27 December, 2020

Social Justice and Moral Uncertainty

[Note: This entry spoils portions of the most recent season of The Mandalorian, as well as the excellent rational story Metropolitan Man. Please only read this entry if you don't mind casual discussion of spoilers. I also spoil a few other pieces of fiction, but as most are over 100 years old, it's honestly your fault if you haven't read them by now.]

Well worth the read.
As I work through my understanding of representativeness, equity, and inclusiveness and how they should apply to my work, I find myself thinking back to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, & Wales’ Metropolitan Man. Lopsided power differentials make for poor relationships, even with full good intent. Satan’s argument that God is tyrannical despite his benevolence, purely because he has the final say is paralleled by Nora’s unease with Torvald and Luthor’s fear of Superman.

The power and fear you feel from Anakin in Rogue One is one-upped by Luke in The Mandalorian. It does not matter that Luke is a Light side user; his power is so overwhelming in that scene that his intent does not matter. No one should wield that level of power. Lex’s argument applies: he is just too dangerous to live in our world.

An unequal power dynamic.
These are all fiction, but it reminds me strongly of the power dynamics that exist within our culture of white supremacy. (I'm using the new definitions here, not the old ones that required a higher standard for deeming something white supremacist.) Social justice demands corrective action — the question, for me, is not to question its need, but to what extent should corrective action be prioritized. Satan abandoned paradise; Nora left her children; Lex committed murder. How far is it appropriate for us to go?

It is too easy to say that free open discussion norms trump the outright ban of certain topics. It is too convenient to claim that the needs of tortured animals are so immediate that they take priority over making the animal advocacy community a safe space for disadvantaged members. We can accomplish our goals of doing good without trampling on the needs of other communities. There is no need to take the position that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton did when they opposed the fifteenth amendment. Frederick Douglass stood with them from the beginning, but was abandoned when the right to vote was being proposed for black men. I look back upon such decisions in disgust; why did the leaders of these causes break ranks so readily? Why could they not stand together? And then I think of the work that Animal Charity Evaluators is doing and wonder: to what degree are we justified in trampling over others' rights and needs?

ACE holds the position that corporate campaigns to help animal advocacy are good. They may or may not be effective at reducing the total amount of suffering undergone by farmed animals in industrial agriculture, but regardless they are considered as accomplishing good. Yet by working with a company like Burger King, praising it for introducing the Impossible Burger, for example (in 2001 PETA's campaign caused BK to release a veggie burger; then PETA targeted them again in 2006, showing that working with orgs like PETA to reduce bad publicity is a waste of time), we are trampling over the needs of the animals that Burger King kills. Is this justified? I want to say yes. I think that it is still good to endorse corporate campaigns because they reduce real suffering in expectation, even if other animals are tremendously harmed by the organization that we are working with and effectively praising.

Similarly, I recognize that there are black, indigenous, and people of the global majority (bipgm) that are actively harmed by some of the organizations that are doing effective animal advocacy work. They are not harmed nearly as much as the animals are in the previous example, but they are definitely harmed significantly. Is it justified to trample over their needs in order to effectively help the massive number of animals being tortured? I argued for 'yes' in the previous paragraph. Shouldn't I also argue for 'yes' in this one? The harms being incurred in the former paragraph are certainly higher than those being incurred in this one. And yet I find myself leaning toward 'no' instead. It doesn't feel justified to me, but I'm having trouble identifying why this is.

PCRM's reprehensible campaign.
When the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine ran a campaign aimed at convincing people to be vegan in 2012, they used fat shaming images in their videos and images. I was horrified. It bothered me that the PCRM was okay with using PETA-level tactics that actively hurt another disadvantaged group. When I learned that Ginny Messina, a member of their board, had spoken against it in their board meetings and been ignored, I lost all respect for the organization. (Messina resigned from their board over their insistence on (and lack of regret for) running this campaign.) I thought to myself: we can do animal advocacy work without actively harming other communities. We should aim to do good in all its forms, even if it sometimes reduces the effectiveness by which we can work on our core mission. This is especially true when our beliefs on which are the most effective interventions have low resilience. I remain convinced that running such ads is not only a bad idea, but that doing so is wrong, regardless of if the inclusion of fat shaming results in convincing more people to go vegan in the short term. I think this not just because I believe that in the long term we must be truthful for marketing and trust reasons, but also because I very, very, very strongly do not want to trample on the rights of fat people while doing the work of saving farmed animals.

Similarly, I want social justice for BIPGM while we work toward effective animal advocacy. I do not feel that it is justified to trample over fellow humans' rights while we do our work. So why am I seemingly okay with trampling over the other animals' rights while endorsing corporate campaigns? Am I being speciesist? Am I undervaluing the needs of the animals being harmed in the former paragraph? Or am I overvaluing the needs of the humans being harmed in the latter paragraph?

Moral Uncertainty
These are very difficult issues that I'm still working through. I'm not sure what is best. I find myself resorting to a Ord/Bostrom-style parliamentary vote of my inner credences and continually wishing that I had a better familiarity with updating on new evidence repeatedly. At subsequent moments, I keep thinking that each side's vote is getting more than its fair share through what seem to be rather one-sided deals — only to then think the same for the other side.

Currently, I just don't know what to think, other than to emphasize that figuring this out is a relatively high priority path for me to be on. And so I will continue to discuss these issues with others until we can come to an appropriate and justified solution.

14 December, 2020

Personal Ethnicity and Ancestry

"Eric, it's not that hard. You're mixed race. You can call yourself Latinx. Or native american, if you really wanted to. But you present as white and hispanic. Getting any more complicated that feels too much like an example of white privilege: you shouldn't say that you're 1% Bantu — even if you are! — because that just feels too much like a white person trying too hard to point out your non-white characteristics."

I was asked yesterday whether I consider myself white or non-white. The context makes sense; at Animal Charity Evaluators we are doing a session on Representativeness, Equity, and Inclusion later today where statements will be made that will make this query relevant. But it still took me off guard. What do I consider myself?

