30 November, 2017

[LINK] AMA by Animal Charity Evaluators on Reddit

This entry was originally posted on Effective-Altruism.com. It is reposted here for reference only.

Animal Charity Evaluators is currently doing an Ask Me Anything session on the /r/vegan subreddit. If you have any questions about ACE's 2017 charity recommendations, this would be an ideal place to directly ask the researchers at ACE.

Even if you come across this link after the AMA concludes, you may find the discussion there useful.

13 November, 2017

Counting My Blessings

Yesterday, I was diagnosed with a long-term illness. It's not life-threatening, but it is a chronic condition.

This reminder of my own likely mortality has understandably put me into a rather somber mood. I find myself counting my blessings and reminiscing over the arc of my life.

I earn enough to be comfortable.

It feels a little weird to bring up money first, but income really does determine many secondary blessings—enough so that it is the primary blessing I think of. I haven't always had what I'd consider a good income, but my life has been much richer monetarily than most people in the world. On the global rich list, I've pretty much always been in the top couple percent, though that isn't exactly difficult to do if you're born in an industrialized country. (A salary of $25k is sufficient.) There were times that were hard enough that I dropped to subsistence levels, but I've always had safety nets of various kinds to support me, so I've always bounced back.

Today, I earn more than I ever have, and I have multiple safety nets surrounding me in the form of friends and family. I'm happy to be able to donate around 25% of my gross income to effective altruism causes even while keeping up the relatively expensive hobbies of board gaming and Switch playing, where I buy pretty much whatever I think I might enjoy.

I am loved, and I love in return.

Once food, shelter, and other necessities are stable, the next most important thing I notice is love. Companionship is important to me, although it's something that I've had some trouble with in the past. Two of my siblings live nearby, and another plays with me weekly online, so I'm able to maintain relatively close relationships with them all. I receive much comfort from the best of my friends and family, and am extraordinarily grateful to have them around.

It wasn't always like this. There was a time when friendships were difficult to maintain for me. As strange as it may sound, I learned many lessons about friendship from the My Little Pony series. It's helped me to become a better person and allowed me to maintain friendships that I traditionally would have allowed to fade.

I am relatively healthy.

Despite my diagnosis yesterday, I have no reason to suspect that my chronic condition will cause an undue amount of discomfort in my life. I am luckier in this respect than I have any right to be. I spent thirty-five years without seeing a dentist, and was found to have no cavities. I've never broken a bone, nor had any serious illness in the past, other than a bout of whooping cough when I was a young child that left no lasting damage. Although I am apprehensive about my recently diagnosed condition, I nevertheless feel as though I've had a very long time to live in such good health, and am accepting of the health condition I will have to endure moving forward.

Culture surrounds me.

Although I ultimately realize that I am mostly ignorant of the world and of humanity's culture so far, I nevertheless feel a great debt to those that first introduced me to the field of philosophy. Before then, I was so focused on basic science, games of power and control, and shallow story-telling, that I did not appreciate what the world truly has to offer. But one by one, philosophy has opened my mind to fields I never previously would spare a thought to. Most important is ethics, and how it led me to the effective altruism movement, but also great literature, art, economics, history, and much deeper story-telling mediums, such as hard science fiction and rational fiction. Philosophy also helped me to realize the importance of the less deep, strengthening my appreciation for bad tv shows, infantile humor, and naive artistic creation, just to name a few.

I know I am but only slightly aware of the depth of culture that surrounds us. So many things exist that I know I do not know: the beauty in how to understand a rifle so thoroughly that one can tear it down and build it back up again in one's head; the sublime nature of artistic pieces in famous museums that continue to elude me; the workings of various biological systems; the rites of honoring a family tradition that has gone on for long before I was born; the joy that some claim comes from a belief in a higher power. And I'm certain that there must be unknown unknowns that I can't even imagine at the moment. Yet I still so fully appreciate the awareness that philosophy and a liberal education has given me that I wish desperately that others might receive the same sort of study, even if they plan on going into an unrelated career.

I am able to control and remember many dreams.

Perhaps it is because I gloss over poor details at the time, but in my own mind it feels as though I may construct stories of any type and any depth on a whim. No book nor movie has ever come close to the situations and storylines that I imagine while I sleep. While I enjoy my waking life a great deal, I also am extremely appreciative of my sleeping hours. There is much in my imagination that is seemingly able to reference more exactly and build upon more dramatically than any fiction I've seen from any other author. Of course, I recognize that this is because my judgment while asleep is less discriminating than when I am awake, and that there is a selection bias where the references I insert are always recognized by me, while the references other authors use may sometimes go over my head. Nevertheless, the feeling I have is that my dreams are superior, and that is what matters to me in the end.

I am a super hero.

At least I feel like one. I imagine the pride a fireman feels when they save a life, and I consciously attempt to attach that imagined emotion to the result of whenever I donate an amount equivalent to saving a life. It was hard to do at first, and it feels a little weird to talk about it to other people, but, in my private life, when I'm thinking just to myself, I make a point to truly embrace the idea that I have done an equivalent amount of good whenever I donate effectively. This brings me far more happiness and well-being than if I were to spend that money elsewhere.

Evidence points to an upward trajectory.

Yes, there are existential risks. But whereas very few worked on them in the past, the effective altruism movement is mobilizing better and more able minds than my own to work on these problems. Yes, they have an uphill battle, and, on the whole, my expectation is that there is more human capital working toward xrisks than are working against it. But the derivative is positive: we are doing more and more each day to make the world a better place.

Wild animal suffering is a massive problem. People are dying every day for stupid reasons. And yet I feel a Pinker-esque optimism about the trajectory of some of our finest thinkers.

As you can see, I have many categories of blessings to count. I know that much of this is due to the evolution of my ancestors; that the values I care about mostly come about from the replication of genes and memes that started long ago for morally arbitrary reasons. And yet I feel comforted nevertheless.

