30 June, 2020

Aphantasia Realizations

From Anwinity.
Sad realizations. When people talk about undressing with one's eyes, they actually mean it. When people suffer from ptsd, they actually see it. Having only just realized that not everyone has aphantasia like me, these are newly sad realizations to me. Mindfulness tactics. Counting sheep. Memory palace techniques. Even rotating objects drawn on paper. Mental chess. Police sketch artists. Movie tropes that show characters' active imaginations. Spank bank. Seeing more than a few moves ahead in strategy games. Floor is lava. Spatial IQ tests. Seeing monsters in the dark.

My understanding of all of these things has had to be reevaluated in the past week. There are so many things that I thought I understood which, it turns out, I've hardly understood at all. Flashbacks of Wittgenstein's Tractatus. How did I not realize? How can I have read so much philosophy about qualia and yet miss such a basic thing? Fish noticing water.

Tomorrow I have yet another surgery. I saw a doctor earlier today. I have appointments for next week, for next month, for even the month after. I hear of people getting a reality check on their mortality and rethinking their life choices. Who they are romantically attached to; whether they've visited places they care about; when is the last time they spoke to their various family members. But, to me, this feeling is definitively and uniquely in the category of what else have I taken for granted?

What kinds of mental experiences have I missed out on, whether through disability or through inaction? How many more misunderstandings of mine might overturn so many ideas that I previously thought I had a handle on?

It feels good to fantasize about these things before I hit another dividing line tomorrow. It is, most of all, what I love about life.

Be well.

22 June, 2020

Blind Invidia

Recently, I learned that I have had a lifelong disability that I never previously realized that I had: aphantasia.

Aphantasia (meaning "without imagination") is a condition characterized by being unable to literally see objects when one's eyes are closed. People with aphantasia cannot visualize things.

Image is from Bebeflapula.
This relatively rare condition affects between 1–3% of the population, of which I am one. Yet despite writing a description of the condition in the preceding paragraph, I can't help but to strongly feel like my description is wrong. Of course I can visualize things; I've visualized things my entire life. Of course I can see objects in my mind's eye. How else am I able to enjoy fiction and dream so vividly and mentally rotate objects?

Yet I am definitely aphantasiac. The problem lies in my misunderstanding of how others have used words for my entire life. Every time someone has said "envision yourself relaxing on a beach," I've diligently closed my eyes and "imagined" myself on a beach. Except I put "imagine" in quotes here because I don't actually see anything at all; rather, I have a rough understanding of what it would be like if I really were relaxing on a beach. If you said to me: "are there any umbrellas on the beach?", I would respond with confusion, wondering if I'm being asked to "imagine" umbrellas on the beach or not. To me, I could say there was an umbrella there, or not, depending on what I might want. Either way, it would not be literally visual. Yet most people can apparently inspect the image in their brain to see whether an umbrella is there. If asked: "is there a cloud in the sky?", these people can just look, and then answer whether a cloud is there. But, for me, none of this is actually visible. I see only darkness when I close my eyes. When I perform what I have called "visualization" my entire life, apparently what I have actually been doing is not visualization at all, but just the listing of properties of things in relation to each other.

If you ask me to imagine a rainbow, I will close my eyes and see nothing. But I can tell you the basic shape. I can draw a curve, whether it is with my hand or by "drawing" in my "mind's eye". (But again I must use quotation marks, for what I mean when I say these things is apparently not what most people mean when they say these things.) I can list the colors of each band in order. I can say that it appears in the sky. But none of those features are inspectable. They're just lists of properties. Not written in text that I can see when my eyes are closed, just... knowledge of what a rainbow would look like, if one happened to be in front of me.