I guess I'll start with my broad family facts. My father immigrated from Bolivia, so I'm half Bolivian. My mother had an Italian parent and an English parent, though you have to trace back a few generations to get to the old country for them. So I'm 25% Italian and 25% English. In short: I'm white and hispanic. (Or so I've been saying for much of my life.)

Eric in the early 1980s.
When I was young, I never thought about race all that much. My imaginary friend from before I was seven years old was definitely black, although (being aphantasiac) I knew this not from the color of his invisible skin but from his mannerisms that I imagined him having. (His name was Tookie.) Yet I didn't think this was relevant enough to ever really relay to anyone else. I doubt that my parents were ever aware of the race I had assigned my childhood friend.

I experienced racism in Mobile, Alabama, back then, but it wasn't ever really something that affected me all that much, possibly because I spoke with what my fellow Southerners thought of as an "educated" accent. (Possibly it is just because I bothered with enunciation as a child.) I thought of myself as white throughout my school days, possibly just because that was the default for me, and possibly because I spent most of my family time with my mother's side of the family, which was all white. It wasn't until I reached college when a casual conversation about whiteness was interrupted by a hispanic friend of mine, who said: "wait — what do you think you are?" I remember stopping short, not fully understanding his question, when he continued: "You're not white; you're hispanic."

See full results.

My self-conception of white never really wavered, mostly because figuring out what race I should call myself didn't factor into anything I considered useful at the time. There were a few oddities over the years. One girl I dated for a few months was extra scared of showing me to her parents; this turned out to be because her father was a member of the KKK and he screamed at me for defiling his daughter when I finally met him in the emergency room ICU where he had just been admitted a few hours earlier. But, on the whole, the fact of my race never really came up explicitly among people I purposefully interacted with, and, if it did come up implicitly, I never noticed because I didn't really care.

Now, however, I have been learning a lot about racial equity, how I can be an ally, and the delicate balance between implementing a safe space and ensuring that there is a commitment to the enlightenment ideals of free thought and open discussion, even when it comes to uncomfortable issues. In the midst of all this, I've had a DNA ethnicity test done that explicitly shows the various percentages of each of my many ethnicities. And I've been asked: Do I consider myself white or non-white? The truth is: I don't know anymore.

Ruperto Herboso & René Barrientos
Mercado Fidel Aranibar
Cochabamba, Bolivia; 1966
Historically, I've always said that I'm both white and hispanic. This has made sense to me because my father is hispanic, being born in Bolivia, and my mother is white, with her father being a 2nd generation immigrant from Italy and her mother being a 7th or so generation immigrant from England. But this pat summary isn't quite true, is it? Sure, my mother's mother's family line is from England, but it's not like they hadn't intermingled along the way. And my father may be from Bolivia, but some of that is indigenous Andean ancestry from the Inca empire, with others coming from conquistadors that arrived from Spain. The DNA test shows much more: France, Sweden, Scotland, Ireland, the Middle East, Basque, Wales, Bantu, and more. The 2% Basque ethnicity really sticks out to me because it's one of the only ones I can really pin down. My last name, Herboso, comes from an extremely tiny village of less than ten houses in Basque Country, Spain. My ancestor, who had no last name, was born in this village and moved to Madrid where he sculpted statues in the year 1485. He needed a last name to be known by, so he chose "Herboso" after his birthplace, and it stuck. Later, in the mid-1500s, one of his line boarded a Spanish vessel that traveled to South America and assisted in conquering (and, presumably, raping) the Inca empire. His progeny later included an archbishop and, much later, my grandfather, who opened the largest mall in the country of Bolivia.

Wyche Family Arms

On ancestry.com, I can trace many such lines.

  • Sir Richard Jones, born 1570 in Denbigh, Wales, is my 9th great grandfather. He was a knight serving under Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, who was also the Lord of Denbigh. 
  • George Wyche, born 1680 in Surry County, Virginia, is my 7th great-grandfather. He owned the area surrounding the entirety of Beaver Pond Creek in Clarksville, VA; it is now nothing but forest with dirt roads so small that Google Maps' street view hasn't recorded it yet. He also controlled a fifth of the land surrounding Fountain Creek in Brunswick County, VA; it was given to him by Henry H. Cook, Sr., a major planter and initial settler of Brunswick County. 
  • The Moore House
    John Matthew Goodwin and Elizabeth Moore, born 1646 in London, England, and 1655 in Virginia respectively, are my 8th great grandparents. When John Goodwin's grandfather Peter died in 1661, John (at the age of 15!) received two slaves, Tom and Bess as part of his inheritance. Meanwhile Elizabeth Moore's grandfather John Moore (b. 1584) came to Virginia and patented land that stayed in the family for hundreds of years until 1942, when it was sold to the US Government. The Moore House, built much later, was where General Cornwallis surrendered at the Siege of Yorktown.
  • Mary Ann Matthews, my 9th great grandmother born 1602 in England, led quite an adventurous life.
    • She traveled to America as an 18 year old newlywed on the Chesapeake Colony Ship Francis Bonaventure in August 1620 with her husband, John Price. It took years for them to settle, finally doing so when she was 21 in the Neck of Land in Charles City, "upriver from Jamestown close to the falls". Unlike neighboring communities that had outbreaks of disease and repeated tensions with the Native Americans, the small Neck of Land area was "a hamlet of healthy married families whose concerns were sex, land, and status". Neck of Land is now known as Meadowville, and the area where they lived is now an upscale residential housing area. They had three children.
    • Around 1630, John Price had died and Ann remarried, this time to Robert Hallom, who had also came to America on the Francis Bonaventure from England. Unlike John, who had patented land for the King, Robert was a manservant in the Boyse household. When Ann and Robert married, they lived on Ann's money and 1000 acres of land she still controlled after John's death. When Robert died in 1638, the land was divided with 1000 acres to Ann and 150 acres to the children of Ann's first marriage with John, with none going to the three children of Ann and Robert, even though Robert Hallom did have a headright of his own. My understanding is that this was very unusual (at the time) legally speaking. Robert and Ann's female children were married off and their male child was apprenticed to a salter.
    • In 1640, Ann remarried a third time, this time to Daniel Llewellyn, who was previously claimed as headright from Captain William Perry. After she remarried, Robert Hallom's surviving family in England asked her if Daniel could take on the responsibility of managing the Hallom's interests in America. He did so, and ended up controlling 17 headrights, including 852 acres of his own in addition to the ones owned by Robert and Frances Hallom in England. The children of Daniel and Ann are where the line continues up to me.
Don Ruperto Herboso
My Paternal Grandfather
I don't really identify strongly with my ancestors. Nevertheless, I find learning about them fascinating, and, as you might guess, it has really opened my eyes as to just how diverse my line truly is. All of the above bullet points are people who are in the same line as my mother's mother's father's line. I haven't looked at my maternal grandfather's side of the family, let alone my maternal grandmother's mother's side of the family. That DNA test showed that I have genes from all over the Western world. Why should I call myself one race over some other, when I have ancestors from almost everywhere in the Global West?

