26 December, 2021

Herboso Christmas Stories

After staying up all night on Christmas eve, I visited my family on Christmas morning to share breakfast, gifts, and stories. By noon, I left to go home and promptly fell asleep, not waking again until the 26th. Despite losing much of the day, I did really enjoy the time I was able to spend with my family, especially the stories portion.

My father spoke about the time he was a kid in Bolivia and fell in love with these cowboy boots in the shop window. He was told he would not be getting them for Christmas, but they were all that he truly wanted. (Natalia questioned: why cowboy boots? Because there were no super heroes in Bolivia in those days; cowboys were the super heroes.) On Christmas eve, he and his brothers got picked up in a truck to go somewhere a ways off. They jumped on the flatbed in the back and started onto Bolivia's version of a highway. To alleviate boredom, they decided to play marbles in the back of the moving truck. (Ale questions: is that like Beyblade? Yes, Ale. It is just like Beyblade.) Marbles were placed near the front edge of the flatbed, and my dad slowly backed up to get distance so he could shoot his marble. Alas, his calf bumped into the back of the truck, and he fell onto the asphalt. There his memory ends, but he was told that his head hit the ground hard, cars on the road stopped and people came to help, and he was eventually taken care of by a family member who was a doctor. Looking back, he is sure that he had a concussion. That night, as gifts were exchanged, he was not happy. He had the worst headache. But then, when he opened the present with the cowboy boots, his headache magically disappeared. He even got twin pearl-handled cap guns to go with it. (Natalia: That sounds like it would be uncomfortable. Dad: The color, Nani! There's no balls on the handle! Just the color!)

Susan talked about how everyone in the family would give her gifts, as the youngest in a large family. She especially enjoyed seeing the people who had nowhere else to go on Christmas visit them in Alexandria, Virginia. There was a spirit of kindness there that permeated the Christmas season for the Cadima family.

Natalia talked about one of her favorite Christmas memories: how Almita would make quesadillas on Christmas morning. Such simple fare: no more than tortillas with a thin spread of refried beans and freshly grated cheese popped into a toaster oven for a minute or two; yet Nani looks back on that time with much happiness. Alma has since passed on, but she remains as an integral part of the Herboso family mythos.

Ale spoke about a gift that he only has vague memories of: the soccer ball he received on Christmas morning some untold number of Christmases ago. He doesn't remember the ball exactly; he can't remember the color, for example. But it started him on a journey to becoming a soccer player, and his vague memory of the event counts as his favorite Christmas gift of all time.

I gave voice to several Christmas memories. Of the robot that I wanted as a child, like my dad's cowboy boots, which I was told I could not get but which I received anyway. (My father immediately dispelled notions of how complex the robot was: This was the 1980s, it's not the kind of robot you're thinking of, Nani!) I didn't bring up the time I was betrayed by my family when my uncle went on the roof and pretended to be Santa in order to convince me to go to bed instead of staying up. I started crying, begging them to tell Santa to go away and not visit me this year, because I didn't like how creepy it was that he was going to sneak into the house and reward or punish behavior that he should not have been able to see all year. But I did bring up the four consecutive years that I spent Christmas at a Chinese restaurant. Each time, I'd call a month in advance to ask if they'd be open and if I could get a tofurky there. They always said yes and presented me with lots of fixings on Christmas day, even though each time I called I was asking different unrelated Chinese restaurants in different states across different years.

I spoke about all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures I received one Christmas, but not about the Nintendo Entertainment System I opened one Christmas morning. (I also neglected to bring up that before the Nintendo Switch came out in March 2017, I went to a private screening event that January to play the Switch hands on months before the release date. It was my Christmas gift to myself that year.)

