11 May, 2020


It's been nearly two months since I checked into the hospital, and though I've thankfully been able to spend recuperation time at home for the last four weeks, it's been a constant struggle, with home health nurses and nurse practitioners coming thrice each week, having to infuse antibiotics for over an hour every eight hours (and having to prepare 45 minutes in advance for each infusion, meaning I could only get five hours of uninterrupted sleep each night), and the constant reminder of tubes coming out of my body, with staples and stitches in various places.

So it was with great pleasure when I learned that my peripherally inserted central catheter would be removed. I dreamed of finally being able to take showers again (though, as it turns out, continuing to have a nephrostomy tube means that dream hasn't quite matured yet), and the thought of being able to roll over onto my right side at night made me downright giddy. And, if that were not enough to celebrate, I'd finally be able to remove those sutures!

Ah, but the plague that comes in the form of these mysterious sutures has driven me mad for over a month. Supposedly, you only have to cut under a knot and then pull, and they'll come right out. But first one nurse, then two, then a nurse practitioner all claimed to be unable to get it out. They didn't want to pull too hard. They couldn't see the suture properly. They were afraid that my skin had grown over it. The excuses seemed to have no end. So, for the first time since I left the hospital, I traveled to a doctor's office for the sole purpose of removing a single stitch.

This was the surgeon who put in my chest tube in the first place. It was another who stitched me up afterward. I felt so bad for wasting his time when supposedly a nurse was intended to do it. He asked: "They didn't want to pull too hard? Does it hurt?" I said no, so he pulled out a pair of tweezers, grasped the end of the string, and before a single second had passed, my suture was out. "What was wrong with those nurses," he sighed idly.

But it was what happened before this that really caught my attention.

I could hear, through the door, as he took a phone call. It was another doctor, asking for a consult. He was already familiar with the patient: positive for COVID-19, older, currently intubated, but stable. There's a good chance that they could recover -- except when they took an x-ray before removing the intubation tube, the metal object that they had seen previously had moved. "We assumed it was shrapnel embedded in tissue; but now it seems to be loose. If we remove the intubation tube, it could cause severe damage." A slight pause allowed me to hear my heartbeat ever so much more loudly.

"You'll need to inflate the tube slightly, then take it out. We have to just hope for the best."

"But that's too dangerous; couldn't we --"

"We could, but it would be --"

"I know, I know; that would be heroic --"

"No, suicidal. There's not enough capacity with COVID-19. You're thinking he could get better, and yes, he could, but he is DNI/DNR. It would be different if he had long healthy years ahead of him, but he's coming off the intubation so that he can talk to family."

"I can't…"

"Get them to do it. … I'm sorry. I really am very sorry."

"I know."

There's another pause after the phone is hung up. In a few moments, he will enter the patient room I am sitting in, and we will both pretend he didn't just have this conversation. But just then, in that moment, I recognize just how lucky I am.

06 April, 2020

What Star Trek Means to Me

Some of my favorite memories of my mother are of when we'd sit on the couch together watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. I don't generally have a good relationship with my mother. The last time I saw her, she called the police to kick me out of the house, even though we had already previously planned for me to leave the next day. The officer drew a gun on me, nearly shooting me because I didn't know enough not to reach for my shoes before walking outside. (Had my skin been a bit darker, I wonder if I might have died that night.) I ended up having to leave half of my possessions there because I had yet to pack them. Today, when I watch TNG, I remember the better moments; mother and I curled up in blankets, patient with the commercials and engrossed in the story.

Star Trek: Voyager aired just as my life collapsed for the first time. I had been young, thinking my life was destined for great things, when everything stopped as my girlfriend became pregnant. I didn't know how to proceed. We tried to get an abortion; but I lived in Alabama, and the nearest place to do so was in Atlanta, which wouldn't help us. She thought to leave the state, give birth, and then put the child up for adoption, but I felt this was too burdensome for her. We were out of options. I knew nothing to get us out of this. That's when my family suggested that I marry her. I took the suggestion seriously, bought a ring, and asked her to marry me soon after. I dropped out of school, married soon after my 15th birthday, enrolled in college, and tried to make the best of it. I failed. I was too immature for college, dropping out less than a semester later. I was too immature for parenthood, failing to properly care for the infant, doing little better than the motions required to keep her alive. I was too immature for matrimony, putting the majority of the responsibility on my then wife, and relegating my own time to mostly feeling sorry for myself. I remember thinking: This cannot go on. Something must happen that will change this situation. But I was too "honorable" to end the relationship, and too stupid to change my behavior to make it work better. Thankfully, my partner at the time was extremely intelligent and insightful; she was able to see that nothing was working and that life would be better for all three of us if she left. So, in the middle of the night, she did. I was distraught at the time, not realizing the gift she had given all three of us. The narrative of our lives had changed so drastically, but all I could do was wallow. This took the form of watching VHS videos of the first few seasons of Voyager at a friend's house. They left the door open for me. I'd walk inside, put on VOY, and veg out through entire seasons as numerous cats surrounded me. It was all that I could do to get a semblance of reality back into my life.