Yesterday may have given me bad news, but I am happy today.

13 October, 2017

On Violence

My value system strongly prefers a lack of suffering. To that end, I try to practice nonviolence.

But it wasn't always this way. Here are a few examples from when I was a child:
  • When I was young, I would play games with my friends where we would act out battles as fighters and wizards. We used long hardwood sticks as our swords and small rocks as our spells. It only count as a hit in our play if it also hit in real life. I always hit hard.
  • I practiced several martial arts in my youth, with the most emphasis on tae kwon do.
  • Both in school and at home, if I did something particularly considered wrong, I would receive corporal punishment. This included 'spankings' by a paddle and by a switch, as well as one case where I was thrown through a door.
  • We had a hill of dirt that the neighborhood kids would play upon. Whoever could stay at the top would be king of the hill; everyone else lost. The violence ratcheted up in this game to the point where one person rushed the hill with a literal fire axe. He won that day.
  • Even the practical jokes that my dumb friends played were particularly violent. Whereas some kids might wait for a mark to fall asleep and then paint their face, or put whipped cream on their hand and tickle their forehead, the joke favored by my friends was to take a sharp knife and aim it directly above a sleeping person's eyeball, then wait for them to wake up and see it looming above them.
  • On one occasion, I was in the restroom and could hear others coming to rush the door. My assumption was the the joke du jour would be them opening the restroom door unexpectedly while I was inside, so I reacted by buttressing the door shut with my bare hands. Instead, their chosen joke was to pierce the door with a longsword. It went both through the door and the palm of my hand. The emergency room visit that day was not fun.
It would have been good if I had matured away from violence, but, instead, I became an adult that viewed violence as not that big of a deal. I became a bully. I was violent with friends, with family, and in my relationships. I am not proud of what I did.

Over time, I slowly grew past violence. At first, it was a selfish change; I wanted more out of my life and I intellectually realized that refraining from violence was the best way to get what I wanted. It is somewhat surreal to read those past journal entries from a time where I avoided violence completely even while still being philosophically okay with the concept of using violence.

Eventually, as I became more philosophically literate, I began to change how I thought about violence. Over the course of a decade and a half, I went from being happily violent to being philosophically committed to nonviolence. It's a change of which I am both exceedingly proud and terribly embarrassed.

It's been seven years since I last exhibited violence out of anger. In the past seven years, I've only once exhibited threats of violence for what I felt was a justified reason.

I thought it might be helpful to list here some of the outbursts I experienced while I was still in the transition phase, in case it may help others who are also trying to curb what violent tendencies they may have.
  • At one point, I could feel myself getting angry. I felt it was important to lash out at an object rather than a person, so I punched through a window with my bare hands. It hurt. From my perspective at the time, this was an example of me holding back and being responsible by not harming another living being; but from the perspective of today, it just feels like a terribly violent moment during the period where I was actively trying not to be violent.
  • Another time, as I felt myself becoming especially angry, I decided to upend a cup of water rather than do anything actually damaging. To my mind at the time, I thought this to be a good escape valve; now I feel especially bad for the person that I got wet.
Eventually, I was able to curb these impulses entirely. I attribute the change mostly to the use of the "fake it 'til you make it" method, where I made myself be less violent for so long and so often that eventually I just wasn't violent anymore. It also helped to physically put myself into the shoes of those who are less advantaged — I did the food stamp challenge for a few weeks (while sleeping in a warm bed each night), I experienced a life of homelessness on the streets for a couple of weeks (while eating lavish dinners each night), and I went on trips to underprivileged areas to meet and interview real people and write about them in charity magazines and blogs.

Philosophical aside:
Today, I self-identify as a political pacifist, not because I think violence never works, but because I am doubtful that it has worked at the state level in any historical war. (I can imagine what a just war might look like, possibly with varelse, where extreme violence might be warranted, but I'm not sure that even WWII would qualify as a just war.) I am also vegetarian. I consider both pacifism and veganism to be closely related to the philosophy of nonviolence, which I endorse mainly because I desire suffering to be bad, and violence tends to create suffering.
By early 2011, I had finally become the nonviolent person that I had decided to philosophically become over ten years earlier. It amazes me that it took so long. It also embarrasses me to realize just how difficult it is to self-modify even behaviors that one is philosophically set against.

In the past seven years, there has only been one experience where I've exhibited a threat of violence. I've worried about and replayed the issue in my head multiple times, wondering if I did the right thing, and whether I would do the same if I encountered the situation again.

It was five years ago. A young teenage cousin of mine kept bullying both myself and those around me. It was small stuff, repeated endlessly. Stealing my phone when I wasn't looking so he could play games. Then the following week stealing my laptop. He'd do the same to his other cousins, taking their balls or other toys when no adults were looking. My reaction was always relatively meek. Eventually, he escalated. One day, at a birthday party of our cousin, he started threatening to destroy a board game piece, so that we would stop playing that game and instead play some other game with him. I explained to him that destroying the game was unacceptable behavior, but he doubled down, saying I wouldn't do anything to him even if he did it.

A part of me is proud of this moment. In the past, this behavior would have made me angry. But I realized in that moment that I was finally at the point where I could look at situations like this coolly. I thought for a second, then said: "If you attempt to destroy this board game, I will physically restrain you." He grabbed the piece from the table and started to break it — but I grabbed and held him before he could do so. I was gentle, but firm. His impression of me as someone meek evaporated that day, and he never treated me or my siblings that way in my presence again.

On the one hand, it was just a board game piece. It would have easily been replaced. Was it justified for me to react in the way I had? It did help to teach him not to bully his cousins in front of me. But I was in my thirties; he was barely a teenager. I'm honestly not sure if I acted completely appropriately.