Visiting Columbus Memorial.
I spoke about when I spent Christmas in Louisiana with friends, in Florida with friends, and when I visited my father a few times. Once, I brought my friends with me, and we all enjoyed Christmas in DC. My dad said that the van we drove up in smelled like cannabis, though I have no memory of this and haven't ever done recreational drugs above and beyond caffeine before. I did not speak about the Christmas when I was in a house without heat and I turned on the oven with an open door to stay warm next to a tiny Christmas tree. I did not talk about the Christmas I spent shivering outside because I could not stand staying in my house, even if it was warmer than being outside. I did not speak of these not because I mind them being shared, but because it's better to share only some stories each Christmas, the better to have novel stories to share in future Christmases.

We then exchanged gifts and I went home to sleep. It was overall a short waking day for me, but it was good nevertheless. I had a good day.

23 December, 2021

Moral Cooperation with a Colleague

Oesterheld on Multiverse-wide cooperation
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the various ways that we deal with others that have values not aligned with our own. When Aumann's agreement theorem fails due to different object-level values, what’s the best way to proceed? We can't just double crux at that point. Self-modifying value handshakes? dath ilan-style pareto optimal deals?

What about when I have the upper hand? It’s a contingent upper hand, not a necessary one, so maybe I need to make decisions that benefit all potential alternate versions of me? (In what ways is this different from benefiting them-as-an-alternate-of-me?) Is this the main purpose of being gracious? I want to do the right thing at the meta level, taking into account the probability that I'm just wrong; does this mean that I should compromise object level values when there appears to be no game-theoretic reason to do so?

I have a person in my life that has a serious difference in object level values with me, and I’m in a position where I don’t have to compromise, even though interacting with them on issues that deal with those values isn't avoidable, is ongoing, and they care a great deal about this difference in our object level values. I'm considering compromising despite not needing to; but I'm also wary of setting up a perverse incentive for my future dealings.

I'm still thinking deeply on this. On the supposed value of graciousness. On when meta values should take priority over object level values. On how I'd feel if I were on the other end of this situation. (Badly, I'd expect. And powerless.) I really don't want to fall into the trope of someone who doesn't update properly.

I really need to continue thinking about this.

22 December, 2021

Review: Vampire Flower Language

Vampire Flower LanguageVampire Flower Language by Angela Castir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The problem with most romance stories is that the plot tends to revolve around a conflict that the characters see as big, but that the reader sees as small. This is because romance authors want there to be tension with the characters not being able to get together, but for the reader to desire them to be together anyway. The easiest way to achieve this is to set up a comedy of errors: a misunderstanding that would have been resolved had they been truthful, or, if the story is from before the 1990s, a misunderstanding that would have been resolved had they just had access to a mobile phone. Occasionally, the problem is a love triangle, so the conflict is because the characters aren't polyamorous; or the problem is that they live in different worlds. These stories are slightly better because they don't rely on the characters holding the idiot ball, but they never seem to reach the level of rational fiction, where the characters are thinking properly, and the conflict stems not from their errors in thought, but in differences in value.

Angela Castir (or, rather, the two-person-author team that calls itself Angela Castir) expertly navigates this hole by creating a rational romance story where the plot doesn't revolve around silly misunderstandings. (Don't get me wrong: misunderstandings do occur, but they are appropriate to the characters.) Instead, the tension of the romance story comes from the disconnect between the worldview of a baseline human during world war 2 and a very, very old vampire. Their story is realistic and sweet; heartwarming and heartwrenching. I expect fans of general vampire romance to be blown away by the sheer competence of the surrounding story and events; I expect fans of rational fiction to be blown away by the fact that the author was able to create a romance story in the ratfic genre. Regardless of where you come from, I expect you'll enjoy this story.

The remainder of this review has spoilers; please stop reading here and start reading the story itself if you haven't already. It's worth it! [Seriously, spoilers are ahead. Do not read further before reading the story itself.]

I love the themes present in this book. A gay romance in this time period would historically be seen (by humans) as entirely inappropriate in society, but the focus starts on vampire society instead, where the tension is a romance between a vampire and a human being considered inappropriate. The reader starts out thinking that this is the allegory: the inappropriateness from vampire culture's point of view mimics the inappropriateness from human culture's point of view. But by the end this reader expectation gets upended: the more important allegory here is of understanding. Can a relationship where people love each other persist when their values don't match? To what extent must those values change in order for the people to have a meaningful relationship?

