One piece of writing, every Sunday.
2,941 words

Every virtue mentioned in Meditations by Marus Aurelius

Abstinence
Affectionate
Austerity
Charity
Courage
Endurance
Generosity
Gravity
High-Mindedness
Honesty
Humility
Independence
Kindness
Moderation
Patience
Piety
Prudence
Resignation
Sanity
Self-Control
Seriousness
Sincerity
Straight-Forwardness
Tranquillity
Trustworthiness
Wisdom

Nothing ever completes

In my 20's I thought my life would unfold in a straight line. Go to college, get a job, get married, have kids, retire, die. Each step nicely building upon the one before it until you're burned up into ash and the whole cycle repeats itself.

20 years of living later and I realize how deeply naive this view of life was. The idea of linearity assumes the idea of completion. After college you're done learning. After you get a job you've figured out what your profession is. Rinse and repeat.

But nothing ever completes. Everything in my life is messy and in process. My life is an art studio with several unfinished paintings leaning up against a wall. Some are starting to look pretty good but others need a lot of work.

A Love Supreme

My favorite album of all time is A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. This is the perfect album to listen to on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee and I've done this for the past 20 years. A small moment of reflection after a busy week. The album was recorded on December 9th, 1964 at the studio of Rudy Van Gelder at Englewood Cliffs in New Jersey. Gelder had a busy week recording two sessions a day leading up to the Love Supreme session. Coltrane's sessions started late - around 7pm - to save money. Coltrane gave very little instruction to Elvin Jones (drums), McCoy Tyner (piano), and Jimmy Garrison (bass). It was just a simple melody and a few sentences of description. No one knew if the songs were going to be 5 minutes or 30 minutes. By the end of the night they had recorded the four pieces that would make up the suite of A Love Supreme. It took less than an hour of tape to record the whole album and for his time Coltrane was paid $284.66 or $2347 in 2020 dollars.

What am I teaching my daughter?

There are five things that I am working on to teach my daughter.

Character

I want her to have a strong internal system that guides her how to act. The Greeks talked about every action guided by the 4 cardinal virtues: wisdom, moderation, justice, and courage. I don't think you can improve much on that list. I want her to have a deep sense of caring about others. I want her to want to produce the best outcomes for the most amount of people.

Optimism

I want to teach her how to be an optimist. I think it's impossible to be creative if you can't imagine that thins are going to turn out well.

Music

I want to teach her an art that will allow her to appreciate the beauty of the world. It will also teach her the discipline of practice. Music is something you can create and share with friends for a very long time.

Programming

I want to expose her to a more scientific way of looking at the world.

Mindfulness

It's important to still yourself and be calm or you can't do the things you want to do. This took me so long to learn but hopefully it's something that she can learn at a younger age than I did.

Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit

Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit is an argument for being more objective and less personal in our decision making.

In the first few chapters Parfit constructs a concept of morality that asks two questions:

  • How likely are you to sacrifice your happiness for the happiness of someone else?
  • How likely are you to sacrifice your present happiness for your happiness in the future?

Later in the book he describes a theory of personal identity that asks two questions:

  • How connected are you to someone (or even yourself) psychologically?
  • How connected are you to someone (or even yourself) physically?

A question Parfit keeps raising is whether you are really the same person as you were 10 years ago. Most of the thoughts in your brain are completely different as well as nearly every atom that makes up your physical body. What makes you you? He raises a series of teleporter thought experiments. If you teleported to Mars would the person on Mars be the same person on Earth? What if the teleporter malfunctioned and you were duplicated? What version would actually be you?

This book has led me to think that perhaps the boundaries between people is a bit less than I thought. It's led me to question how to maximize the happiness of more people and not just people in the present but people in the far off future as well. It's led me to let go of things that I've done in the past and give myself more permission to invent a different version of myself in the future.

Where to donate?

This year my donations have been inspired by the Effective Altruism movement and the utilitarian philosophies of Peter Singer and Derek Parfit. Very simply, I want to give in ways that minimize suffering in the world.

