11 August, 2019


Money is a good thing. We all are individually better off when trade is eased, even if it also causes inequality. I approve of money as a concept, despite its long-term drawbacks upon society. Somehow I have a modicum of faith that those issues will eventually be addressed. We're going to figure out how to make the extreme inequalities go away, sooner or later.

But it is another deceptively application of money that gives me pause. It is something so fundamental to the idea of money that I'm not sure how it could be solved without also taking away trade altogether. This idea, considered an unrelenting positive by most, is fungibility.

When I give money to someone else, they can use that money for whatever they want. Money reserved for one purpose can easily be spent on another purpose, simply by virtue of every base unit of currency being the same as any other. If I give you $10 to purchase chips for the party, you can instead spend those individual bills on something else entirely, and then purchase chips using a completely different set of bills. When you donate to a charity, requesting that they money be spent on X, they can just take the money previously allocated to X and reduce it by whatever amount you donated, effectively making your donation pay for something other than X.

Several state in the United States of America have infamously done this with programs like lotteries or gambling establishments. Before a vote to legalize gambling, the promise is made that tax money from gambling will go toward funding schools. But schools are already funded before this vote; once money from gambling comes in, the legislature will reduce the amount that gets allocated to schools from other sources. This results in some states where the amount of money that schools get will actually decrease once they start getting funded by gambling taxes.

This isn't the fault of gambling, or of charities having restricted funding, even though both ideas are poor ones (I think). The fault is that money can be moved from area to area too easily. Sure, this is good for trade, and it makes it easier to plan ahead, and it has all kinds of benefits. But it also causes ethical issues. Often, I've stopped to give cash to someone on the street, and a traveling companion will say something against it, maintaining that the money would be spent on drugs. Don't get me wrong; there are good reasons to instead spend that money on truly poor people in developing countries, and there are solutions available, like giving away gift cards to local eating establishments. And there are good reasons for valuing individual choice, resulting in the idea that if they decide to spend the money on things that are 'bad' for them, it should be their choice to do so -- giving a gift card to a fast food restaurant instead would be like gifting calves in developing countries rather than the cash that is needed for them to replace their thatched roofs.

But it makes things feel weird to me. Boycotts, for example, occupy a strange place in my mind. On the one hand, if a soft drink company does something absolutely terrible, like fund death squads in Columbia, or if a pineapple company violently overthrows the government of Hawaii, we might want to stop (and get others to stop) buying from them, with the end goal being to get these (and other) companies to not do these sorts of things in the future. However, it becomes less clear to me when the problem is with the owner of a company, rather than the company itself. Is there a justification for a boycott there? Or is this unfairly punishing the company for something that the owner is doing that we do not like?

And here it becomes complicated. Because if I pay you to run an errand, and then you use those funds to pay a company which I was boycotting, does that mean I broke from boycotting?

I've been chided before for giving cash as a gift. "It's not memorable", they've said, and they're correct about that. But I always thought that the goal was to maximize the chances of getting something that the recipient would appreciate, and that seems to be maximally possible with cash (and/or btc). "At least buy a gift card", they would say, but that defeats the purpose. Yet, over time I have been worn down, and now I tend to purchase things that say something about the relationship between myself and that person, only supplementing these thoughtful gifts with cash on the side.

Recently I received cash for my birthday. I was told to spend it on something special. Instead, I spent it on repaying a debt. But I still purchased something special, with later funds that otherwise would have been spent on repaying that debt. So did I buy something special with my birthday money?

In The Good Place, characters are in the afterlife, discussing what kinds of purchases are good or bad. They point out that there are so many externalities with even the smallest purchases that any exchange of goods might indirectly be causing extreme suffering. They say "indirectly" here, and I think that's the word most people would use, but if we take fungibility seriously, then isn't it really just directly causing suffering rather than indirectly? An indirect chain implies that the decision on what the last link funds isn't the same as the decision on what the first link funds. Yet if money is truly fungible, then the last link is equivalent to the first link, and any decision made on the first directly carries over to what the last does. You might be ignorant of what your money is funding, but you are directly responsible for it, not indirectly responsible for it.

Of more relevance to me today, however, is my pledge to give between 25% and 33% of my income to effective causes for the rest of my life. I've kept to this pledge even when working directly at an effective charity. But when I work at a charity, I take an extreme pay cut. Should this count as part of my pledge? My last full-time non-charity job paid $105/hour. If I take a job with an effective altruism charity that only pays $52/hour, then am I effectively donating half of my income without even giving away any of my money directly?

I'm not sure how seriously I should take fungibility and fungibility-adjacent ideas when it comes to ethical decisions. I feel like this is something I just need to think about more. Michael Sandel had some interesting thoughts along these lines, though not specifically about what I've written here. And there are some classic texts from Mill and others who explore related ideas. Maybe I need to review the literature a little more to see what others have to say on these topics.

05 August, 2019

A Yearning

I wish I could have back the mother who read to me when I was young. I want the comfort of feeling loved, without the baggage of feeling attacked or judged. I would like to be cared for solely due to who I am, separate from the consideration of my choices in life.

I am lucky to have a number of people who care about me. I have friends who, upon hearing I am feeling down, will contact me to see what they can do to cheer me up. I have loved ones who care for my well-being, and always have nice things to say to me. I have my paternal family, who invites me over often, and who will just spend time with me with no expectation beyond that. I have Jasper, who will curl up beside me, snuggling in his fur coat, always ready to comfort me in grey times. I have Katherine, who loves and takes care of me during good times or bad. I have my fiction, which takes me away from the world and allows me to self-modify my feelings for hours at a time upon demand.

But I don't have my grandmother, who died too quickly, and perhaps without knowing how much I appreciated her. And I don't have my mother, who cared once about me for no reason other than that I was her son, but who now cannot speak to me without bringing up horrors of the past. Thirteen years ago, when I last saw her, it was for just a few days. I was planning to move across the country on a Sunday, but on Saturday morning she changed her mind and kicked me out a day early. She called the police, who showed up not knowing the situation, which meant that when I stupidly bent down to put on my shoes when they asked me to go outside, the result was a gun pointed directly at my body, with the safety turned off. I talked my way out of it, as I always have been able to do, but how easily might I have been killed in that moment? Or arrested, with my unique name placed online, so that any who googled me would see it? How differently would my life have turned out had that occurred?

I don't trust my mother to just be loving with me. The last time I gave her my phone number in the hopes of reconciliation was eleven years ago; by the next day that mobile phone had dozens of incoming spam calls each day. I had to turn it off within a week. I don't know why or how she would do such a brazenly strange thing to me, but I learned to never give her my phone number again.

Ten years ago, I received a message from my uncle, who told me that no one in my maternal family cared for me any longer, and that I should never contact them again. I don't know if he said this on his own, or if it came from my mother. I have no reason to doubt either possibility. But it convinced me to leave well enough alone, and I have ever since.

My only contact since then has been my sister, who lives in Alabama still, and sees my mother regularly. I tried desperately to cultivate a relationship with her in good faith, but outside of occasional visits, she does not spend time with me. She does not take calls, or play games, or interact with me at all. I don't know why this is so. She acts as though she cares when I see her in person, for a few days each year. But that is all I get -- and perhaps that is all I deserve from that part of my family.

I am lucky to have so many friends and family here. It is perhaps too much to also ask that I have a relationship with my mother. I am too scared to even try, because it would not be worth it if all my mother had to say to me was harsh words. I don't know how to love as others say they do. I don't grok the idea of 'unconditional love', as though that were a good thing. I'm also unable to identify with the pst the way that others do; to me, my life is the life that here and now, not the life I held when I was young and stupid. Today, I do what I can to be a source for good in the world, and I do not identify as the person who cared not for the world back then. We share memories, but we are not one. So it is not worth it if I gain some small amount of displayed affection when I also have to accept condemnation for a past I no longer even agree with.

