollar (VPD) consideration that uses the same units of welfare already being used with more focused charities.

We start by itemizing each way the organization spent money last year, and determining the VPD of each focused effort. Then we assign these VPD calculations as weights for each item, and multiply them by the amount of funding allocated for that item per donated dollar (FPDD). Summing over these will give is a total VPD for 2010-11.

However, broad charities sometimes modify their percent level of funding for each item from year to year, unlike focused charities who stick to the same mission. Some items might be dropped or added unexpectedly, and there may even be a portion of the funding allocation which regularly funds new projects in the hopes of finding something promising. So we must modify our formula to include our confidence levels in funding percentages by looking to see which items have high funding percentage variance from year to year:

SUM sub i ( Ci * Fi * Vi ) + Fr(Vr)

The above formula uses five distinct terms. Vi is the VPD for the ith item. Fi is the 2010-11 FPDD for the ith item, ranging from (0-1]. Ci is our confidence level in Fi, ranging [0-1]; 1 for consistently funded projects, 0 for items that regularly funds new projects each year, and appropriate underestimated values for all inconsistently funded projects. Fr is the FPDD that goes toward new projects each year. Vr is the expected VPD of a newly funded project, which we estimate by averaging the VPD of all past revolving projects. The r terms effectively replace all Ci terms that received an automatic 0.

Drawbacks to this method include a much more lengthy process of determining VPD, since broad charities would require finding VPD for several separate efforts. Also, this formula does not take into account the propensity for a broadly funding charity to find and retain new projects which increase overall VPD over time. Nevertheless, the decision to make the formula underestimate expected VPD is deliberate; the benefit a broad charity...

...broad charity has R&D benefit that focused charities do not. This allows them to find new funding opportunities that may have potentially larger VPDs. This benefit is not simulated in the given formula, but this is a deliberate choice as it does not affect expected VPD....

While there are several issues involved in estimating the cost-effectiveness of charities in general, three apparent major issues must be considered for broad charities such as Oxfam.
  1. Projects are funded inconsistently. One benefit of broadly funding organizations is the capability to fund new projects continuously in the hope of finding a particularly efficient program. However, this results in a lack of confidence in continued funding levels for projects.
  2. Analysis takes time. Whereas focused groups require a single investigation, broad charities require scrutiny of each project they fund. In Oxfam's case, it might result in two orders of magnitude of additional work.
  3. Data is scarce. Unlike other organizations, broad charities tend to not be as specific in how they fund particular projects, resulting in large error bars around any expected utility calculation.
The goal is to create an algorithm for broad charities which will return a value per dollar (VPD) expected utility in the same units of welfare used for focused organizations (such as modified DALYs that consider more than health). One such formula is described below. It uses weighted VPDs, confidence levels in projected funding per dollar (FPD), and expected VPD in newly funded programs to determine an overall VPD for the charity.

∑ ( Ci ⋅ Fi ⋅ B(Vi)) + (Fr ⋅ B(Vr))
C = confidence level in F
B = Bayesian function
r = revolving projects

The algorithm takes the sum of all Bayesian-corrected VPDs of each consistently funded project weighted by the proportion each is funded and our confidence level in its continued funding (ascertained through historical funding trends), then adds a funding-weighted term of expected VPD for newly funded projects (established via average VPD of revolving projects). The Bayesian function used should be equivalent to whatever is already used in modeling more focused charities.

By utilizing confidence levels and the concept of revolving program funding, the algorithm is able to deal with (1). Unfortunately, the suggested formula only serves to highlight problem (2). Summing over every individual funded project means one must learn the VPD of everything the organization funds. Even if (3) were not an issue, this would take a great deal of time—perhaps so much time that one would be better served by analyzing VPDs of focused organizations instead.

However, (3) is indeed still an issue. A cursory glance over Oxfam's 2010-11 annual report shows not enough detail, although more information is available on Oxfam affiliate websites, such as http://www.oxfam.org.hk/filemgr/1326/ARprojectlist2010-11.pdf. Still, the lack of data when you compare it to Against Malaria's individualized reports is stunning. With no mention of how much was spent on each project, nor details on how effective all funded projects were, (3) would seem to be a roadblock that severely limits the confidence one can have in assigning a VPD to any non-featured project. Hopefully, this issue can be resolved through requesting information that is not publicly available.

