KW Rationality Report – Summer 2023

This was going to be a discord post but then it got really, really long. So now it’s here instead.

Feedback Form Results (N=11)

Attendance Stats

For context, meetups have been happening at a weekly clip since January. At the time this form was sent out, there had been 25 meetups so far this year.

Overall Rating

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Seems like people are pretty satisfied with most things, I’m comfortable awarding myself an A- based on this chart. Seems like I’m overall better at enabling things at my meetups than actually running them, and I can also do a little more discord wrangling.

Ratings of Specific Meetups

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People seem to be pretty happy with the events in general.

There’s a few people who dislike when we do things that are too “normie” without any sort of rationalist component, like when we just went skating, or the tea tasting meetup – pretty fair! In retrospect I think skating should have been an auxiliary event (event that doesn’t take up the weekly main slot). There also were a few events where I could have leaned into a more rationalist framework to contrast with the more normal social things we were doing. In the future, I’ll put more of an effort into ensuring that mainline events will have a noticeable rationalist slant, unless it’s like a truly extenuating thing.

There also seems to be a preference for meetups that were weird and involved more active stuff. This is pretty expected.

An overwhelming preference for the amount of unpleasant experiences to stay the same has been duly noted >:^)

Fridays

I got a new job and now Fridays work a lot better for me for hosting meetups. I’d be fine to keep them on Thursdays if it turned out that Fridays don’t work well for most folks. But based on the results it seems like Fridays work just as well as Thursdays, so Fridays it is going forwards.

If regular attendance drops pretty significantly in practice (say, if fewer than 50% of meetups from now until the end of September get 8+ people), I’d consider moving them back to Thursdays.

Summery Stuff

I’ll try to get traction on the first 4 things. Jeez, is it almost August already?? I’m realizing that maybe I’m pretty bad at organizing bigger events.

Re cottage: I don’t think there’s enough traction/$ in KWR for it to make sense, but someone brought up a joint thing with maybe the Ottawa rats. I might also reach out to some Toronto folks? And maybe we can do a little shindig in the fall or winter.

Freeform Notes

First off, lots of you left really nice, positive notes! Thanks guys😊
I won’t talk about them at length here because my head is already sufficiently big, but they were really sweet <3

A few things got brought up in multiple comments so I’ll discuss them in more detail here:

Being More Rational(ist)

Have you ever thought about hosting CFAR like events?

Or since we our club is about rationality, maybe we should talk about Bayes rule or cover common biases. Fostering good epistemics seems important, but I’m not if it’s something that you can control in a group setting.

I do think hosting more CFAR-ish workshops could be good. I haven’t actually attended any CFAR workshops so you’ll be getting them thirdhand at best.

Bayes rule and common biases – honestly, the reason that I haven’t done a meetup on this is that it’s difficult to plan a compelling meetup around – the content just seems very 101! Until you get into the math, and then it’s, well, math. If any of y’all can point me towards some sort of simple math game that we can play to better internalize bayesian stats I’d be happy to run it.

For the field trip, I think it was a bit far from usual rationalist stuff. Which would be fine if we spent some time after the field trip discussing stuff we saw there in more rationalist terms, and how they could be useful for us. But I realize this may not have been done only due to time constraints.

Yeah, I also kinda felt like we should have done more discussion on the rationalist stuff after the farm field trip! Mostly it was logistically hard since the farm was far from any sort of secondary venue, it went on longer than expencted, and it would feel bad plopping down in a circle in this nice woman’s field to be audibly skeptical at her lol.

I think perhaps if we do something like this again, I’ll set up a bar or something for us to meet at afterwards to discuss.

Discussion Unevenness

I feel like the intellectual environment… I guess I feel like it could use some work. We have a few people who have a lot of raw brainpower and/or knowledge and/or are good at quickly coming up with things to say, and they tend to dominate the intellectual discussions we have. At the same time, I don’t necessarily want discussions to proceed at the pace of the person who’s following along the least. Still, a lot of the time, I feel out of my depth and can’t participate, or feel like there’s something vaguely wrong with what someone is saying but can’t quickly come up with a rebuttal, or feel like I want to ask a follow-up question but don’t know what to ask. I don’t really like these feelings. I guess that part of this is that I need to level up to participate fully in our discussions. But I think we could change something about the way discussions are run to improve this, too.

