Ritual Report: NYC Less Wrong Solstice Celebration

Last Friday, the NYC Less Wrong community held their first Winter Solstice Celebration. Approximately twenty of us gathered for dinner and a night of ritual. We sang songs, told stories, and recited litanies. The night celebrated ancient astronomers, and the work that humanity has done for the past 5000 years. It paid tribute to the harshness of the universe, respecting it as worthy opponent. We explored Lovecraftian mythology, which intersects with our beliefs in interesting ways.

And finally, we looked to the future, vowing to give a gift to tomorrow.

This is the first of 2-3 posts on this subject. In this one, I'm telling a story about what we did and why I wanted to. In the followup(s), I’ll explain the design principles that went into planning such an event, and what we learned from our first execution of it. I’ll also be posting a PDF of a ritual book, similar to the one we read from but with a few changes based on initial, obvious observations.

Why exactly did we do this? Doesn’t this smack of organized religion? Who the hell is Lovecraft and why do we care?

Depending on your background, this may require the bridging of some inferential distance, as well as emotional distance. Bear with me.

(If at the end, you DO still think this was a dangerous idea, or one you don't want popularized on Less Wrong, I want you to let me know. We're probably just going to disagree, but I want a sense of what the costs are of emphasizing this type of thing here)

 

Winter Solstice

 

To begin, a Just So Story, true enough for our purposes:

The Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year. It ushers in a time of cold and darkness.

For young civilizations, it was a time when if you HADN’T spent the year preparing adequately for the future, then before spring returned, you would run out of food and die. If you hadn’t striven to use your tribe’s collective wisdom, to work hard beyond what was necessary for immediate gratification... if you hadn’t harnessed the physical and mental tools that humans have but that few other animals do... then the universe, unflinchingly neutral, would destroy you without a second thought. And even if you did do these things, it might kill you anyway. Because fairness isn’t built into the equations of the cosmos.

But it wasn't just the threat of death that inspired the first winter holidays. It was that sense of unfairness, coupled with the desperate hope that world couldn’t really be that unfair. It wouldn’t have occurred to the first squirrels that stored food for winter, but it gradually dawned upon ancient hominids, as their capacity for abstract reasoning developed, alongside their desire to throw parties.

Our tendency is to anthropomorphize. Today, we angrily yell at our cars and computers when they fail us. Rationally we know they are unthinking hulks of metal, but we still ascribe malevolence when the real culprit is a broken, unsentient machine.

There are plausible reasons for humans to have evolved this trait. One of the most complicated tasks a human has to do is predict the actions of other humans. We need to be able to make allies, to identify deceptive enemies, to please lovers. I’m not an evolutionary psychologist and I should be careful when telling this sort of Just-So story, but I can easily imagine selection pressures that resulted in a powerful ability to draw conclusions about sentient creatures similar to ourselves.

And then, there was NOT a whole lot of pressure to NOT use this tool to predict, say, the weather. Many natural forces are just too complex for humans to be good at predicting. The rain would come, or it wouldn’t, regardless of whether we ascribed it to gods or “emergent complexity.” So we told stories about gods, with human motivations, and we honestly believed them because there was nothing better.

And then, we had the solstice.

The world was dark and cold. The sun was retreating, leaving us only with the pale moon and stars that lay unimaginably far away. There was the enroaching threat of death, and just as powerfully, there was the threat that sentient cosmic forces that held supreme power over our world were turning their backs on us. And the best we could hope for was to throw a celebration in their honor and pray that they wouldn’t be angry forever, that the sun would return and the world would be reborn.

And regardless, take a moment to be glad for having worked hard the previous year, so that we had meat stored up and wine that had finished fermenting.

But as ages passed, people noticed something interesting: there was a pattern to the gods getting angry. Weather may be complex and nigh-unpredictable. But the movements of the heavens... they follow rules simple enough for human minds to understand, if only you take the time to look.

We had a question. “When will the sun retreat, and when will it return?”