The protagonist's sister is not okay with homosexuality, to the extent that she eventually refuses to be close to her brother, even while loving him; this matches the protagonist's refusal to be close to his partner, even while loving him. Seeing this parallel is what causes the character to update toward being more comfortable in his relationship, so that he does not make the same error that his sister does. More importantly, at the reader level, we now see that the value mismatch which we thought was a huge divide for the majority of the book should instead be considered a minor hurdle. It's not just the characters who update on this revelation: the readers are intended to update as well.

The Julius storyline introduces a truly alien alien: a character whose value function seems to be set in the way an AI might. As the reader is given access to Julius' internal thoughts, this seems like the scariest part of the story. A slightly misaligned AI, valuing its expectation of one's happiness rather than a person's stated goals, can easily go wrong. You see this manipulation occur freely and easily with Red (a mere human), and it is only because William (the vampire) is more competent that things do not immediately fall apart. Even so, William's competence is not sufficient to be immune to Julius' machinations; I expect that Julius was given away by their previous owner on purpose for this reason. When the story jumps ahead in the epilogue, we see that Julius has been somewhat reigned in, not by William's competence, but by Red's morals being forced onto Julius. We readers don't see Julius' internal state in the epilogue, so it is left ambiguous whether the situation is actually better or worse here, but its appropriate for the story to end here anyway, as the story we've been following is not Julius' story, but William and Red's story.

I was enthralled by the worldbuilding, but my favorite part of the book was how characters would ask questions that I, too, would ask if I were in that situation. This allowed me to partially self-insert myself into the story, a feat that is exceedingly rare in romance novels, given that I am poly and asexual. I really appreciated the way that characters sought out information. What I didn't like was that so much of that information remained hidden, even to the end! I recognize that further stories in this world are going to be told, and so it is appropriate to leave dangling threads. But it was unsatisfying all the same. I am left wanting more!

One note I would give to the authors for future stories: please consider restricting the reader's point of view to a single character. Although it would have made for a different book, had the entire novel been written from Red's point of view, then that could have included a mystery element for the readers: is William sincere? Should we also want Red to run away? But by letting us see into William's mind, this possibility is lost completely. I recognize that's not what you were going for, so it's unfair to complain about this. But this could have been done at least with Julius and it would not have changed the story too much. By letting us see into Julius' mind, we get access to knowledge that cuts the tension too much. I honestly believe it would have been better to never allow us access to Julius' thoughts, so that readers could be honestly divided on whether Red's or William's point of view were best. This would have added to the tension of the split that occurred. I hope in your next book you take care to only allow the reader access to more limited points of view to allow for more mystery in your story beats.

Even if this weren't an exceedingly well written book, I would still recommend it for the novelty of being in the rational romance genre. However, this book is genuinely well written, with rational characters and tension that realistically flows from the worldbuilding set up by the authors. I enthusiastically recommend this to anyone interested in either rational fiction or vampire romance.

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20 December, 2021

Loving Life

A small selection of why I'm not depressed.
I love life.

Sometimes I read posts by people who are depressed. A common theme is that they feel that life is not worth living. At times, I have wondered if I have depressive tendencies: I’m lazy to a fault; I spend much of my free time sleeping; it takes a lot to get me in a good mood; my idea of a day well spent involves lots of playing games while at home and ordering in so I don’t have to cook. On a 0–10 scale where 0 is no happiness and 10 is all the happiness, I’d consistently rate myself at 1. Yet maybe this is more because I can imagine a lot more happiness than I’ve ever felt, as opposed to me being less happy than I’d otherwise expect.

But when it comes to life, I’d always prefer more of it. This is the primary reason why I avoid ever saying that I am depressed, no matter how down I may get.