I had watched DS9 and ENT on my own, without any significant life events occurring at the time. They helped me to enjoy the time. But it wasn't until decades later that I first properly watched the series as a whole. Star Trek: Discovery had been announced, though we didn't know the title yet at te time, and I decided to watch all of Star Trek. It took months. I started with TOS, moved to TAS, then all the original movies, followed by a rewatch of all of TNG. To say that this made me emotional is an understatement. I watched DS9, VOY, and ENT, and then all the TNG movies. By the end, I felt ready for whatever came next. I was working 20 hour weeks throughout this time, allowing me a great deal of time to really consume so much Trek.

DIS was watched with my partner, Katherine, as it aired. It reminded me of curling up on the couch with my mother back when I was a child. DIS was filled with a sense of wonder, but also of familial love for me. I felt loved. I felt secure. I felt happy.

PIC aired as I was sick in the hospital. I would have surgery, then lay helpless in bed for days, only to later realize that the latest episode had aired. I'd wait until 3 am so that the internet wouldn't be as spotty, and then attempt to stream PIC as I lay somewhat in pain. It was a transformative experience.

Other sci-fi series are better, in terms of writing, suspense, etc. Babylon 5 back in the day; the Expanse more recently. But Star Trek still occupies an important space in my heart, giving optimism when it is needed most, and connecting back to a history of my life that I never want to forget.

Thank you, Star Trek, for being such an integral part of my life over the decades.

29 March, 2020

in hospitium

I've been in the hospital now for nearly two weeks. I've had four surgeries, several operations, and way too much bedrest. I don't have COVID-19, but its existence affects me greatly; I'm not allowed to have any visitors, I have to take several precautions so that the coronavirus patients upstairs don't infect me, and I can't look at any media at all without constantly seeing the depressing state of things just outside my hospital room window.

I have a tube from inside my kidney draining outside. I have another draining the dregs from an abscess on the same. I have a chest tube connecting the inside of my chest cavity (next to my lung) to a machine outside my body. I have a pic line in my arm that is threaded through to the base of my neck. I even have a foley catheter. Getting around is extraordinarily difficult due to the plethora of tubes and connected devices and bags, though otherwise I still have enough energy and strength in my legs and arms to move about as much as I would want.

I'm grateful to have a laptop available, alongside a fan that helps keep me cool. I truly appreciate the immensely comfortable purple cushion that's on the chair in my room. I love my Nintendo Switch, alongside the relaxing Animal Crossing, which has dominated my playtime. I adore the posters Katherine drew for the cabinet in front of me; they show Jasper, my feline housemate, telling me to get better in various ways. I even feel good about the two stuffed animals I have here: a large Fluttershy and a slightly smaller Kapp'n.

What I'm not as happy about is how long it may take for me to get out of this. No one is sure how much longer I will have to have the JP and chest tubes, but eventually they must be removed. Once that happens, I can go home (finally!), but I will still have the other tubes and will need to inject antibiotics for six weeks or so. Afterward, I need to come back into the hospital for yet another surgical procedure, followed by the removal of the rest of my tubes. At that point, they check on me, and it has to be determined whether I will need a kidney removed entirely.

I have never before experienced the levels of pain, discomfort, boredom, inability to think straight, etc., in all of my life. I will forever better appreciate the benefits of health, mobility, and capacity for rational thought.

18 March, 2020

Illness in Quarantine

I'm probably not dying, but I feel horrible.

The COVID-19 quarantine has made the local clinics too iffy to go to. My condition would need to worsen first, I think, before I risked a visit for this illness.

Yet it is so miserable. Near constant pain the temples, continuous overheating of my face and forehead (yet my internal temperature rules out a fever), and an abdominal issue that defies my understanding.

There is a dull ache, not quite pain, but more like discomfort, localized on the far left of my abdomen. It is somewhat low down, and it is situated well beneath the skin, so I can only point to its location. If I contort my torso in different ways, it can hurt, like a very small cramp. But otherwise it just exists. Combined with this, I feel no appetite. Eating foods of any kind doesn't really appeal to me. It's been this way for several days. This means I am now hungry, wanting nutrients, but with no appetite whatsoever. I don't know how to respond to such problems. My current plan is to call a professional to determine whether I need to risk going to a clinic.