I want to donate to organizations that work on global poverty and health because I believe a marginal dollar will do more in Africa than in the US (potentially 100x more). For Global Health I will donate to Givewell which does charity research and passes donations on to the organization they believe can do the most good. I will also donate to the Effective Altruism Global Health and Development Fund which makes grants to smaller global health projects around the world.

http://givewell.org/
https://app.effectivealtruism.org/funds/global-development

I want to donate to organizations that reduce animal suffering. While I don't believe that animal suffering is equivalent to human suffering I think it exists on a continuum and with 1 trillion farmed animals alive right now there is unquestionable suffering. I will donate to Animal Charity Evaluators which does research and passes donations on to the organizations that do the most good. I will also donate to the Effective Altruism Animal Welfare fund which makes grants to smaller projects around the world.

https://animalcharityevaluators.org/
https://app.effectivealtruism.org/funds/animal-welfare

I want to donate to organizations that reduce future suffering. Most of the people that will ever live on this earth haven't been born yet and we should work to minimize their suffering as well. I will donate to the Clean Air Task Force which is a US-based NGO that reduces climate change through public policy work. I will also donate to the Effective Altruism long-term future funds which makes smaller grants mostly toward academic researchers.

https://www.catf.us/
https://app.effectivealtruism.org/funds/far-future

My open source and non-AWS backup solution

Recently I started looking for a new backup system. I wanted a system that was:

  • Cloud based
  • Cross-platform
  • Open Source
  • Didn't use Amazon AWS

The best system I discovered was the open source tool Borg coupled with an account on Rsync.net (which has been around since 2001).

This system is somewhat tricky to get set up so what follows are the steps I took to get everything working:

First you need to get a borg specific account from Rsync.net which is currently at this link: https://rsync.net/products/attic.html

After signing up the first thing you need to do is change your password:

ssh -t user@host.rsync.net passwd

Next you'll generate SSH keys and upload them to the Rsync.net server

ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096 

# hit enter to not save a passphrase

scp ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub user@host.rsync.net:.ssh/authorized_keys 

You can now check to make sure you don't get prompted for a password when you check how much disk space you've used:

ssh user@host.rsync.net quota

Next in your local shell you'll set a remote path to use borg1 at Rsync.net. By default Rsync uses an older version of borg.

export BORG_REMOTE_PATH=/usr/local/bin/borg1/borg1

Then we will create the repo in your rsync account

borg init -e repokey-blake2 user@host.rsync.net:backups

You will now want to export your Borg key and put it somewhere safe (I put it in my password manager):

borg key export user@host.rsync.net:backups borg.key

You now can create your first backup with Borg. Borg maintains an index of all the files it seems so even if you change archive names, schedules in the future you won't have to reupload files you backup with this command:

borg create --progress --stats user@host.rsync.net.rsync.net:backups::first_backup /Users/username/

You can always check the integrity of your remote backup with this command:

borg check user@host.rsync.net.rsync.net:backups

So far Borg has been a great tool and the I'm liking this new setup.

1 year without any social media

I remember the exact moment I decided to deactivate all my social media accounts. I was at the bookstore with my daughter. I was scrolling through Instagram while she was flipping through a book. Suddenly I realized that social media was taking me out of the present moment with her. I was going to miss key moments by liking the posts of people I hardly knew. I decided to make a change. I deactivated all my accounts: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Strava.

Today is my 1 year anniversary of being completely social media free.

So what are some observations about being 1 year social media free?

News and long-form articles replaced my social media consumption

I expected that cutting down social media would allow me to spend more time reading books but that's not what happened. Instead I simply replaced my social media time with mindlessly clicking through news headlines or reading some great long-form articles. Essentially I went back to the way I used the Internet pre-2006. Overall I would say this is a positive change but it wasn't what I expected.

I lost touch with many people

There's a group of people on social media who I went to high school/college with or was friends with in other cities that I would typically stay loosely connected to on social media by leaving comments on each other's posts. I have completely lost touch with this group and have not had an interaction with them since I left social media. I have mixed feelings about this as the size of my social circle seems much smaller.

I spend more time with my closest friends and family

I spend more time texting/emailing/calling some of my closest friends and family and I think I'm better connected to them than I have been in years. This has been the most positive change. I think essentially cutting out social media has been about minimizing time with acquaintances in order to spend more time with the people I’m closest to.

I was late hearing about big events in the lives of my closest friends

Even with my closest friends I would be late to hear major news like a new job or even a pet dying. Many people will announce the biggest news in their lives first on social media. I still heard about these through a text/phone call but it might be a few days after the people on social media knew about it.

Overall I'm really happy with the change and plan to continue staying social media free in 2019!

How many trips with my daughter are left?

I am currently on a solo weekend trip with my daughter who is 5 years old. We've been doing about 3 solo weekend trips per year since she was 2 years old. 12 trips so far. I wonder how many more solo trips we have left in her lifetime?