Regardless, I am sure that I acted without anger. It feels good to know that I can honestly call myself a non-violent person now. I'm proud that seven years are about to pass where I have been completely free of violence.

06 October, 2017


I keep finding myself using disgust as a reason to deny moral value.

Intellectually, I realize this is a mistake. I'm consequentialist (at least I think I want to be, maybe), and when I look at Haidt's Julie/Mark-style situations, I typically answer as a consequentialist would. When making most moral decisions in my life, I try my best to avoid using disgust to make my decisions. And yet, disgust creeps its way into my moral landscape.

To understand why this happens, I first need to distinguish between myself (Me1), who acts in ways that I act, and the person (Me2) that I wish I could be, who acts in ways that I wish I would act. I don't currently live life to the fullest; I don't fully enjoy the pleasures of life that I could. I don't help others in need as much as I should. I don't do the proper amount of exercise, nor eat the diet that would best suit my body. There is so very much I would change, if I could get around my akrasia.

Yet it's not enough to look at who I am (Me1) and who I want to be (Me2). There's also who I want to want to be (Me3) -- this is the person that I wish I could want to be. If I'm going to take ethics seriously, then I should want to follow the demands that seem so obvious to me. I should want to help others as effectively as is sustainable and marketable for me.

As an example, I (Me1) spend a modest amount of time each week working directly with effective altruism organizations. I wish that I (Me2) would instead reorganize my life so that I could devote more time to EA stuff. But, deep down, I feel as though I (Me3) should instead wish to do as much as I possibly could do to help the EA cause.

And yet, this rundown of desires and meta-desires is not enough to fully describe how I feel about this, because there is an even deeper version: Me4, who feels disgust at the idea of dramatically changing Me1 to Me3. From Me4's point of view, it would be almost like committing suicide if I actually followed through with changing myself from Me1 to Me3Me4 represents how I feel about how I would want to want to change myself. Despite my attempts to avoid using disgust in moral considerations as I look as my desires through Me2 and Me3, I nevertheless end up acknowledging disgust when looking at my meta-meta-desires.

When a change is small enough, I'm okay with it. I get up each day only slightly feeling as though I may have died the previous night. But when I think back to the Eric of ten years ago, I cringe. I am so very, very different from that person. I think of him as an ancestor, not as me. When I think about the future Eric ten years' hence, I do not want him to be so different. I want him to share my values! Don't get me wrong: I don't mind extrapolating my volition. There are surely facts in the world that would cause me to do things differently were I to truly understand them. If future Eric makes different decisions because he's learned more true facts, then I count that Eric as myself -- it's just that he's in a better position to know what to do.

But if his values are as different to mine as mine are to the past Eric of a decade ago, then he is not just me in a different time period. No, then he is more like my offspring. A person close to me in many ways, but who is decidedly not me.

This feeling of hidden discontinuity comes about from feelings of disgust at the idea of suicide. I don't want to die. I don't want future Eric to hold such disparate values. The entire reason I hold the values I do is because those are the values that I would instantiate into infinity. I would make them the rule in extended space, in the far reaches of the future, etc. Of course, I don't mean to so universalize wrong principles, so I'm not saying that the vocalization of my values is what is sacrosanct. Rather it is the ideas behind them, of equity, fairness, etc., that I dare not express too succinctly in words. To the extent that I am mistaken in true facts about the world, the way that we would express those values might change -- but the values themselves would not should not.

To the extent that I should change my mind in the future, there is no reason not to also make that shift today, so there is no reason to suspect that future Eric should have reason to change value systems that I would not also consider reasons to change my current value system. While I am in favor of changing one's mind in the face of new facts, I am not inclined to change my value system unless there is good reason to do so (moral trade might make it better for my values if I vector-average with others' values (even acausal trade could make this happen); learning the basis of why I have a value might cause me to hold that value less or more strongly; etc.).

I do not want to die. I do not want future Eric to not be me. I do not really want Me3 to actualize. Yes, I'd like to self-improve to Me2. But Me3 is too far, even though Me3 is the better man.

It is the disgust of Me4 at the idea of committing suicide that causes me to not wish to change beyond my current desire to move from Me1 to Me2.

Death occurs much more often in a single life than most people realize. I want to be a better me, but Death is the enemy. I must become better without committing suicide.

01 July, 2017

Jasper and the Amiibo

I just want to share one of my birthday gifts from Katherine this year:

23 May, 2017

In Memory of Jorge Herboso

Jorge Herboso
My uncle died a few weeks ago. He had not been doing well. A bug bite from several months previous had given him significant problems, but he had avoided going to the doctor for a prolonged amount of time. It grew infectious and supposedly was subsequently fixed, but this lax attitude of not going to the doctor when he really should may have played a part in why he died so prematurely.

He died in Bolivia. The original plan was for him to go there for only a couple of months. I helped to buy him a chromebook so he could continue to get online easily while he was there. But he fell ill again, and his delay in going to the doctor caused him to extend his stay by two months. Near the end, he was writhing in pain at home, but still had not gone to see a doctor over the issue. My father, from a hemisphere away, had to call family in a nearby city to get them to force Jorge to go in to see a doctor.

A part of this is machismo. Some of it is the idea that nothing will happen to us. Another portion was Jorge's strong religious belief, and his desire to not use traditional medicine whenever he could get away with it. I used to participate heavily in skeptic forums dealing with beliefs just like that. Although I don't post in skeptic forums much anymore, I still occasionally post links to whatstheharm.net whenever I hear a friend or family member talk make the case that there's no harm in allowing people to believe incredulous things.

Carlos, Sylvia, Ruperto, Jorge, Marcos, Chalo, and Fernando
My strongest memories of Tio Jorge are from when I was a child. I remember interacting with him several times in Alabama, especially during a family reunion we had in the late nineties.