I feel as though I should at least use reason when trying to determine what to call myself. Is it enough to just say "mixed"? Should I point out the quarter of me that is indigenous to the Andes, or should that side of me not be mentioned since none of that culture nor any names of those ancestors has come down to me whatsoever? Should I call myself white even though so much of me is different? Should I call myself nonwhite even though I have ancestors that held castles, ancestors that were original settlers of America in the 1600s, ancestors that are quite unambiguously white?

Herboso Island, Basque Country, Spain
As I look through my DNA results, as I browse through photos of the ancestral Herboso lands, as I read through stories of my Xth great grandparents, I find myself hesitating to take a stance. In just a few hours I will be attending a session on REI at ACE and I've still not responded to yesterday's question to me: Do I consider myself white or non-white? Somehow, it seems to be a question beyond who my remembered ancestors are, beyond who my forgotten ancestors were, beyond even how I navigate the world at large. I imagine most people looking at me would think I was hispanic, or middle eastern, or something vaguely more dark skinned than the average white person. But people listening to me might think something altogether different; am I just a tanned white person? Since I write a lot online with my last name visible, does that take over their assumption? Am I hispanic because my last name is hispanic (because my father is hispanic), and that overrides everything else? If it's a question of genetics, then should I say I am native american, even though I've never thought of myself that way, even though I don't know anyone I'm related to who identifies that way, and even though I have no understanding at all of where in my family tree that huge bulk of 25% of my genes comes from?

I dunno. I never really cared in the past. And even with all of the discussions around racial equity, I find myself still not caring about my personal situation, as I've never felt that race has ever held me back in anything that was important. But, in having said that, doesn't that mean that my experience has been, ultimately, a majority white experience? Doesn't that lack of being held back signify that whiteness has been the primary way that I've navigated the world and that the world has identified me as?

I dunno. Maybe.

I guess I'll just go with white and hispanic. After several hours of thought and introspection, I'm just back where I started. I'm not sure how I feel about this, but this is what I'm going to go with.

Edit 14 Dec 2020: Yes, Herboso really is a village with literally just ten houses in it.

09 December, 2020

Most Functions with Predictive Power in the Natural Sciences are Non-Differentiable

Epistemic status: highly uncertain.

Recently, Spencer Greenberg posted three useful facts about mathematics:

This generated a bit of discussion on facebook:

Here's the most useful mathematics I can fit in 3 short paragraphs (see image). -- Note: each week, I send out One...

Posted by Spencer Greenberg on Friday, December 4, 2020

In one of the comment threads, I put forward what I thought to be an uncontroversial thought: that although it is true that most useful mathematics in the natural sciences are differentiable, this is not because the useful math stuff happens to also be differentiable, but instead because we can (mostly) only make sense of the differentiable stuff, so that's the stuff that we find useful. This is a weak anthropic argument that merely makes the statement partially vacuous. (It's like saying I, who reads only English, find that most useful philosophy to me is written in English. It's true, but not because there is a deep relationship between useful philosophy and it being written in English.)

It turns out that this was not considered an uncontroversial thought:


However, I also received a number of replies that indicated that I did a poor job of explaining my position in facebook comments. (And I wanted to ensure that I wasn't making some critical mistake in my thinking after hearing so many capable others dismiss the idea outright.) To fix this, I decided to organize my thoughts here. Please keep in mind that I'm not certain about the second section on math in the natural sciences at all (although I think the first section on pure math is accurate), and in fact I think that, on balance, I'm probably wrong about this essay's ultimate argument. But whereas my confidence level is maybe around 20% for this line of thinking, I'm finding that others are dismissing it completely out of hand, and so I find myself arguing for its validity, even if I personally doubt its truth. (In the face of uncertainty, we need not take a final position (unless it's moral uncertainty), but we should at least understand other positions enough to steelman them.)


Mathematics Encompasses More Than We Can Know

Before we talk about the natural sciences, let's look at something simpler: really big numbers. When it comes to counting numbers, it's relatively easy to think of big ones. But, unless you're a math person, you may not fully comprehend just how big they can get. It's easy to say that the counting numbers go on forever, and that they eventually become so large that it becomes impossible to write them down. Yet it's actually stranger than that: they eventually get to be so big that they can't be thought of (except expressed in this way). As a simple example, consider that there exists a least big whole number such that it can't, even in principle, be thought of by a human being. Graham's number, for example, is big enough that if you were somehow able to hold the base ten version of it in your brain, the sheer amount of information held would mean that your brain would quite literally implode. Yet we can still talk about it; I just did earlier, when I called it Graham's number. The thing is: the counting numbers keep going, so eventually you can reach a number so high that its informational content cannot be expressed without exceeding the maximum amount of entropy that the observable universe can hold.

Opening one's eyes to this helps with the following realization: not all numbers are nameable. Somehow, despite being an amateur interested in math for most of my life, having thought I understood Cantor's diagonal argument after reading through it several times, teaching it to others several times, and talking about it several times, I recently learned that I had skipped understanding something basic about it that wasn't made clear to me before:

Scott Aaronson's excellent explanation on this really hits home. The parts of the number line that we can name are but countable dust among the vast majority of points that we have no way of writing down in any systematic way. We can only vaguely point toward them when making mathematical arguments and can only really make basic (unappended) statements that either apply to zero, one, or an infinite amount of them at once. We can, for example, say that a random real number picked between 0 and 1 has certain properties, but if we try to say which number it is, we must use some kind of systematic method to point it out, like 1/3 = 0.3 repeating.