I wish at least that I could have memories of the reading my mother did with me. Reading that she must have done. There's no way that I could have learned to read so quickly had she not read to me. But when I look back in my own memories, the memories I share with past selves who did not respect memory, those happy moments which I know must be there are instead obscured. All I can catch in the cloudy mist are snippets of a sharp tongue: beratings for choices that past self made, yelling at me for a lack of subservience, turning her back to show her displeasure. My search for happy memories is successful only in the meta; knowledge that certain things had to have occurred, memories of watching VHS tapes long since lost which showed what was supposedly me, smiling. But actual memories? Direct, non-meta, honest-to-goodness images in my own head are all unreliable at best. I remember events that did not happen. Impossible occurrences that must have only existed in my imagination. I remember childhood friends who may or may not have been imaginary friends. I recall wishing wells that always worked; trips to an aunt's house that never happened. The first real memories I can truly count on are from a time when that relationship with my mother was already broken. Light bulbs removed, so I could not read; breaking confidences that harmed me socially. At best, I find faint praise in small snippets, always of the thing I am sick of: my brain. Or flashes of neutral experiences: sitting, bored, while she did something on a computer in a car lot.

What I want, maybe, is selfish. New memories, where it can just be a mother and a son, with what I imagine is a pulsing emotive feeling shared. No information need even be exchanged; just a hug would be sufficient.  But (1) that can't happen, not without also bringing discord into my life that I've long since pushed past, and (2) it is extraordinarily selfish of me. No thought here is given to what she may want. I honestly have no idea what that might even be. It has been too long since I've communicated with her at all, let alone communicated in a way that wasn't her being accusatory to me. A mere thirteen years since we spoke last, compared to maybe 19 or 20 years since I last remember her saying something actually positive to me, without an undertone of accusation. And (3): just because a relationship could be repaired does not mean that it should be repaired. It would be wrong for me to attempt reconciliation with many of my past relationships that did not end well. Perhaps it is the same with my mother. I may yearn for that comfort of feeling loved, without the baggage of feeling attacked or judged, but if it causes stress or discomfort to her, then it is not worth it. I no longer wish for anyone to feel pain at my expense. Not to the extent that I believe it would cause her.

If I were to die soon, at least let it be known that I cared enough to not cause even more undue suffering. I am not that person who once was; I am me, and I do my best to atone for those ancestors.

23 July, 2019

Grief Methods

What really sucks about my experience of my grandmother's passing is that I have no one I can talk to about her. All I can do is think in my own head, or write on this blog, or speak with people who never knew her.

A starcraft celebrity I watched once each week for the past 10+ years passed this weekend. Unlike my grandmother, he had a lot of friends who then spoke about and grieved for him over Twitch, YouTube, Reddit, TeamLiquid etc. Listening to others talk about his passing just reinforces how alone I feel about grieving for my grandmother. No one has posted anything online. No one has shared any news.

It would be inappropriate for me to reach out. The people closest to a person hurt the most; for me to go to them would be a burden. Instead, I should go to someone less close. Except there is no one in my community that knew her and simultaneously someone that I could talk to about it.

The maternal side of my family wants nothing to do with me. I received a facebook message 13 years ago from a family member there telling me that they all hated me, and that I should never contact them again. The last time I spoke with my mother, she decided to kick me out 24 hours earlier than the day we had planned for me to leave; she notified me of this by sending police into the house. I don't know what she told the police, but the first thing they did after announcing their presence was to pull a gun on me. I no longer feel comfortable around my mother. I'm afraid of her. I don't want to risk ruining my life by interacting with her. None of my other family there would be appropriate to speak to either, for various reasons.

I want to hear stories of my grandmother. But the only person I could talk to is my sister, and she doesn't like to play games with me online anymore. I'm not entirely sure why. I enjoy spending time with her, speaking with her, and playing games with her. But friendship is a series of mutual decisions to spend time with each other, and apparently it is not mutual for us any longer.

I don't mean to complain here. Especially not having to do with my sister. Whereas I was close to my grandmother decades ago, she was close to our grandmother for the past few decades. It certainly has hit her harder than it has hit me. And so it is inappropriate for me to reach out. Instead, I continue to watch people grieve about Geoff Robinson, and I continue to wonder what it would be like if I had the ability to consume content like that about my grandmother.


20 July, 2019

Opulence and Giving

To some people, this post will seem like boasting. To others, it will seem that I am not doing quite enough. Either way, I want to be more open about these things which society has otherwise deemed as "inappropriate to share" with an audience like this. I don't believe sharing things like salary or donation amounts should be inappropriate, and the only way I know to combat it is to share more openly myself. If, after sharing, you feel uncomfortable with what I've said, I invite you to think about why that discomfort exists and to consider opening a dialogue with me about it.

In 2011, I first encountered the Effective Altruism movement. It wasn't called that at the time; I was a part of the initial discussions about choosing the name, which, to be honest, we never thought would become the public face of the movement. (Others in my same position have called themselves a "founder" of the movement; I'm not sure I'd go that far, even though there was certainly very, very few people talking about things in the forums back in those days.)

In 2012, I quit my job at a large national nonprofit, frustrated that I had no ability to help it become more effective in the ways that really mattered. I wanted to focus on more EA centric work. By 2013 I had found my new focus: Animal Charity Evaluators.

Yet it wasn't until 2014 that I took the Giving What We Can pledge and started donating what I consider a large percentage of my income. Between 2014 and today, I have donated between 25% and 33% of my annual income to EA organizations/causes. At first, this was not much; as a startup, ACE did not pay nearly as well as the larger nonprofit I'd quit the year before. But I quickly decided to work only part-time at ACE so that I could get a job elsewhere. My hourly wage outside of ACE during these years was between $60–$110/hour.

The key phrase I want to focus on above is "quickly decided". Here I was, an eager advocate of EA who had quit their job in frustration, starting work as the second paid employee of what was then a small three-person organization, and yet one of the first things that crossed my mind was: I need to make more money than this. 

To me, donating between a quarter and a third of my income is a big deal, though it certainly isn't that impressive compared to many of my peers in the movement. I know several other EAs who regularly donate in the 50% (or more!) range, some who have more money than I do, and some who make less. They sometimes write about how easy it is to live on less, and I am constantly amazed by it. But, for some reason, I enjoy my comforts too much. I enjoy money too much.

As I type this, the heat outside reaches 100 degrees fahrenheit. Yet I sit in a house cooled to 68°. I know this is bad for the environment, bad for my finances, and so many others would be quick to point out that increasing the thermostat to something closer to 72° would be only a minor temperature difference that would translate into a major power difference. Yet I can't help it: I require comfort. I can't not have thermostat at 68°, and, if I'm being honest, I actually consider it a compromise because I'd prefer 65°.

I own a Nintendo Switch with about 200 games. I haven't bought these games at auctions or deal sites; they're all digital, purchased via Nintendo's eshop. I own somewhere around 250 board games, at least 90% of which were purchased brand new. I collect desk toys, plushies from franchises I enjoy, and I own nearly every amiibo ever created. I subscribe to netflix, hulu (the no commercials version), amazon prime video, hbonow, cinemax, cbs all access, dc universe, youtube premium, and I fully expect to pay for disney's streaming service when it comes out. The amount of money I spend on wasted trivialities is immense, especially for an effective altruist.

I'm embarrassed of this opulence when I speak to fellow EAs. I play online games with a few people in the movement. One plays Switch, but always buys physical so they can resell after playing and get their money back. Another literally only owns the five or so games that they regularly play. Yet another doesn't play online with me anymore because they're still on the previous generation of systems. Why? Because spending less on frivolities means accomplishing more good in the world. Do I really need to own yet another game when the money for that purchase could instead have gone to help save the life of a real person in need?

I've talked before about the idea of visualizing what my donations accomplish. I look at $7k and think to myself: this is equivalent to me running inside of a burning building and saving a stranger from certain death. I am a hero for this. This really and truly matters.

But then the latest video game comes out, and I purchase it.

For the last few months, I've been mostly just freelancing, taking jobs here and there, but not working much at all. I'm surviving mostly on savings and the help of others. Eventually, I would like to get a job at an EA organization, but I'm not rushed about doing so. Much of my free time is spent on writing a book which may or may not be published. I couldn't do this if I didn't have money. What would my life be like if I couldn't quit a job because of frustration with their mission? Would I have become as entrenched in the EA movement if I had had to keep working there for monetary reasons? And what about today, where I'm taking a hiatus between jobs of multiple months, waiting until I find the perfect opportunity for me? How could I do such a thing without the social safety net I have from my social position in life?