While there are several issues involved in estimating the cost-effectiveness of charities in general, four apparent major issues must be considered for broad charities such as Oxfam.

  1. Projects are funded inconsistently. One benefit of broadly funding organizations is the capability to fund new projects continuously in the hope of finding a particularly efficient program. However, this results in a lack of confidence in continued funding levels for projects.
  2. Analysis takes time. Whereas focused groups require a single investigation, broad charities might require scrutiny of each project they fund.
  3. Data is scarce. Unlike other organizations, broad charities tend to not be as specific in how they fund particular projects, nor in quantifying all accomplishments, resulting in large error bars around any expected utility calculation.
  4. Welfare unit choice is unclear. Funding multiple projects means incorporating units that can somehow compare DALYs to beneficial outcomes that are irrelevant to health.

A possible solution to (1) is to construct a mathematical model that incorporates confidence levels in continued funding (C) and an extra term to estimate the value of newly funded projects (n), such as:

∑ ( Ci ⋅ Fi ⋅ B(Vi)) + (Fn ⋅ B(Vn))

The above algorithm also incorporates the current funding per donated dollar level (F), the value per donated dollar (V), and whatever Bayesian function (B) on V that is currently being used in evaluating non-broad charities. Confidence levels can be ascertained through historical funding trends while an estimate of the value per dollar (VPD) of newly funded programs can be considered as the average VPD of past newly funded projects.

Unfortunately, the algorithm fails once we consider (2). Summing over every individual project which requires independent VPD appraisal would take a debilitating amount of time. The only way to efficiently solve this issue is to collapse the entire summation to a snapshot of total expenditure and total effects. Thankfully, this resolution also deals handily with first part of (3). If we abandon attempts to distinguish between individually funded projects, the lack of data on that front becomes a non-issue.

However, the second part of (3) still looms large. Oxfam's 2010-11 annual report includes cherry-picked accomplishments, but a full listing seems to be missing even from Oxfam affiliate websites. The closest thing to a full description seems to be the New Projects report (http://www.oxfam.org.hk/filemgr/1326/ARprojectlist2010-11.pdf), which does not bother quantifying any of their listed items. This seems to make (3) a roadblock that severely limits the confidence one can have in assigning a VPD to any non-featured project. Hopefully, this issue can be resolved through requesting information that is not publicly available.

The final problem is not unique to broad organizations, but (4) definitely stands out as the most intractable part of dealing with broadly funding charities. Oxfam has several goals that do not impact DALYs in any way, and figuring out a way to do expected value calculations using non-health related welfare units is something that will take much more than a 500 word response can really accommodate.

12 September, 2012

Review: The Naked Sun

The Naked Sun The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What at first seems like a simple whodunit begins to set the stage for the larger story of Asimov's grand science fiction series of books. Daneel is not yet starting to weigh in on these larger philosophical themes, but Elijah is, and Daneel is certainly listening in. This book is interesting on its own merits, even while it starts to get scary in terms of how it forecasts future developments.

This is definitely a must-read book if you're going to read Asimov's science fiction at all. The story of Asimov's universe really starts to get going in these humble beginnings.

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10 September, 2012

Three Wishes

A genie arrives and offers to grant me three wishes. What should I wish for?

After long consideration, I've come up with the following:
  1. I wish to have a computing device which outputs (within less than one second) the exact wording of a wish (speakable within less than one second) that, when spoken to you, would meet all my expectations for a wish granting any input X.
  2. Depends on the result of wish 1. Will be similar to "receive transfinite wishes".
  3. This wish would remain unused indefinitely, for possible use in emergency situations, should wish #2 go awry in some way.
I was initially unsure if this is the best way to go about this, but I thought I was at least coming close to the correct answer.

I was wrong.