Something similar is true when it comes to functions. Most functions, by far, are not nameable. They are relations between sets that don't follow any pattern that makes sense to humans. For a finite example, consider the set X:{a,b,c} as a domain and Y:{d,e,f} as the range. We can construct a function f()that maps X➝Y in pretty much any way we please. Each function we create this way is nameable, but only because it is finite. Imagine instead doing this for an infinite field, with each input going to a random output. Out of all possible functions mapping ℝ to itself, almost none are continuous, and thus almost none are differentiable. Almost all of them are not even constructable in any systematic way. They are, ultimately, not really understandable by us humans right now, which is why we don't really have people doing math work on those topics at all.


Mathematics in the Natural Sciences

So far, we've established that, in pure mathematics at least, the vast majority of functions are not understandable by humans today. Thankfully, we understand a lot about differentiable functions (and some others that are easily constructable, like additions of multiple different differentiable functions separated by kinks, stepwise functions, &c.). As has been pointed out previously, the natural world uses differentiable functions all over the place. Modern physics is awash with these types of functions, and they all do an extraordinary job, giving us an amazing amount of predictive power across the spectrum from the very large to the very small. Nothing in what I'm about to say can take anything away from that in the least.

But it occurs to me that although it is uncontestedly true that almost all the useful-to-us functions governing the natural world around us are also differentiable functions, it may be that this is true for anthropic reasons, not because of some underlying feature of ultimately-useful-functions-in-the-natural-sciences themselves.

I'm not at all sure that this would actually be true, but it doesn't seem to contradict anything I know if to suppose that there may be a great many functions governing the natural world that aren't differentiable, and that the only reason we don't use them in the natural sciences is because we can't currently understand them. They are uncountable dust, opaque to us, even if, one day, our understanding of mathematics and natural science improves enough so that may eventually use these functions to make predictions in just the same way that we currently use differentiable functions. In short: the reason why almost all useful functions are differentiable is because we really only can usefully read differentiable functions. It is not (necessarily) that the useful functions in the natural world all happen to be differentiable.


Ockham's Razor

One counterargument given to me in the facebook thread involves Ockham's razor:


They are saying that while there may be no reason that this supposition might be true, we shouldn't think that it is true because, by Ockham's razor, we should prefer the hypothesis that doesn't include these extra not-yet-discovered non-differentiable functions that have predictive power over the natural world.

Before I respond to this, I feel that I have to first look more closely at what Ockham's razor actually does. I'll quote myself from Why Many Worlds is Correct:

The law of parsimony does not refer to complexity in the same way that we use the word in common usage. Most of the time, things are called "complex" if they have a bunch of stuff in them, and "simple" if they have relatively less stuff. But this cannot possibly be what Occam's razor is referring to, since we all gladly admit that Occam's Razor does not imply that the existence of multiple galaxies is less likely to be true than just the existence of the Milky Way alone.

Instead, the complexity referred to in Occam's razor has to do with the number of independent rules in the system. Once Hubble measured the distance to cepheid variables in other galaxies, physicists had to choose between a model where the laws of physics continue as before and a model where they added a new law saying Hubble's cepheid variables measurements don't apply. Obviously, the model with the fewer number of physical laws was preferable, given that both models fit the data.

Just because a theory introduces more objects says nothing about its complexity. All that matters is its ruleset. Occam's razor has two widely accepted formulations, neither of which care about how many objects a model posits.

Solomonoff inductive inference does it by defining a "possible program space" and giving preference to the shortest program that predicts observed data. Minimum message length improves the formalism by including both the data and the code in a message, and preferring the shortest message. Either way, what matters is the number of rules in the system, not the the number of objects those rules imply.

What's relevant here is that while it is true that this argument is introducing vast new entities in the form of currently ununderstandable functions that may have predictive power, it is not introducing a new rule in doing so. Those ununderstandable functions certainly do exist; they're just not studied because studying them wouldn't be useful. So the question is: does saying that they might have predictive power introduce a new hypothesis? Or does it make more sense to say that of course some of them have predictive power; we just can't use them to predict things because we don't understand those functions. If the former, then Ockham's razor would act against this supposition; if the latter, then Ockham's razor would act against those who would claim that these functions can't have predictive power.

It's unclear to me which of these is the case. I don't want to play reference class tennis about this, but the latter certainly feels true to me. The analogous Borges' Library of Babel certainly shows that an infinite number of these non-differentiable real-world functions will have predictive power (though maybe not explanatory power?), but this isn't sufficient to say that MOST functions with predictive power are non-differentiable. I think that probably most functions with predictive power are in fact differentiable -- but I'm not at all certain about this, and that's why I'm arguing for that side. I think that others are wrong to so quickly dismiss the idea that most functions with predictive power might be non-differentiable. They're probably correct in thinking that it's wrong, but the certainty with which they think it is wrong seems very off to me. Hopefully, after reading this blog post you might agree.


edit on 10 December 2020: Neural Nets

Originally I ended this blog post with the previous paragraph, but Ben West points out that neural nets have a black box that uses functions very like what I've described to make actual real-world predictions:


My confidence in this idea has increased upon realizing that there already exist at least some functions for which we do not know if they are differentiable or not that definitely have predictive power. It's important to point out that it's still possible that this thesis is wrong; it may be the the black box functions that neural nets find are all differentiable, and, in fact, that even still seems likely to me, but I definitely now give more credence to the idea that some might not be.

06 December, 2020

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dark Lord Sassaflash

The Rise and Fall of the Dark Lord SassaflashThe Rise and Fall of the Dark Lord Sassaflash by Dromicosuchus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the world of My Little Pony, the Dark Lord Sassaflash is a necromancer with ambition. But to accomplish her great tasks, she needs not only her apprentice, Sweetie Belle, but also a dedicated (not too intelligent) minion who can do her bidding. But who would be willing to take on such a job?