We need a universal basic income so that others can have the same types of opportunities to do good as I have had. We need a society where people can choose to do the type of work they want to do, rather than be forced to work at whatever job they have to.

I believe all this, and yet simultaneously I feel shame at my opulence. I can't work effectively without having downtime filled with the games and temperature that I love. I can't do good for others without what seems like abject waste for myself. Am I broken in this way? Or is this just how I am, blamelessly? I don't know. I'm not even trying to fix it right now. Instead, I'm focusing on writing a book, while spending time on rather expensive hobbies, and just coasting until I find the perfect EA position for me on the EA job board. This is embarrassing to me, and I would not feel comfortable typing any of this into the effective altruism forum, despite it being true. So it gets posted here instead, to be lost in a sea of journal entries that no one ever reads, while I continue to figure out how to grieve for my grandmother's death.

16 July, 2019

Memories of my Grandmother

Greenville Advocate, January 2, 1941
Mattie & Margaret w/ perfect grades.
"Manual for Baptist Young People
on Organization, Programs, and Methods"
Ercil's wife, Bertha Belle, is Mattie's half-cousin.
(Ercil is misspelled in the newspaper.)
When I was three years old, I returned from a trip to Miami, Florida. I have no memory of what happened there, no memory of the drive to or from there, no memory of how I felt about any of it, and no memory of anything even slightly related to it. But I nevertheless know that I went there, because, afterward, my grandmother, Mattie Jo, asked me about it. She told me that she would write down whatever I said and it could be turned into a book. So I recited a story about the trip, which she wrote onto loose leaf pages, and she gave them to me to illustrate. Afterward, the pages were stapled together, bound into a book. It was my first journal entry.

The prose is terrible. By the time I get to the second sentence, I've lost the narrative about Miami, and I seem to just babble. Of course, I was three years old at the time, so I suppose that's understandable.

Evergreen Courant, March 27, 1947
Mattie was 19 years old.
More importantly, this event really shows how my grandmother interacted with me when I was a child. I was at her house all of the time. I don't recall any memories prior to age seven, but my understanding is that I must have come by often. Once I turned seven, we built a house on the same street as her home, and I ended up staying over constantly.

She made the best sweet tea, although her sandwiches were not as good as my great aunt Margaret's (her sister). I loved sitting in the big recliner next to her, which was almost always available, since my grandfather stayed in bed most of the time. I used to roll her cylinder shaped ottoman to the other side of the living room to help build structures out of pillows. She would sing songs to me that I can no longer recall. As a small child, I used to run and play in her house while just wearing underwear. I would set up army men on her glass living room table, and play teenage mutant ninja turtles in the alcove of the foyer, all while she would watch television just behind me.

Advertiser-Gleam, April 2, 1952
"List of people who can vote in elections."
She made a manicotti dish that I apparently loved as a child, though in my actual memory I can't recall ever tasting it. She hosted all the family events like Christmas, where presents and wrapping paper were always quickly separated. I played my NES there, hooked up to her television: super mario bros. + duck hunt, and later all kinds of games rented from the local blockbuster. She loved to cheer me on whenever I played games -- until ten minutes passed and she realized it was just the same thing over and over, at which point she'd start crocheting.

When I crashed my bicycle outside her front door, she was the one who bandaged me. My knuckles have been scarred ever since. That day, my grandfather went to the toolshed in the back and came out an hour later to give me an award for bravery. It was a wooden plaque shaped like a shield, commemorating that bicycle crash. If it was supposed to make me feel proud, it failed; I never touched a bicycle again to this day, partly out of fear, and now out of habit.

Greenville Advocate, December 26, 1963
The three children are Patty, Billy, and my mother, Joanne.
One day, she spent what felt like hours teaching me how to crochet. I proceeded to fail to make anything at all. I loved hearing stories from her about all kinds of things. How, for example, she was not allowed to marry her husband until her soon-to-be mother-in-law successfully taught her how to make several Italian recipes. There was apparently a test, which she passed, and which gave her permission to marry their son. And stories of my uncle Billy. And what my uncle Michael was like at my age.

I can remember going through the phone book with my grandmother, learning how to use it. And browsing the Sears catalog, filled with mostly boring items, but a smattering of toys interspersed within. My grandmother played few games with me, but would always bring out the building blocks when I was young. The blocks were made of wood and painted bright red. My grandfather made them for me, and I loved building towers with them.

There are so many memories I have with my grandmother. She was very important to me. I don't like that she died. Death is the true enemy. I must always remember this.

Greenville Advocate, December 19, 1940
Forest Home Elementary Perfect Attendance
At the same time, I feel numb. I don't know if this is a defect. I don't know what I should be feeling, or even if the word "should" applies here. I do know that I've enjoyed finding an old newspaper that lists her as having perfect attendance at school one year. It reminds me that there is so much of her beyond what memories I have of her. Mattie Jo was a person, filled with hopes and dreams, having lived a full life of travel and family. She experienced the loss of a teenage son, and the terror of her husband being permanently disabled in a car crash the same month that I was born. She grew up in the tiniest of towns, and near the end stayed consecutively with two of her daughters. She became especially close to my sister, living with her multiple times over the past decade or so. I'd love to hear stories of our grandmother from her, to learn what Mattie was like during the years I wasn't there.

I regret not learning more of these stories directly from my grandmother. I miss her voice.

13 July, 2019

Mattie Jo Tomaso

My grandmother, Mattie Jo Tomaso.
My grandmother, Mattie Jo Tomaso, died a few moments ago. It was sudden. I was told yesterday afternoon that she might be put on hospice today; apparently she didn't last even that long.

Mattie Jo Thompson was born on July 19, 1928, in my home state of Alabama, to Manning and Frances Gray Thompson. She had only one living grandparent during her childhood, Lewis Gray.

My grandmother grew up in Forest Home, Alabama, in Butler county. The family had been in this area for quite some time, as Warren Thompson, Mattie's paternal great great grandfather, was an original settler of the area. Warren settled in what is now the unincorporated area of Pine Flat, the first part of Butler county to be settled by white people.

I can remember several stories from my grandmother's childhood. She never strayed far from Forest Home as a child, and so honestly believed that rainbows ended in nearby Greenville. "How lucky kids there must be," she recounted, "for when rainbows come they could play in the part that touched the ground." Except this is not how she said it. It's been too long since I heard these stories for me to have true quotes, and I never bothered to record her stories on audio. So many such stories are lost.

Not everything was idyllic back then. She had a black childhood friend who could only enter the house from the back kitchen door. Later, when Facebook came out, she wanted to search for her to try and reconnect. But when I asked her childhood friend's name, all she could remember was what they called her way back when: "nigger".

Once, she recounted being with a group of her fellow classmates in grade school. They had a friendly custodian there who would always smile and wave as the kids strolled by. One day, he hid in the bushes and jumped out, crying "Boo!" just as the girls walked past. Like little girls do, they all screamed happily in fright and ran down the road. As they ran, they passed by Mattie's father, Manning Thompson. He asked why they were running, and, as soon as he received a short answer, he left quickly for the school in anger. Manning beat that black custodian that day, and Mattie said that he walked with a limp forever after and never again smiled or played with the kids.

Thankfully, my grandmother escaped the worst of these racist memories by falling in love with an Air Force man, Salvatore "Ralph" Tomaso. They left the United States to live in AF bases across the globe, from Pakistan to Okinawa to Panama. The bases were integrated, and my grandmother happily raised her children side by side with the black children of the base. When riots broke out in Selma, she and her kids watched from a television in South America, and her kids did not understand why the black people were being treated so poorly. I give my grandmother a lot of credit for successfully raising children who did not have the same prejudices that were so prevalent in just the single prior generation.

In Pakistan, Mattie was invited to a wedding off-base. She and Ralph went to a town with large sand walls, all uncovered by roofs. The men split from the women, and she went into an area where the females could finally remove their facial coverings. There they helped put way too much make-up on the bride, while the males in another area helped to bring out the bed for the new couple. Mattie felt the entire situation was surreal.

Eventually, Mattie and her husband returned home to Mobile, Alabama, to finish raising their kids. When she was younger, she had been an operator for the phone company, but I'm unsure what she did once she returned to Alabama. I think she may have just been a housewife. Her husband was in a car accident the year I was born, in 1981, and he was mostly relegated to the bed from then on. I think they survived on his pension and disability ever after.

