Elizabeth recently wrote this as a comment on the Vavilov day post. I thought it was important enough to be worth pulling out as a separate topic of discussion.

I don't love the process for generating rationalist holidays right now and tentatively think it would be better to switch to a patron saints model. People who want to can have their own hero or event that's especially close to their heart (and maybe a few secondary ones, or ones important to their friends), and if several people who like each other pick the same one they do stuff together, and if a lot of people pick the same one that becomes a more shared holiday (although still not mandatory). 

One reason for this is there are just actually a lot of heroes in the world, with wildly varying resonances for a given individual, and the number of holidays the community can adopt and take seriously is pretty small. People only have so much time, and are often sharing their holiday budget with religious or more widespread secular holidays.

But the more important reason is that I really want some holidays that challenge or are demanding of people, and people vary a lot in how much of what kind of challenge they can safely take on at a given time.  A cultural push for fasting could be really bad for people with eating disorders, even if there's a well respected medical or practicality exemption. Mass Winter Solstice is in constant conflict over how dark to go, given people's different needs. Lots of people felt they'd been injured by being mailed doomsday codes for LW or EAF for Petrov day... 

But if you take away everything that could possibly hurt someone, you're left with parties (and even those aren't fun for everyone), and that feels sad and unfulfilling to me. So I think letting holidays exist and be respected without automatically scaling them would decrease damage done to people while upping the ceiling on what's achievable to those that want it.

If any particular hero/event does end up being so overwhelmingly popular it becomes a mass holiday, that seems fine, but letting it be an emergent process rather than an immediate bid for universality seems so much better.

I don't know that this needs to be characterized as a switch to Patron Saints model vs universal holidays. I think "big universal Schelling time" is one useful thing for holidays to do, and "niche celebration of a particular thing" is another useful thing they do. I also think "Patron Saint" isn't always quite the right frame. But I think there is something important about allowing holidays to be smaller, and let them grow organically if appropriate.

I think it's often good to experiment with things before scaling them up. Some things in fact don't make sense to scale up, ever. And I think there are indeed way more heroes worth celebrating than there are slots in the year for large public cultural holidays. 

(I've actually felt this ever since the first Petrov Day ceremony – it seemed important, but I expected there to be a lot of other important stories and virtues worth celebrating. Petrov Day has since grown in prominence and I think "prevent nuclear war" is pretty high up there among things worth honoring. But my initial orientation to Petrov Day was "This seems like a holiday I'd like to celebration in rotation with other holidays. Maybe some years I want to celebrate Norman Borlaug or Smallpox Eradication." And that still seems like a fine way for many holidays to be.)

It seemed useful to separate out discussion about this from the discussion of Elizabeth-in-particular's approach to Vavilov-Day-in-particular. 

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A lot of my thoughts about patron saints are downstream of this article I read 10 years ago about Joan of Arc. (note: from a feminist blog that's mostly assuming feminist readership)

I recommend reading the whole thing. But some things that stand out:

So there’s another thing I’ve been thinking about, and reading about, and you can laugh at me all you want, but: Joan of Arc. I’ve been thinking, and reading, a lot about Joan of Arc. Patti Smith has a line in “Just Kids” about the optimism of little girls who choose “Joan” as their confirmation name; it got stuck in my head. Because you have to choose the name of a saint, basically, for those unfamiliar; you have to choose the saint you want to have your back. When you’re in trouble, or you need to make a very hard decision, and you need supernatural aid to keep going safely, you get to make one phone call, and it’s this particular saint, so think about the sort of trouble you’re likely to get into, and choose the one who will take your call: That’s part of what a confirmation name is about.

And yeah. Guess who I chose.

It goes on to tell a long-ish story about Joan,  about a bunch of incredible things she did, many of which seem born out in historically record. (I don't know how epistemically rigorous the post is, so, grain of salt. But seemed in the normal range of historical things that historians might argue about but is at least plausibly true).

I think is really good reading, not really summarizable, and I suggest you go read it instead of reading the last couple paragraphs that I'm about to quote. 


but... I'mma quote them because they are the bits that are most relevant to the broader discussion


(last chance to go read the article instead of reading the last couple paragraphs of it)



And I don’t know if I believe in Jesus, but I believe in Joan of Arc. I believe that if you choose Joan to be your one phone call, then Joan comes through. I kind of — this is weird lapsed-Catholic God-has-a-plan-for-you stuff, so bear with me — don’t actually think it was an accident that this one line from a book I read a year ago got stuck in my head, this week, and that I ended up finding the trial transcripts online. Because I’d never read them before, and I was over the whole religion thing, but I ended up finding out that she was a real person. This real,  live, bitchy, funny, charming, smart, obstinate/contumacious/disobedient, gender-inappropriate, charismatic, determined person, who somehow managed to happen, a really long time ago. I don’t know what I believe about the God thing. But I believe that we’re human beings, and that the range of human possibility includes Joan of Arc.