When you really care about knowing the answer, you can’t make something up. When you need to plan your harvest and prepare for winter so that your family doesn’t starve, you can’t just say “Oh, God will stop getting angry in a few months.”

If you want real knowledge, that you can apply to make your world better...

Then you need to do science. Astronomy was born.

I want to give you some perspective on how much we cared about this. Stonehenge is an ancient archaeological wonder. To the best of our knowledge, it began as a burial site around 3000 BCE. Over the next thousand years, it was gradually built, in major phases of activity every few hundred years. Between 2600 and 2400 BCE, there was a surge of construction. Huge stones were carted over huge distances, to create a monument that’s lasted five thousand years.

30 Sarsen stones. Each of them was at least 25 tons. They were carried 25 miles.
80 bluestones. Four tons each. Carried over 150 miles.
In this era, the height of locomotive technology was “throw it on a pile of logs and roll it.”

We don’t know exactly how they did all this. We don’t know all the reasons why. But we know at least one: The megaliths at Stonehenge are arranged, very specifically, to predict the Solstices. To the moment of dawn.

30 stones, each 25 tons, carried over 25 miles. 80 stones, each four tons, each carried over 150 miles.

200 years of that.

That’s how much we cared about the answer to that question.

 

A Modern Journey

 

To modern society, Winter Solstice isn’t very scary. We have oil to heat our homes, we have mechanical plows that clear our streets when the snow falls and other mechanical plows that work our fields all year round to supply us with food, carted from thousands of miles away, across land and sea. Many people today claim to enjoy Winter, although Richard Adams may accurately say that they really enjoy their protection from it.

Modern winter holidays are about enjoying that protection, not assuaging fear.

But there is a power in that, all the same. My family’s Christmas Eve celebration is one of my favorite parts of the year. The extended family gathers. We have a big feast. Then 20+ people huddle up and sing songs and tell stories for hours. I don’t believe in the literal messages of these rituals, but they have a power to them that I rarely see outside of religious-inspired works of art. They feel timeless and magical even though most Christmas carols have only existed for 50 years or so. The repetition of them each year grants them ritual strength. And the closeness I feel with my family grants them warmth.

Together, all these things are precious.

I didn’t realize how precious, though, until the year I invited a friend of mine to the Christmas Eve party. Her first reaction amused me: “Wait, you guys literally sit around a fire and sing Christmas carols? Like, in movies?” Her second reaction, as the night ended, was even more amusing: “Oh my god, I had no idea Christmas could be so awesome!” But I knew what she meant, and it was accompanied with the realization that NOT everybody got to have experiences like this.

And that made Christmas Eve all the more special. It also made me realize how ridiculous it is that I only get to have that experience once a year.

That desire nagged at me a few years, and it was accompanied by another nagging dissatisfaction: That I didn’t really believe in the words of the songs. They had power, generated by the magnitude of the songwriter’s belief, and given lyric form by carefully honed skill. But they weren’t true, and the falsehood itched at the back of my mind. Not because of the songs themselves, but because there weren't other songs, equally beautiful and with the same cultural weight, that were about things that I truly believed in.

Flash forward five years. I’ve since discovered the sequences at Less Wrong. They outline studies in human behavior, how lots of our thinking is flawed if we want to achieve particular goals, how it can be hard to even know what our goals ARE, and why these are incredibly important questions to answer. Not just so we can succeed at life, but because if you’re developing machine intelligence, and you haven’t studied these questions (and solved problems that are, as I write this, unsolved), you could really, really, wreck the world. Wreck it worse than cold, uncompromising Nature ever could, worse and more unrecoverably than Hollywood has portrayed in explosive blockbuster films.

But if these questions are answered, and certain technological problems are solved, we can do incredible, important, beautiful things. In the past year I’ve read powerful works of science, prose, and poetry that have resonated with all my strongest values. They’ve changed how I approach my life and how I look at the future.