This fanfiction take on My Little Pony has a Lovecraftian aesthetic, yet it fits in perfectly with the show's canon. The Dark Lord Sassaflash wants to take over the world, but she thinks about doing so in just the way you might expect a denizen of the MLP universe to, and all the characters stay in character throughout the story. These are the kinds of fanfiction that I find most impressive — the author Dromicosuchus has successfully crafted a story that not only uses characters from the universe but has done so without taking you out of that universe, all while adding significant plot-relevant aspects to the larger mythos.

I came in expecting a short rationalist-style fanfic; I left having enjoyed a rare treat. I give it five stars not because it is a grand adventure that everyone must read, but because it sets out to be a rational Lovecraftian-style story set in the MLP universe, and it succeeded perfectly. Maybe I wouldn't recommend this to everyone, but only because you'd need to want to read MLP fanfiction and have interest in the Cthulu mythos to really properly enjoy this. Very well done, Dromicosuchus. I only wish I could see a sequel to this one day.

View all my reviews

12 November, 2020

Exploreum in the '90s

Pierre Le Moyne D’Iberville

My favorite place to be in Winter 1996 was wherever she was. Like most boys at that age, I was infatuated with someone I found impossible to stay away from, so when she wanted to drive downtown to explore the "big" city of Mobile, I gladly followed along.



Ervin S. Cooper
Mobile, Alabama, was a city of 200k residents back then, and the city was then actively working on making the downtown area a much nicer place. Cooper Riverside Park first opened in December of that year; we would frolic and gaze and rest and vigorously enjoy ourselves there. Nearby was the Adam's Mark Hotel (now known as the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel), the tallest highrise hotel in Alabama at 28 stories. Despite its size, the foyer would be deserted at 3 a.m., save for the person on duty behind the desk, so I could play their grand piano to an audience of just two for forty-five minutes or so. I wasn't terribly good, but that didn't matter; it was wonderful just to have a grand to myself for a few minutes each night, regardless of the quality of my playing. We never went to bars, or interacted with others beyond a word or two. We just walked from park to park, sampling the smells of azaleas and camellias, sitting on benches next to statues, and finding secluded green areas for privacy. We took full advantage of the new downtown developments as they came up. By 1998, the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center and IMAX Dome Theater opened across the street; I flashed the news crew as it filmed the Exploreum's grand opening live for the evening news; it was the first (and hopefully last) time I've ever been stark naked on live television.

Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel
Later, when I was by myself, I still loved visiting downtown Mobile. I would go well after midnight and stalk the platforms of the Arthur C. Outlaw Convention Center. I would lie on the grass at Cooper Riverside Park and listen to the waves gently crash against the pier. I would gently ask the Adam's Mark receptionist if I could play the grand piano so often that the employees working at 3 a.m. would eventually just immediately gesture to the piano the moment that I would walk in. I would play light jazz, improvising notes with my right hand while holding a basic chord progression on my left. I would (poorly) play songs by Nobuo Uematsu, often slowing down during the hard parts that I hadn't yet learned. I would play more than I would play.

St. Josephs Chapel organ by Heissler
(Even later, in 2003, I would spend two nights each week going up to the Heisler tracker pipe organ at St. Joseph Chapel at 3 a.m. to continue the tradition, though I'd almost always play to an audience of none there, and I'd immediately stop if anyone came into the chapel. No one needs to hear me play Uematsu's Dancing Mad at three in the morning when they've come to the chapel likely for guidance of a very different kind.)

These memories mean little to whomever ends up reading this. But it's not written for you; it's written for me. To me, these memories are precious. They're moments of time frozen in amber back when I was too immature to realize that the world didn't revolve around me. They're memories of a self with so much naiveté that, even now, I cannot fathom how I could possibly think the way that I did. They remind me of happy times, but, also, of the shame that comes with not appreciating it the way that I should have. They help to ground me in the changes that I've made over the years — they cement the surety I feel that the many dividing lines between then and now are worthwhile and good. They make me more fully appreciate the joy I feel in the simple pleasures I take in the here and now.

The deep regrets I have for what my ancestor did may loom large, but these memories help to remind me that no man is pure evil. That the error was in grasping too hard, in assuming that fate had a plan, in tasking myself with making it work instead of letting it go. The error, too, was in my drastically poor choices, but, behind that, it was an error of faith. I stand here ever so grateful that I will never again make that category of error.

11 November, 2020

Taking a Walk

 4:12 a.m. EST

I'm a little late for my walk. It's much better to go at 3:30 or so; that way I don't run into anyone and I can keep my mask in my pocket. Starting this late means by the time I get back I might run into early morning dog walkers. In years past, I would have just canceled. My desire to be alone would have been just too great. But after my health scare earlier this year, I promised myself I'd do these walks at least thrice a week. I have to go.


4:27 a.m. EST

I reach the tunnel. It's dark. I can see only a few feet in front of me if I use the tiny low power LED flashlight on my keychain. Without the light, I can see nothing. The first few steps crunch the fall leaves near the entrance. My heart picks up a beat, even though I know no one is here. It's silent. Each step echoes lightly. It's a strange sound; maybe I should have worn something other than crocs for this walk. I move my phone up to take a short video, illuminating the graffiti on the sides of the tunnel as I walk past. I'm careful to just use the small light on my keychain; if I turn on my phone's flashlight, it will be too bright, and it will break the illusion. Another step echoes, and I catch a reflection from above. It's the covering for fluorescent ceiling lights, but they're all turned off. They're always turned off. I wonder when they are ever turned on. After a few more steps, I reach the center of the short tunnel. Above me is the 'main' road. No cars at this time of night, though. I close my eyes and inhale deeply. It smells of... well, the same as outside, really. The tunnel is too short and too shallow to have its own smell. I smell the trees; the leaves; the breeze. No stale air here. I'm disappointed yet again in how not-scary it is, despite the darkness. Despite the seemingly encroaching walls. It occurs to me that the echo is not weird because of my choice of footwear — it's the accordion fold shape of the metal walls that distort the echo so.



5:10 a.m. EST

I like living in this community. Neighbors live in small houses, big houses, townhouses. There are garages, people parking in the streets, driveways, parking lots. Some places look well tended, with the leaves absent from the ground; others have piles. This one appears dilapidated. Next door is a man-made basin, only half full. The water is green, and signs say to stay away. Yet I know that a half mile behind me is a much larger natural creek, beautiful and full of life. The disparity so close together is what makes me really enjoy this area.