Whereas my series of wishes was aimed at getting me an infinite supply of wishes without screwing things up too badly, an alternative answer by Mestroyer is even better, because (s)he accomplishes the desired end result (that I never even bothered getting into) in a single wish:
"I wish for the result of the hypothetical [nonrelative] nth wish I would make if I was allowed to make n wishes in the limit as n went to infinity each time believing that the next wish would be my only one and all previous wishes would be reversed, or if that limit does not exist, pick n = busy beaver function of Graham's number [, except don't grant this wish if it would result in me wanting to kill myself or dying before I could consider the question]."
While my wish was aimed mostly at getting infinite wishes, Mestroyer cuts to the chase and goes after the end result of whatever infinite wishes would get her. She sets up a theoretical infinite supply of wishes for herself that would cause her to wish for the best thing she could conceive of, and whatever the last of these wishes would be is what she chooses as her one wish.

Presumably, in this hypothetical series of wishes, her first wish would be flawed in some way, to which the second wish would correct the situation. The third wish would correct whatever was missed in the second, and so on. Eventually, no further corrections would be needed (with any luck), and whatever this end result is is what Mestroyer is wishing for in a single wish. This eventual perfect state of affairs would presumably cause the hypothetical Mestroyer to wish for the status quo indefinitely  which is why I added the "nonrelative" to her wish, so that each subsequent wish would be for a specific state of affairs rather than a change to the current state of affairs. (Thereby making the limit an effective wish.)

The "except" part at the end was added by Mestroyer after further consideration to evade the possibility that the limit would end up in a state where she is dead, which is a likelier occurrence than you might at first think, especially when you consider how badly things can start to spiral if the wishes screw things up too much at first.

(Meanwhile, the "busy beaver function of Graham's number" part is just an arbitrarily large (!) number, presumably far enough along so that even if there is no limit, the wish chosen will still have had enough feedback to be sufficiently awesome.)

Note that Mestroyer does not correct for the idea that wishes might change her desires. If, for example, wish #300 was for her to "be happy", then maybe wishes #301 and above would not bother changing the world further, which is not our original intent. So maybe we should limit each wish from being able to change our motivations, in the same way Mestroyer limited each wish from creating her own death. But if we do this, then we are putting priority on our current desires over that of our possible future transhumanist desires  and surely we should know better than to do this. So I have no way of knowing how to correct for the "wish to be happy" problem while allowing the "transhumanist wish" to go through without failure.

After seeing Mestroyer's best formed wish, I realize that my initial attempt to answer the question of what to wish for was tremendously naive. The hard part isn't getting infinite wishes; it's figuring out what to wish for once you have them. While I still think Mestroyer's version has the problem of distinguishing between positive transhuman wishes and negative expectation-lowering wishes, I nevertheless consider it to be the best answer to the "what would you wish for" question that I have ever encountered.

Does anyone have a better idea than Mestroyer's? Or perhaps a method by which to improve Mestroyer's version?

09 September, 2012

The Most Important Thing (For a Young Man)

I would have been in the class of '99, had I not dropped out of school. It was an interesting time period to grow up in. I was introduced to the internet via America OnLine at age 13, so I was among the last generation in our world's history to have first-hand experience of life both with and without internet at a young age.

The most important event in my life definitely has to have been my turn to philosophy. It is philosophy that encouraged me to reevaluate my value system, become a better person, and live my life in a way in which I can be proud. But this all happened many years later. Back then, when I was young, the most important thing was definitely sex.

Sex was something that was simultaneously exalted and demonized in the culture I grew up in. As a child, my parents never allowed me to watch movies with nudity, though movies with extreme violence was always perfectly okay. Yet at the same time, sex was all the culture around me ever seemed to talk about. For example, the Soviet Union collapsed while I was a child--it was an event so momentous that it forever changed the entire tenor of the world thereafter--yet I remember none of it. All I remember from those years is peers talking about sex, television talking about sex, and guardian figures insisting that I not be exposed to sex.