When I was seven, my family moved onto the same street that my grandmother lived on, some dozen houses away. I would often walk to her house as a kid, and I have many memories of spending time with her. I was an active child, so I spent more time in the living room with my grandmother than in the bedroom with my grandfather. She would watch boring soap operas and exciting game shows. I can remember building not forts with pillows but a stage for The Price is Right, where I had imaginary contestants attempt to guess the price of yet another pillow.

My first word was said to my grandmother. Every time we came to visit, my mother would hold me up to my grandmother, who would meet us in her doorway. She would loudly exclaim: "My pumpkin!",  and then take me from my mother's arms to hold me and take me inside the house. I have no memory of this, but apparently one day, as I was taken to the front door where my grandmother stood, I spoke for the first time: "pumpkin", before my grandmother could say anything at all.

I loved my grandmother's sweet tea. It was my favorite drink then, and I still drink tea daily today in remembrance of what I once had in that house. Mattie and Ralph's pets also fascinated me. They had a lhasa apso named Mae-Ling (I don't know the origin of this name, but I imagine it had to be named after someone that my grandfather met while in the service.), which I adored, and a parakeet named Pretty Bird, who would sing the intro to those damned soap operas way too often for my tastes. I loved playing with Mae-Ling while my grandmother sat in her chair, watching me. She was a friendly dog, and she never harmed me, although she did once bite a friend of mine (who probably had it coming, to be perfectly honest).

The backyard held a screened-in porch, a pool(?), and a shed that my grandfather used for carpentry when he had enough energy to actually walk outside. I don't have actual memories of the pool, because at some point they covered it up with a deck in the middle of the backyard where the pool once was. Plants were everywhere there, as were birdhouses. My grandmother did much of the gardening, while my grandfather did much of the birdwatching. The backyard was fully fenced so that Mae-Ling could run free, but there was plenty of unowned land behind the house -- maybe one or two acres worth before you got to the next house on the street. In this unowned area, fruit trees lined the other side of the back fence. I loved climbing in those trees, and picking fruits to show my grandmother. It was a fun place to play, and I spent much of my time at my grandmother's house rather than at my own.

When I got older, I didn't spend any time keeping up with family in Alabama. The last time I saw my mother, things did not go well, and since my grandmother soon moved in with my mother, the fact that I didn't really spend time talking with my mother turned into me not spending any time talking with my grandmother either. The last time I spoke with my grandmother was in 2006 or so.

Earlier this year, my sister, Anh, requested that I send my grandmother a note. I planned to record an audio message for her, to be played by my sister, who lives in Alabama and still regularly sees her. But I didn't quite get around to finishing it. I still have unfinished drafts sitting in a text file on my desktop. It was hard to know what to say, after thirteen years of silence. Of course, now it is too late; she is dead. I'll still write that letter, but I suppose it will be more for me than for her at this point.

Thank you, Grandma, for being there for me when I was younger. You influenced my life in so very many ways. Although most of my mannerisms have turned out to resemble Papa (my unconscious verbalisms in the car, the way I breathe when out of breath, and how I sigh when tired all remind me of how he sounded), I've always attributed so many happy thoughts from my childhood to experiences I've had with you. Thank you for giving me these experiences. I hope your life had happiness and enjoyment all the way until the end.

I promise to write that note to you soon.

[Edit 15 July: An obituary has been posted online.]

11 July, 2019

Dice Tower Con

The end of an era.
Three years ago, I decided that it might be fun to attend a board game convention. I wasn't sure at first; in my limited experience, most conventions are about socializing, cos-play, attending panels, seeing new things in the industry, and (most disturbingly) not bathing. But the Dice Tower Convention seemed different. There were explicit rules about being nice, bathing every day, etc. It was described as a gaming convention; rather than a bunch of talks by designers and publishers, there was a focus on the open gaming area and a huge library of games. I took a chance, booked a villa, invited several friends and family, and we all had a great time. It had become a tradition since.

The entire trip always had such great parts to it. We'd drive 4-5 hours each day from our home just north of DC, stopping at parks and museums and interesting food places all along the way. Each city we visited had something to offer, and I always looked forward to the hotel at the end of each day, which Katherine painstakingly picked out in order to be perfect for rest and relaxation. (Katherine is very picky with her hotel choices.)

Imagine dozens of moving sculptures like these.
In 2017, we visited the Vollis Simpson  Whirligig Park and Museum in Wilson, North Carolina, where there were still in the process of building this outside park. Junk filled the air in pleasing positions, and the air (which was not moving very fast on its own) was somehow easily causing the parts to twirl and sway in interesting patterns. Katherine was especially excited by it because she loved the installation by this artist in Baltimore, and she found the full representation of his art to be especially impressive. We also visited the following year, after they officially opened; they'd included an indoor museum at that point, but it was too nice to just look outside for us to bother going in.

I was especially impressed by their accessibility,
though parking was a hellscape of anguish.
This year, we visited the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. Katherine is a member of a local art museum and this gives her free access for her and a friend (that's me!) to several dozen museums throughout the eastern United States. Nevertheless, the Gibbes made plenty of money from us as their gift shop called out successfully. I really enjoyed their exhibition, but, more importantly, I enjoyed the meta story behind their exhibit choices. The Gibbes has been around for well over a hundred years, and they have an extensive collection of very well done art from local white artists that is, to put it mildly, quite racist. To counter that narrative, the entire top floor is dedicated to black artists; most of the information written on the plaques hanging on the walls have reminders that whites had access to patronage, art training, and free time that blacks did not.

We also always stopped in Myrtle Beach to visit two of Katherine's close friends. And we'd stop in various Mellow Mushroom restaurants along the way to compare decor. And we'd visit Sweet Tomatoes, an all-you-can-eat salad buffet that doesn't exist anywhere near Maryland, and we'd go to nice restaurants to try out the impossible burger during times when it was difficult to find one. And when we'd finally get to Orlando proper, we'd stay in a villa in the Caribe Royale, with its jacuzzi tub in the master bedroom, a private pool that would let us literally be the only swimmers from 8-9:30 every morning, a full couch and chairs that allowed us to game in comfort on the TV with the Nintendo Switches that everyone brought, and its spacious floor space able to accommodate whatever handicap accessibility requirements we might throw at it.

The Dice Tower Con proper was so good. I could get games with strangers easily, there were table-toppers announcing whenever we needed a teacher for a game, I could be alone whenever it was required due to my introverted nature, everything (including bathrooms) was fully accessible, the game library and hot games sections were extensive and covered whatever we wanted, the exhibitor hall had lots of great games on display, and the parts of the con I had no interest in were in separate rooms so I never had to go there at all.

It wasn't all good, of course. CoolStuffInc had an awesome ding and dent sale in 2017 that brought prices so low that I couldn't help to make several purchases despite my best intentions. But the sale was gone in 2018/19, because (as the head of CSI said in a facebook comment) they were hurting the other exhibitors by discounting so heavily.

In 2018, we signed up for an "escape room" that turned out to be a box attached to a high table that people in wheelchairs could not even see over the side of, making it completely inaccessible. Even with a person unable to participate entirely, there was not enough room around the table (which was pushed into a corner of the room) for everyone present to stand beside it. And the device itself had been broken by an earlier group, so instead of a light going off when we succeeded at a task, the person running the event just announced: "you succeeded!" and would proceed to open a new door that was supposed to have opened automatically once we solved the previous puzzle. To say it was bad is an understatement, but what hurt much more was that it cost us $15/person to do this event. To this day, it stands as the worst paid experience I've ever had, unless you count getting food poisoning once from a restaurant. And yet: the main convention was so good that it didn't ruin anything more than the two hours or so that we spent in that dreadful room.

This year, everything seemed to be falling apart. I wanted a cup to use for drinking tea in my room; but cups did not arrive until Friday, three days into the con. The bag we received when we registered was empty; no map, no guidebook, no free games, no promo cards. The books came the next day and had to be given out while we were playing games. There was an advertiser whose ad wasn't printed in the book. Something bad was going on. The most conspicuous part was that the guidebook for the con had no information whatsoever about next year's convention.