Life just has so much to offer. How amazing is it that we can reason about obvious necessary truths sufficiently far that we can make unexpected discoveries about other not-at-all-obvious necessary truths? In the latest Star Trek: Discovery episode, much is made of the aphorism that “all is possible”. Yet isn’t it so much more amazing that we can discover for ourselves that some things are not just contingently false, but necessarily impossible?

I’ve also been watching Ted Lasso, where a common theme is about the intersection of virtue ethics and deontological ethics. As a consequentialist, I find it fascinating to see how flawed protagonists work within a world where they believe certain actions are right, even while I, as a viewer, think they are just plain wrong. I know that I’m reading more into the writing than was intentionally put there; Plato was certainly right when he said that some poets can’t see the beauty in their own poetry. But watching shows like this makes gives me an enjoyment of life that is outsized from the quality of show it is. Ted Lasso is nowhere near the epitome of good television (The Wire it is not), and yet it, like other shows at its level of quality (Friendship is Magic; She-Ra; etc.) still give me significant enough enjoyment that I’d strongly prefer to continue watching them than to end my life, ceteris paribus.

Fiction aside, I really enjoy video games. Even not-so-great games give me thrills that I don’t get elsewhere in life. I just finished Grandia, which irritated me for not being nearly so challenging as I might like (even with zero-attack weapons, it’s just way too easy to beat the final boss), but I still really enjoyed it. This generalizes, I think. So much in life consists of these simple pleasures: seeing the trees change as they grow; feeling the wind in my hair when I go fast; finding an unexpected result in recreational mathematics; slipping on the most luxurious socks in the world; competing at your best in the Bee Game League; interacting with siblings during the holidays. There’s just so much enjoyment to get out of life.

Much of that enjoyment comes from Katherine. She truly is an ideal partner for me. She supports me in every way that I need to be supported, and the things she needs help with correspond closely to the things that I most able to help with, with few exceptions (e.g.: dishes!). I get a lot out of relaxing with her; debating with her; dissecting reality with her; imagining with her. I love the way that we interact when it comes to her art. I love the way that we mesh when we decide on what food to eat. I never imagined that I would be as satisfied with a partner as I am with her.

Yet: even though I think it wrong to ever call myself depressed, I must nevertheless wonder: why do I experience such lows? Lows that make it so impossible to open my own mail that it sits for months unopened until I get the strength to open it all at once? Lows that prevent me from being able to fill out forms even when there’s a huge incentive for doing so? (I am reminded of being in college and being presented with a form that I had to sign and turn in. I was told explicitly: sign this and you get $2k for tuition; don’t sign it and you don’t get the $2k. I was told that there was absolutely nothing negative that came from me signing it. I read the document and it did not require me to do anything that I found morally questionable. It was just a document they needed signed in order to process this particular scholarship. I left that document on the top of my desk all semester long. I can remember putting it on top of my game controllers so that I’d have to physically move it anytime I wanted to play a game. I still never signed it, due to a combination of akrasia and some kind of weird psychological aversion to signing documents in general. At the end, my counselor forged my signature in frustration, a clear case of a perverse incentive that carries me through to today.)

I have been told by friends that I sometimes have trouble with “adulting”. Others have said that I have executive functioning issues. None of these people are professionals, but I see this myself: I feel anxious during times when I probably shouldn’t; and, conversely, there are situations where I’d expect most people to be anxious where I don’t feel anxious at all. Maybe this has nothing to do with depression at all, but is instead symptomatic of some alternate condition that I’m not familiar with.

Regardless, I know that I love life. Life is varied and full of surprises, regardless of where you look. I’m not a poet, but there are people who go deep into poetry, taking pleasure from a short succession of words alone. I’m no musician, but some people memorize the discography of entire genres, finding beauty in details that I know nothing about. To a mathematician, there is unparalleled joy in realizing that you can find a certainty of truth in unexpected contexts; to a person of faith, there is a similar joy in having faith regardless of where reason might otherwise take you. There is all of this and more: the vastness of space; the game of solving good detective novels before the third act; the wind whipping through one’s hair as you rollerblade on the street; the simple joy in having a nicely plated meal on a tablecloth even when you're eating a meal all by yourself. There is simply too much on offer for me not to love life.