The constant nature of the sex issue in my young life really made me view sex as something I had to experience sooner rather than later. It seemed, to my young mind, that all my peers were having sex constantly, even while I was still a virgin. (I now realize, of course, that this view was mostly mistaken.) Yet there was nothing I could do to get sex. I was the smart kid. I was the teacher's pet. The nerd whom I felt nobody would deign to be with. So I never even tried.

Then, at twelve years of age, an opportunity arose. I went to a new summer school, where nobody knew whom I was. It was a boarding school, so every single person around me was new, and no one had preconceived notions about me in any way. But I was still shy, and had no idea how to branch out. So I laid low, avoiding the terror of receiving a reputation for being a teacher's pet. I stayed back and hid in the crowd, watching how the other students behaved. It was far more educational than you might think.

When regular school started up again, I felt wiser and more confidant. I had gone through the whole summer without being thought of as the nerd in the group (back then, being the 'nerd' was still a very bad stigma), and had actually gone so far as to get very close to girls, though never quite close enough to actually touch them. As creepy as this sounds, my proudest moment back then was going to to the movies with a dozen fellow students and getting to sit next to a girl whose name I did not even know. After the film ended, she stood up and bent down to get her purse, putting her ass directly in front of my face. It was an experience I could not get out of my mind for weeks.

So my optimism was understandably raised even when I was back in regular school, well known as the class nerd. I knew that even if nothing happened all year, at least I had confidence that as soon as I started summer school again, I would immediately make my move.

Perhaps this confidence is why things started to happen for me even in regular school. My first non-accidental sexual touch was a thinly veiled situation lasting no longer than ten seconds with a person that I'd had a crush on for three years. R—  was a track and field runner, and she was well aware of how much of a crush I had on her. She had used my feelings for years, getting me to let her "borrow" money for school lunch nearly every week, though I never got paid back. Perhaps on this particular day she was feeling generous; or maybe she just needed the ego boost. But for whatever reason, when she and I found ourselves alone in a room together right before she was going to go do her daily run on the track after school, she said: "Running track all the time really builds my leg muscles. Want to feel?" And with that, she pushed up her short shorts even higher than they already were and guided my hand to her thigh. I felt for a full ten seconds, taking in the experience in a manner that seems silly to those of us who now get to enjoy sex whenever we so please. When it was over, she left me alone in the room to go start her run, but I stayed in that same position for many minutes longer, savoring the memory. She was, after all, my second crush (the first having been way back in third grade at age seven).

That event at the end of the school year occupied my mind as my parents dropped me off at boarding school for another summer. I was insistent that I was going to make things happen in this new environment. I could think of nothing else.

So on the very first day, in the very first class, the very first thing I did was take out my journal and start recording the possibilities. I listed every single girl in the class, writing their name down as they called out introductions. With each, I wrote pros and cons, and I ranked them in the order I wanted to make my attempts with. At the very top of the class was L, the most beautiful girl in the room. I desired her more than anyone else there.

So as soon as class ended and people started streaming out, I stopped by the door and interrupted L and her group of three friends. "L," I asked, "can I speak with you for a second?" Her friends giggled as they left her behind, and I built up my courage as we stayed in the classroom. "L, would you like to go out with me?"

What a momentous occasion it was. I had never before uttered such words aloud, and I could never have dreamed of asking out anyone prior to that day. But this was a brand new place, where everyone was different, and I had received no reputation of nerdiness. So perhaps it should not have surprised me that she assented. Nevertheless, I was ecstatic.

I had not really prepared for a yes. All the courage-building had been aimed at getting me to make the ask, not close the deal. I had no idea what to do. So I improvised.

I took her upstairs to a classroom that isn't used during summer school. It was dark and unlikely to attract attention. I figured it was safe to begin a relationship there. I told her nothing about me or my past. Nothing about my tastes nor desires nor interests. After all, that is not what our relationship was started on. All I knew was that she was the most beautiful girl in the room. All she knew was that I asked her out and she had somehow said yes. For her part, she was terribly shy. She said almost nothing except giving soft assent in a southern accent. To almost every question I asked of her, the answer was a light "umkay."