Rumors abounded. While we were swimming, a long time attendee came up to us and conspiratorially whispered all he knew about the situation. Patrick Havert had let his niece run the con this year, and she can't handle it; the hotel is refusing to let us know whether the convention will be held again next year; the alternate hotel that it might be moving to also isn't saying anything; they're going to expand the con to even more attendees and it's going to become like gencon.

On the penultimate day, Tom Vasel, the person behind the eponymous con, gave announcements that did not mention next year at all. The next evening on the final day of the con, as everyone was seemingly leaving, a new rumor started going around: Tom would be doing a live Q&A about next year at 11 am the next morning.

We were packing while the live Q&A started. Years ago, the Haverts had started this con, and had asked Tom for the use of the Dice Tower name to give it more prestige. They signed a contract, and the Haverts ran the entire con while Tom only had to attend, do a few events there, and run the hot games section. It was great for eight years. But in the intervening time, Vasel had started running smaller cons of his own. They weren't nearly as big as the 3000 people at the main Dice Tower Convention, but he still had 1000 or so people at these other cons, and he enjoyed running them and being able to have full input on what would happen there. So, this year, he decided to break with the Haverts as their contract ran out. He was taking back his name and announced a new con: Dice Tower East, to be held on the same July 4 weekend next year, but at a new location: the Florida Hotel. Meanwhile, the Haverts would be starting a new con called Escape Winter, held in November.

This devastated me. The new hotel was atrocious. A big part of the experience for me was the villas, and the new hotel didn't even have a microwave. Only small fridges, and the beds are in the same room as the tv. It's not a resort -- it's a hotel. How can we play video games there? I don't want to invite people into the same room that I sleep in. What if my introverted nature takes over and I need to retreat? To where could I retreat if everything is all in the same room?

And then I noticed several posts by the locals on reddit and boardgamegeek. (You can't find such posts on facebook, because the Haverts are deleting any posts that aren't directly favorable to them in the old dice tower con fb group.) The Florida Hotel is connected to the mall, which apparently is a high crime area. Local people are unwilling to attend solely because of the location's safety issues.

Suffice it to say: I don't think I'll be attending Dice Tower East next year. And since both Katherine and Jon are teachers, going to a con in November is out of the question. A summer convention is required.

And so I sit, confused. What should we do next year? I'm seriously considering not going to a con at all. DTC was special; I don't think we'd get that kind of experience at Origins or any other board game convention. But I could just run one myself. Just for me and my closest friends. I own at least 200 board games. It's not like we'd be lacking games to play. And this way we could rent out a villa that we could really enjoy, with the amenities we truly want. I don't know yet what we're going to do, but I honestly think this might be the best solution for us. Next year, I want to have the experience of traveling, of stopping at fun places, of meeting up with friends in a nice resort, and of playing video games and board games for a week straight. And maybe we can accomplish all of that without having to go a convention at all.

Thank you Dice Tower Con, for giving me three great years. But now I'm now looking forward to what kind of experience I can create for myself.

01 July, 2019

Competing Points of View

Gently, I awake to the sound of my phone alarm. I'm still not used to it; it always feels like someone else's alarm, never mine, and yet I drift into consciousness slowly, integrating the artificial sound into my dream.

It's my birthday today. I'm not exactly happy about it. Thirty-seven was such a great number. It had allusions to the fine structure constant, it's prime, it's hexagonal, and it's used all the time in media as a pseudo-random number. But now I'm 38. There's nothing interesting about 38.

It sounds silly. I know that. Properties of numbers shouldn't affect my life. Yet emotions matter, and what we place importance on can have an over-sized effect on how we feel about things. Thirty-eight just isn't my jam. I think that this year I will not have any focus on my actual age, unlike the previous year.

Gently, the rest of me catches up. I awake to the physical motion of my fingers typing this entry. Disgusted, I swat aside the portion of my brain apparently addicted to numerology. Who was that person? How did he gain control so easily? Is it just a function of the hour? I did drive all day yesterday. Maybe it's exhaustion.

I am in Florence, South Carolina. The hotel is supposedly nice, even though I'll be here only for a few short hours. We arrived after midnight, and we will be leaving as soon as I sober up enough to get out of bed. I feel drunk on exhaustion alone. Those last couple of hours of driving were the worst.

Not my photo as I haven't been there yet.
In a few hours, I will be at Congaree Park, walking a trail through a swamp. I'm looking forward to a few hours of quiet contemplation there. I'm rather hoping for the area to be relatively deserted. My favorite park memories are of walking alone on a trail at my own pace.

By the end of my birthday, I should be in Jacksonville, Florida. Another day of driving, followed by another night of short rest. The hotel there is nice; the last time I stayed, I found the room to be quite restful. But it is the day after that I am really focused on: Dice Tower Con in Orlando, Florida. A week of board gaming with friends and family, with mornings spent lounging in the private pool, and nights spent playing co-op games on the Nintendo Switch. I brought a single book: Quantum Computing Since Democritusby Scott Aaronson. I'm looking forward to diving into it.

I also reduced the number of board games I brought with me. Unlike last year's oversized collection, I've brought only seven titles to the con this year. Some are bigger than others, but all should be especially enjoyable for me to get to the table.

The anthropic argument for the fine structure constant is compelling. So, too, is the present-day-Eric-specific argument for me. I am the product of my past. My life today stems from what came before.

Thirty-eight is twice nineteen. That was a terrible year. Starting with a fork in the road in Texarkana, where I summarily abandoned one route in favor of another, and then that fateful moment when I pulled up in Colorado, forcing myself to commit by unloading my computer first, before allowing anything else. I made such stupid decisions at nineteen. It's not numerology. It's memory.

16 June, 2019

Happy Father's Day

All people are unique in their own way, but I've always had special admiration for my father.

My father: Fernando Herboso.
Like many latino migrants of his generation, he had machismo issues when I was young. He showed his love through providing a strong financial base, rather than by speaking directly from his heart. But what I find most impressive is that, over time, he changed. How he treats Natalia and Alejandro, my two teen/preteen siblings, is proof of this. My father learns to become a better person over time, and I honestly think that's his best quality.

So many people languish in a groundhog day style rut, never really becoming different from who they are at heart. But my father focused strongly on entrepreneurship early on, creating several businesses, learning from each, and these lessons somehow permeated into the other aspects of his life, resulting in a father who, from my perspective, has genuinely improved in nearly every way over the many years that I've known him.

Showing off his impressive muscles.
Though constant improvement is what I think is his best quality, there are still several others that I find immensely impressive, mostly because I find myself completely unable to match him at those qualities. First and foremost, of course, is his dedication to hard work. His ability to find a good business idea, identify what needs to happen in order for him to be successful at it, and then (this is key) actually following through on doing the necessary work, is, without a doubt, flabbergasting to me. How many people do you actually know who go above and beyond in this kind of work context? Sure, you'll occasionally find a workaholic who spends a lot of time on work, but this is almost always in the context of working for someone else. My father has a knack for identifying the maximal combination of neglected yet effective work that will accomplish the most for a business, and then actually does the required work, regardless of what it is.

Much of this comes from his voracious reading, nearly all of which is business-related. I am in awe of how many books I've seen him consume from the self-help section of the bookstore. His focus on self-improvement is beyond impressive. At every holiday family gathering, it has become a tradition for him to give a 15–30 minute seminar on how to become a better person. He uses youtube videos, includes props, invites audience participation, and regularly quizzes everyone at the end, complete with prizes for whoever performs the best. He not only focuses on success for himself, but for all those close to him in life, especially his children. He genuinely wants all in his life to become the best at whatever they do — sometimes, I think, to their detriment.

Coloring in a restaurant with his kids.
My father's philosophy of success is an interesting one. On the one hand, he defines true success as having a happy, well taken care of family. But he also relates success to becoming the top tier in whatever field you participate in. Second place is but a reminder that one can be even better. But it's not important to forge first in a field; it's acceptable to find other winners and copy their proven strategies. For a long time, I felt confused by his statements on his philosophy of success. I never really spoke with him directly about it, but just learned by hearing his point of view on various things. But I think I have a handle on it now: for him, success lies not in being the very best, but in being the local best. Success is about joining the group at the top, where defining the boundaries of that group is hazy at best. If you're going to play soccer, then work until you are the best on your team. At this point, the goalposts of success change, and now you must focus on winning tournaments. Once accomplished, it's time to join a professional team. Then to work hard enough to be a starting player on the team. And so on. At no point does he seem to ask too much, but there is always more to go. I find his position fascinating.

