September 2010 Southern California Meetup

by JenniferRM1 min read13th Sep 201032 comments

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Personal Blog

The second LessWrong meetup for Southern California will happen on Saturday September 25th, 2010!  The meetup will start at 1PM and probably run for 4 or 5 hours in the Platt Campus Center of Harvey Mudd College.  Thanks are due to the Harvey Mudd Future Tech Club for the location.

We will be meeting in a conference room with tables, chairs, whiteboards, and a projector.  Based on the July SoCal LW Meetup we discovered that the most interesting thing was to have small group conversations but that turned out to be tricky in a pub.  This time we're optimizing for conversation, but pizza will almost assuredly be ordered and there will be free cookies and soda!

Last time several people brought interested friends.  Also some people who had been reading a long time but had never commented before showed up (only about 60% of us had LW logins) and this seemed to work pretty well.  It was a very friendly group :-)

For travel planning purposes, you should probably be aware that the time and location was specifically planned to be ~10 blocks north of the Claremont Metrolink Station, 15 minutes after a train arrives there from the hub at LA Union Station.  Train schedules can be searched here. Walking directions from the Metrolink Station:

  1. Take College Ave north to 12th St.
  2. Go east on north side of 12th St (which becomes Platt Blvd) until you see the big Harvey Mudd College sign on the left side of the street.
  3. Head north into campus there, to the very visible flagpole.
  4. Platt Campus Center will be the big building right to the northeast.
  5. We should have signs set up in and around the building, but basically once inside the big central area, just head east.

For those arriving via car there is a parking lot directly behind the building (it's covered with trees on the Google maps aerial view).  There should be plenty of spots open on a Saturday.  Also, look for carpooling comment threads, here for Santa Barbara, here for Orange County, here for San Diego, and here for Pasadena/Glendale.

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I'll be there. I've got space for 3 more in my car. If anyone in the Pasadena/Glendale area would like a ride, let me know.

I plan on coming. If anyone wants a ride from Orange County, message me.

The meetup happened today and I think it worked pretty well! Last time we tried an experiment with post-meetup commentary to help make the next meetup better and I wanted to continue that process here.

Anyone who attended, reply to this comment with an observation of something GOOD, BAD or INTERESTING. Please do it like the monthly quotes thread: one "noticed thing" per reply so they can be voted up or down independently. I'll do a few as examples.

The idea is that we should try to repeat, retain, or follow up on the good stuff, try to fix the bad stuff... and the interesting stuff might be fun to think about or might serve as a valuable intuition pump :-)

INTERESTING: As soon as the pizza was in the process of being ordered, people got up and moved around. It went from one discussion with everyone seated around the table to several discussions with people seated/standing in a more chaotic and casual seeming manner.

I'm not sure what the topic of discussion was in the other groups was, but my conversation at the time started with nutrition and then gradually moved back to rationality related stuff. Maybe people saw it as "oh, well we're talking a break from 'rationality talk' to socialize".

INTERESTING: We put the moderated suggestions for things to do up on the projector and there was interest but we didn't really implement any of the suggestions. My guess is that the top rated activity suggestions involved self-revelatory content and we just didn't know each other well enough to feel really safe talking about that in front of a large group full of new people. If we keep having meetups with the same crowd I think self-revelatory activities will work better, but we might have needed more "ice breaking" kinds of activities?

I'm just one data point, but that wasn't stopping me. I just couldn't think of anything worth spending everyone's time on when unsolicited. Maybe if we had broken into smaller groups for that it'd have been over the 'worth saying' threshold, and the groups could get together with whatever interesting stories/patterns they uncover?

BAD: I was caught in traffic and showed up late to the meetup that I announced. At the previous meetup I was there to hand out "Hi my name is..." stickers but this time I snuck in by the back door while someone was already presenting at a whiteboard. I think next time I will try to pad my driving schedule so I'm more likely to be there an hour early instead of an hour late.

GOOD: We had some people from the previous meetup and also lots of new people. The turnout pattern was roughly consistent with the theory that the next couple meetups located in different parts of Southern California will pull in new local people to each one, while people who have been to previous meetups will be more willing to travel. If we keep up the meetups, in new places around Southern California, I think we'll build up a group whose size, cohesion, and diversity will significantly exceed what we've seen at the first two meetings... which were already better than I was initially hoping for :-)

GOOD: Lots of people showed up.

BAD: It was hard to remember everyone's name. We should use name tags like we did in the previous meet up.

(Grouped because they are related)

BAD: limited and not-too-healthy choice of food and drink. (It feels presumptuous to post this, as I forgot to bring anything at all.)

GOOD: The venue was quiet and roomy, with comfortable chairs, whiteboards, and an overhead projector, and it was easy to find.