I like the Discord but I don’t participate much. I think part of me feels like I should be posting semi-polished messages in there, especially during a serious discussion. And that doesn’t feel worth the investment a lot of the time. Or the same thing happens in Discord as at in-person meetups where I feel like the other people in the conversation have much more knowledge of the discussion topic than me so I defer to them.

Thanks for this feedback. I think we can definitely change the way the discussions are run to improve this somewhat – will think on this more. One thing I’ll pilot is reminding people at the beginning of meetups that it’s ok to do group moderation and to try to equalize the amount of discussion in the group (i.e. if you’re noticing that you’re speaking more than average, try to speak less; and if you’re noticing that you’re being quiet, speak up more).

Some of this does feel kind of internal, though, and I’d like to encourage you to say more things that sound confused, ask questions, and say things like “that doesn’t sound right but I’m not sure why”.

This goes doubly for the discord – don’t think about polish, just poast! The same way that the optimal amount of fraud is non-zero, the optimal amount of bad posts is non-zero. KWRD can and should have so many more bad posts in it than it currently does. I promise I’ll let y’all know very loudly if the quality of the discord is getting bad.

I get the idea behind having set mingling/switchover times during meetings where the group is large enough to need to split into subgroups, but I often feel a bit trapped when the conversation in my subgroup turns to something that doesn’t interest me. (It seems like it often tends to drift more towards bappable topics when you are not in the same subgroup. Perhaps I should carry a newspaper too…)

Something I want to make more explicit is the idea that you’re allowed to move between groups, but I think I’ve been a bit worried that that’ll just result in clumping. Ideally, people should feel free to change groups whenever, but also keep an eye out on group sizes, and voluntarily split off if they realize the group they’re in is getting large. We can try putting this in practice.

Intellectual environment: I put a “Good” not “Great!” because I think about half the discussions in the events I’ve been to have been thought-provoking or model-updating kinda thing, the rest were more social and fun – I don’t have a specific preference for this breakdown but I know I can contribute more as well so this one is on me as well haha!

That’s a good clarification! I do want to keep it a mix of social/fun and content that can lead to epistemic updates, so I’m pretty satisfied with the mix that you report.

Discord

yeah I wish the discord was a slightly more toxic. Jk I really like how it’s setup currently.

I think the Discord is great, but I wish the level of activity was more consistent. Some days the Discord is very active and I spend a lot of time on it (which I enjoy). And then it goes quiet for many days afterwards. I think I would prefer more consistent activity because a consistent level of socializing is good, or something. I also realized there is no real way to enforce this.

If you want to see more activity in the discord, post more! I can also try to stimulate discussion in the discord a little more, but I don’t think that’s going to be a priority for me in the near future – I’d like to work more on making the IRL meetups more polished first.

Snacks

I like the snacks. I eat enough unhealthy snacks the rest of the week lol

I love the snacks.

it’s a really fun group to be a part of and I hope to attend more meetings soon and eat more of your not-at-all-aggravatingly-healthy food:)

(-:

I found that the snacks were more appealing (positively connotated) when they were placed on a central table rather than off to the side, and when they were composed of ~separate pieces rather than a handful of granola or cutting off a slice of something then and there. It felt much more sanitary, to be able to observe what was being touched how.

Noted! I’m trying to do a new thing too where people have plates that they can pile snacks on and return to discussions with plates of snacks.