To me, this is what the word "imagination" has always meant. I never took seriously the idea that anyone could actually visualize things in their mind's eye. I never thought people were being literal when they said they could imagine a scene in their head. To me, it is just emptiness. I cannot trace the outline of my friend's body because I do not see their body when I "imagine" them. But I can quite easily draw the outline of their body at will. If given a blank sheet of paper, I cannot trace an outline, but I can move my pencil deliberately in a way that will cause an outline to appear. I am creating this outline, not tracing it. And, in the same way, I can draw a limited hazy outline of a picture in my head. When I close my eyes, it starts black and empty; but I can draw a square -- and it is still black and empty, but I nevertheless can know where its side would be if I had been able to make any marks on the blank sheet of my mind. It is like the pencil in my head does not leave marks, and yet I can still know the not-quite-drawn object's properties. I know how many sides it has, not because I can inspect it, not because I can count edges, but because I can trace where each edge would be.

It is fascinating to me that I could live so many years continuously thinking that people were speaking figuratively every time they talked about imagining things. But it is not just fascinating; it also feels...bad. It wouldn't feel this way if this lack weren't something that everyone else seems to have. After all, I don't have "incredibly stereoscopic" vision, like those 9% who absolutely love 3D media do; nor am I a super recognizer, like the 1% who recognize faces way too easily are; but I don't feel a lack with these in the way that I do with aphantasia, when 98% can imagine visually. This seems irrational to me. If I'm to feel bad about not being phantasiac, shouldn't I also feel bad about not having senses that post-singularity humans might one day have?

...Aaand this is where I start to feel really bad: after all, I've come to feel mudita in so many other areas, whether it's the compersion I've learned through being polyamorous, or the caring I've trained through watching My Little Pony, or even the attachment of fuzzies to utilons that I've painstakingly created through association over the course of my experience with effective altruism¹.

My blind mind's eye has become a source of envy. Jealousy washes over me, even when I no longer feel jealousy in other contexts. I feel bad about feeling bad, and then I start to feel bad about feeling bad about feeling bad, at which point I manually stop the cycle and try to figure out how I can come back to feeling mudita here. But it is just not natural for me. There's something about knowing that 98% of people have the good thing that I lack that makes me unable to intrinsically feel good about their having it. I don't have this problem in other contexts because, I think, it is a much smaller percentage of people who are privileged. Which makes me think: would I also feel this way for other disabilities? If I lost the ability to walk, or the capacity to talk, would I also feel these feelings that are verging on bitterness?

I don't like this aspect of myself. I'm not happy about this at all. I want -- no, I need to be a better person. Now I just need to figure out how to fix this new problem of mine.

¹ Fuzzies are separate from utilons. But if you want to pay more attention to utilons in a specific setting, you can train yourself pavlov style to feel the fuzzies when you do the utilon stuff. In my case, I wanted to feel good when I donated to EA charities. So I used the metric of how much it cost to save a life from GiveWell's figures, decided to donate in chunks of that amount to EA charities, and then mentally "imagined" myself saving someone from a burning building each time I donated that amount. I have an uncle who did this once, and I clearly recall the feeling I had when the story was told around the family dinner table decades after the fact. He was walking down the street, saw a burning building, heard someone call out from inside, and instinctively dropped everything to go in and save that person's life. Even though the story was only told to me decades after the event had occurred, I remember the mix of feelings I had: pride, strength, determination. I wanted to be able to be a hero like that. And so each time I donated a chunk of the appropriate size, I would sit and "visualize" just that. Eventually, I came to associate donating in these chunks with those imagined feelings of saving a life, and the fuzzies had become attached to the utilons.

15 June, 2020

Spine Recovery

After more than three months, my health ordeal may come to an end tomorrow. My final surgery is scheduled for 7:30 am, and it seems to all appearances that within a week I should be well enough to once again live life as I did before.

It feels a little weird to think that the world around me might share in this prognosis. COVID-19 has caused my friends and family to self-isolate for the past three months, and while they get to come out of their shells due to what our governor is calling phase one of the recovery, I will be doing the same in terms of being able to move around and be myself.