I loved the way he would yell out a grito mexicano whenever he was particularly into a song. I loved the way he would smile and laugh when in the company of his brothers. I loved how, when my father would talk about him, it was always to complain about how giving his brother was, to the point of it being to his detriment.

I did not like as much how he would mostly speak Spanish in my presence, despite knowing English, so I could only really understand him only a small portion of the time we spent together. I did not like how he wore his religious beliefs on his sleeve later in life, nearly always commenting on whatever the topic of conversation was by bringing up God in one way or another. I did not like how he physically spanked me when I was very young. I did not like how he shied away from traditional medicine in times when he needed it most.

Jorge was exceedingly kind in his last years. He openly welcomed others into  his home that badly needed the help. He would find them jobs and work to help get them back on their feet. He helped run an Emmaus Retreat, where immigrants can go to help amend broken marriages in a Catholic setting. He did much to try to make the world a better place, and I am very sad to see him die so early on in life.

If you want to see more about my uncle's life, please visit his online rememberance page.

15 May, 2017

Pinpricks of Light to Start my Day

I use this as my visual alarm clock.
7:00 a.m.
Katherine leaves the house to start her day at school. The sound of the front door closing is my cue to get up.
7:45 a.m.
My eyes are finally able to stay open for more than a few seconds at a time. I put on my shoes and fill a bottle with tea. I have to leave soon. I browse through the most recent podcasts to decide on what to listen to this morning.
8:10 a.m.
My visual alarm goes off. The sun shines through a window upstairs, illuminating the stairwell and precisely hitting a disco ball hung at the bottom of the stairs that reflects the light into a hundred directions. The sight of pinpricks of light throughout the living room tells me it's time to call an Uber for work.
9:15 a.m.
I am nearly done with my Uber ride. I travel from Germantown, md, to Alexandria, va, thrice each week. Uber costs constitute a large portion of my monthly expenses, but it's worth the expense if I can get to where I need to go quickly and easily. The metro has been involved with too many accidents lately for me to be comfortable using it.
10 a.m.
I'm at work in VA. I go through emails, plan out what I need to do over the next 7-8 hours, and set priorities for the week.
12 p.m.
Lunchtime. I walk to a nearby restaurant and eat. I generally refill my drink at least twice, so the only requirements are that they have vegetarian options and free refills. While I'm there, I check my ACE emails to see if I need to respond to anything urgent.
5:00 p.m.
Work is over. I go downstairs to the company gym. No one else ever goes here after work, so I have the entire place to myself. I turn on a podcast to fill the room with sound and start working out. I spend about thirty minutes each on cycling and walking, then spend ~5 minutes each on five or so different weightlifting machines. In total, I spend about an hour and a half. I time each machine not by a clock, but by the length of various podcast episodes, so my times aren't always exactly the same.
6:30 p.m.
I take a shower at work. It feels especially good after working out. In contrast, morning showers feel like a chore. But post-workout showers are soothing.
7:00 p.m.
I am playing my Nintendo Switch while in an Uber headed home. This is the best portable gaming system I've ever owned, and it works perfectly for long Uber rides. Usually I lose track of time so well that I'm surprised when we finally take the off ramp near my house.
8:30 p.m.
Dinner is cooked. Today's meal is an "Ultimate Cheeseburger" Velveeta Cheesy Skillet, made with vegetarian Morningstar Farms Meal Starters Grillers Crumbles, with a Pillsbury Crusty French Loaf and a Dole Salad Kit. Television is watched while we eat. Depending on my workload, I may do some tasks for ACE after my meal.
10:30 p.m.
Gaming commences. Usually I do a few rounds of Hearthstone, StarCraft, Heroes of the Storm, or anything else that doesn't take the television set.
11:50 p.m.
Now that the television is available, I either play on the Switch or watch shows that no one else in the house enjoys. This continues until I'm sleepy enough to go to bed.
4:00 a.m.
I am in my dream world, which I seem to place much more value on than most people. Here, storylines continue that I have been building for decades. I live out another life in my dreams, unconnected to this one, but equally important to me. I know that it is not real, because I can direct the flow of action there in ways that I cannot do here. But for this same reason, I am in love with my dream world, and am always happy to get to experience it. It's not as good as reality, but it is better than any tv show or fiction novel that I've ever read.

The above describes a typical Monday. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I work from home instead. On weekends, I do my best to not work at all, and instead meet with friends to play board games or visit with my family for celebrations. This past weekend was somewhat somber; although my cousin Bianca had her first communion and Susan was able to celebrate mother's day, the mood was determined mostly by my Tio Jorge's recent passing. Death is an enemy that I think of often. It takes far too many of us.

The specific products mentioned above are not sales pitches for others; I included this level of specificity solely so that when I reread this journal entry several years' hence I will be able to fully remember these specific things.

08 May, 2017

Obligations By Accident

I've often found myself falling into new habits by accident.

In 2002, I was working at a call center hawking credit cards. I would regularly outperform most of my peers using a strategy that differed greatly from what they taught new hires. Rather than attempt to sell to each person that answered the phone, I did my best to get each person answering the phone to hang up on me. This greatly reduced call times and allowed me to reach far more people in a given workday. In the rare instances when someone did not hang up, I reasoned that they must have some minimal interest from the first few keywords I said in my initial boring spiel, and so used that hook to get them to sign up. In a work environment where my colleagues were getting an average of one sale each day, I was getting 3-5 daily.

I was not much interested in working long hours, so I told my manager at the time that I'd rather work 2-3 days each week than the full 40 hours. I figured that since I did more sales in those 2-3 days than others did in a full week, it would be an easy pitch. But they were limited by corporate rules and didn't really have the leeway to let me do as I wanted. I then asked, somewhat jokingly, what if I just quit halfway through the week; would they be willing to rehire me the next week since I'm skilled at the job? To my surprise, they said yes. And so I would work until Tuesday or Wednesday each week, quit, and they'd rehire me the following Monday. It was their way of keeping me while still not going against what corporate had mandated.