IRL Feedback

In addition to the form, some folks provided feedback at an in-person session, and through some small group/one on one conversations. Here are my notes:

  • People were interested in doing more summery stuff, like barbecues, starrgazing, day trips out to other towns.
  • People liked meetups that were more focused on “doing things” – field trips, sports, authentic relating, lightning talks, etc.
  • Despite liking readings meetups less, they should absolutely be kept for group identity purposes. There’s a sentiment that coming to readings meetups was like eating your vegetables; healthy but not particularly thrilling.
  • EA collabs are good and we should do more of them. My ideal amount might be something like twice a school term, so 6 times a year.
  • For readings meetups, the format where we stick together in a large group to do a mostly facts-based summarizing of the readings, before splitting up into small groups for discussion, is pretty good.
  • I spazzed out when teens first started joining the meetups and I should have been more chill/made less of a deal about it. (Fully agree with this! Sorry teens!)

On Metameetups

  • The plan was to have a meetup every 6 months or so focused on checking in on the group and making it better.
  • So far, we’ve had 2 metameetup events, and they were both very poorly attended and that makes me :-(. Going forwards, I plan on gathering most feedback from forms instead.
  • There might still be metameetup events, but if they happen they’ll be half metameetup and half something else.

Looking Forwards

With all of this info, here are some things I’m aiming to do in the second half of the year:

  • Continue to feed you all “aggravatingly healthy” snacks.
  • At events, find a time to do a regular spiel about what we’re here for (tenatively: to advance the act of rationality, and to make you better, wiser, or weirder), and something that enables people to feel better about group automoderation (blah blah equalizing conversational tempo).
  • Also try to encourage people to move around in discussions more.
  • And in general experiment more with ways of getting people to feel comfier participating and having better quality conversation.
  • Hold mainline events to more of a rationalist standard.
  • Try to head off my propensity towards the planning fallacy and organize some summer events, dangit. Concretely: let’s try to do a stargazing trip and a barbecue by the end of August. I’ll also reach out to the Kitchener tour guide I like.
  • Sort of relatedly – I really want to work on the bus factor of this meetup, so I’ll still be calling on the rest of y’all to run things once in a while.

Ok, whew! I think that’s all I have to say about KWR. Thanks for reading this far if you did, and thanks for continuing to come to my silly little events. They’re not as cool without you there.

Donations, The First Year

2021 was my first year with a full-time, steady source of employment, and money that accumulates instead of going right back into tuition and living expenses.

Having identified as an Effective Altruist (EA)1 for the better part of a decade, one thing I was looking to the most from this was the ability to finally make a substantial difference through the unit of caring.

For someone who’s identified as an Effective Altruist for the better part of a decade though, it was embarrassingly easy for sentiment to get my goat.

😓😓😓

Where We Gave

My girlfriend and I donated ~10% of our combined post-tax income, as stipulated by the Giving What We Can pledge. However, we failed to donate it all to effective charities, so it can’t really be said that we uh actually fulfilled the terms of the pledge. Thankfully I am very neurotic about not breaking any oaths so I have prepared for this moment by never actually officially signing up for the pledge, despite having identified as an effective altruist for zzzzzzz.

Here is where it went:

40% to global health initiatives via the RCForward Global Health Fund.2

15% to environmental advocacy via the RCForward Climate Change Fund.

15% to Spectrum, Kitchener-Waterloo’s queer community space. They do a lot of cool stuff and maintain a very active calendar of events.

15% to A Better Tent City, a cheap, no-barrier alternative to shelters in Kitchener. Instead of doing the shelter model where they turn everyone out during the day and then accept them back at night using a first-come-first serve basis (which is bad since demand outnumbers supply so there’s no sense of security for any shelter users), ABTC serves a more permanent community by giving them tiny homes to live in.

15% to the KWCF Immigration Partnership Fund for Immigrant and Refugee Initiatives, to support programs and initiatives for Afghan refugees starting their new life in Waterloo Region.

On Donating Locally

To be honest, I’m still not really sure if doing what was basically a 50/50 split between effective and local charities was the right move. It’s definitely something I want to think through in more detail before this year’s donations.

What we donated to local charities combined would be enough to save the lives of like two children if we donated it to a Givewell recommended global health charity, and I wouldn’t expect it to have that sort of impact here – although I think the value to local donations might be higher than you’d expect. I might write a post about this later.