After action review:

Had a great time meeting many folks who were clearly smarter than me but very nice about it. Thanks to JenniferRM and the students of Harvey Mudd who hosted, and to those who presented their thoughts. I seriously wish I had taken notes in an organized fashion.

In Self-Improvement or Shiny Distraction: Why Less Wrong is anti-Instrumental Rationality patrissimo wrote:

I don't know why in-person group is important, but it seems to be - all the people who have replied to me so far saying they get useful rational practice out of the LW community said the growth came through attending local meetups (example). We can easily invent some evolutionary psychology story for this, but it doesn't matter why, at this point it's enough to just know.

I think a neat thing to try would be for people to reply to this comment with suggestions and links for things to try at the SoCal meetup even if you're not coming, suggestions appreciated.

Go ahead, you know you want to other-optimize!

Put suggested meetup activities in their own comments like a quotes thread (one suggestion per comment, minimize kibitzing, etc), and vote up or down the ones you think would be particularly high (or low) value.

Before going to the meetup, I will take responsibility for printing out some of the suggestions that have more votes (with ancillary text from links as appropriate) and bring them to the meetup in the hopes that we can try implementing one or more suggestions and then report back with a "background/method/results" format in followup articles. Part of the test would be object level (does a particular suggestion have positive effects) and part of the test would be meta level (can we honestly use LW's existing infrastructure and community to improve community practices).

I will make a couple suggestions by way of example :-)

It is probably hardest to think rationally about high-impact, emotional subjects, and also high value to think rationally about such subjects.

Accordingly:

Have everyone who is willing to share name a major mistake they have made, and what role self-deception (including targeted failure-to-think, e.g. because the subject was painful to think about) may have played in the mistake. Then, brainstorm heuristics as a group for noticing when such failure modes are especially likely, and for reducing their likelihood. Post the results to LessWrong.

Give out pen and paper, and separate out for five minutes to think and jot notes. Everyone chooses a belief that substantially affects what they do. Ask: “Why do I believe what I believe?” Ask: “Given how I actually came to believe this, should I expect my belief to be accurate?”

After jotting down answers, reconvene and share.

The ideas below would probably work best for focused discussion on certain specific issues (e.g. reasons for hard takeoff, threat from nanotechnological disasters), but I think what I say below is relevant to rationalist training.

I personally often find that simple freeflowing discussion can be less than optimally effective. I often wish there was a more organized way to focus discussion to get maximum skill development. I'm afraid I'm not aware of research into refinements of general discussion designed to improve knowledge and skill acquisition.

Here are some thoughts I have.

I have found Toastmasters-style impromptu speaking practice to be an efficient and effective way to develop my ability to talk about topics. Impromptu Speaking I can imagine many ways in which such techniques could be employed for rationalist training.

Arguably some ways of doing this could put too much emphasis on rhetorical skills, but I don't think this need be true. Impromptu speaking exercises are a quick and efficient way to allow people to explore their understanding of a topic in front of an audience. With judicious use of immediate feedback, impromptu speaking could promote rationalist skill acquisition.

One advantage is that impromptu speaking makes efficient use of time. People have to think on their feet and present material fast. (For hard topics, speakers might get one or two minutes to prepare the key points of their presentation.) Public speaking practice improves understanding; even when you understand something fairly well, if you don't know it well enough to explain to someone else, you don't really understand it. (The medical school three-step program for learning how to perform a procedure seems appropriate here: See one. Do one. Teach one.)

For impromptu speaking, it is important that speakers only learn what topic they will be talking about after they volunteer; otherwise audience members will be rehearse what they will say when it is their turn to go up. I've found that one can cover quite a bit of what one understands in even two or three minutes. If done solely for the purpose of speaker skill acquisition, a designated mentor might call for the speaker to move on as soon as she demonstrates mastery of some area of concern. One key feature found in graduate school oral exams is that as soon as a student appears to demonstrate mastery in a given subject area the testers move the discussion to another subject where the student is potentially weak. It seems the same principle could work here as well.

Alternatively, If done supportingly and judiciously, audience members could interject when advanced participants are speaking and force the speaker to consider some critical point. (If this liberty is abused, each audience member might be restricted to one interjection.)

Other notes: a) There might also be a designated Socratic questioner who could potentially interpret the speaker at any given point and ask for further refinement or support of some argument. Even just watching such an interaction could be an efficient way to learn, more so than just listening to someone lecture.

b) There are no doubt other ways the feedback could best be tailored to the knowledge-level of the speaker.

c) Perhaps a list of focused readings might be put together ahead of time.

d) There might also be a running EtherPad-type commentary that would allow the speaker to be able to go back and read people's reactions and commentary on her content. If, at the end, the group desired to have a general discussion having the EtherPad could be very productive because they could start from this base of learning. (If someone knew what the best way to sync the audio with the text that would be helpful too. I know there is a feature like that for Microsoft OneNote, but that wouldn't allow for network-effect advantages.)