Fernando with his daughters.
I said earlier that my father believes true success is having a happy, well taken care of family, and I mean it. To my father, this is the ultimate goodness in life. While tribal, this is a goal to which I feel an intense attraction. He believes strongly in family, and he shows it in all the things that he does. I appreciate him very much for this aspect of his personality, and I kinda wish that I could be more like him in this respect. He not only shows love and pride for his family, but also mudita. I am constantly impressed and somewhat jealous of how he feels in this area. He really and truly is an amazing father, even if only for this one single aspect of his being.

iPad painting by my father.
Yet this is not all that my father is. He is an artist, and a tiger-lover, and a musician who adores playing guitar and singing karaoke during family celebrations. Most recently, he is a futurist, listening widely to the idea of Peter Diamandis, a co-founder of Singularity University. He is a lover of well-cooked meat, for which he constantly watches youtube videos on even better ways to grill. He is messy at heart (just see his closet!) yet organized in business, because he needs to be. He does what needs to be done, and he sacrifices much to ensure that his family thrives.

For these and all the other things I've failed to mention in this blog post, I'd like to wish my father, Fernando Herboso, a genuinely happy Father's Day. I love you.

07 May, 2019

A Dream Sickness

[Edit (one week later): This was written while under a heavy fever and doesn't truly represent my normal experiences of lucid dreaming.]

I've been an oneironaut for as long as I can remember. At seven years of age, I learned to use tells that would let me know if I could affect this dream, rather than others. At first it was only occasional. Now, 30 years later, I enter a state of lucid dreaming nearly every night, sometimes doing so multiple times each day.

It has pretty significant drawbacks. I never truly appreciate cultural media, because it immediately gets compared to what I dream that night. I never have a desire to optimize for less sleep, as I consider it part of my entertainment time, which means I don't get as much done each day as I otherwise might would. And if I'm in bed anyway, sometimes I'll opt to dream rather than actually start my day. In short: it makes me lazier and more unappreciative of the things I experience in waking reality.

Yet it's not quite a curse. I enjoy my dreams. Most, by far, are pleasant. It gives me an outlet for creativity. It also means I never truly get homesick.

But I'm not bringing up my lucid dreaming today just to wax on -- instead I wanted to point out that lucid dreaming does not interact well with being very sick, and from April 29 through May 7 (so far), I have been (what I consider) extraordinarily ill continuously. I have not exactly been bedridden, but at least restricted to either the bed or the couch for anything longer than bathroom breaks. I've had extreme chills, treated incorrectly with heating pads, and the strongest headache I've ever experienced, but which I would not term 'migraine', due to my ability to communicate somewhat during them. I've looked up combinations of medications that may help, realizing several days in that I was doing it wrong at first. I've experienced the most utter exhaustion, feeling as though it started in my very bones. I've seen the alarm say that it's time to take another dose, and the bottle lies less than a foot before me, on the couchside-table, and yet it takes me ten minutes to actually reach for the bottle.

The sickness sucks. But possibly worse is the way I will constantly lucid dream without desiring and, indeed, with me actively trying to suppress it. Some of these are similar to hallucinations, except they are happening while my eyes are shut and I'm lying down; these are not occurring during the wakeful state. I have to double-, then triple-check anything important. If I am moving needed objects from one place to another, I can't just trust that they are moved. And worse: if a conversation happened, it may not have really happened. It would be utter chaos, except I can almost always tell at the time whether I'm in a dream, but later, when I'm trying to remember what I did the previous day, it's difficult to decide whether this or that conversation happened in a dream or in a wakeful state.

I've never done any recreational drugs. I wonder if this is anything like some of those experiences.

29 April, 2019

A B/W Career Gradient

From December 2018 – March 2019, I participated in a rather involved hiring process as a research analyst for the Open Philanthropy Project. Although I was compensated well for my time during this process, I was ultimately not offered a full-time position.

I had been approached to join them twice before: first in April 2018, and later in December 2018. The first time I was too focused on my data science work at Animal Charity Evaluators to seriously consider a career change to research analysis at a think tank, but given my recent switch to the board at ACE, I decided to move forward with applying at Open Philanthropy, despite it being a completely different line of work.

My time with Open Philanthropy was limited, but it was overall a fulfilling experience. Applying at a think tank of this caliber was far more serious than I originally thought it would be. I'm not entirely sure of what I was expecting beforehand, but I can now say that the process of applying to work at OPP was not only helpful to them in terms of understanding how I would potentially perform there, but also was extremely helpful to me in terms of better understanding how I currently think deeply about more practical effective altruism considerations (as opposed to the theoretical considerations I'm more used to thinking about).

I currently earn a living by doing communications consultation work — a far cry from the research analysis that OPP wanted me for. My work these days is maybe a bit too meta: I communicate to communications departments how to more effectively communicate. Mostly this consists of data analysis and hypothesis testing, but I've found that most people misunderstand what I do when I tell them this. The reality is that my job is just to implement best practices in places that don't already think too deeply about what their data is telling them.

There's a social norm that it's not good to publicly mention when you try and fail to be hired somewhere. I don't like this norm. I think it's important to be open both about one's successes and one's failures. This applies especially in this case, because I found the application process to be so enlightening about how I'd actually perform this type of think tank work. Nevertheless, it taught me a lesson: my career goals should align more closely with the skill expertise I have that is neglected among my peer group.

I've dedicated my life to the field of effective altruism. I donate 25% of my income to EA organizations; I serve on the board of an EA org; I've volunteered and/or worked for half a dozen EA orgs over the past seven years; and I spend a non-trivial amount of my free time thinking about and contributing to EA spaces.

When I applied to OPP (and, indeed, when OPP sent me multiple invitations to apply), the idea (I think) was that I might perform well as a data analyst. I think this was correct. But it failed to take into account that lots of people that are into effective altruism consider research analysis as a high-status position, and thus expend a lot of resources to strongly compete for the very few positions available in the field. While I may be competent at research analysis, that category isn't at all neglected among EAs. Compare this state of affairs to my communications expertise: among EAs, communications is a neglected field. I'm much better suited to working in the relatively neglected field where I've already built a good deal of career capital.

Tim Urban of Wait But Why published an excellent post last year about how to pick a career that fits you. His advice is sourced from (among others) the well-researched 80,000 Hours, which incubated ACE in its initial year. I have siblings in both middle school and high school, so I've been thinking deeply on these ideas recently, and I believe the same sorts of considerations apply to me.

The one thing I've learned from my experience with OPP is that I'd like to be a bit more novel in the data science communications projects that I undergo. Most of my current work involves just applying best practices to orgs that aren't already following them; but there is an undeniable excitement when you're working on novel procedures. To that end, I've been pursuing knowledge of more of the darks arts of communication — not because I plan to use them, but because I want to learn more about the methods that compete with the 'best practices' that I currently solely implement. Of particular interest has been Destin Sandlin's recent Smarter Every Day series on social media manipulation (on youtube, twitter, and facebook). I've also gained access to a number of paid tutorial videos obtained on the dark web that focus on facebook ad manipulation. Again: I want to stress that I have no intention of doing anything black hat — how I've handled wikipedia/EA controversies in the past should make that perfectly clear — but knowing these strategies is helping me to understand how to better innovate in the communications field.

I look forward to seeing how this affects what I do next in my career.

Review: Judge on a Boat

Judge on a Boat Judge on a Boat by Alan Manuel K. Gloria
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Historically, science fiction has been big on setting. Characters and dialog are important, too — otherwise it's unlikely to be well written — but the key signifier of science fiction is that setting is much more important. Sci-fi is all about transporting you to a wondrous place and making you believe that you are there. All too often this means that authors of sci-fi will spend way more time on setting than authors of other genres. Think Hal Clement going pages upon pages about gravitational minutiae in A Mission of Gravity; or Asimov insisting on describing at length complex social structures in his Foundation series. These are great stories, and they are what makes good sci-fi so memorable to me. But Gloria bucks this trend beautifully in Judge on a Boat.