Here’s a list of things that Joan is the patron saint of, issues on which it is decreed Joan shall have your back: “Captives, France, martyrs, opponents of Church authorities, people ridiculed for their piety, prisoners, rape victims.” And soldiers, particularly female ones. Which is to say: Joan has a very definitive opinion on Bradley Manning. Joan has a very definitive opinion on civilians who are killed in long-term invasions and occupations. Joan has a very definitive opinion on rape, and rape survivors; she has a very definitive opinion on being threatened with rape and death for telling your side of the story; she has a very definitive opinion on being ridiculed for one’s beliefs. And I, personally, would not want to piss off Joan.

It's certainly possible to follow this idea off a cliff. But it seems like there's a healthy, epistemically virtuous version of this where one can draw strength from a hero-figure who embodies virtues that you want to live up to, and who would be on your side if you're feeling alone.

There's some diciness of "It feels easier (to me) to draw strength from characters that are real rather than fictional. (Some people draw strength from Harry Potter, but for me, knowing a real live human being did a hard thing makes it more substantive). But, if you need your heroes to be real, you'll be tempted to paper over their faults and exaggerate their virtues. And if a lot of people are doing this for the same hero you end up with some group-rationality failures)". 

Adding a comment instead of another top-level post saying basically the same thing.  Add my thoughts, on things I liked about this plan:

It's centered on people.  A lot of rationality is thinking and deciding and weighing and valuing possible actions.  Another frame that is occasionally good (for me at least) is "How would <my hero> act?" -- and this can help guide my actions.  It's nice to have a human or historical action to think about instead of just a vague virtue or principle.

It encourages looking through history for events of positive impact.  Many of us wish to impact the future (potentially the long future) for the better.  It's nice to have examples of people in the past that made an impact.  I think it helps me think about my possible impact and the impact of the people around me.

It marks a time on a calendar.  Maybe my sense of time was warped by covid, but also I think I've missed the regular holidays that a religious life spaces throughout the year.  It's also nice to coordinate on things, even if the coordination is small and just a few friends.

I want to start a list of people I might consider for this, but keeping it to myself for now!

Ideas myself and others have had, off the top of my head;

  • Atul Gawande (checklist manifesto, rearranged how hospitals organize themselves to reduce medical error)
  • Moon landing
  • Invention/inventors of oral rehydration therapy
  • Gutenberg
  • Galileo
  • Newton
  • Darwin
  • Long list of people who sheltered victims from the Holocaust (plus that one German who bought 250k Nanking residents time to escape)
  • Norman Borlaug
  • A general abundance day celebrating all modernity has brought us (Ray suggests summer solstice for this, which seems right)
  • Polio vaccine guy
  • Actually, there are a lot of vaccines and they're most great, holidays for everyone
  • Gotta be something related to computers and/or the internet somewhere
  • Juneteenth
  • That guy who invented incubators for premature babies and funded them through carnival exhibits when hospitals ignored him.
  • Anniversary of banning leaded gasoline.


EDIT: While looking up the German in WW2 I found a French guy who saved half a million Chinese people in WW2 and I'm so mad I've never heard about him before.

Second place day: celebrate the Leipnizes, Wallaces, and that-guy-who-invented-the-telephone-6-hours-too-late of the world. Geniuses who made absolutely stunning breakthroughs, but were slightly slower or less popular or in the wrong country so it didn't count.

Thinking of Leibniz as only "the guy who was second after Newton" is a bit misleading. His mathematical contributions were important enough that we still talk about Leibniz rule for the derivation of a product, and his philosophical works were also quite significant.

It seems like the edit example is a really good heuristic. When we hear about good deed are we mad? Maybe good to celebrate it.

I feel like I agree with Elizabeth's suggestion that we allow holidays to rise to prominence naturally rather than advocate for universal observance, but for different reasons.

Chief among those reasons is that if we are bidding for a holiday to be universally celebrated, it is almost certain to be designed by the advocate rather than explored by the celebrants. This has two problems: one, it puts a ceiling on how successful the holiday can be due to the design decisions made in the original campaign; two, if the designed elements fail, they are likely to take the whole holiday down with it, and we lose the lessons/examples/opportunity-for-a-good-party thereby. Letting people opt-in to experiment and then mimic the activities they like gives both a better shot at deeper engagement and a higher likelihood of the holiday being kept, at the cost of being slower to reach social fixation.