Our nearly wordless relationship began its first five minutes with her sitting at a desk in this dark classroom with my hands massaging her back. I was too scared to do anything more; after all, this was my first real time with a girlfriend of any kind. But through luck (good or ill), her shirt bunched up a bit as I moved my hand down her lower back, and when my hand moved up again, I found myself accidentally touching not her shirt, but bare skin.

As my hand glided across the back of her bra, I found myself confused even while I was exhilarated. Why was she still sitting so perfectly still? Wasn't she going to react to this accident? Wasn't she going to stop me from going further?

It was then, in that very moment, not five minutes into the relationship, that I decided that I would see how far I could take it.

My hands started wandering. Though her shirt stayed on, my hands underneath it began exploring not just her back but her sides as well. I inched my way toward her breasts, alternating every forward movement with caresses further away. How odd, I thought to myself, that she is actually allowing me to do this. Had I been wrong all along about how girls would react to such overtures? My mind raced even as I started kissing her midsection and running my fingers over the top of her bra.

This was my first real sexual experience. It was moremuch morethan I had even imagined it would be. I was only thirteen years old, while she was but twelve. Her breasts were still small, but her body excited me beyond all measure. My extremities trembled with excitement as I slowly removed her bra and began kissing her breasts, running my tongue across her areola. She had still said less than four words in our entire relationship thus far: "Umkay." and "Hi, Eric.". She was still sitting at that classroom desk doing her very best to not betray the pleasure I was giving to her. She was too embarrassed, I think, to say much of anything to me, nor even to move out of fear that it would break the spell. So she sat there and just allowed me to touch her and kiss her everywhere. I was in heaven.

After an hour, my alarm went off, and we had to go to our next morning class. Still saying nothing, she put back on her bra and we walked hand in hand to class, sitting next to each other and spending the entire class just touching. I did not even hear a single thing the teacher was talking about; instead, all of my attention was on her back, which my hand constantly caressed for the entire hour. As soon as class ended, we retired again to an isolated place and I continued to partake of her body, tasting her skin and rubbing her everywhere I knew how.

It was a glorious half week of pure pleasure. Unfortunately, boarding schools for children of our age had strict rules on allowing persons of the opposite gender in each others' rooms. Sexual contact with her in soundproof piano booths and abandoned classrooms was great, but I wanted also to be able to be with her in my bed. School officials weren't very happy about this, and after multiple violations, both L and I were expelled.

And yet, even with being expelled, I still nevertheless felt like the relationship was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I felt like I could do anything. Life immediately started turning around. I got up the courage not only to ask out girls I thought interesting for their looks, but also girls I thought interesting from the books they read. I specialized in girls with no sexual experience, as I felt comfortable in that role after my first sexual encounter, but I also branched out to interacting with girls who were already comfortable with me touching them in various ways.

Yet no one ever really clicked. With some, the issue was how dumb they were -- I was okay with L having never talked because I knew she had to have been smart even to just get into a boarding school like that. But B, for example, was a moron in every category save kissing. With others, the issue was (sadly) cultural. One girl I felt up was a relative of mine, and was obviously someone I did not really wish to start an ongoing sexual relationship with. Another girl was great in every way for me except for the fact that others would make fun of me if I spent time with her. I was not yet independent enough back then to realize that what others thought truly did not matter, so my relationship with her was always a balance of me wanting desperately to be closer to her against the countervailing force of wanting to not be made fun of by others.

Yet with all these dalliances, one main issue remained that kept holding me back. These were all people that everyone already knew. I had a reputation here, in regular school, and it was tough to get past. So when I met the new arrival from out of town, I knew instantly that this was who I needed to latch onto.

A was gorgeous, with a perfect figure, large breasts, long blonde hair, and a neverending smile. Her large eyes glistened as we first met, and I entered her into the school computers. As the office assistant, I was able to fill out the forms for the classes she wanted to take and the home address and emergency phone numbers. Everything I saw that day made me happy. I not only had her number, but also I immediately learned she was in the highest level classes. It was exactly what I had been looking for. Best of all, she was unaware of my "nerd" reputation, and I was the first student her age that she saw in the entire school. Needless to say, after entering her into the school records, I asked her out. She said yes.