For the past year I’ve attended the local Less Wrong meetup. I’ve made new friends. I’ve gotten involved with a community that encourages everyone to figure out what their goals are and try to achieve them, using the best tools they can find. We’re going through similar life experiences. And for the past year, I’ve been seeking out songs and stories that are fun, powerful and that we all truly believe in.

Ritual has been important in my life. I recognize that there is a risk whenever you begin elevating ideas and seeking them out because they are powerful and moving. I don’t want to start a self-propogating organization designed to accrue followers blindly reciting the faith. But those of us who have studied these ideas and take them seriously - I want us to be able to find each other, to create friendship and family, and to celebrate together.

However, these powerful beliefs we share come with a cost:

I now believe a lot of really weird stuff that’s hard to explain to the average person without sounding crazy. To certain people, they sound genuinely horrifying. I believe that living forever is a perfectly reasonable goal. I think that in the not too distant future, people will be able to radically alter their minds and bodies. In the not much more distant future, there’s a good chance people will be able to live as uploaded computer programs. More frightening: I believe that people will eventually WANT to do this.

To be clear: I’m currently lukewarm about a lot of this - my beliefs are complex, and like most humans I have a poor understanding of what I really value. But I can imagine the future me, plugging into the Matrix like it was no big deal.

All of this pales compared to the possibility of AI. The rest of humanity goes about their daily lives, planning for a future that involves slightly smaller iPhones and bigger televisions, vaguely annoyed that it’s 2012 and we don’t have flying cars yet. Blissfully unaware that with barely any warning, an AGI might be created and then bootstrap itself to godhood.

Blissfully unaware of how big mindspace is, and how little human morality would matter to a ghost of perfect emptiness, and how hard it is to create a mind from scratch that would care about us the way we care about ourselves.

But perhaps most blissful of all, they look upon the horrors that nature has inflicted us, and they give them nice sounding names like “God’s mysterious ways”, or “The Natural Order of Things.”

 

Alien Gods, and Other Horrors

 

Now, who the hell is Lovecraft and why should we care?

H.P. Lovecraft was a science fiction/horror writer from the 1920s. He wrote about alien gods, about humans changing their bodies and minds, about the pursuit of immortality. But what makes him particularly relevant is one dominant underlying theme - that the universe is absolutely, unforgivingly neutral. That human life and morality has no inherent value. That mind-space is huge, and that possibility space is even huger, and that 99% of the things in possibility space are utterly terrifying to modern human values. “All my tales,” Lovecraft said, “are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.”

Lovecraft identified as an atheist, a materialist and even a rationalist, and his protagonists often identify as such. He was also, as far as I can tell, a pessimist who hated people in general. I’m not sure what his beliefs about morality in the real world were. But he fascinates me because his writings suggest a dark mirror image of our ideals. Professor Quirrell to our Harry Potter, as a certain fanfiction would have it.

This is how Call of Cthulhu begins:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”


We, of the Less Wrong community, have gotten a glimpse of an expanse of possibility-space outside the scope of most people’s imagination. I know some people who are genuinely incapable of processing it. I know others who would, unless they took an initially painful plunge into the deep after us, look upon us with confusion and despair.

We ask hard questions about humanity, and about the universe, and a lot of the answers are dark. The Milgram experiment has been repeated many times, and consistently, we find that over half of humanity is willing to electrocute another person to death on the authority of a man in a lab coat. Across the world, people are born into situations — some natural, some human-made — where they can’t provide for themselves, and it is often beyond their power to change that situation.

Every day, approximately 150,000 people die, their minds forever gone.

These are the facts. Some people stare into the Abyss and the Abyss stares back and they crawl away from the truth into the safety of ignorance.

These are facts, but there is more than one way to feel about them. We can look at the darkness of the world and wallow in despair. We can make up reasons why the darkness isn’t so bad. Or we can look at the light, the things that, by our standards, are beautiful and good. And we can say:

“This is what is possible. This is the kind of future we can have.”