It was only last week that I received the good news that my doctor would not need to remove my damaged organ. Up until then there was the distinct possibility that I would be heading toward a major surgery, and most of my fretting had to do with what I would write in my last journal entry before the day came. But then the imaging turned out to be positive, and I learned that instead the surgery would be relatively minor. This relieved a great deal of stress, yet I nevertheless continued to oddly feel that considering what I would write in this last journal entry before the surgery should take precedence. After all, no one reads these blog entries. I write them fully with the expectation that, at best, some future person might one day be interested in genealogy and end up browsing one or two entries on this blog -- and even then I suspect this wouldn't actually come to pass for decades upon decades hence. Yet this blog, and, in general, the rest of my various journals, all seem to be a very real part of me. They hold me together like the headband and footband holds together the spine of a book.

I can't help but to continue to feel as though the phases of my life are demarcated much more strongly than how other people seem to feel. Each chapter of my life buzzes with life in its own moment, but appears (from my perspective) to be but a past self to the me of today. Even each individual page from day to day has a more tenuous connection, though it does cling somewhat. It takes special effort to visualize these divisions as illusory, just as the book spine keeps the book together. And so it is through the writing down of these stories of my life that I am able to help fortify that spine. My journal entries are, for me, the bands that support the spine that holds together my very life.

I'm not a solipsist. I care about others, even when those others are myself of yore (or sometimes the myself to be). Yet I can't help but to feel terror at the idea of losing my own existence over time. Events like this upcoming surgery compound these feelings -- though it does so somewhat less now that I've learned that it will not be major surgery after all. Still, a risk remains. That risk continues to occupy my mind as I watch videos of EAGxVirtual 2020 from this past weekend. As Toby Ord speaks of the precipice, surprisingly arguing that you don't have to care for the welfare of future beings to care about what we contribute to the greater entity that is the universe coming to know itself, I keep hearkening back to the series of mes that consist of my own greater entity, and how I should act for those who come after. How much more true is this idea if, [I] forbid, my personal greater being's line dies, and all that is left are the connections to those I love and care for most?

To those beings, whether it is myself or my friends or family or even that far-off future student of history who haphazardly came across this scrap from the dawn of the internet age, I say this: we have a kinship. Whether through the happenstance of a friendship grown upon being thrown randomly together in school, or through my having sought you out specifically due to your answers on okcupid, or through the vagaries of birth, or through the common ideals we found by mutually committing ourselves to a cause, or even, so to speak, through the common goal that unites us by virtue of us just being persons, I want you to know that I care about you. Some of you I love. Some of you I enjoy the company of. Some of you I maybe have not even seen for a very long time, or even maybe I have yet to meet. But all of you, all to a one, all that could have the capacity to read these words at all (yes, even you): you mean something to me.

Thank you for taking the time to read my words here.

And if it happens that no one ever comes to read this, perhaps because I die in surgery tomorrow and no one who mourns me thinks to read a journal that they probably don't even know is there, then that's okay, too. Because I'm writing this for me. Or, rather, for the greater entity that is me. I'm writing this to keep my metaphorical soul threaded through the thoughts of my life. To attach the who I am of today to the silly, deplorable bastard that held sway here over two decades ago. Yes, he feels separate, but he is my kin more than any others who would read this save one, and as I write this entry for him, I do so knowing that he no longer exists and has no capacity to read any of it. So if it is not read, then that is okay, for that was sufficient reason for it to be written in the first place.

10 June, 2020

Review: Permutation City

Permutation City (Subjective Cosmology #2)Permutation City by Greg Egan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I see a lot of myself in this book.

(Light spoilers follow; I think you can read this review and still enjoy the book, but if you want to go in blind, don't read this review.)

I've never killed a person, but, if I had, I wonder if I would act in a similarly perverse way as one of the characters in this book.

A character ends up breaking their life apart by rigid dividing lines, considering each section to be independent.