A was my first long term relationship. We fucked like rabbits. Being a good church volunteer, A had the keys to a local church and could go there anytime. It became one of our go-to spots where we would make love for hours on end. We fucked in pews, on the altar, and even in the absolute pitch black that was the inner bible study room. Other times, we made love in my parents' house while they were away, trying out just about everything we could think of to do with our various sexual organs. But perhaps the most memorable for me were the times that I, as a boy too young to be able to drive a car legally, would sneak out my bedroom window and walk multiple miles just to be able to have sex all night long in her bedroom. It was definitely worth the walk both ways.

It wasn't long before I began a polyamorous lifestyle. I met a lot of people over the years, some of which I'm proud of; others that I regret spending time with. Each relationship was different, with some healthy, and (unfortunately) many more unhealthy. I did a lot in those days, mostly because it was what I wanted at the time. Looking back on most of it is a sad experience for me today. My priorities were just too upside down. My first threesome was solely so that I could experience it; I didn't even particularly enjoy the experience. Later, I learned to enjoy such things by focusing on the moment, rather than on the idea that I finally will have done it  a strange distinction to the uninitiated, but an important one for me to come to understand. I was paid for sex once; I also ended up volunteering quite a bit of time to helping out the sex worker community via web work. In one surreal experience, I once met someone new, initiated sex before ten minutes had passed, and ended up moving in by the end of the day. Obviously, some of these are embarrassing. Others I feel a minute amount of pride in. But in every case, the distinctive thing that went through my head was the base idea that the most important thing for me at that time was sexual exploration.

It really wasn't until after I encountered philosophy for the first time that this drive diminished. I can't even claim that philosophy was the primary cause  I stopped being so preoccupied about sex a matter of weeks before my introduction to philosophy. Yet I think I can credit philosophy with filling the head space that sex once held in my mind. Today, the most important thing is philosophy. I've even had a year long romantic relationship with an asexual person, to no real ill effects on my psyche. I suppose this is partly because I am no longer a young man. At 31 years of age, I may still be young, and I may still be a man, but the vagaries of word use dictates that I am far past being a "young man". Sex is still important to me, of course, but it has become a need that can be fulfilled in the background of my life, rather than as the prime motivation for most of actions.

I have matured, and now live vicariously through my mind, rather than my body. I wonder what a young me would think of how I've changed.

Review: The Best of Hal Clement

The Best of Hal Clement The Best of Hal Clement by Hal Clement
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This collection of hard science fiction short stories is well worth reading for any hard scifi fan. Hal Clement is a master of the genre, and does an excellent job of creating scientifically interesting settings for each of these stories.

While there is some lack in character development, this is not unusual in short stories, as there generally isn't enough time to permit substantial change. Much more disappointing is Clement's continual use of sexism -- but this was standard practice in his time, and no scifi novels of this period really did any better on that front.

Despite these flaws, these stories are still well worth reading. Definitely recommended.

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06 September, 2012

Review: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not only is this the best fanfiction I've ever read, it is among my favorite novels of all time, and so far I've only been able to read up to chapter 85.

This is a reimagining of the canonical novels of Harry Potter where the main character is extremely rational. Although he is a preteen, this version of Harry Potter has a mind on par with an extremely gifted 18 year old, and it shows. His nemesis, Voldemort, is similarly increased in intelligence by a dramatic amount. The Tom Riddle of this fanfic really knows what he's doing, and is the perfect villain to go against this genius Harry.

The author started a little slow in the first few chapters -- at the moment, he is rewriting them to fix this problem. But once you get past the first half dozen chapters, this novel just gets better and better and better. Unfortunately, at the time of writing this review, the novel is not yet finished (only 85 chapters are so far published), so you might want to postpone reading this until a finalized text is fully finished. On the other hand, it is worth reading now, even unfinished, just because it is that damn good.

The world of HPMOR is written in the hard fantasy genre -- this is fantasy, like Rowling's HP, but instead of random fantastical elements like most fantasy novels have, HPMOR uses hard rational rules for the universe of Harry Potter, and actually spends a good deal of time during the story explicating how the world is the way that it is.