I think you can definitely argue that donating to local charities could be put in the same bucket as, like, signing up for local pottery classes (some fun, some stimulation of the local economy), or heck maybe even home decor (beautifying your immediate area entirely for your own benefit) – something you do for warm fuzzies more than you do because it’s the right thing to do.

On the other hand, I do think that having a sense of rootedness in where you live is virtuous (and a pretty big force multiplier in doing stuff that’s good), and I genuinely do think that local charities are neglected and can be very powerful.

Getting My Goat

Stuff about local/effective donations aside, I think my local charities were honestly pretty terribly chosen and motivated entirely by my lame monkey emotions. Spectrum because I’m gay and I attended some events that they hosted, and I had a really good time. ABTC because I work with people who are on the project and it seems cool. The refugee fund because I was following their story in local papers and they did a good job tugging on my heartstrings.

I mean look I did look into everyone’s annual reports and make sure that they’re legit, and in the case of the refugees I ended up donating to my second choice since the first was literally in the middle of a money laundering scandal, but I basically made up the categories out of whole cloth since I didn’t have a super rigorous idea of what I wanted to do.

I also didn’t donate to what I think is equivocally the best and also most neglected charity in the region, because I thought it would be awkward since I work there (I work there because I researched nonprofits in the region to apply to jobs at and this seemed like very obviously the best one), which is honestly a pretty terrible reason. Especially since it’s actually very easy to donate anonymously, but to be fair I only realized this after we did all our donations.

I will state though for the record that the donor wall didn’t actually factor into my decision making process at all. That was just a joke I swear.

Tentative Plan for 2022

Aggressive/Risky: Donate 10% of income to effective charities in global health and environmental advocacy, in something like a 70/30 split. Definitely pay attention to new environmental projects. Treat local donations as a separate budget category that pulls from our spending money, and donate only to the one I like. Executing this means risking not doing any local donations.

Moderate/Safe: Donate 10% of income in a 70/20/10 split for global health, environmental advocacy, and local organizations respectively. I think this is what I actually want to do, rationally, monkey emotions aside. Peter Singer still wouldn’t Officially Recognize Me As A Good Person if I go this route, but I think about this in terms of harm reduction – the more I enjoy the giving process, the more likely I am going to do continue to do it in following years. Ensuring that the experience of donating remains pleasant for me is how I ensure that the world gets donations from me for the rest of my life, and if that means local charities get a cut, it’s still better than if my monkey emotions start rioting and I stop donating in 5 years when my earning power is higher.

  1. If you’ve never heard of Effective Altruism before, I recommend this introduction.[]
  2. As a Canadian, RCForward is the only solution I’ve found to donate to many Givewell approved charities and still get tax receipts.[]

Notes from the Salon: Social Class

[Editor’s note: this piece was ported over from Less Wrong on March 13, 2020, and backdated to the original publication date. Minor edits were made for clarity.]

This is a write-up of some interesting points raised at a tea party “literary” salon I held on October 6th, 2019. It is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of the topic. It is conventional for attendees to do all the suggested readings before salon starts, so some parts of the write-up might not make sense without that context.

Assigned readings: Siderea on Class, Thoughts on the “STEM” class

Economic Class vs. Social Class

Economic class and social class are not the same thing. The two are decoupled, but only partly. You can be wealthy but lower class (e.g. a skilled tradesman making 6 figures) or poor but upper class (e.g. an adjunct professor at a prestigious university). Everyone at the salon was in the same social class: the class that attends semi-ironic and entirely sober literary salons, likely G2 on Church’s ladder. But it would be a mistake to assume that everyone in the room belonged to the same economic class – there is a much broader distribution of economic classes in attendance.

Performing upper-(middle)-classness grants you privilege. It costs some amount of money, but not as much as you would think, to perform professional-classness. The harder part by far is knowing what to buy in the first place. To a first approximation, a blazer is more middle-class-y than a hoodie. But a clean-ish hoodie emblazoned with your university seal is a much better signal than a polyester blend leopard-print blazer.

Most people want to make more money, but few people are interested in climbing the social ladder. When you find the class that you belong to and join it, you tend to go “ew” at the people in the classes below you, and “yikes”* at the people in the classes above you.