And we can look at the darkness and say: “This is not acceptable. We will not rest until it is gone.” However long it takes, however hard. Our gift and curse is that we look at something as awful as Death and see no natural order of things, only a problem to be solved, that we can’t in good conscience resign ourselves to accepting.

We can do all this without Lovecraft or other made up stories. There are plenty of truths that are powerful and beautiful enough to craft a night of ritual. But an important part of Solstice Festivals IS the fun, the joviality. It can be difficult to slip directly into the kind of profound state that I want to achieve. In my family’s Christmas Eve, we begin the night with songs about Santa and Frosty - boistrous, fun songs that suggest a time of magic, friendship and generosity, even if they don’t actually have to do with a virgin born savior. As we progress through the hymnal, the songs grow more somber, and they turn to the ideas that Christmas is supposed to actually be about - the birth of Christ, peace on earth, God’s forgiveness of the world. We end with a solemn Silent Night.

In this Solstice Eve celebration, Cthulhu, Azathoth and the Necronomicon play a part akin to Santa Claus - fun, ridiculous things that don’t directly parallel AI or Existential Risk or Evolution or Immortality, but which nonetheless pay tribute to the core ideas that make those things important to us.

The night begins with many sources of light - from candles and oil lamps to gas lanterns to florescent bulbs to lasers and lava lamps. We begin with fun songs like “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Fish Men.” As the night progresses, we turn the lights off, one by one, and the songs grow darker. We occasionally read relevant snippets of Lovecraft, then abridged versions of Eliezer’s Sequences. We read the Litany of Tarski, over and over, each time facing a darker possibility that we must prepare ourselves for.

The Gift We Give to Tomorrow will be read with one candle remaining, extinguished immediately afterward.

Solstice Celebrations haven’t been truly scary for a long time, and I think that’s a mistake. We are alive today, enjoying the comfort of a warm apartment with food on the table, because millions of people have spent their lives preparing for the future. Using the best wisdom their tribe was able to give them. Finding new wisdom of their own. Working hard. Sometimes courageously speaking out, when the tribe feared a new idea. Dragging eight-thousand-pound rocks across 150 miles of land so that they could figure out when winter was coming, and prepare, so that they and their children could survive.

We honor those people, those first astronomers, and all the laborers and scientists and revolutionaries who have come since, for creating the world we have today.

And then we look to our future. Tiny stars in the distant sky, unimaginably far away, surrounded by black seas of infinity.

We will stare into that Abyss, and the Abyss will stare back at us. But we will go crazy-meta and challenge the Abyss to a staring contest and win the hell at it, because we’re aspiring rationalists and good rationalists win.

And then, jubilantly, sing of a tomorrow that is brighter than today, a tomorrow where we are worthy of those stars, and have the power to reach them.

 


 

This begins the Ritual mini-sequence. The next article is The Value (and Danger) of Ritual.

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One of the genuinely new memes I picked up from this blog was the idea that passion is not the antithesis of rationality, and I think this is an excellent example of that.

Well I'm doing some serious updating in all sorts of directions. Primarily in my assessment of the attitudes of this community. I very strongly expected my response (a few twinges of worry) to be one of the most moderate responses here. In that I was correct. Most comments here seem to be of the "this is awesome" school of thought. I was expecting roughly half the comments to be people freaking out about how we're becoming a cult.

My concern is based entirely around the nature of ritual. I am not in any way opposed to poetry, music, or any other form of art based on a rationalist idea (so long as it's, you know, good). But the idea of rituals does make me worry a bit. It boils down to this: if in ten years, we learn something that causes us to abandon [insert any core idea of LW here]. Assume we've been singing a song about it for ten years. Assume the tune is really catchy. Assume that the singing of this song is something that a non-trivial number of our fellow rationalists especially look forward to each year. I am very confident that at least some members of the community will really want to keep that song as part of the yearly ritual "for tradition's sake".