This rather strange situation resulted in a happy circumstance. One Tuesday, I quit, as I did each week, and I drove past Spring Hill College on my way home. Because I had technically had no work obligations for the future, on a whim I decided to stop by and see if they'd let me start classes. The first day of classes had been that Monday, so I would be entering rather late, but they were excited to accept me anyway, and I went to my first class the very next day.

In 199X, I was driving across the country to someplace new to start over. I wasn't yet sure where I'd go; I had contacted two places announcing my intention to move in: one in Utah and one in Colorado. I was halfway there when I reached the intersection of interstate highways where I'd need to choose one destination or another. There was more traffic in one direction, so I chose the other. This small happenstance resulted in my living in Colorado for a few years.

In 201X, I had been living long-term in a hotel. A fire came, burning several of my possessions, and convincing me that I should perhaps move to a real house. On a whim, I did a nationwide craigslist search for the cheapest rent home that included all utilities and had hi-speed internet access. The cheapest ad at the time was in Tennessee, so I sent them an email, had a quick call over the phone, and moved in three days later.

A few weeks ago, I had to stay a little late after work. It was a Friday night, and by the time I was ready to leave, the Uber fares had surged through the roof. I was unwilling to pay the extra price, and didn't really feel like taking the metro, so I instead decided to use the gym downstairs. I worked out for two hours and so thoroughly enjoyed myself that I decided to workout after work more often. Now I use the gym 2-3 times each week for a couple of hours after work.

When I think of the many choices I've made in life, I often wonder about what might have been. How easily I might have moved into an academic career in philosophy, or stayed as a high school dropout for my entire life. How I came to identify with the effective altruism movement even while I was working for an extremely ineffective charity. How I came to have a relationship with my father when I could have so easily not contacted him or interacted with him at all. And yet so many more things in my life came about just by chance, not choice. Not just the above items, but the chance that allowed me to be good at math, rather than sports. To be born in relative affluence, rather than in a developing country. To have met such wonderful people in my life, mostly because I happened to be born and lived near them.

It is because of these many accidents that I really think hard about how I should negotiate with my future selves. I fear value drift, and yet they deserve consideration as much as I. So much of who I am and what I value is just from chance. Should I be multiplying our vector values so that we can work toward the same goals? Or is it enough for me to just allow them to be different, even if I disagree strongly with their beliefs? What duties do I owe them beyond what I would owe my neighbors? What duties do they owe me?

Even more keen is the past: What obligations have I been ignoring that have to do with my past selves? I clearly remember making a promise to build a theme park centered on dinosaurs when I grew up. Yet I don't see any chance of my ever fulfilling such a strange promise. What about that earlier intent to earn a PhD? Or the prejudiced leanings of someone who used to use the word "gay" as a derogatory term?

I see the moral arc of my life as trending upward, but it is perhaps unfair for my present self to be the one judging that. Would my earlier self see it trending downward? What of my far future self? Am I justified in just being a bad neighbor to my temporal selves? I tolerate Trump supporters in my community, but not really among my close friends. Am I being hypocritical here?

These are tough questions. I need to think on them more. This is the least I owe to my other temporal selves, both past and future.

01 May, 2017

Speaking at the APA Conference

Recently I attended the American Philosophical Association's Pacific Division Meeting in Seattle, Washington, where I gave a talk on effective animal advocacy. It was my first academic philosophy conference, though I've had periodic philosophy-based meetups with small groups of non-academics over the years.

I loved the experience. Going to each of the talks was much more fun than I think even other attendees found it, mostly because in my everyday life I interact mostly with people who have very little interest in philosophy.

I've given talks about effective animal advocacy several times in the past five years, but this was my first time speaking to a crowd of philosophers. I was nervous at first, but after attending a talk on the first day on a study concerning everyday intuitions about utilitarianism, my nervousness quickly faded. His talk was absolutely terrible, and it really made me feel much better about how my talk would go a few days later.

Most talks were good, despite that early outlier. Yet the best experience was always in the Q&A section. I really got into the spirit of delving into each topic, even when the session was about issues that I've never read up on before. There was a plethora of ideas that I was able to experience one after the other, and it was a breathtaking experience.

I especially enjoyed the Society for the Study of Ethics and Animals sessions, where Nicolas Delon, Ramona Ilea, Jeff Sebo, Toni Adleberg, and myself spoke about effective animal advocacy. The Q&As for these sessions went on for hours, with many of us meeting up for drinks or dinner afterward to continue the discussion. The biggest takeaway for me actually came from the Q&A session after Toni's talk, where issues surrounding intersectionality amongst cause areas were discussed. Toni wrote a follow-up blog post after the conference that touches on this issue, and I really feel that it is one of the most important blog posts that Animal Charity Evaluators has ever published.

I'm still thinking a lot about the intersectionality angle and intend to post something on it on the EA forums once I've fully fleshed out what I think.

Of course, not everything about my trip to Seattle went quite so well. Walking around the city really sucked whenever the person in front of you was a smoker, and that happened at least once each day for 5+ minutes. There were homeless people on every corner; it was quite heart-wrenching to see. Some had beautiful signs created asking for money -- one in particular was exquisitely drawn and had flowers weaved through the edges. I was quite impressed by her cardboard sign. But the people I decided to give money to were instead the ones that I thought others would be less likely to help. One man reeked of alcohol and could not speak coherently at all; I bought him dinner in a vegan restaurant. Another was walking around at 3 a.m. completely sober asking if anyone would give him enough money for a beer; I handed him $8 not knowing how much that would buy him.