If feels serious enough that I've typed out a last will and testament on the desktop of my laptop. But at the same time, it feels so silly to worry about dying that I feel embarrassed about writing out this blog post. Damn silliness heuristic. I honestly can't do any serious rational thought right now with this amount of pain in my head. I need to take additional pain-killers.

Edit on March 20:
It turns out that I had a lot wrong with me.Two surgeries down so far, at least one but more to be scheduled in coming weeks. I will explain more in depth later, but suffice to say that this is, bar none, the most painful and life-altering experience in my entire life.

27 February, 2020

Review: Unsong

UnsongUnsong by Scott Alexander

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine that Judaism is actually true, and this becomes glaringly obvious when the Apollo mission bumps into the firmament and miracles start happening across the world.

Author Scott Alexander takes us on a wild ride in this alternate-history-esque story, filled with puns galore and references to all the kinds of things that people in the effective altruism and/or rationality space care about. While the story is not an example of rationalist fiction, people who like rational fiction will probably really like this novel.

Some of the revelations in the book are especially excellent, and the philosophical positions portrayed as truth in this world make for excellent world-building. Without spoiling anything, the position taken on the problem of evil is exceedingly close to my actual favorite response IRL (minus p-zombies for fairness reasons); and the various descriptions of what the cognates of our real-world people are in this fictional universe is beyond compelling.

The book doesn't take itself too seriously, preferring to set up puns constantly, but while that would be annoying in other books because other authors would be sacrificing the story to make those puns, Alexander actually weaves these puns as actual story points. Kabbalah is real here, so knowing how to make links between things by using their names and connections to other things is a real part of this book's world. Chapters that at first may seem to only be written for the sake of a pun are thus revealed to be information that legitimately propels the story forward. I've never read another book that did such a good job with this.

I recommend this book to anyone who pattern matches to any two of the following:
you like puns;
you're fascinated by sephirot/kabbalah/jewish mysticism;
you like rational fantasy, but are okay with reading something rational-adjacent;
you are interested in fiction that has effective altruism as a plot device; or
you already read Scott Alexander's excellent fiction and/or non-fiction.

A word of warning: Alexander has written some great nonfiction short stories, and while none of them are a part of this book, it would be better to read Unsong first, and only then read his short fiction. Usually when I'm recommending a new author to someone, I tell them to read a short story first to see if they like the author's style, but Alexander has a tendency to re-use great ideas. So things that should come as big surprises at various points in Unsong will be spoiled if you read his other fiction (and sometimes even his nonfiction!), some of which have the same surprise as their climax. So if you are new to this author, read Unsong first. Then you can look at his other works, almost all of which I'd consider excellent as well.

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13 February, 2020

Review: Mother of Learning

Mother of LearningMother of Learning by Nobody103

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hard sci-fi pioneer Hal Clement once said that science fiction is all about the setting. Mother of Learning is fantasy, but it really takes this idea to heart.

Mother of Learning has excellent worldbuilding in terms of how things work. Everything feels interconnected in ways that most fantasy authors fail. There are some notable issues, though: the author has a tendency to use occasional metaphors that don't make sense in this setting, some characters seem to be sexist and homophobic for no real reason. (In a fantasy setting where females are equally good at magic, it makes no sense that 1950s era ideas about females would be in _any_ character, and what is the point in making any characters anti-gay when this is a brand-new world that doesn't require that kind of prejudice? (If prejudice is desired, make a new prejudice! It's fantasy, after all, and the anti-gay sentiment was never a story beat.) (Thankfully these anti-gay/anti-female sentiments only occur four times in the story and could easily be removed.))

While these seem like strong objections to the story, and they definitely took me out of the story when they occured, they only happened four times in a story so long that, if the story were published, they would only appear less than once in each book of the series. The author has already said that they intend to go back and fix these issues (and the many typos throughout the story), so I do think that these problems will be fixed before too much longer. Ultimately, I am easily able to overlook these issues in favor of the excellent rational story and awesome worldbuilding. This is easily my favorite read in 2020 so far and has earned a place in the top ten rationality stories I have ever read.

If I had to complain about something that can't easily be fixed, it would be the lack of diversity of thought among major characters. If you blacked out the name of who is speaking, there would be several points where dialogue could be coming from any of a number of characters. But Hal Clement had the exact same problem: his dialogue was atrocious, and yet he was able to write some of the best hard scifi stories anyway just from worldbuilding alone, and the same is true here for Mother of Learning. Its flaws do not take away from the fact that this is a great story that I would recommend to anyone interested in rational fiction or hard fantasy.

