A Moment of Darkness and Silence [Solstice 2014]

This is the speech I read for the first Secular Solstice in Seattle in 2014. At first I felt vulnerable about having written this, but now I feel okay about it. I would now appreciate brutally honest constructive criticism. I think people are reluctant to criticize personal writing such as this.

(The room is bathed in darkness except for a single candle beside me.)

When I was young, my brother was about 6 and I was about 10, my mom died. I tell it from my perspective because that’s what I know, but this story is sad not because she was lost to those of us who loved her, but because of what she herself lost. Like you and I, she had a rich internal life. She had hopes and dreams, quirks and flaws.

One of the ways this experience shaped me is that it gave me a visceral sense that the universe has no fairness built into it. Here in the western world we have softened its edges a little, made a little protective cocoon around ourselves. We are not too likely to starve, and we stay warm all year round. This gives us the illusion that nothing too bad can happen. But the universe is vast, and powerful, and we are still at the mercy of its workings.

Bad things do happen.

The second time the cancer came, it came quickly. 9 months between when she first found it till she passed into nothingness. For the first 6 months, she was hopeful. But it soon became clear she was not going to get better. She chose not to try a painful final desperate round of chemo.

My father told me how I was sitting in the living room with him, putting away my legos and him sitting close by. I turned to him to ask “tell me the truth dad, is mom going to die?”. He says he briefly considered lying to me, but then decided he could not and told me “yes honey, she’s very ill, she’s probably going to die”.

As mom had grown sicker, my aunt came to visit us to help take care of us and my mom. She helped cook, and put us to bed and mothered us. My brother and I became very attached to her, she became our mother figure to a large extent. I feel very sad when I think what this must have been like for my mom to see. To be tired and frightened. She was desperately in need of affection, touch and love, and seeing her children’s affections shift to someone else was very painful for her. She told my dad she wished it wouldn’t happen that way.

As she worsened, I imagine she must have felt a terrible panic. Feeling her body and mind falling apart, and knowing that soon she would cease to be. Like gripping a rock with your hands and digging your feet into the earth to steady yourself on the edge of a vast and dark chasm and feeling the rock in your hand slowly crumble in your grip and the earth below you erode away. Wanting to struggle but having nothing to reach for.

My brother and I were at school when she died. I remember seeing my dad and uncle near the car in the parking lot. When my dad told us she was gone, I remember being shocked and starting to cry.

Later, I remember walking into my parents room, the lights dimmed low and seeing her empty body lying on the bed.

There are no rules of fairness built into the universe. The rocks have no concept of pleasure and pain. The stars don’t know love or hate. The ocean is ignorant of good and evil. The laws of motion are deaf to our wails.

A moment of silence and darkness.

(I blow out the last candle and we sit in darkness for about one minute. Then, I strike a match and relight the candle.)

Funny quirks of reality cause us to live and die. Like whether a particular cell had a particular kind of mutation that caused it to multiply unboundedly. If the universe could bend its rules the tiniest amount to save a dying woman, it would not do so.

At the same time, the universe does not oppose us. Sometimes, funny quirks of reality lead millions to be saved.

My mom did not die during childbirth. She was free to pursue her love of language. She was well nourished and stayed warm all year. She could speak with her family even though they lived hundreds of miles away. Her story is one of both great blessing and great tragedy.

Once, we were all at grave risk from bacterial infection. Small wounds could spiral out of control until we died painfully. But we have discovered that funny quirks of chemistry and biology we call antibiotics can easily defeat most infections.

Once, when we were cold, we had to shiver through the frost and night. But today, through a funny quirk of nature we keep ourselves warm with small amounts of oil and insulated walls.

Once, when we were separated from our loved ones by great distances, we could never hear their voices. But we discovered that a funny quirk of physics lets the very emptiness between us carry our thoughts and voices across vast distances to our loved ones. We can see them any time we wish.

It is up to us to seize these odd quirks of nature and make the best we can of them.

This room is full of people who do that.

Each one of us brings love to the universe, to each other. We give our sisters laughter, the kind that takes you by surprise and leaves you rolling on the couch, when we joke with them. We give our brothers comfort and touch. We give friends connection, a sense of belonging, when we sit and eat with them. We give ourselves a feeling of accomplishment, the kind that gives you hope for the future, when we help others. We give our children play and excitement when we imagine with them.

Many here are doing even more. Some are studying to be nurses, and care for the suffering every day. Others teach us compassion, and make the world a more understanding place. Others work and donate many thousands of dollars a year towards eradicating extreme poverty. Others hope to save the entire world, to punch death right in the face. Still others personally spread information about the best ways to help the extremely poor. Others search tirelessly for the most effective ways to alleviate the terrible suffering of factory animals. And we’re all pushing each other to do better each and every year.

Being here with you, I am hopeful and excited about the future.