5:26 a.m. EST

I arrive at my doorstep. I feel successful, though I encountered no deer tonight, as I sometimes do. I don't always feel great; times have been tough lately. I'm worried about the country I live in, half of whose voting inhabitants wanted Trump to be reelected. I'm worried about several members of my family, who only recently contracted COVID-19 and aren't yet getting better. I'm worried about life. And death.




But at least I got some exercise today without having to put on a mask.

12 October, 2020

My Interactions on Reddit


"Ew. Why are you celebrating thirteen years on Reddit? What a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Aren't they all chauvinistic red-pillers that post weird Pepe the Frogs?"

Why, yes, Reddit is certainly home to a lot of people with bad ideas, but that's mostly because Reddit is home to a lot of people. I've had a lot of interactions on Reddit that I've found insightful and worthwhile. Here are just a few that I've personally participated in (I'm u/EricHerboso):

The Best Philosophy Podcasts from r/philosophy

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Deathwing Every Turn from r/hearthstone

Star Trek First Frontier (2020) Fan Film from r/startrek

07 October, 2020

Why I Value Sleep

From the now defunct study-hack site.
I've always highly valued sleep. On the EA Forum, I've argued that sleep should be prioritized. I've always enjoyed the dozen or so seconds after I first wake, when my brain continues to filter out all sounds, sleep-paralysis-style. My dream worlds never cease to fascinate me. More than half of the times I go to sleep, I find myself dreaming lucidly, and I almost always enjoy it. I've even taken the time to attempt experiments in my lucid dreams, to see whether I can do meaningful work while asleep.

When listening to others describe their lives, I have always been surprised that no one seems to value sleep nearly as much as I do. Is it just because they are more focused on earning money? Or accomplishing value in the real world? Maybe it is because they don't have lucid dreams at all. Maybe they can't even remember their dreams. These are all increasingly good explanations, but it was only recently that I realized why I in particular might be overvaluing my dreams in particular.

I have aphantasia, which means I cannot visualize things in my daily waking life. But, in my dreams, I can visualize spectacularly well. I can direct my dreams in all kinds of ways, and I can experience them visually. For me, this is a unique experience that I never have while I am awake. But I only just realized recently that my everyday lived visual experience was radically different from others', and so I never fully understood why, to me, the experience of dream worlds felt so very real. Yet now it is obvious: for others, it is no big deal that they can visualize in their dreams; whereas, for me, it is a uniquely real-feeling experience that I can resume and direct each night on demand.

Of course I value dreams (and therefore sleep) so much more than most people. It feels so obvious now, in retrospect. But this was something that I've thought about for decades and have only just now understood.

25 September, 2020

Thirteen Years on Reddit

Ace cake by MJ Buell.

Today is my cake day. I joined reddit 13 years ago, only a few months after Conde Nast bought it from the original founders.

At the time, I was a webmaster and I joined reddit because I wanted to experiment with how marketing on reddit affected web traffic. I wrote a couple of trash articles that I knew would not be popular on my own and then posted links to them on reddit using a few different accounts. In one, I just posted a link that copied the bland title. In another, I posted the link alongside a catchy title. In the last, I posted the link with a fake (but catchy) title that had nothing to do with the blogpost. As you might expect, the second approach worked best, and I used this completely nonscientific experiment as the basis for chapter 4 in an ebook I wrote back then about Email & Social Marketing.

Although my purpose for joining reddit ended after only a month, I stayed and became a regular redditor, like everyone else. I only ever upvoted the stuff I really liked, so it’s been interesting going back in my own history to see what I liked throughout the years. I feel like I’ve changed as a person so very much in the past 13 years.

Thirteen years ago is a long time ago. 2007 was the year that the iPhone was introduced. Nancy Pelosi became the first female speaker of the house that year. Tumblr was launched. Mauritania became the last country on earth to officially criminalize slavery. Words like “hashtag”, “netbook”, “retweet”, “Latinx”, “coworking”, “crowdfunding”, and “colony collapse disorder” were added to the dictionary. Trump was on Wrestlemania.

Thirteen years is a long time to be doing anything. When I was 13, my first sister was born. For a long time afterward I still considered myself basically an only child because I never had a sibling my age. The group I most identify with, Effective Altruism, is not yet even 13 years old. Thirteen years is longer than most people spend in primary education. I’ve been on reddit for a very long time.

And yet, in all these thirteen years, this is the first time I’ve remembered to post on my cake day.

21 September, 2020

Killer Queen Black

My first KQB (casual) tournament win.
Yesterday, my team, Eezy Beezy KG, won the Killer Queen Black weekend event. It was quite exciting -- although I can't help but to feel as though I was carried through most of the matches. Our queen, Matt "KG28", is among the best queens in the game, and so it isn't hard to see why I may feel this way. The event was a draft; I was, understandably, picked dead last. I really enjoyed the experience. Our run was livestreamed on Twitch.

Katherine's first KQB win.
The KQB community is relatively small. Katherine has said that she thinks she knows at least half of the KQB players that are on discord at the acquaintance level. I don't play enough to know that many, but her claim is easily believable given how many of the same people I keep seeing show up in the discord. (Later, KQB will be launching on Xbox Game Pass, which I expect will dramatically increase the player count. But, until then, it still feels like a manageable playerpool.)

Katherine has played this game significantly more than I have and is rated 200 ELO points above me. She's also won a draft weekend event, but, even more impressively, she won second place in a solo weekend event, repeatedly winning with different teammates in every game. I'm looking forward to seeing what IGL team picks her up for the fall circuit 2020.

It feels really nice to play in a community like this. I haven't enjoyed a truly competitive game like this since StarCraft, and this has the added bonus of being team-based. It's a game of skill and strategy, but unlike most other competitive games, it's also a game of attention. Knowing when and where to put your attention is as important as being able to platform well, dodge opponents, and hold parts of the map.

highly recommend the game to anyone who wants to seriously compete. The only warning I'll give is that it's notoriously difficult to play as the queen, rather than as a worker. If you're a beginner queen, you really need to train with people on discord first before playing in ranked. This was a tough start for me and my friends; when we got the game, we would queue in ranked as a four person beginner team and we would rotate as queen each game. It was a terribly demoralizing way of starting the game, and I almost feel like the game itself should disincentivize you from starting the game by playing in the way that we did.