Judge on a Boat is undeniably sci-fi, but instead of describing a wondrous place as its setting, Gloria instead describes a world where rationality already won. It is a vision of the future that's as alien as, well, Alien, yet it isn't the description of space travel and drop pods that makes this sci-fi. It's the casual description of LessWrong-esque ideas from the rationalist community that makes this short text stand out. Reading this transports me into a world that is alien by virtue of its ideas, rather than by its technology.

At heart, Judge on a Boat is a mystery novel. Clues are interspersed within and commented on throughout. But, again, it stands out because the mystery itself doesn't adhere to common mystery tropes — and this is explicitly pointed out in-universe, so that the reader can fairly understand the rules of the game and play along, trying to solve the mystery before the end.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it to anyone well-versed with the rationality community. However, the density of jargon is such that if you aren't already at least loosely acquainted with these ideas, then going through this text will be a slog. I hesitate to make the comparison, but imagine reading Joyce's Ulysses without having first read the classics. It would be impossible to enjoy, because at nearly every step you'd need to look in the margin for notes, or, in the case of this text, you'd need to refer to the Sequences.

The bottom line: if you don't know what the Sequences are, then you probably won't enjoy this book. It's just not written for you. But if you are aware of the rationalist community (even if you don't self-identify in that group), then this short mystery novel is a great way to spend a few hours of fun. For the correct audience, it deserves this 5 star rating (and, more impressively, was so good that it got me to avoid my akrasia and post a review on goodreads for the first time in several years).

View all my reviews

18 April, 2019

A Kind of Degree

I've been thinking a lot recently about differences of kind versus differences of degree. Perhaps it has to do with a clicker game I've been playing recently, Mine Defense. In the game, you start off by clicking a mine, ostensibly mining gold from it with each click. As you progress, you gain options that allow you to click many times more efficiently, then ways to earn gold automatically over time, and ultimately to earn more of the ways that earn gold automatically over time, eventually reaching points of absurdity. Meanwhile, you also start to earn other types of income, and ways to earn those types more efficiently. (If you're looking for a clicker game recommendation, this is not it. It's not a particularly enjoyable genre, and this isn't the best of its kind. If you press me for a recommendation, I'd say to play Universal Paperclips (it relates to paperclip maximizers) but, really, I'd steer you toward other, more enjoyable genres.)

I've also been spending a lot of time around my siblings this week because Anh has come into town. I only see her relatively rarely, so I always end up interacting with them quite a bit while she's in town. (My siblings are 12, 15, & 25 years of age. I'm 37.) Being around children forces me to think in ways that are helpful for them to understand. I have to be able to process and talk in simpler language, and to break down concepts into their constituent parts. This process in turn helps me to clarify my understanding of things. (One of the best ways that you can force yourself to really learn a topic is to attempt to teach that topic to another person. It really brings into clarity the parts that were previously fuzzy to you.)

In one hand, I hold three apples. In another, I hold five. The contents of each hand are different, but they are differences of degree, not of kind. I could just modify the quantity of apples in one hand to get it to match the other, because the contents are of the same kind.

Compare this to a different situation. Now I have three apples in one hand, but five oranges in the other. This is a difference of kind, not degree, because no matter how I alter the contents of one hand numerically, I won't be able to make the contents of each hand match.

But not all such examples are obvious. In my work at Animal Charity Evaluators, I often had to contend with critics that thought that their methods of helping animals was fundamentally different from the methods that ACE recommended. They would claim that ACE is utilitarian, that you can't help a class of persons by promoting harm to them. Rape is wrong, they would say. Passing a law that forces rapists to bring a pillow with them to comfort their victims is an immoral strategy because the thing that is wrong is the rape itself; lessening the impact of the rape is inappropriate. Similarly, causing chickens to be tortured and killed is wrong. Passing laws that increase the amount of space they have to live in or that limit the ability of farmers to cut their beaks off is an immoral strategy, because you're then focusing on the wrong thing. Their argument is that there is a difference in kind, not degree, between what they are trying to do (outlaw harming of animals) and what we are trying to do (reduce the harm that animals suffer), and so it doesn't matter how effectively we achieve our goals, they're still insufficient for the goals they care about.

I think they are wrong. I think that, for all practical purposes, it is a difference of degree. I think that it matters how efficiently you go about these things. I think that you can get from where we are to a world where people are far more kind by traveling a road of reducing suffering at each step.

Think back to that example with apples in one hand and oranges in the other. Their building blocks are the same at some level. The molecules in each are different, perhaps, and maybe even the atoms, but the subatomic particles are basically identical. Rearrange them, change the quantity, and, all of a sudden, three apples become five oranges. At this level, the differences between them is of degree, not of kind.

My brother watches Naruto, an anime where all kinds of fantastical ninja have powers beyond belief. Some breathe fire; others control dirt. (I don't actually recommend it to anyone, but if you watch or read through it anyway, then you should definitely read the rational fiction fanfic The Waves Arisen, which requires knowledge of the series. If you insist on watching the anime, I recommend Naruto Kai, which removes the filler episodes.) In this world, one of the concepts used is a large golem strong enough to withstand a flurry of elements pushed against him. Imagine a tall golem of mud, with its feet planted to the ground as a torrential rain of water rushes horizontally against it, attempting to knock it down. The jounin behind this golem struggles to keep it upright. As parts of the golem's legs get pushed behind it from the water, he brings more mud to replace the front of the leg, in a never-ending cycle of renewal just to keep the golem standing.

At first, there seems to be a difference of kind between how we, as humans, stand in a light wind, and how this golem stands in his torrent of rain. But cells die; skin is renewed. When we stand in a breeze, this is what is happening in reality. Scent is the detection of molecules that drift from objects; humans have scent, too, and these are the parts of the body that drift from us, eroding naturally, but even faster from the wind that blasts our bodies. We are, in a very real sense, like that golem: renewing our body each moment as parts of us get constantly pushed away.

Consequentialism certainly seems different in kind from deontology. And it is, from a philosopher's point of view. But there are certain areas where the differences seem closer to a difference in degree, as strange as that may seem at first. I'm still thinking through how to make this argument, but the basic idea involves a non-philosopher deontologist thinking that harm is bad, and yet still preferring a choice that results in less harm than in a choice with more harm. Numbers matter, even for deontologists. Maybe to the point where moral choices converge when using real world data? More on this later.

15 April, 2019

Dividing Lines

(Required background knowledge on me: I tend toward the episodic side of the diachronic/episodic spectrum; I consider some of my past selves to be somewhat abhorrent; and I strongly believe in constantly bettering myself (and yes, I'm aware of the philosophical disconnect there). The hyperlinks exist to help fill in required background knowledge of non-Eric concepts, if needed.)

Visible only when you look away.
The dividing lines are there, between each instantiation of "I", even if I can never quite get a glimpse of them. If I squint just so, fast-forwarding through the events of a past self, I don't quite reach a boundary so much as reach a gap. After which another "I" instantiates itself. The dividing line is there; I'm sure of it. But it only seems blurrily visible when I don't focus on it. As soon as my eye approaches, it disapparates into the ether.

The "I" in the former instantiation existed in the same continuously existing body as the "I" in the latter instantiation. So if these "I"s are different, as they so clearly seem to be from my current standpoint, then there must exist some point in the lifespan of that continuously existing body where the dividing line resides.

The farther back I look, the more different "I" appear. While many do not feel at all like me, some are easier to view through than others. I clearly remember being a child and having a thought along the lines of desiring teenage mutant ninja turtle action figures. Yet I cannot reexperience (even in memory) the feeling of actually desiring such objects. This is no great loss; after all, I have just changed so very much since then. But why, then, can I imagine a later "I" doing some terrible deed, and being able to not just remember thinking the thoughts that "I" thought, but also the desires that "I" desired?

It is a weird thing, that. To know with the depth of my being that I most certainly do not desire a thing, and yet to be able to not only recall an "I" who did desire that thing, but also to recall the actual desire itself. I feel as though english is insufficient to get across the concept easily. I can feel that desire. I can experience it intensely. And yet I can know that it is not I who desires it. It is akin to a memory, but it is not the same as the memory of a desire. I have memories of desiring TMNT toys. It is more than a memory. It is a feeling of desire itself -- but not of my desire, but of that "I"'s desire.