Thank you to my family here, especially my brother and sisters, and my father and new mother, who constantly seek to make my life better through simple interactions. Thanks also go to my old family, including my mother, who did much to raise me well when I was young, even if she no longer is capable of having a relationship with me today, and also to the rest of that side of the family, who, through no fault of their own, I have not seen in some time. Thank you, Katherine and Terry, who are able to enrich my life through little more than conversation, and yet continue to do much else for me on top of this. Thank you to my many friends that I see only rarely and mostly online; to Jon for his closeness in intent and dedication; to Dorek in his contemplation and natural action; to Matt, Greg, Jason, Russ, Davids, Kevin, Carlos, and so many others for their past inclusion even if we no longer interact much; to Amber, Allison, Stephanie, Laura, Rosemary, Amanda, Day, and several others for their severe impact on my current personality; and to Robin for being there for me in times when I rarely deserved it. Thank you, Jasper, for opening me up more in love than I previously thought possible, and to Adrianah, whose nonpresence has influenced me more than some others' presence. To all of you, and especially to you, Katherine, I give thanks for making my life as wonderful as it is. The pleasures of life may come from all sorts of places, but it is from fellow beings like you that end up meaning the most to me.

I love life, and as a corollary: I love you all.

15 December, 2021

Review: Octo

OCTOOCTO by Z. Albert Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While definitely not perfect, let me go ahead and recommend that you not google this story and just start reading blindly. Much of the value in this rationalist sci-fi horror story comes from not knowing what will happen next, so if you consider a 4 star review from me sufficient to entice you to read a rationalist sci-fi horror story, then do so now. Spoilers are ahead.

With that said, Zeno Albert Bell is in desperate need of a professional editor. It seems that every idea they’ve come up with has made it into the text, and I don’t just mean this in terms of word choice. Still, the ideas themselves are great, reminiscent at first of Hal Clement-style Needle aliens, but done in a rational hard-sci-fi way. The end result is (and the spoilers start to get heavy here, so stop reading this and go read the book if you’re going to at all) lovecraftiam kaiju hard sci-fi, and that is legitimately hard to do.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the story is the inclusion of css+javascript to spruce up the text. Creatures who only understand some spoken words have other words of dialogue obscured in the text, although we as readers can still hover over the text or otherwise copy it in order to know, narrator style, what is said behind these obscured words. Later, anti-memetics come into play, causing the relevant text to change before your very eyes, as you read along. While some other authors use this as a way to permanently change text, messing with what was previously written as a kind of mind fuck, Bell is kind enough to not use cookies, and they allow readers easy access to replay potentially missed material just by refreshing and starting from the top of the page again. While these effects aren’t what I’d call accessible, I nevertheless appreciate them for those of us capable of seeing it; they're cute effects that are done quite well. It’s also foreshadowed appropriately without spoiling; early chapters include vibrating text for explosions or flashing text for warning readouts. This prepares the reader for more advanced text-based shenanigans later without spoiling just how significant those textual changes will end up becoming. Hopefully the text modifications that occur throughout the story are sufficient to train the reader to be able to handle the final chapter, which perhaps requires a bit more patience than some readers may give it.

Octo is not my favorite story, but its level of uniqueness and excellent presentation make up for the authors seeming unwillingness to edit the story into something half as long with a much tighter narrative arc, with the end result being a hearty recommendation from me. But I may be being too hasty: it's not entirely clear to me, but there is the distinct possibility that the author Bell is trying to make a meta narrative here: the protagonist’s view on patience may be a commentary on the readers' views on patience. Without getting too spoilery, the protagonist is willing to wait, but the text itself does not: as you read at the top of your screen, you start to notice text moving lower down, where you haven't gotten to yet. Later in the book, you start to notice that text is disappearing, or moving away from you, or changing before your very eyes. There starts to be a race between your ability to read and the text's ability to change. Bell is careful to allow you to reset if you refresh the page, so you never really miss out on anything, but there's clearly something going on with rewarding impatient readers more and more — until the final couple of chapters, when everything flips, and suddenly you start to miss out on text if you go too fast. The final chapter really underlines this: after reading, you have to wait several moments if you want to see the last parts of the book.