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25 January, 2020

Today, I almost died.

The shower felt so good. Warmth running down my skin. Nasal passages clearing up. I rested, allowing my body to take it all in.

The coughs from my cold still came every minute or so. My throat needed a rest. So I decided to gargle -- that's a thing that people do, right? To soothe one's throat? But this water wasn't coming from a small cup; it was raining down with force from above. Holding the water in my mouth proved to be too much, and I breathed a small amount in.

Instantaneously my body put up warning signals. I coughed immediately with full force, but nothing came out. Short of oxygen already from attempting to store water in my mouth for gargling, I coughed again, somehow pushing out a volume of air that nonetheless seemed to have no oxygen in it. I gasped, dropping nearly to my knees, the water from the showerhead patting my back steadily as I nearly keeled over, seemingly encouraging me to get it out of my lungs.

Only a tiny amount entered my lung.
I probably wasn't in any real danger,
but it certainly felt that way.
A third cough ensued, this time with less force because I hadn't time to breathe in. It had been over ten seconds since I last took a breath, and I could no longer think beyond what I might be able to do to get this water from my lungs.

I tore open the shower door, hovered over the toilet, and forced myself to throw up. Water came up, but only from my stomach, and the ensuing breath sounded as though the gargling had succeeded in my lungs instead of in my mouth. My torso convulsed and another spasm pushed out yet more from my stomach. It was flowing, certainly, but the water I needed to come up was in a different pipe. I squeezed my torso before the next expulsion and...

I could breathe again. I had to do it in-between throwing up everything I'd consumed earlier in the day, but at least I could breathe. Thinking back, it felt identical to all the other expulsions, yet it must have come at least partly from my lungs, because successful breathing resumed immediately afterward.

A few minutes later, I stepped in the shower, finished cleaning up, and took care of the now exceedingly wet bathroom floor. Never again will I attempt to gargle using water pushed down into my mouth from a full-force showerhead. This blog entry is now written, so I'm going to use the next couple of hours to contemplate on my life now.

06 January, 2020

Recurring Dreams

Reading an account of another's dream is uninteresting. On this basis alone, I recommend not reading this blog entry. But I cannot ignore the things I experience in the dream state; they are too powerful, recurring often, impacting how I live out a significant (but not majority) number of my waking days. (If it influences your choice on whether to read this, know that a large portion this post goes into more than just the mere content of my dreams.)

Pictured: what I imagine others' dreams are like.
I'm an oneironaut. I'm able to choose what happens in dreams, or at least I confabulate my dream actions, which I am told is not something that most people do. However, I can't choose the setting of any of my dreams. They feel random to me, even though once I am in them, I can explore them at will.

One of the interesting parts of any dream I have is that dividing line between when I am not thinking about whether it is a dream and when I am actively asking whether it is a dream. Soon after is the answer to my question: learning whether I am indeed in a dream. But that dividing line is not so significant as the moment before I think to question and the moment that I do.

Many of my dreams are unique, but I have several recurring settings. Today, that setting was a house that is entirely invented, but which felt like a house I had previously lived in. It's particularly strange because even after I determined that it was a dream, even after I went through all the dream actions I desired, even after I opened my eyes and started looking around the room in my wakened state, I still sincerely thought that my dream was of a former house that I had lived in. It took several minutes before I recognized that this house had never been real, and that the reason it felt so familiar was because it was a home that I had dreamed of living in many dozens of times before, the last of which was over five years ago.

I can clearly see the makeup of this house in my head. The floor plans are mostly sensical, and it seems like it could very well be an actual house. But my awake self has never visited such a place. Still, it felt like an old home to me. So many things happened in that house. I can remember specific events, features, furniture, guests. One item in particular was a word game.

It is this word game that makes me want to write this down in a blog post. Some parts of the game are silly -- dreamlike. For example, each player had a hollow sphere to hold their pieces. The top hemisphere of this was bright orange. But other features made it an actually interesting game. The requirement was to provide a noun that matched a category on the left; if animal was the category, cat would be an acceptable response. But on the right you had a different type of category, a descriptive numerical one like too many, or an alarming amount. The player had to provide two words on the right: a number and another noun, like three birds. This would need to fit the description better than the opposing player's response. After being scored, the completed words would stay together, and could be used in future rounds as responses rather than creating new words. What made this word game unique was that the number of tiles provided was immense. There was no hand; you could spell anything you wanted from your entire collection of pieces. But as the rounds pass, the tiles would become fewer, and the descriptions on the right would become more specific, like not quite a dozen, or three times however many of these are in this room plus the opponent's number. This meant that a successful strategy would need to conserve tiles to be used for specific needed numbers, even while the left hand category is constantly asking for new words that you likely haven't made yet. The winner was determined by a combination of points on how well you responded to each category and how many (and what type) of tiles you had left over when another player ran out of tiles.