I walked a lot late at night there. It was interesting seeing the people that were out that late. As I passed one person, he seemed to ask if he could borrow a cigarette from me. I replied saying that I had no cigarettes to give, to which he replied confusingly. It was several minutes later that I realized he was not trying to take a cigarette from me; rather, he was offering to sell me a cigarette. I'm assuming this code for a drug of some kind, but I guess I have so little experience with this kind of thing that I didn't even understand what they were trying to do in real time.

I also walked quite a bit around town during the afternoon, visiting as many different vegan places as I could. (Shout out to the Veggie Grill!) Many of my fellow streetwalkers during lunchtime were dressed up as various anime characters due to Sakura-Con, which was happening just next-door to the APA conference. I was staying at the Hotel Max, which also housed a number of cosplayers for the anime convention. It was fun going up and down the elevator with these cosplayers, especially when I could recognize who they were dressed up as.

But by far the best part was being able to be around so many people that are even more into philosophy than I am. It is such a great feeling to be the dumbest person in a room with respect to a field as deep as philosophy. Being able to discuss all kinds of different topics from session to session was an amazing experience, and I definitely want to experience this again in the future. I fell in love with philosophy when I was doing my undergrad at Spring Hill College, and going to this APA conference reignited that love by giving me the chance to think, discuss, and argue about a wide variety of topics in such a short time span.

20 March, 2017


I would like to talk about regret—and when it makes sense to return.

You are sitting, eating from a box of cookies. Through a moment of carelessness, you drop a cookie. It lands on the floor. What is the appropriate reaction? Should it be discarded, even if it looks okay? What if the cookie was dropped not through carelessness, but on purpose?

There are lots of possible answers here. In many cases, it depends upon the specific circumstances. How hungry are you? Are there more cookies in the package? How clean is the floor?

I recall taking a test in middle school. It was in band class; I was supposed to attempt a difficult piece of percussion sight reading. I recall having a good understanding of my own capabilities. I knew how well I could spell, and competed in the state spelling bee as a result (2nd place). I knew how proficient I was at martial arts, and competed in state competition there, as well (also 2nd place). I also knew exactly how capable I was when it came to sight reading a difficult piece for percussion; so when my instructor said that taking this test was voluntary, I declined. I knew I would perform poorly, especially in comparison to other gifted drummers in that same class.

Afterward, the teacher explained that the true test was to see who had the initiative to take the test, even though it was very difficult for our age group. Everyone who attempted the test was given an 'A'. I was given a 'C' for that course, mostly because I did not even attempt to take that test.

Is there value in making the attempt, even if one recognizes in advance that it will be especially difficult? For a child who never puts themselves out the, the answer may well be yes; but this was not me. I pushed myself in other fields where I knew that I could be successful. I traveled to Birmingham for state competitions. I read books that were aimed at much older audiences than I was, at the time. I had no general problem with putting myself out there. So, in the case of this percussion test, should I have attempted it anyway? Even in knowing that I would not perform well at it? What lesson would this teach me? Is there value just in the attempt itself?

I've had several romantic relationships in my life. Some short; others long. I'm polyamorous, so I'm never really not open to new relationships, but I'm also an extremely busy person, so I'm never really actively looking for new ones. This means that my relationships rise and fall mostly with where and when I happen to move to a new place.

Early on in my life, I placed a large amount of importance on specific people being in my life. As is common in our culture, I would begin a relationship with someone and then want to continue it, even when it made little sense to do so. I was always quite loyal. I felt that, if my feelings for a person were true, then it was important that I continue loving them through good times and bad. I would always pick up the cookie, even when it was good for neither of us.

As I grew, I came to realize that even the rarest of cookies were still relatively plentiful in this vast world. When a relationship would sour, I learned to walk away and begin anew elsewhere.  This made sense. Even though I felt (and still feel) that I made a particularly good mate, that capability is harmed when problems in the relationship overshadow possibilities for positivity. I never made first chair in percussion in middle school, even though I was at a similar level of competence as my peers; the fact that I was unwilling to try kept me from being considered, even though I deliberately choose not to test because I knew I would perform poorly. But I did well in other fields where this souring incident did not occur.

Of course, relationships don't just sour by themselves. In many cases, I caused the souring through actions I took. When I was very young, these tend to be actions that were mean-spirited. When I became an adult, they were actions born of accident, or sometimes carelessness. Occasionally, they've been on purpose. Most recently, it has been because I did not understand why it was bad at the time (an excusable offense), and did not take seriously a warning that it would considered bad by the other party (a less excusable offense).

Unlike most people, I don't have to stop being in a relationship with someone in order to move on to other things. Being poly means maintaining long distance relationships is easier for me than for most. I can amicably end a close relationship while maintaining it at a less intense level of intimacy. Relationships can endure errors and continue even when pursuing other relationships might be easier.

When I was young, a dropped cookie was always picked up. I focused solely on maintaining even flawed relationships, mainly because I felt that the love of felt earlier in the relationship would be somehow tainted if I didn't continue to love the same person regardless of circumstance. Later, I learned to let go, but still kept open any relationships I could, even when I had done severe damage to the cookie of my own free will.

Today, I think back and I regret. I had a relationship end that I did not want to end. I made an error: a significant error that warrants serious consideration. I was told: don't do X. It's inappropriate. In the heat of the moment, I might change my mind, but that will not be the real me. The heat of the moment came, and I wanted X. She wanted X. So we did X. But in doing so, I had betrayed the level-headed person by listening instead to the one acting in the moment—the one with a brain chemistry spiked by endorphins that was not acting per the request of her past self only a few moments earlier.

This is a serious breach of trust. It is assault, in one sense, because it went against a person's will. In another, legal, sense, it did not rise to assault, since she welcomed it in the moment and gave no indication to stop once it was in progress. Once she did object, I immediately ceased. It was confusing in the moment to have such conflicting signals, but I honestly tried to do what I thought was best.