I also suggest a different pattern than Patron Saints (though I approve of it) to include: celebrations of battles. Notably this includes significant defeats - the US celebrates Pearl Harbor Day, for example. I imagine the 'rationalist battles' consisting of a group of people who try Doing the Thing for one of our central concerns. Any time this happens it should eventually be resolvable into Thing is Done! or Thing is Sustainably Underway! or Failed to Do the Thing. If there are interesting features of the story, like a really good showcase of rationalist virtues under pressure, or new failure modes, or anything else, it might be worth celebrating on an ongoing basis.

I like the battle pattern in addition to the saints pattern because I believe we're entirely too focused on individuals in full generality, and its always a group effort at the cruxes of history.


I like the idea of allowing holidays to form and grow organically -- I agree with your assessment that things get weird when a holiday is designed in isolation and then shoved toward a group.

The challenge that I see in this approach is in figuring out how to get that organic growth to happen on the extremely short timelines that we come to expect from modern online life. Most mainstream holidays represent gradual change over multiple human lifetimes, and I have the impression (perhaps unfounded?) that an unspoken success metric in new holiday creation is to see adoption within a few years.

What does "letting people opt-in to experiment and mimic" look like in practice to you? When I guess at what it might look like online, I imagine a group of people with large followings blogging, tweeting, and generally talking about the holiday before, during, and after it.

Pretty much just like Vavilov Day. Elizabeth also wrote that post, and was responding to someone suggesting it be added to the rational holiday calendar. So the short version is it looks like this:

Elizabeth: Vavilov was a cool guy. I will commemorate him and his people by undergoing a small fraction of their suffering voluntarily.

Others: Cool idea - me too!

I think two important features of rationalists aid in the spread of things like a good holiday. One is intentionality, which is to say we do a lot of things with a definite purpose as opposed to by convention or on impulse. Two is articulation, which is to say we are often ready to explain our thinking and motivations. As a consequence, I expect meeting your discussion standard to be pretty straightforward because it is practically embedded from the beginning: the announcement of the celebration; the note that the celebration is actually occurring now; the retrospective on the celebration. You can see this pattern in the solstice posts, for example.

There's an actually two different concepts here which I'd both like to get some attention

  • "Patron saint" holidays (where part of the aesthetic is your relation to an individual you look up to and draw some strength from)
  • "Smaller/experimental/not-immediately-scaled-up holidays" (where the point is primarily "don't necessarily scale up holidays", but they can focus on things that are not heroes)

I think patron saints are a useful aesthetic handle for why the latter might be good, but wanted to flag the distinction, and the "small holidays in general that organically grow" was probably my primary motivator for the post.

Lots of people felt they'd been injured by being mailed doomsday codes for LW or EAF for Petrov day...

how so? 0_o

Somewhat described in the retrospective:

The second–and I think more serious–complaint around lack of opt-in is that it leaves people who object to the ritual with no good option. If you don’t press the button, you are tacitly cooperating with a ritual you object to; if you do press it, you’ll have destroyed value and be subject to serious social sanction. 

Moreover, the organizers (me, EA Forum staff) have declared by fiat what the moral significance of people’s symbolic actions are. This goes beyond just deciding what the ritual is and into deciding what’s good and bad symbolic behavior (with strong social consequences). While the Petrov Day ritual might be innocuous, it is a scary precedent if LessWrong/EA Forum organizers freely shape the moral symbolic landscape this way, without the checks and balances of broader community discussion.

More on EAF.

My suspicion is that the people who felt this way would not have felt nearly this strongly if a random website did this to them. It was the combination of LessWrong/EAF asserting a frame and that LW/EAF had a particular place in their life where a frame felt like pressure (such as having a lot of respect for the team, or feeling like your friends take the ritual seriously even if you don't). 

This came up with Vavilov Day (more in private conversations than on LW). I intended to share it as a thing I was doing that maybe some people would also like (and pushed back when someone suggested making it a community-official thing), but some people nonetheless perceived it as a Community Event they had to either do, or conspicuously not do, or argue the community as a whole should not do (in fairness, the event blew up way more than anticipated, which is why I eventually created a thread for discussion in a community rather than personal context). In at least one case the person really wanted more strong community events, so no amount of me saying "no this is an individual event" made them feel better.