*Or the equivalent of “yikes”, if you’re in a class that doesn’t say “yikes”

Everyone is “Middle-Class”

The middle class is the only virtuous class – both “lower class” and “upper class” are insults. This results in basically everyone except billionaires and the homeless identifying as middle class. Premium mediocrity is what middle-classness could look like for millennials.

Class is a culture and a performance. For example, someone who makes six figures may choose to get their morning coffee at Tim Horton’s instead of Starbucks or an indie coffee shop. They might make this decision even if they like their coffee not terrible, because it’s more important to them to be seen as a salt-of-the-earth sort, and salt-of-the-earth sorts here in Canada drink Tim’s instead of Starbucks.

A more extreme example of this was outlined in this piece, where a Yale student who was actually broke didn’t realize that all of her classmates were only pretending to be broke. In one incident, she offered to buy a classmate that she knew for 3 years a sandwich, because she thought he was actually on the verge of starving. The classmate graciously broke the act and told her that he actually has a trust fund and was just carefully cultivating a starving artist image. In another incident, her classmates shamed her for not donating to a charity, because they perceived her to be only faking her destitution like the rest of them.

Scott’s cellular automata model of fashion talks about something similar, but what the Yale piece adds is that performing poorness gives the elites an unfounded confidence in knowing how poor people live, which is terrible for society.

That “STEM Class” Piece

The makeup of this Salon session was something like 60% STEM folk, 20% non-STEM folk who work or socialize with STEM folk a lot, and 20% non-STEM folk who don’t interact with STEM folk on a regular basis.

The only thing that the Salon agreed on was that STEM class people pretend more than other classes that they don’t care about class and just wear things they like.

Things we disagreed on included:

  • how accurate the tumblr post was about STEM folk
  • how accurate the tumblr post was about the connection between STEM and the military-officer class
  • whether any single person in the Salon has a good idea of what a representative sample of STEM folk would look like
  • how much STEM folk cared about art, politics, and sports
  • whether the r/uwaterloo subreddit is a decent representative sample of STEM folk
  • if this is the class that’s responsible for the existence of the alt-right
  • whether this is a class or a subculture (e.g. could a similar tumblr post be made for “the lawyer class”?)
  • if “STEM folk” is a real and useful category

Diversifying

People generally don’t deliberately seek to hang out with other social classes. When it happens, it’s usually as a result of another shared interest or trait. You can run into people in another social class at a  comic con, or your sports league, or your very small local queer community. Or if you’re doing a substantial amount of going on first dates with people from dating apps. It still won’t be the entire range of social classes, it’s just a wider range than who you would hang out with by default. Talking to a person in another social class is generally more unpleasant than talking to a person in your own, but this shared experience of being at a con/being queer/trying to date/etc can act like a social lubricant.

Many activist organizers come from the middle- and upper-middle classes. One common trap that they fall into is modelling working- and lower-class activists as sharing the exact same set of aversions that they do, to the upper class. So they think, “as long as we’re not doing fancy dress codes and caviar and country clubs, we’re inclusive”. In truth, working- and lower-class activists often have an aversion to middle-class norms as well — things like tofu, women who don’t shave, and non-hierarchical meeting structures. To make meetings and spaces welcoming towards everyone, middle- and upper-middle class activists should reflect on their own cultural norms, and to what extent it is necessary to impose it on other classes.

Betsy-Leondar Wright, an activist-scholar, suggests distinguishing between essential and non-essential weirdness, where essential weirdnesses are defined as practices that can’t be eliminated without doing great injustice to someone. In other words, essential weirdnesses must be kept, even if they seem offputting to some attendants, because discarding them causes greater harm. Essential weirdnesses are things like “the practice of always speaking out against racist comments” or “having your meetings be secular”.

Non-essential weirdnesses, on the other hand, should be eliminated as much as possible because pushing lifestyle choices onto disinterested working-class people is a misuse of class privilege. Because classes are hierarchical in nature, this is especially important for middle-upper class people to keep in mind. An example of non-essential weirdness is “only having vegan options for dinner”.

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