If you're interested, here're all the links you need. The most important ones are the link to purchase the game and kqbdiscord.com, which lets you interact with the greater community. If one of my friends decides to play KQB, please let me know! I'd be glad to team up with you for some games. (c:

17 September, 2020

Emotions

I laughed and cried when I was young. I have no reason to think that I had any less emotion than other children at that age. But at some point in my young adult life, I got it into my head that I could suppress the outer trappings of emotion -- the frowns or smiles, the laughs or tears -- and over time that outer suppression affected (or at least seemed to affect) my own inner feelings.


There was a period of about fifteen years or so where I'm not sure that I laughed or cried at all. Not just outwardly, but on the inside, too. Sure, I smiled at times, but only, I think, on purpose, to fit in, to seem like I was a part of the group. Did I do this to myself? Maybe. But I can't help but feel, after listening to others talk about their emotional lives, that there had to be some sort of natural low-emotion state that I was in in the first place, if I were able to so dramatically suppress certain emotions so easily for so long.

One of the reasons that I fell in love with My Little Pony (G4 FiM) was that its episodes taught me to feel again. I remember sitting there, deeply depressed, turning on those first few episodes and learning, perhaps despite myself, about what it really meant to be a good friend.

I was lying on the couch when I first watched Arrested Development. I don't know which joke it was, but at some point halfway through the first episode, I laughed. --and it was.... I think I missed the rest of the episode, not really paying attention to it anymore. Instead, I was in my own head, thinking and wondering if this really was the first time I'd spontaneously laughed in the last decade and a half. By the time I watched Community later that year, I found myself perfectly able to enjoy laughing at what I felt was funny, without needing to go through all that self-reflection.

Fiction has been especially impactful for me recently. I've found myself crying during shows, crying after reading reddit posts, crying at story beats in my video games. I don't know what caused the changes. I don't think I'd been intentionally suppressing emotions all those years; it just became unintentional habit. But now I seem to be making up for lost time? Or maybe they're hormonal changes after my recent medical issues. It's hard to say.

I'm just glad that I'm experiencing these emotions more fully now. Maybe I'm not nearly as far on the sociopathic spectrum as the PCL-R would have me believe.

(Writing this post reminds me of The Drought, except I think I'm being more honest here than I was there. If I had to rewrite that piece, I'm not sure that it would even make sense to publish it after all the corrections.)

09 September, 2020

Donning a Mask

When I go walking, I bring a mask with me, but I don't actually put it on. My walks generally take place around 3:30 a.m. and the only beings I tend to meet during these walks are the occasional deer or rabbit. But I keep it at hand in case I do run into another human.

Gogo, mimic.

At home, I'm always maskless. When I visit family, I wear a face shield when people are close and nothing when people are further away. (It's a pretty weak face shield, but it just feels too cumbersome to wear a full mask around family members who've promised me that they've been careful due to my recent health problems.)

I never spend time in public anymore. I haven't gone to a store of any kind since March. The only exceptions would be the drive through pharmacy runs that I've done occasionally. All our groceries are delivered. I've been buying anything that needs to be bought almost entirely through Amazon.

So far, our household has remained COVID-19 free.

But when it comes to my online presence, I haven't worn a mask in nearly thirty years. When I was young, I was a serial liar. I lied for the fun of it, just to see what people would believe. I'm not proud of how I acted in those days. It was especially bad in my online life. To strangers, to friends I met online, even to an at-the-time minor celebrity (Anthony Bourdain, who hadn't yet become an executive chef and was known then only as a minor author), I lied successfully enough to maintain a variety of relationships indefinitely. Eventually, when I had had enough of these antics, I made a promise to myself that, from then on, anything I did or wrote online would be under my real name. I figured this would help me to act more appropriately.

It helped.

I used "EricHerboso" or "Eric Herboso" almost everywhere, except on dating sites, where I used "EricJHerboso" instead to deter them from showing up too high in the search results. (At the time, Google wouldn't return a page with "EricJHerboso" if you searched for "Eric Herboso". This is no longer the case.) I still lied from time to time -- it was a tough habit to break -- but eventually I was able to be proud of the things I said online.

However, after decades of going solely by own name online, I've reached a point where I'm okay with having a small nom de plume. I'm going to restrict its use to writing fiction online, so I won't be tempted to use it in places where I actually participate in open discourse online, like on reddit, wikipedia, or on the effective altruism forum. But I've been wanting to publish some light rational fiction, and I think using a pen name for that purpose (and that purpose alone) will be fine.

I guess saying that I'm doing this on my public blog is my way of justifying breaking that initial promise I made to myself more than twenty-five years ago.

01 September, 2020

Cognitive Dissonance

It is perhaps the worst feeling I have ever felt. Constantly reviewing my own thoughts, balancing the requirements of those I call friends against the tenets of the enlightenment spirit that I have so long held dear. I feel...so wrong. I have cognitive dissonance.

Yesterday I experienced the most embarrassing moment of my life thus far. It was during a board meeting, where we were discussing the medium- to long-term strategic plan of the organization. I was already feeling uneasy due to both personal and medical issues preceding the call. Suddenly, right when I was in the middle of explaining something, my mind went blank. I faltered, mid-explanation, and just couldn't go on. It was horribly embarrassing.

And yet it isn't the most horrible feeling I've ever had. As embarrassing as breaking down mid-explanation in the middle of an important board meeting was, it is nothing when compared to the cognitive dissonance that constantly barrages my inner self. I loathe feeling this way. Yet it isn't going away.

On the one hand, we have a terrible miscarriage of justice. People of the global majority are held back in so many ways, and we must do something to stop it. This is completely and utterly true; I have no doubt on this issue.

However, it is not enough to say that something is wrong, that something is unfair, that something is a travesty, and that it should be changed. There is also the issue of triage.