I should probably note that a possible source of this concern is my own past and present attitude towards the song "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen". And certainly the emotional prediction is based off of my own personal feelings.

It might be possible to avoid this by writing new songs every year. If each year, the melody and lyrics of the song for any given idea is different, it would likely make it easier to give up that idea in that year's celebration. I do expect that this would somewhat diminish the power of the ritual. This post only really discusses the power of rituals as a positive point in their favor. But there are some possible downsides to letting loose a powerful social force in our community without knowing what it will do.

I find it deeply unsettling that this is the only really critical comment. I was enthused about this idea, as are most of the other commentators, before reading your comment. The obviousness of this criticism (it's something that I've said to Catholics before, for goodness' sake) combined with the fact that it didn't occur to anyone else, including me, has rather put me off the idea. Certainly this points only to my own vulnerability, but I don't know what to suggest that would salvage this idea from the rather sinister position it now occupies in my mind.

It may help you to know that I've received a few critical comments as private messages (and through the anonymous feedback box I posted to the NYC group mailing list).

It may also be.... settling? (un-unsettling?) to know that when the actual ritual book is posted, you will see that the very first rule written down is that each year, every ritual must be re-evaluated, and at least one ritual that has not been previously modified must be modified. Exact wording of this rule is a little up in the air (specific letters of the law might produce weird consequences I didn't intend), but I very much intended the spirit of the law - that nothing should ever become sacred to the point that you cannot let it go - to be built into the core of the event.

It's valid to be worried about the introduction of rituals producing death spirals. That is their express purpose after all, to produce and reinforce whatever death spirals the community has defined as essential.

Ritualism is a mind hack invented by early humanity to reinforce the group worldview and build/maintain group cohesion. And in the intervening thousands of years, either we or ritualism itself has evolved into something deeply ingrained in our cognitive makeup. At this point, it's how our brains are wired and I don't think it's feasible to simply ignore it. Instead, we have to do exactly what Raemon is attempting: coopt its techniques and replace the ones that propagate untruth and less than optimal behavior with ones that propagate truth and optimal behavior.

But rituals are a fundamentally irrational business, there's no way around it. The solution, I think, lies in thinking of rituals as a mnemonic device, understanding that they're not really a way of arriving at new truth, but reinforcing what we're reasonably sure is settled truth. Mandating constant and aribtrary change is the wrong track, since a huge part of rituals is simple reinforcement. To limit that is to cut the whole thing off at the knees.

Instead, I suggest only included the very settled science of rationality and being very conservative about what gets defined as such. For the inaugural core tenant, I would suggest the Litany of Tarski and the idea that if it's wrong it gets discarded, no matter what, with an appropriately weighty ritual to accompany it. So even if you did have something that was part of the canon for ten years that must then be discarded, you can still fall back to this ability to acknowledge mistakes and self modify. Everyone performs a ritual expunging the obsolete piece from the canon and it's forever removed. Thus, we're still taking advantage of the ritualism mind hack, while building in appropriate safeguards to keep the death spiral from going on forever and allowing for future self modification.

I agree with you in much of your assessment about what rituals are. Rituals are a very powerful, fundamentally irrational force on our minds. However, I don't think that our minds known weakness to rituals is something we should be trying to solve with, well, rituals.

First:

The solution, I think, lies in thinking of rituals as a mnemonic device, understanding that they're not really a way of arriving at new truth, but reinforcing what we're reasonably sure is settled truth.

"What we're reasonably sure is settled truth" does not necessarily equal truth. Nor does it necessarily equal "what we will want to believe once we know more".

Secondly, I think that a skilled rationalist should be able to avoid acquiring incorrect beliefs through rituals. If, for any reason, I have to participate in a ritual, I would like to have acquired the skills necessary to avoid getting caught up in it. This is a bias I would like to defeat, or reduce, just like any other. And I really don't think we can teach that skill through rituals. I'm rather disinclined against trying, either, since I suspect that would make us weaker to this form of manipulation.