This room is full of people who make the world less ugly, less an ocean of pain and death. People who are working to make tomorrow brighter than today, in one way or another.

I am grateful to have you a part of my life, and to be part of yours.

(I light a candle I hold using the single lit candle.)

Spread your light to others.

(I light two people’s candles and they begin to spread their fire to others. Soon the whole room is alight.)

Zinc for colds

Evidence suggests zinc gluconate and zinc acetate shortens colds by about a day. As far as I know, zinc is the only cold remedy with good evidence for it. Cochrane Reviews, famous for their quality, has a review of the evidence for it, which is strong, but not perfect.

How to find it? LookFeatured image for dissolvable zinc tablets at the pharmacy that say they’re for colds. They will often say they are ‘homeopathic’ because this allows them to skirt FDA regulations. Don’t let that scare you off. 

Make sure to follow the directions on the back, you want to avoid eating or drinking for 15 minutes after as its thought to work by coating the back of your throat with zinc ions. Also, start using them as soon as you notice symptoms.

Spreading the mantle of heroic responsibility

Eric Rogstad and I started Seattle Effective Altruists, little over 6 months ago. We quickly gained several regular attendees and had about a meetup once a month. Unfortunately, soon after Eric left for a new life of whimsy and adventure, so I came to do most of the organizing and logistics. It felt firmly “my” thing. Its kind of fun to be in charge of something, but isn’t very sustainable and probably healthier to have several involved people.

Edit: I also noticed that it being “my” thing prevented other people from other people making it their thing.

I decided I didn’t want it to be “my” thing, and I wanted to get more people interested in helping. The advice saw somewhere was to ask people to do small things to help out, and then bigger things until they’re pretty involved.

This led me to look for as many things I could delegate as possible. Things like greeting newcomers, making sure meetups are cross-posted, posting meetup notes, etc. This went okay, but there wasn’t that much to delegate, and it didn’t seem to lead to significantly increased involvement. One positive outcome is that I now reflexively ask myself if a given task is something I can ask someone else to do.

The other deliberate strategy I tried seemed to work quite well:

Whenever I found myself talking one-on-one with someone who had come more than once, I would ask them what they were excited about in EA and/or the group. I would talk with them about it, and if we came up with ways the group could help their goal, I would ask them if they would be willing to help organize and lead that meet up. Then, later, I would instant message them about actually planning the meetup.

This worked surprisingly well, three different people have come to lead meetups this way, and there are a couple of other people who are interested. One person led a meetup about existential risk, one about criticisms of EA, and one a factory farming documentary night.

Currently, I’m trying to spread ownership of the group more permanently by creating a core of 3-5 people who take heroic responsibility for the group, as I have seen suggested for student EA groups. Two of the obvious people to ask came from the people I asked to help run a meetup. We’ll see how that goes.


I think rationality techniques are pretty interesting and cool, but there aren’t that many that I recognize as “rationality techniques” that I find myself using all the time. One I can think of is “when you want clarity, ask for examples”. For example, if someone at work is arguing that our team shouldn’t use design X for a new project, and I see why clearly, I’ll ask them for examples of the kinds of problems they’re worried about. I started doing this during the CFAR camp I attended, and I don’t think I’ve stopped since. 

The only other rationality technique I use regularly is brainstorming, and that’s the one I want to talk about.

My roommates and I brainstorm for each other pretty regularly, especially for things like thinking of gifts friends and family, meetup activities, dates, costumes, dinner or party themes, but some more important things. Brainstorming seems to give us more decent ideas than we would otherwise have for problems like these. 

Official Brainstorming Protocol

  1. Get 1-4 people
  2. Name brainstorm goal
  3. Set timer for 5 minutes
  4. Silently write down as many ideas as you can think of till the timer goes off.
    • Write down all ideas, even bad ones.
  5. Each person shares all the ideas they wrote down
    • Don’t criticize the ideas
  6. Discuss promising ideas

Writing down all your ideas is hard; it’s difficult not to filter. Luckily, this skill seems to get easier with practice. The protocol seems to work best with other people, but I’ve used this frequently by myself too. 

One particularly successful case came when last time I was looking for a job. I brainstormed for potential leads, people to talk to and companies to investigate. This led to an excellent list of leads that turned to a number of interviews. Many of these, I would have thought of naturally, but some seem like they only would have come out because of brainstorming and doing it at once allowed me to have them all up front.

We’ve also used this technique for more troubleshooting life issues, like getting to bed on time, trying to ignore my tasklist less, or how to have more organizational time in the morning. Brainstorming has helped on these bigger problems, but less dramatically. It often comes up with an extra idea or two to try and it usually helps me feel more excited about trying things, but doesn’t lead to something that works reliably.

Some domains, especially lower stakes ones, seem to benefit a lot more from simply having lots of ideas. And for these brainstorming seems very helpful.