Later, I learned that she felt violated. It is an odd sort of violation, where I felt that I was acting appropriately at the time, but it was indeed a violation nevertheless, because individuals need to be able to set boundaries that should not be crossed, even if their future selves invite them to be crossed.

Legally, what I did was not assault. But the law is not a good judge of what is moral here. I clearly acted wrongly; when a person sets a boundary, it should be respected even if that person recants, if the recanting is done in a situation where they are but thinking as clearly.

This remains true even though I was in the same situation, and I was similarly not thinking as clearly. Once a boundary is set, it should be respected by not allowing ourselves to get into a situation where we expect we might be tempted to cross that boundary.

So although this was not legal assault, I believe it morally counts as something like assault. I invited disaster by going into a situation where we might reasonably expect a boundary to be crossed. This is no different from running with scissors; even if my intent was not to injure, the act of running itself risked injury to a degree where I should be held ethically at fault. (The seriousness of this topic nags at me so strongly that I cannot help but to make several hyperlinks in the above text, in a misguided attempt to distract the reader into something more interesting to them (and less personal to me).)

And so the cookie lies upon the floor. The question now is: should I have picked it up?

This blog entry is titled "Regret", and so maybe you already know the answer. But do not be so sure.

In one sense, the harm that was done is not necessarily relationship-ending. We both made errors, and what fault exists is due solely to choosing to run with scissors, with no intent to use those scissors to harm. We both prefer the company of each other; it's not as though we have serious issues with our relationship that haven't been listed here. I really enjoy being with her, and the feeling seems to be reciprocal. But there are two main problems.

The first problem is that she feels violated, even as she recognizes my good intent. It would take a large amount of effort to make the relationship work with where it now stands. This first problem lies mostly upon her; she feels hurt, and she would need to move on from that hurt in order to enjoy her time with me. The only way she could do this is with time and significant effort on my end.

The second problem is my will. It is the portion that is primarily my problem. It takes patience and deep care to nurture a relationship back to health from this set of circumstances. She is worth that effort, of course—she has many of the qualities I admire most, and all in the same package. She is intelligent, ethical, motivated, caring, and genuinely fun to be around. She matters as an individual to me, but even beyond that: as a person with a set of qualities, it would be exceedingly improbable for me to ever find another like her in the world.

This second problem is my willingness to go through such effort. Is it that I am lazy? That I am not thinking straight? No, I think it may be because I am polyamorous. I have another partner whom I love very much. I am comfortable with her. She helps to smooth my life and make it easier. I am quite happy being with her. There is no perceived lack in my everyday being, no person-shaped hole in my heart. Yes, I care deeply for this person whom I am no longer with, but it is not as though my life is empty without her.

This second problem is that the effort involved in rescuing this cookie is immense. It would take away energy from my life. It would complicate my ability to do other things. It would require such a large focus from me. She is worth it, that's for sure, but with limited resources, being worth it is not enough. The poor in developed countries deserve to be helped; they are worth our charity. But as an effective altruist, I'd rather my money go toward developing countries, where it can produce more good. Being deserving of something is insufficient to actually receive when limited resources are at play.

This second problem is that there are countless other possible relationships out there that would take far less effort to cultivate. Cookies in the tray are easy to pick up, and as rare as the cookie that lies upon the floor may be, I am already content with the cookies already in my possession, and there very well may be equally rare cookies still in the package. The effort of cleaning and repairing the dropped cookie is just too high a price to pay.

I love her. In our culture, this usually means I should 'fight' for her. "Love conquers all." It's considered romantic to overcome obstacles and 'win the girl'. But I honestly believe that is all bullshit. Yes, I love her, but I also love others. She and I might have equally fulfilling relationships elsewhere. Neither I nor she is so unique as to be undiscoverable elsewhere. I love her, but being with her is like starting a race with a heavy backpack on. There is so much negativity to overcome, and the benefit from overcoming it is solely that we get one another. Sure, I am special, as is she, but we are not so special that fixing a crumbled cookie is worth the immense effort, given limited resources. Wouldn't she be better off with another, someone whom she would not have to go through this effort?

So, yes, I have regret. But the regret is that I made the error in the first place. I don't think I have regret for my choice to not complicate my life by trying to work it out with her. Perhaps, with time, we might rekindle. It would require time to heal the feeling of violation she felt, and time for me to be more certain that I would not risk running with scissors. I would like that, if it happened in time. But regardless of how much I love her, I cannot justify going through such immense effort. We do not live in a fairy tale world where each person is assigned a soul mate. There are plenty of people out there for her, just as there are plenty out there for me. It makes little sense to pay such an exorbitant price to continue this specific relationship when so many other cookies in the container require no such additional effort.

I have regret. I regret that the relationship seems to have ended. I regret and mourn the loss. But I honestly believe I'm acting appropriately in the moment by just moving on. (Cognitive dissonance be damned.)

12 February, 2017

Of Laziness and Dentistry

I am 35 years old. This is very young, given how long I expect to live, but it is still a rather long time to go on this planet without seeing a dentist.

Now, I can't say for sure that I never saw a dentist before. My memories from seven years old and earlier are pretty hazy. But I certainly don't ever recall going to a dentist.

It's not like you wouldn't think to send someone like me to the dentist. One of my two front teeth is a snaggletooth: it juts out at a nontrivial angle that is quite noticeable. It's the kind of thing that really accentuates the fact that I never had my teeth looked at, even though it's never really bothered me beyond preventing me from whistling loudly.

(In fact, when I dream, my self-image has the same snaggletooth. I also wear glasses, though I'm beardless and am able to travel much, much faster than my real self can manage.)