Another idea. What about this? People gain insights into problems with their own views when people with superior insight point out flaws, assumptions, fallacies, biases, etc. in a speaker's arguments. But if there were simply an unfocused discussion among 10 people the amount of useful feedback might be limited. As a college professor, I've found that pair work can be effective to get students practice in articulating their views. Ideally, of course, everyone could pair up with someone who sees things they are missing. Here's an idea: people first estimate their degree of knowledge about a topic. If there are ten people, someone volunteers for 10 (the highest), then people successively volunteer for 9, 8, 7, 6, and so on. After a topic is presented (and feedback is given to an impromptu speaker), people could sit in a circle in an ordered hierarchy of mentors for that topic. A facilitator could encourage all the organizational issues to take place rapidly. First, the evens turn to their right and discuss for two minutes. In this sempai-kohai relationship, first the kohai (junior member) gives his understanding of the issue, then, for each point, if the sempai has something constructive to offer, he voices it; if not, they move on to the next point. After a period of two or three minutes, the evens then turn to the left. That way, everyone would have the opportunity for focused one-on-one interaction with someone who is potentially more (and less) knowledgeable than themselves. (#10 wouldn't of course. Perhaps talking #1 could help him to have dramatic gains in understanding though.)

I can imagine different ways the above ranked ring arrangement could be used in combination with the impromptu speaking method. Perhaps, people would only give impromptu talks on one of the topics that they are generally confident about. Then the pair work discussion would commence (potentially after some form of feedback to the impromptu speaker).

Inspired by the recent PUA thread, and by behavioural experiments from CBT:

Take turns approaching random strangers (at a bar, bus stop, etc) and try to build rapport with them for a minute or so. Everyone else observes and provides feedback on their approach and body language.

We could try paranoid debating, as jimmy suggested to me during an IM conversation. One thing to note is that it would be good if rules and suggestions for the game were actually spelled out in the wiki in more detail... the article there is sort of a stub, and could use advice on optimal group size, how long a game runs, a scoring rule, and so on.

Someone could bring a laptop, loaded up with their favorite dual N-back software (like this one?), and have it available for demo purposes. The short term goal would be to inspire some people to be exposed and try it, the longer term goal would be to get people to keep using it long enough to get effects, still farther out we'd hope that the positive effects had a detectable and positive effect on people's lives. The first two outcomes seem relatively easy to measure and the third much harder.

Again, separate for five minutes and jot notes on the following question:

Exercise: How does the idea of choosing your beliefs “from evidence” make you feel? Are there fears that come up? About what specific beliefs does the idea of choosing your beliefs "based only on evidence" prompt some fear?

Special cases worth attention:

  • beliefs about yourself
  • beliefs about friends, family, and other allies (whose feelings you might hurt, or who you might alienate, if you seem to hold negative beliefs about them)
  • beliefs about what goals are worth hitting

Then, reconvene and discuss (honestly, without rigging the discussion) what the consequences of accurate beliefs on the noted subjects are likely to be.

Go around in a circle and name something you protect, and what subjects you need accurate beliefs about in order to protect it effectively.

In my experience there tend to be several quiet members of a group, who don't speak much in the group setting but will talk in one-on-one settings. It could be a fun exercise to break up into pairs, and have each pair chat individually for a period of time, before rejoining the group conversation.

This would be useful just to build stronger connections between individual members of the group, but it is especially useful if you're trying to have a focused discussion. Usually a few voices end up dominating, and if that occurs from the very beginning only a few ideas get discussed.

Disclaimer: the experiment I've linked to is highly susceptible to priming, so I would advise anyone who will be going to the meetup not to read it (with the exception of JenniferRM, obviously)

Try this breathing experiment out, and document the results for posterity.

It might be good to brainstorm a few topics of conversation; ones that won't alienate people who are relatively new, but will also engage OB/LW veterans. The Singularity can be a bad call because it usually boils down to inside view / outside view considerations that are hard to navigate real-time: conversations dissolve into debate instead of truth seeking. That said, with the right atmosphere it can be a great topic. Cryonics can be interesting but often isn't. If people have expertises they'd like to share that's often interesting if groups are smallish (less than 10). Conversations about group epistemology (the Bayesian Conspiracy, the Cooperative Conspiracy) can be fun if they lead to real insights or action. Of course, meandering conversation can be great too.

"What is your super origin / how did you become a rationalist?" is a question that seemed to spark a lot of interesting conversation.

"Super origin" means the story of the origin of a superhero. (Had to google for that.)

Anyone driving through the Burbank area? I'd like to hitch a ride; I'm just off the 134.

Hi Darius - If no one else is driving through Burbank, I can backtrack and pick you up.

If you need a ride or can offer a ride from San Diego, reply to this comment!

If you need a ride or can offer a ride from Santa Barbara, reply to this comment!