Dust theory is horrifying to contemplate, and it seems to be contradicted in reality by the arrow of time, but it otherwise fits so well with many assumptions I have about consciousness.

The story grips me not just because it fascinates me but because it hits upon some of the themes in my own life that nag at me from time to time.

I've never killed a person (that I know of), but, like most people, I have regrets from past lives that still affect me today.

A character ends up breaking their life apart by rigid dividing lines, as though past moments were more like past lives than an earlier self.

Dust theory is fascinating to contemplate, with threads of thoughts merging and dividing in ways that seem to not be contradicted by anything we've observed in reality.

The story grips me.

(The light spoilers above shouldn't scare you away from reading the book, and this review might even make more sense after you read the text.)

I see that the author did a great job with this book. I give it five out of five stars.

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05 June, 2020

Review: The Erogamer

The ErogamerThe Erogamer by Groon the Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way.

First, this is porn; if you aren't okay with reading porn, then you won't be able to enjoy this story. Yet I'm asexual, I don't generally read that much pornography, and while many of the porn scenes in The Erogamer did squick me out, I'm still giving the book 4 out of 5 stars overall.

Second, I tagged this book as both hard and soft fantasy. Yes, this seems to be impossible for me to honestly do on its face. But I would maintain that both tags are warranted, and I honestly like the combination. (You'll understand after you read it.)

Third, this is not really a traditionally written book. It's written as a series of posts on a forum, and in between each post you can see other real-world readers like you talking about the story. The author holds polls, including ones where readers can write-in their own options, and then the next part of the story will respect those votes. Apparently this is an actual genre that I don't have much experience with; regardless, I am convinced without even doing more than just skimming others in this genre that The Erogamer may very well be the best written story in its genre. I know it seems that I can't possibly be so sure of this without being more familiar with "questing" stories, and yet here I am, publicly maintaining just that, and feeling assured that if you read The Erogamer too, you may very well come to agree with my assertion.

The Erogamer is about a young protagonist girl who finds herself suddenly as a character in an erotic video game. She's still the same person, in the same house she grew up in, except now she can see a status screen at will, and her quests inevitably push her toward sex scenes where she gains experience and can level up. Being genre-savvy, she tries to munchkin her way through things, except she also has very human flaws that cause her to only stumble through at first. Without spoiling anything major, I will say that when she finally reaches the point where she can really start minmaxing, she suddenly finds that the eroge itself is also genre-savvy, and its goals aren't the same as hers.

I don't want to give away too much here, as the surprises you encounter when reading this story are all worth experiencing this on your own. Suffice it to say that if you have an interest in philosophy, or at least are into rationality (any story that includes a pun on the "ominous agreement theorem" gets bonus points from me), then so long as you're okay with reading porn, you may very well get as into this story as I have.

With that said, I have a couple of spoiler-lite things to say. If you want to go in blind, stop reading this review and just get started on The Erogamer yourself.

The first spoiler-lite thing I should mention is that it may be worthwhile for you to not only read the story posts that the author, Groon the Walker, posts on the thread, but also to read the thread posts written by others. None of them is an alt of the author; that would be against forum rules. Yet the story itself is dependent not just on the author writing the main story, but also the discussion generated by the readers as each new post goes up. At the time of writing this review, the story is not yet finished; ordinarily I would recommend that new readers wait until it is finished. But because this story revolves so much upon audience participation, I actually think it would be more worthwhile to start reading now.

The second spoiler-lite thing I want to mention is something that I'm a little uncomfortable about: trigger-warning-adjacent stuff. Obviously, explicit sex is in the story. As is heavily nonconsensual stuff, torture scenes, body negativity, etc. We all know that trigger warnings should occur first, before anyone reads the text, which the author does: certain sections of the story are actually only visible if you click after reading a trigger warning for the scene within. But I'm writing the following in a spoiler-lite section because I have something _meta_ to say about the trigger warnings.