Bottom line: I think we should try to be, well, less wrong, rather than wrong-in-opposite-directions-so-they-cancel-out.

"What we're reasonably sure is settled truth" does not necessarily equal truth. Nor does it necessarily equal "what we will want to believe once we know more".

Absolutely, which is what makes building in the ability to self modify so intrinsically important. The function of any ritual like activity shouldn't be any where near the vicinity of the "research arm" of the rationality community. Nothing should be acquired within them, nor determined through them. They should be about reinforcing the settled science, to minimize the amount of falseness that enters into the canon (I should point out, to be clear I'm using this term tongue in cheek). And for what does, something built around the Litany of Tarksi still allows for self modification.

And yes, any and all rationalists should be far enough along that they've developed a certain immunity to the process. That in and of itself makes no difference. Doing these types of things does measurable things to the brain, just as prayer/meditation do. The details are arbitrary; it doesn't matter if you're sacrificing a virgin, eating a wafer, or lighting a candle. What matters is doing the same thing as your fellow tribe members to build/maintain a sense of community. The proposition here is to simply replace the incorrect proclamations of how the universe works with correct ones. Instead of proclaiming Jesus Lord and Savior, you're proclaiming the map is not the territory and that your desire to know what is true is actually true (so if it turns out that the map IS the territory, then out it goes from the hymn book).

And the rationalist has the added (and important) benefit that no matter how much they give themselves over to the emotions of whatever ceremony, once they walk back out to the parking lot, their level headedness will return. The rationalist can walk out and think, "That sure was fun, but I understand what was happening and can safely put that suspension of rationality back on the shelf." In a way the Catholic can't (consciously) do when walking out of Mass.

So I disagree, I think these kinds of things, with effective substitutions of content, won't make us weaker to this form of manipulation, but rather stronger. Ultimately, when we cross the Singularity, we probably won't need these kinds of mind hacks anymore, but in the interim, I think they'll end up being quite important.

I actually think you are a bit overconfident in the ability to self-described rationalists to walk away from this unchanged. I think this is valuable, and yes I even agree that rationality training should help reduce the negative side-effects. But I don't think for a second that our level-headedness will automatically return the instant we step out of the ritual room.

Hm, perhaps you're right. It would depend largely on the composition of the ritual(s). Certainly, extraordinary care must be taken when intentionally playing with any kind of death spiral. A generous dose of tongue in cheek self deprivation would probably be a good idea.

This post made me update slightly against this idea.

My first impulse upon reading this is you could MODIFY the song to be about commemorating the relinquishment of the idea instead of the idea itself, by inserting a bunch of negations, or making a parody mocking it.

Interesting. This would definitely have some advantages. I am still concerned that there may be resistance to changing the lyrics of the song, especially if the song has been used for a longer period of time. I'll have to spend some time considering whether keeping the music would be enough to satisfy that urge.

Upvoted.

I think this is a interesting and probably good idea.

Well I'm not doing some serious updating in all sorts of directions.

Can't tell if this was intentionally worded or not.

I'll comment on the rest as part of the next post.

It was unintentional. I had originally tried to word that sentence differently, but went back to modify it. Fixed.

I was very concerned about the cult-like aspects of this, but refrained from commenting for a few reasons. First, I wasn't there, so I don't feel qualified to judge whether or not it was cult like. Secondly, I didn't even read all of the post because it was so long and because I wasn't that interested, since I didn't go. I almost down-voted the post, primarily because I didn't believe it deserved that much karma, but decided against it since I wasn't actually very familiar with it.

Oh, specifically curious about this:

I should probably note that a possible source of this concern is my own past and present attitude towards the song "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".

What makes that song particularly interesting, compared to other Christmas carols?

I don't really know. I just really liked that song. It seems particularly "catchy" to me, although that doesn't seem to be a common reaction. I have asked other people if they had a similar reaction to God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman, or any other Christmas carol, and found nobody that was particularly attached to that particular song, but a substantial number that were attached to some other carol.