If you like the Harry Potter universe, but would love to see what the world would look like if both Voldemort and Harry were much, much, much smarter, then you will love this book. I highly recommend it. Very highly recommend it.

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Rain Shelter

Walking far from any other humans, I can see a thunderstorm on the horizon. My car is nowhere near. No business is close by. But I recall passing by a small bathroom not long before. Two lone rooms, one for each sex, standing by themselves in isolation. It is all I can do for cover.

I make it before the rain comes, but almost immediately upon entering, a torrential downpour covers the area. The noise is deafening. Thankfully, I carry on these walks of mine a portable chair, which I pull out and sit upon, doubling the number of thrones in this room. Electricity appears available, so I pull out my DS, plug it in, and start playing Zelda in a bathroom on an isolated trail.

My life is weird.

05 September, 2012

Review: Through the Eye of a Needle

Through the Eye of a Needle Through the Eye of a Needle by Hal Clement
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great mystery novel, but such horrid sexism! Sure, Clement does a moderately good job of insisting that the alien be completely fair to both sexes, but the human characters (male and female) are all horribly in need of taking a few feminism classes. Then again, the story is set in 1949 and was probably written not long after that date, so at least the author is portraying the humans in a more or less realistic way, even if they don't garner any respect from me.

The setting, story, and mystery in the novel is all quite good, though. This is a proper mystery tale, where the reader has a real chance of figuring out the mystery by the end, and nothing "unfair" happens like an introduction of an as-yet-unseen technology or surprise that clever readers could not have seen in advance. Nevertheless, the mystery is still obscure enough to make it difficult to figure out by the end. Not many mystery novels follow the rules as well as this one does, especially when it comes to scifi settings. Thankfully, Clement is a master of hard science fiction, and so knows how to write this kind of book fairly well.

The biggest drawback (other than asshole sexist characters you'll dislike) is that Clement does not write relationships between humans very well. But that's not the focus of this novel, and so is not that big a drawback. Clement does well in almost every other respect, and the result is a very good hard scifi mystery. I definitely recommend it to any who like science, scifi, and mysteries.

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Review: Needle

Needle Needle by Hal Clement
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The concepts covered in this classic piece of hard science fiction are certainly worth thinking about, and the depiction of an alternate 1949 Earth where oil is grown rather than drilled for is compelling. But the real star of this story is the alien: Hunter is a unique character in science fiction. As a detective, he has a very specific skillset -- but as a castaway, he has almost no capability to use any of it, save for his thought processes. The resolution of this story is beautifully put together. This is a detective novel of the best sort: one where the reader can play along and figure out the mystery on their own if they're skilled enough, but it's by no means easy to do so. Very few mystery novels share this trait, especially when it comes to science fiction. Usually, in a scifi mystery, some fact is brought forth by the intervention of a technology the characters are aware of but the reader could not possibly have known in advance -- a prime example of deus ex machina if ever I saw it. But Hal Clement is fair with his reader, and the only background information you might require outside of what he gives you in the text is a cursory knowledge of science and humanity that any schoolchild should be able to claim.

This is well worth the read, even if Clement's writing style does make the characters seem a bit flat. The strength of the story is not in the relationships (at which Clement only gets a passing grade), but in the mystery, the setting, and the unique alien biology. This should definitely be on your to-read list if you have any interest in science and scifi mysteries.

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04 September, 2012

Poetry in the Wilderness

The other day, I tried walking a side path on the Appalachian Trail. It was a dead-end trail, and is presumably not walked by many hikers, since it is clearly marked as a dead-end.

The path was only a mile long, and was not particularly difficult to traverse. Nevertheless, it was obvious that not that many came this way. I imagine there are many such spurs on the length of the Appalachian Trail, and most hikers will only bother to go down one or another to see an out of the way waterfall or some other landmark of interest. This one, however, had no waterfall at the end. It had only a small open clearing available for people to put up a tent, a small circle of rocks obviously left for fire use, and a small boulder with text written upon it.

The text was 3/4 of Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.