There's some pretty bad ethical ideas presented in this story. The body negativity is especially bad. And it's not just written so that a character has bad ideas on body positivity, but also the narrator's voice and ways of describing scenes is really bad about body positivity. You might think that this means the author thus has bad views on it, and that the story is promoting something bad. But (and I really don't want to spoil too much here, so I do recommend you read the story before reading this full review) I believe that this is actually a story beat. There are some weird meta-things going on in this story that go pretty deep into metaphysics and other philosophy, and some of those things happen due to the frisson occuring when what the reader (aka YOU) experiences a dissonance with what you're reading (aka the TEXT). This gets deeper when you start to consider that what the author writes depends on what the readers vote on in polls, including write-in options. So YOU affect the TEXT which sometimes disagrees with you in a way that produces frisson.

For example, a character at one point describes a person as getting "more beautiful" and does gives as evidence that her breasts are bigger. At first you may think this is just that character's view, but it doesn't get challenged and then the story itself then completely legitimizes it by having the BOD stat of the video game positively correspond with breast size. Which kind of means that the author himself is legitimizing this point of view, by making the main system of the story they are writing have this be actualized. Yet at the same time, it becomes clear that this is _not_ what the author actually thinks is true, when you later see scenes outside the view of the main protagonist playing the erogame. The body negative view of equating larger breast sizes with having a better body is then shown to not being played straight, even though from the text itself at the time it looks quite a bit like the author is holding these views either explicitly or implicitly.

The same kind of thing happens when you see a character thinking that fat is bad. Followed by other characters thinking fat is bad. Followed by the world of the story itself thinking fat is bad. After reading all this, you the reader might then rush into a conclusion that the author himself is thinking fat is bad, and is actively pushing that view onto his readers. But I suspect that this is more of a modest-proposal-type situation than the author actually espousing those views. The point of the story is that you are being pushed further and further into situations that you get less and less comfortable with until you realize that the earlier things you just went along with in chapter one were also things that you should have felt uncomfortable about, too.

Now I realize that not everyone can handle this kind of fiction. Maybe you can't handle reading about rape. But even if you can, can you handle characters arguing intelligently (and perhaps somewhat convincingly) that some forms of rape are actually good? Maybe you're okay with that, too, but then do you continue to be okay with it when the description turns especially graphic? Maybe you're okay with even that, but then what about when you reach the end of one of the author's posts and see the next post by a reader who apparently viciously enjoyed reading that description? You _will_ reach a point where you feel uncomfortable in this story, especially when you truly realize that the story itself is propelled by the readers voting on what happens next in the story. It is the desires of those reading that cause the story itself to be written as it is. You cannot just scapegoat the author, because YOU are also the author. Even if you don't post in the forum thread, you _could_. Your non-participation makes the votes of those you disagree with even stronger. YOU are a part of this story in a way that you probably won't realize until _after_ you read the story yourself.

This is not to say that the author is blameless; Groon the Walker has cleverly taken a page from how John Marshall dealt with Marbury vs. Madison, granting himself power by negating votes in ways that follow from the rules of the 'questing' genre itself, acting like an evil genie monkey's-paw-style.

And there do seem to be some legitimate blind spots in the ethics of the author that bother me, though they aren't dealbreakers. He uses the word "harem" positively; I'm polyamorous, and I realize that this is legitimately the name of a specific eroge genre, but that word has too many negative connotations in today's non-eroge world to be acceptable to an outside audience (like the non-protagonists' world in The Erogamer). (This is unacceptable in the same way that the n-word isn't acceptable in a story about non-blacks participating in black culture by appropriating that word, but to a much lesser degree.) And while there is a difference between rape-with-physical-force and rape-where-the-rapist-was-using-deceit, that difference might not include a local human-scope-comparable moral difference in the same way that destroying just the Milky Way isn’t locally human-scope-comparably good compared to destroying the Virgo Supercluster. (This will make more sense after having read the text.) These are not modest-proposal-style disconnects. They seem to genuinely be a difference between how I and how Groon view the world.