Let's assume we're able to keep having one trip a year until she's 13. That doesn't seem like a lot but with school activities, vacation time, visiting family that is a flight away that seems like a reasonable average.

What about after she's 13? It seems like once every 5 years is a more reasonable bet. One of my friends just spent a weekend with her mom for the first time in 30 years! As she grows up, moves away, and has a family of her own it seems that the ability to truly be away with just the two of us will be difficult.

12 trips so far. 8 trips between now and when she's 13. 9 trips between 13 and 46 which is how old she will be when the life expectancy tables tell me I will be dead. That's 29 trips total with 12 already taken.

Here's what that looks like visually:

Total solo weekend trips with my daughter:

o o o o o 
o o o o o 
o o o o o 
o o o o o 
o o o o o
o o o o

Already completed solo weekend trips with my daughter:

x x x x x  
x x x x x  
x x o o o 
o o o o o 
o o o o o
o o o o

40% of the trips in her life with me have already been completed. 40% of the minutes are already gone. People say kids grow up fast but it hits home when you see it visually.

Human Compatible by Stuart Russell book notes

Inventing super-intelligent AI will be the biggest event in the future of humanity. It's unclear when super-intelligent AI will appear. Many experts say super-intelligent AI will arrive in 2050 but a more conservative estimate is 2100.

AI is already having a big impact on human activity. One example is Facebook's content selection algorithms in the 2016 elections. Facebook makes money when someone clicks on content, people with extreme views are more likely to click on extreme forms of content. Therefore, Facebook's algorithm incentivizes the spread of extreme links and videos since people don't click on moderate content. These algorithms could lead to the resurgence of fascism. Would Trump have been elected without these social media platforms?

AI could have a positive benefit on humans. The industrial revolution delivered a 10x improvement in living standards between 1820-2000 and it's reasonable to think that the world of AI could bring about a similar increase in our standard of living.

AI could be a "Gorilla problem". This problem describes the reluctance Gorilla's must have felt by being the source of the genetic material that created humans which led to their downfall. AI also has a "King Midas problem" which is a cautionary tale about it's unpredictability. Kind Midas got everything he wanted -- mainly items he touched to turn to gold. This included his family and his food and he died in misery and alone. How can we prevent AI from taking over from humans and how can we control it?

Currently AI is programmed according to the "Standard Model" which are algorithms that are designed to achieve human objectives like the Facebook content algorithm described above. The standard model could lead to the King Midas problem where AI's pursue their objectives without regard to what humans want.

The way to avoid the Gorilla and King Midas problems is to design AI that is provably beneficial to humans.

The rules of how to create this AI are as follow:

  • The machine's only objective is to maximize the realization of human preferences.
  • The machine is initially uncertain about what those preferences are.
  • The ultimate source of information about human preferences is human behavior.

The rest of the book goes into how to deign and prove that these systems work.

Thoughts on Peter Singer and Utilitarianism

A few years ago I read Peter Singer's essay Famine, Affluence, and Morality. The basic premise is:

  • Suffering in the world is bad
  • We have a moral imperative to prevent suffering in the world
  • Therefore, we should give all of our money to effective charities until the next dollar we donate would cause us more suffering than it would prevent for someone else.

Peter Singer is a proponent of utilitarianism which is an ethical system that bases the rightness and wrongness of an action on the net benefit of that action to society. Additionally, an action that provides more net benefit to society is better than an action that provides less net benefit.

When thinking about suffering you can expand that to include not just humans but animals as well. In Singer's book Animal Libration he makes the point that animals suffer at a greater rate than humans. There are over 25 billion animals living in factory farms in the US. That is a lot of suffering that could be eliminated.

We can think about suffering not just in terms of the humans and animals currently living but those that will live in the future as well. According to Nick Botrom there will be over a million billion people that inhabit the earth over the next billion years. This suggest that it might be more important to do work that reduces future suffering (such as funding climate change efforts) than the suffering of people who are currently alive.

So putting this all together to live the most ethical life possible I want to focus on ways to:

  • Reduce human suffering
  • Reduce animal suffering
  • Reduce future generations of human and animal suffering

Sunday Writing Club

There are many things you can do on a Sunday morning. I am going to write. I am writing to hold myself accountable for learning something every week. I am writing to ensure there's a specific time and place for me to reflect. I am writing to understand who I am.

We are formed through our moments of quiet introspection.

The rules I've set for Sunday Writing Club are simple and no fuss.

1) Write every Sunday
2) For 1 hour
3) Post anonymously (no ego)

That's it! Join me for #sundaywritingclub