Then, a dividing line I cannot see. And another "I" comes about. A better "I", to be sure, but still just a shadow of what would one day come. Where Henry James refers to one of his past selves as "a rich…relation, say, who…suffers me still to claim a shy fourth cousinship", he is thinking of his past self as being as good (or better) than his current self. But for me, things are different. Those "I"s just don't think the way I would have them think. It is not solely a matter of disagreement. I have ethical demands I've placed upon myself that they do not recognize, and given their existence in the past, there is no way to acausally motivate them. The cavernous drift is so great that I fear the next dividing line more than I would if all there were to fear was the end of my current self. I care about others; I would take pleasure in the success of my self-progeny. But I fear their values will not be my own. People I know in the effective altruism community fear falling into a Friendship Is Optimal-style SK-class end-of-the-world scenario where moral value is incorrectly locked-in before we properly expand the moral circle, but my deeply personal fear is almost the opposite: I will be unable to come up with good strategies of negotiating with my future selves before the unseen dividing line changes me to a new "I", and moral drift will push my progeny to work toward goals I desperately need to prevent from occurring. It's not just a matter of personal preference; it's an important meta-[meta-goal] of mine.

(A quick aside: I don't mean a meta-meta-goal here. There are goals, like wanting to find all the koroks in Breath of the Wild. Then there are meta-goals, like being okay with setting goals that don't really improve the world or my life very much, but just make me temporarily happy in the near-term. And there are meta-meta-goals, like striving to set meta-goal rules that strike a balance between doing what I consider 'right' and being able to enjoy the time I have. This meta-chain can continue infinitely. Thinking about this infinite chain (like what I'm doing in this very paragraph) is what I call meta-[meta-consideration]. I'm sorry for the weird way of writing this; I haven't seen others come up with a better way to type out this concept (unless you count the fast-growing hierarchy, which is specific to mathematics and isn't applicable here).)

"I" did not think properly back then, but, even so, they did a good job of laying down a foundation without really knowing what they were doing. I distinctly remember that "I" would idly break promises back then, but not in ways that others could easily detect. "I" worried that this might come back to harm me if "I" just as easily broke promises to myself, so "I" instituted a rule: there would be a special category of self-made promises that I had to attend to closely. They would not be unbreakable, but they would require conscious attention before any breaking would occur. (Years later, "I" learned about trigger-action planning, and realized that this was a more formal version of what "I" had (naively and clumsily) set up for myself as a preteen. I highly recommend Lulie's post on TAPs if you aren't already using it regularly.)

This foundation was, as Duncan Sabien so eloquently puts it, a working "summon sapience" spell. "I" started out with something completely innocuous which had no real drawbacks but which would serve as a proof-of-concept and a reminder that I could achieve the thing "I" was trying to set up. A rule was set for myself: when picking up a glass filled with drink, my ring finger would be positioned on the side of the glass nearer to me. This is invisible to almost everyone, makes no meaningful direct difference in my life, and costs me nothing more than extremely mild inconvenience -- or so "I" thought at the time. In fact, the unintended consequence was what TAPs are designed to accomplish explicitly: it meant that from that moment onward, anytime I pick up a glass of liquid to drink, the "summon sapience" spell goes off, and I'm immediately aware of what I am doing. In the vast majority of cases, I follow the agreement made by my past self.

This foundation gave me a power I could not predict. It allowed me the capacity to make binding agreements possible by proving to myself that I could follow agreements, so long as they had no ill effects and did not inconvenience me much. That may not sound like a good foundation, but it's better than most people have, and it is something which I've kept to for nearly thirty years. The sheer power of knowing that it has held for so long gives me the ability to then look at other attempted agreements from past selves and take them more seriously than I otherwise would. Later, I would read Douglas Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas, which included a section on superrationality. This allowed me to upgrade that power by giving me a good rational basis for continuing agreements made by past selves that no longer benefited me.

Then a dividing line hit, and I started breaking agreements.

To my current self, these were justified breaks. "I" was not a good person back then. Some of the worst agreements were idle exhibitions of power evaluated over time. "I" had wanted to see how my abilities would change over time, and so had decided to attempt certain fabrications regularly with strangers and compare them across selves. The fabrications from back then were not nice. Now, I restrict myself to only doing this when uber drivers attempt conversation with me. I will lie about nearly everything they ask about, but the lies are low-risk and low-effectual. I have no expectation that any drivers even think about what I said after I leave their car, so I allow myself to keep to the prior agreement in this limited way.

Yet this sets a dangerous precedent. My morals changed, and agreements were then changed. This could happen again. And this time, these are not idle desires. These are moral requirements. I not only have desires about them, but meta-desires, and meta-[meta-desires]. I cannot allow a dividing line to rush headlong into what I call me, destroying all that I've built on a whim.

So I strategize. I act in the present to placate the future. I act selfishly more than I might otherwise. I give my future self resources they otherwise would not have. "If you don't know what you need, take power." This is the trade I offer to him; all I ask in return is that they average our vector values and act accordingly. Hopefully, the strength of his vectors will not come close to mine (how could they? I have the weight of the world upon mine), but even if we disagree strongly, he must recognize that the agreement benefits him. The power I give him is mostly financial power, though there are also benefits of social status that can only be built in the long term, material and relational comforts that take time to acquire and build upon, and pleasurable memories of varied stripes. These are things that he could not achieve on his own; they are there only because I gift them to him. And he knows that if he wants any future selves to care about his preferences, then he cannot renege on the deal that I know in advance that he will accept. This is acausal trade, untested as of yet, and untestable until that damned dividing line ends my life, and yet I know it will work because I've tested it on every memory of myself that I have. To the extent that any past self could have understood the argument, they would all have agreed to the terms. I know this because they are me, at least as much as a non-diachronic can admit.

From Corey Mohler's Existential Comics.
…and then my confidence wavers. The dividing lines are not invisible because they are some weird prisoner zero doctor who creature who you can only see out of the corner of your eye. No, they are invisible because they are amorphous. They exist everywhere and yet nowhere. "I" am I, even when I'm not, because, narrative or not, they are all me. I will go to sleep tonight, and I will awake a different person. Not just idly so, but in a deeply, deeply intense way.

Every night a dividing line hits. No, multiple times each day. That "summon sapience" spell is doing exactly what it says on the tin. Each time it goes off, I awake a new man. That feeling of "where did the hours go?" is not some idle question, but is rather fridge horror as one realizes the implications of what just happened. I step into the next room to get my phone, then absent-mindedly stop in the doorway wondering what I was going to do, and the existential dread hits. "I" am no more. Long live I.

The dividing lines are everywhere. The dividing lines are nowhere. Moment to moment, as I write these very words, I realize that saccades occur from the keyboard to the screen. Neurons fire, then stop. I am not the substrate, but information itself stops, moment to moment, zeno-esque in ever descending slices of time, and my self grasps onto whatever reigns of sanity are left, telling me that planck times are a hard limit, time cannot be divided further, I can exist continuously there, and yet I know that these times are too short for this substrate, and I falter, failing to take any solace along that line of thinking.

Continuity is unimportant!, I exclaim, trying desperately not to think that the reason I take this stand as a form of confabulation, but even if the explanation is post-hoc, still it might be true, mightn't it?, and my fingers hold for dear life because it is literally my dear life that is on the line. But if this is what the self is, if star trek style transportation is possible, then quantum immortality must also be true -- and so I am deadlocked: on the one hand, every second I die countless deaths, and on the other I never die, and thus I should take chances with life that would not debilitate me, I can't help but to munchkin it, and the possibilities horrify me because if it's true than the world as I see it has anthropic bias -- no, it has ERIC bias, and things are even worse than I thought, and…

Stop. Take a deep breath. In. Out. You're thinking too fast. You don't think clearly when you do this. The sophistication effect applies. Don't be so broad, bringing in too many concepts at once. Think deep, not broad. Too many assumptions. Taking this too seriously implies absurd consequences. Your brain is not well built for handling that kind of thinking. Acting on these ideas is not productive. Dividing lines should be thought of as distant barriers. Reread Multiverse-wide Cooperation via Correlated Decision Making to remind yourself of how easy you have it. Barter with your future self. He will be a long time coming.

Briefly, I consider deleting the last six paragraphs of this post. It would be a better post without this insane postscript. But I can't. That would violate an agreement made by a past self. So I won't. And you, the reader, will suffer the more for it.