Finally, the biggest issue I have is one of shame. This is a major negative trait of the protagonist that MUST be resolved by the end of this story or else it will feel unsatisfying to me. In a pretend world where a character can jump higher than physics might otherwise dictate, you can have characters be fat and/or old and yet have no drawbacks. If you can erase the health drawbacks, the speed drawbacks, the endurance drawbacks, etc., then the only reason left to look down on them is to say that they aren't desirable aesthetically. But if an erogame wants variety among hair color, freckles, race, etc., shouldn't it also include variety among body sizes and ages? This is a lesson that the protagonist should be made to learn, and so far I see only the smallest steps toward learning that type of lesson in-story.

However, even if these small flaws don't get resolved, I'll still maintain that this is among the best books I've ever read and it is very likely to be near the best in its own 'questing' genre. If I can enjoy The Fountainhead and Ender's Game despite objectivism and gay-bashing being present within them, then I can enjoy The Erogamer despite it taking a few ethical positions that I'm not okay with in real life.

Some of the math systems aren't that great, and if I were an editor, I'd suggest several changes before recommending its publication, but overall I've found The Erogamer to be an excellent example of philosophical fiction that anyone into philosophy or rationality should at least consider reading. It's the best sex-oriented fiction I've read. It’s the best choose-your-own-adventure style story I’ve ever read. It’s among the best meta-meta-stories I’ve ever read. It’s among the best weird metaphysics stories I’ve ever read. And while I disagree with the philosophies of many of the characters, the author, and even the reader-voters, I truly enjoyed the various philosophies described within. I also appreciated the unexpected ace-representation in an eroge story.

Very well done.

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01 June, 2020

Review: Nyssa in the Realm of Possibility

Nyssa in the Realm of PossibilityNyssa in the Realm of Possibility by Alicorn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You might at first expect that a rational retelling of Norton Justen's The Phantom Tollbooth would require at least that the reader be familiar with the source material. But just such an unwarranted assumption is exactly the kind of thing that this fantasy tale may cause you to reconsider.

Nyssa is a young girl who doesn't quite grasp what knowledge truly is, but who is already at the level of being able to guess her teachers' passwords. By walking through a portal into the Realm of Possibility, she goes on an adventure Wonderland-style that takes her on a journey full of references and lessons common in the rationality community. Whether it's the robin who blocks her hansom to lecture on why she's really doing what she's doing, or her half-hour friend Pomodoro who yells with a voice like an alarm bell whenever she wastes too much time, there's always something around the corner that will hearken back to the kinds of things that rationalists might find generally amusing.

Yet this is not just a case of the author making a reference-laden story that doesn't actually speak to the plot. You won't find Cory Doctorow-style references that serve just to make the reader feel good if they get the hidden reference. Yet you also won't find deep conceptually important references in the style of James Joyce that are the actual story behind the surface level text. Instead, the references that Alicorn uses in Nyssa in the Realm of Possibility are the story itself. Nyssa learns to like real learning through seeing the examples of each reference used in the story themselves. It's not just a reference to Flow; the Flow literally propels her forward. It's not just a reference to akrasia; the demon Akrasia literally shows her power by making Nyssa overcome her in the story. This is a story full of references, yes, but the references are a part of the story itself, and thus integral to the plot.

I was enamored by Nyssa in the Realm of Possibility, even though I had never read nor even heard of The Phantom Tollbooth before reading. Alicorn has done an exemplary job of bringing the reader into the world she created without needing any foreknowledge of the source text nor even (I think) the rationality concepts that she puts on display throughout the story.

I would heartily recommend this relatively short story to both children and adults, so long as they are receptive to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland-style lessons on how (and why) we might think better. This is not the best "go learning!" book I've read (that title still remains with Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity), but it is definitely within the top few. Thank you, Alicorn, for writing such an entertaining and enlightening short story.

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