In Alabama, this wasn't that big a deal. Going without dental care wasn't that uncommon where I grew up. But here in Maryland it's almost unheard of, so it stands out much more than it would if I lived elsewhere.

So I grew up not going to the dentist, and as an adult I just continued not going. I didn't really care about cosmetics, and my teeth never really bothered me, so I just continued not going. Over the years, people have said: you should go to the dentist! Who knows how bad your teeth are at this point! You must have so many cavities! I can't believe you haven't been to a dentist in 35 years! But I've been too lazy to really do anything about it. I guess I figured that at some point I'd buy insurance and then I'd eventually go to a dentist.

When the Affordable Care Act was passed, I bought health insurance for the first time. I didn't bother with dental insurance, though. It just seemed like an extra expense that wouldn't do anything, given that I never went to the dentist. Time passed. I didn't take any new steps.

And then Trump became president.

There are many things I could say about Trump, but the item that is most relevant to me is his insistence on dismantling the Affordable Care Act. All of a sudden I realized I had better take advantage of insurance now, just in case I don't have access to it later.

So last week I went to the dentist.

Note the sideways tooth in the lower left.
They were surprised to learn that I had no teeth pain. Apparently most people who go 35 years without seeing a dentist only come when a problem occurs that has them in intense pain. They took x-rays, examined my mouth, and basically just said how lucky I was to have such good teeth.

My non-wisdom teeth are all fine, with the exception of a small chip in one tooth, which they said they will leave alone and just keep watching as I come in every six months for checkups and cleaning. One of wisdom teeth never came in. Another came in sideways, but is apparently fine in every way and not causing any problems. Another came in normally, and the last is angled poorly. This last tooth is the only one with a cavity, but since it is a wisdom tooth, they said they might just extract it rather than do anything with the cavity.

So: 35 years without a dentist and the only tooth with a problem is a wisdom tooth. I guess that's pretty lucky. Now my only problem is that they made me promise to brush my teeth twice each day and floss daily. I guess this is what everyone does; it's just not something I'm used to yet. We'll see how it turns out when I next see the dentist in six months.

02 February, 2017

Review: Dark Lord's Answer

Dark Lord's Answer Dark Lord's Answer by Eliezer Yudkowsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Dark Lord will answer whatever question you most need answered, but the answer you receive might not appear good in itself. The Dark Lord's Answer will always be instrumentally good, but your conscience may cause you to hesitate before following through with the implementation.

Yudkowsky does an excellent job of setting up a fascinating story here, but he fails at following through. The genre is rational fiction, but good rational fiction should not be as explainy as this is. At times, the text just isn't light enough, and a reader who isn't already familiar with economics might consider the book too preachy. I'm reminded of bad educational video games from the 1990s; it's a lesson wrapped up in a shell of entertainment -- except it's not entertaining if you don't want to learn the material.

If you are already moderately knowledgable about economics, then this is an interesting read. The setting is great; the characters are great; the way the characters solve problems is great. But after finishing the too short text, all I can think about is how I wanted the story to be more about the Dark Lord, and less about the intricacies of the main problem that the Dark Lord solved in the book.

If you like rational fiction, read this book. It's short and it has great ideas that make it worthwhile. If you already know some economics, then you won't get too put out by the explainy sections, which is a bonus.

But if you don't know economics, then this book will feel as preachy as Ayn Rand, but without the length nor inanity. If you haven't read rational fiction before, then this is not a good starting point. Try The Sword of Good by the same author instead.

I give it three stars because I liked it more than most short books, but it's at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to rational fiction.

View all my reviews

28 January, 2017

Review: Pact

Pact Pact by Wildbow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this world of magic, most battles between practicioners are not won by strength of magic alone, but by rule-following, whether it is to gain the favor of a god that will allow you to perform some great feat; to gain the favor of the local spirits so that the things you want to happen become easier while the things you don't become harder; or to gain the favor of fellow practicioners, who may help or harm your ability to perform in any battle. But there is one group that stands apart: diabolists.

Diabolists call upon the power of demons to achieve their ends, but everything has its price. Deals with demons often have grave consequences, sometimes quite literally. When a practicioner battles a diabolist, the question is not who has more power nor who has gained more favor; rather, the question is: how badly does the diabolist want to win? Because if your desire to win is great enough, you can always enact one more pact with a demon strong enough to make you the victor.

I enjoyed J.C. McCrae's writing in Pact. He did an excellent job of creating a world of fantasy that isn't quite hard fantasy, but that nevertheless adheres to rules that are strongly hinted at. In several parts of the story, it becomes apparent that an observant reader could potentially figure out how the main characters would get out of situations by thinking hard enough about the hints included earlier in the story. This is not common with most fantasy stories, and I truly appreciate that Wildbow has written Pact in this way. Even so, I would not quite call this hard fantasy, mostly because many of the rules of how magic works in this world are only just specific enough to make the mysteries solvable and the drama sensible. Maybe we can say this in the hard-ish fantasy genre. It's rational fiction-adjacent.

If you like stories about deals with the devil, where wishes are granted a la The Monkey's Paw but you won't like how they come true, then Pact is definitely for you. The story defies conventions in ways that I can't say here without giving spoilers, so don't expect it to be like other fantasy stories in this vein, but this is to its benefit. When a character in Pact is shown to be holding the idiot ball, it either makes complete sense why that is, or you may find that things are not quite what they at first seem. For these reasons, I strongly recommend Pact to anyone interested in hard fantasy.

However, there are a few problems. The most glaring is the grammar and typographical issues, which isn't quite at the standards readers might be used to. There are several places where typos may temporarily take you out of the story, and there are two or three sections where Wildbow could really use an editor to change the pacing or cut a significant number of paragraphs that don't add enough to the flow of the story. But the story itself more than makes up for these small issues, and I truly do recommend the book to others regardless.

View all my reviews