I'm fascinated by the idea that the connections between what the text itself rewards readers for doing has such consonance with what the protagonist clearly prefers. The points of views of humans are so fast in comparison, and when you get the point of view of a feline, you can just feel the irritation of wanting to go even faster. These points of view at the character level match that of the trained reader, and this makes the alienness of the protagonist even more stark.

And this is why I'm not quite sure of what I said earlier about the author needing a professional editor. This theme of patience — of rushing and not rushing and being rewarded at different times for different things while the characters themselves see reality at different rates — this is echoed and subverted continuously at the literary level by the author including unkilled darlings that the reader dare not fast forward through. I'm not going to claim that this is necessarily intentional; as Plato pointed out in The Republic, many poets will write poetry that has qualities the authors themselves do not always see. But regardless of its intentionality, there is a direct parallel between the unlocking of the library and the written inclusion of scenes that can’t be skipped. The animal scenes are great — be sure to hover over every “meow” — but their inclusion doesn’t have a payoff in future chapters. In any other book, this content would be cut. As great as these ideas are, any author would cut them and put them into a different short story, rather than keep them in Octo. The fact that this author does not cut them is what gives me pause. Is this intentional? Are we including fun and well written chapters that really should be cut on purpose? Is this a commentary on patience, making the reader deliberately have to wait?

I don't know. Maybe the author is just a beginning author and doesn't realize that you can cut great ideas like this and incorporate them into their own short stories, separate from this book. Maybe they have yet to realize that great writing requires major amounts of cutting. But maybe the author is playing a level above me, and these chapters are here on purpose to show you what it means for the protagonist to be okay with waiting. This story has a lot to do with alien thinking, and this might be yet another way to make the reader feel like they are reading about an alien. Seeing events from the points of view of a canine or feline feels alien. That the cat wants to rush through the situation, wants you to skip text and dialogue that you can, if you slow down, also read, has a distinctly alien feel. And that the entire sequence is just dressing, a side story, not relevant to the ongoing plot, feels even more alien still. Maybe I shouldn't give the author credit for this, but including sub-par editorial parts felt almost right to me. It was irritating, but they were well written and entertaining. It felt like reading small short stories occasionally right in the middle of the book. It felt appropriately alien.

With that said, the pacing and narrative structure was terrible due their inclusion. The writing goes through successive sections that are fast and slow, with no regard to what the narrative arc demands. If a movie were made this way, people would walk out. As it is, I imagine most readers may opt out. But if you struggle through — if you are okay with seeing an action scene pause mid-scene while you watch a short entertaining commercial before the action resumes — then you will enjoy Octo. It genuinely puts you into a place where you can start to appreciate something so incomprehensibly alien.

I also want to give a shout-out to that great ending. The IRL aliens take pity and expend resources on letting the instanced beings play out their story, but it’s not at all clear whether the simulation will do anything to help them solve their library problems. I personally read it as a tragedy: this simulation won’t have the humans attack the library, and so can’t possibly show how the humans in the real world destroyed it — but I can also see how someone else might think that the lateral thinking nature of how upraised humans think might be sufficient to help solve the problem of fixing the library without the simulation ever giving rise to the specific acts that humans used the first time around. Either way, the ending is great, because we don’t care: the story follows the protagonists of the simulation, reminding us of who we the readers should truly be concerned with.

I eagerly look forward to Z Albert Bell's next project. Just, please, Bell, if you're reading this: do consider using an editor to help you parse your overly creative brain’s ideas down to what is needed for the story’s own purposes. You can always use the cut ideas in even more stories, you know!

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