One of the tenets of effective altruism is the concept of not just doing good whenever possible, but discriminating which actions should be taken so that we accomplish the most good. Sometimes, this means that we consciously choose to allow some to be hurt, so long as it helps substantively more in the long term. Sometimes it means that we sacrifice some good now in order to create far more good in the long term. Sometimes it means staying in Omelas, not because we are callous, but because Omelas is not a minor village, but instead a collection of individuals so large that it perpetually overwhelms any considerations of what is going on in the village center.

I believe that the benefit of better taste from a burger is not worth the harm done to a cow by harming it. Yet when Burger King, a fast food restaurant who is responsible for harming many, many cows decided to sell non-meat patties several years ago, I was ecstatic. I gave them patronage many times, and I encouraged others to try out their veggie patty. I did this knowing full well that they still harmed many, many cows -- but I was nonetheless outrageously happy that they were making it easier for people to abstain from meat and still be able to eat fast food. They were making it easier for people to eat less meat, which I felt would, in the long term, help to reduce overall suffering. When impossible burgers came out, I went even more gung-ho, taking many friends and family to Red Robin and to Founding Farmers, so that they could see it become even more normalized. It's been fifteen years since I stopped eating meat, and these outreach efforts have caused at least three others to go vegan and many, many more to eat substantially less meat.

I suppose that if I knew the cow hurt by Burger King, I might not make this decision to be happy with Burger King so easily. There's something about the fact that I don't really empathize with such an individual cow that makes it easier for me to say: I care about reducing suffering in the long term, and so I'm happy with Burger King introducing a veggie patty, since it accomplishes this, even while they still are directly responsible for killing many, many cows. I can know what the right thing to do is, even while I may feel not that great about supporting what amounts to a murderous company in my eyes. But this cognitive dissonance is very light. No matter the emotion involved, I know that it is worth it in the end, and so the dissonance does not bother me very much.


Then I read White Fragility, and I just feel wrong. The author even predicts that we will feel wrong, and points out that this is the titular situation itself: they claim that because I feel this way, it proves the thesis. And I don't think this is wrong, exactly. It's true that racism is everywhere, including in me. I can even cite specific racist situations in my own life where I've taken conscious action to ensure that my actions didn't unfairly prejudice others. It takes active, concerted effort to be antiracist.

But... it feels very weird to take a just-so explanation so seriously. It feels extraordinarily improper to take what amounts to be an unfalsifiable thesis as though it had to be true. It really, really bothers me that one of the main tenets of this movement is that intent is not as important as effect, and so it is improper to use the principle of charity when interpreting others' comments. Sure, it remains obvious that effect matters more when people take action. But my feelings about the core ideas of the enlightenment spirit -- open discussion, free speech, believing ideas based on evidence -- clash so strongly with the precepts held by so many advocates today. A part of me feels like I know that we have to have fair, open discussion, and so that means we have to have spaces where it is not improper to look at ideas that make us uncomfortable. And so I think, perhaps mistakenly (hence the cognitive dissonance), that we should allow space for this kind of thinking within the effective altruism movement. I don't want ideas to be verboten there; I'd much rather stomp out the racism by proving its worthlessness with open debate.

And then I turn my head behind me, and I see my friends of the global majority. They appear deflated. Beaten down. Just reading a facebook discussion where people question these things takes the energy completely out of them. They are tired. They are exhausted from dealing with uncharitable racists so often that they can no longer give people the benefit of the doubt. They continually have to take up the burden, and it hurts them. And I realize: these speech acts hurt. My beliefs in free speech, in open discussion of alternative ideals, in debate and the presentation of evidence being the ultimate arbiter of what we should agree to as truth... These things hurt my friends. And I am torn.

Because on the one side, I still really do believe in the ideals of the enlightenment. Yet I also simultaneously cannot deny that allowing free open debate unambiguously causes extreme harm to my friends. And thus the cognitive dissonance.

I don't know if the Burger King analogy holds here. In a way, it is like knowing that their introducing a veggie patty is good, and simultaneously turning to see my cow friend get brutally slaughtered by an agent of Burger King. Is this what I am feeling? Do I know that open discussion of ideas is best, and yet I falter just because I happen to know these cows? Is it because I have friends that are black, and pakistani, and native, and hispanic? Is it just that I can turn my head and see their faces that I have this feeling of cognitive dissonance?

Or is it the opposite? The position taken in White Fragility is unfalsifiable. But it is also true. I know it. You know it. All educated people know it. You can't stay neutral on a moving train. It's undeniable. And so maybe it is my faith in logic itself that is being shaken here. The author of How to be an Antiracist says that these actions we are all taking are either racist or they are antiracist. The author of White Fragility says that even if we rail against their conclusions, this just proves them correct. Anyone well versed in philosophical argument will know that these arguments are by no means fool-proof. They don't have rigor. And yet: they are nevertheless convincing because they are right.

I know that my friends are hurt by the open discussion of ideas. So where does that leave my strong belief in free speech? So far, neither side of me has toppled the other. And so I have extreme cognitive dissonance. It hurts. When I speak up in favor of free speech, I feel horrible. Because the people hurt by it are my true and genuine friends. And when I speak up in favor of limiting free speech, I feel horrible. Because I can't help but to feel like the best way to stop hatred in the long term is to openly show how utterly stupid it is. But then I look at social media. I look at Chapelle canceling his show because actual racists weren't taking his humor as enlightening, but as evidence that their inner racist feelings are correct. I look at a police chief stating that we need to warehouse black people to stop them from breeding, who claims that he's tired of hiding the feelings that he thinks all true americans have inside but which aren't openly said because everyone feels they have to be politically correct. Free speech ain't working. These people are not being shamed into being less racist. They only hid their racism to fit in -- up until Trump was elected, and now they're coming out of the woodwork. The enlightenment ideals I have held so dear for so long... is it possible that the pendulum has swung so far into the direction of hatred that it actually would make sense to ban open discussion of these ideas in EA spaces?

This is, by far, the worst feeling I have ever had. It is far, far worse than the feeling of embarrassment I had yesterday when I froze mid-explanation during a board meeting and had to just abandon the floor. And that was the most embarrassing incident of my entire life.