This is not a publishable game. It has too many pieces, requiring a set for each player. And the pieces would have to connect in some way so that they didn't break into tiles after being used. The game designer would need to provide a distribution of tiles that would account for needing to spell out numbers quite frequently, and there are certainly some letters that are used far more often there than others. (Not to mention the need for many s tiles for all the plurals.) And the right hand categories would need to get progressively restrictive in an interesting way that involves other players, without being so difficult that the game ends prematurely -- the only way I can think of doing this well is to make the number of starting tiles huge so that when you get to that stage you aren't immediately stumped.

What I find interesting here is how this is a game that I feel like I've played multiple times in this dream house, in several previous dreams. Each time I play it, the rules get more specific. I think more about how turns should be structured, how powers might steal completed words from the opponent, how end game strategy might hinge on knowing in advance what the opponent's categories will be even while being in the dark about your own, and how you can specifically use numbers or words that would make an opponent's upcoming turn particularly difficult.

And yet: I do not remember ever thinking about this game in the waking world. All of this was done in a dream state. Even though it is a bad game, it is not hilariously bad. It's just... not good. That seems pretty impressive for a game created entirely in a dream. As I woke today, I had the thought: Oh, I should pack this game to go with me when I meet Jon next weekend in Virginia. It took several minutes to realize that this is not a real game that exists in the real world.

Games such as these are just a set of rules. In my dream, I followed those rules. Was I not playing the game in my dreams, then? Not just playing a dream game, but the actual game itself. If, in the dream, I had computed 23*34, then wouldn't it be true to say that I had multiplied for real in the dream? In that same way, I think I was playing the real actual game in my dream; I wasn't just playing a dream game. How often does this happen? That a game would be designed and played in a dream, before ever being brought into reality?

I suspect it happens often. How many times have I heard of people getting inspiration from dreams on complex ideas.... The recreational math I do is simple enough to solve in the waking world; perhaps if I attempted harder puzzles I could leverage my dreams to attack them. Others seem to be able to do this, even if they aren't able to do lucid dreaming. I wonder what kind of problems work well in dreams, given that rules can be broken there. Is there some way I can repurpose my dreams to accomplish work that would be relevant in my waking life?

My intention is to start testing. I know, for example, that writing is completely out of the question in dreams. If I write something down in a dream, it doesn't stay there for when I look at it again. But if an object is placed in a room, I can look away and when I return my gaze the object remains. So I can record and manipulate data; I just can't do it using writing. But what specific kinds of things can I keep in mind? Could I place an octopus, for example, to stand in for an eight? Would that even be useful? How many items can I manipulate before the first item becomes unrecognizable?

Test one will be to look up some easy to solve puzzle online that requires manipulating several elements. I will deliberately not look up the answer, and will only look at the question and components right before going to sleep. Then, in my dream state, I will try to solve the puzzle by manipulating the elements. The puzzle should have a unique simple answer, which will be clear to me when I wake. Then, in the waking world, I will check to see if the answer is correct, and, if so, then how many entities have to be kept in mind while manipulating elements to arrive at the correct answer. Then I can do future tests to see what the limit of my dream logic's manipulable elements actually are.

Put 10 sugar cubes in 3 cups, w/ odd # in each. »Answer
One stumbling block will be that the manipulation of elements will have to be basic -- something that I can do in a dream that won't change on me later. This means it can't be word manipulation, like "seeing what you saw", nor unusual combinations, like most lateral thinking puzzles. I'm afraid that if I have to use an object in a way that doesn't mesh with my animal brain, then it will disapparate in the same way that writing does in my dreams. Will this limit what kinds of things I can solve in the dream world? Certainly, but as yet I'm not sure what would or would not qualify here.

Another concern I have is my inability to influence the setting of each dream. What if the objects I need to manipulate make no sense in the context of the setting I happen to dream in that night? Will this make it more difficult to manipulate? Or less? These are all questions that need to be answered.

But for now I suppose I should refocus on the waking world. I need to figure out what real games I should bring for when Jon visits this side of the country this weekend.