It's not just you; I have always really liked the feel of the melody in /God Rest/.

Ah, it sounded like that song was somehow a damaging meme that you were afraid of.

That desire nagged at me a few years, and it was accompanied by another nagging dissatisfaction: That I didn’t really believe in the words of the songs. They had power, generated by the magnitude of the songwriter’s belief, and given lyric form by carefully honed skill. But they weren’t true, and the falsehood itched at the back of my mind.

Humbug.

Signalling. Applause lights.

I've listened to the Dwarven song in this theatrical trailer 26 times since it came out a few days back. I no doubt would have a blast to cosplay while singing it or singing it every year with a bunch of friends next to a tree. The reason I'd be bothered by the song, is not because it is false or untrue by some standard. It is because either the song dosen't resonate or it conflicts with tribal attire. Not everyone is a Tolkein fan.

I would apologize for the perhaps harsh language or to too curt a dismissal, but I'm not going to since I'm just so tired of LW's recent happy death spirals.

The dwarven song isn't false-of-our-world because it doesn't semantically refer to our world.

Arda, Middle Earth is Earth, our world. Just because Tolkein considers it an imaginary epoch in our history (he put it at 6000 years before his time), nothing in the works themselves bars me from ascertaining a truth or false value for statements they make about the past of our world.

:P

But the dwarven song in the example can easily be replaced by the old Nordic songs that inspired it or a moving verse from the Iliad, which even the authors (probably) considered to semantically refer to our world. My point however was that true, false or bjorn, is irrelevant to most people when enjoying a piece of art. Its much more probable that they are not really bothered by the falsehood but bothered by the art being tagged in their brain as "something people from other tribe like".

I know the phenomenon you refer to - I experience it with political art from "the others". But I actually have established a compartmentalization of religious music where it's like "okay, I totally disagree with this person, but the gulf of worldview is so huge that I can enjoy it anthropologically and perhaps even appreciate the underlying ideas that prompted them to develop that worldview, even if I think they went about it wrong."

Very well, if you know about the phenomena and have upon introspection found the feeling to be different I'm going to update in your direction. I still think it is the more likley explanation though.

The followup post goes into some more detail, as well as related issues. Was curious if it addressed your concerns or raised new ones.

I do appreciate that you have apparently given these concerns some thought, I've put some weight to that in my mind.

But generally I think one can't craft these memes without value altering applications. I don't agree with Unitarian Universalism and this seems to be slowly reaching into their niche in both the social as well as ideological sense. Not everyone here is a "humanist", whatever that means and those that aren't might feel excluded by such language.

Adding ritual also I think reduces the "applicable rationality" to "save the world" ratio. This might not seem like a bad thing (who dosen't want to save the world, for particular values of variable "save"?), but I think it should be acknowledged it is a step in the opposite direction that we find useful and proper when it comes to the relation between the organization of SIAI and the future unnamed rationality organization (presumably thus inheriting SIAI's close connection to LW).

Why is the SIAI better off spinning off its rationalism promoting activities to a different separate organization? Why isn't therefore the community better off enacting clear borders between when its happy spiralling around "rationality" and when its spiralling around "reducing existential risk" or slightly more dangerously "altruism"? This was basically done at an early point where all mention of "SIAI" and even talk of AI was temporarily banished from the community as a measure.

Was this a mistake? Or is the community more mature, not in its seed stage any more? If the latter dosen't this mean LessWrong is basically done growing and expanding? If it will still do significant growing why don't the same concerns that prompted the taboo, still applicable if to a lesser degree?

Also curses upon you Eliezer Yudkowsky! My count for that particular time wasting super-stimulus is now 28.

Thanks to your comments, I am looping that song, too. :p

I do think there is more going on here than signalling and applause lights, and there will be at least one more article where I explain the underlying thought process, and discuss both the utility and the danger of ritual.

After that, I'll be inviting people to a separate mailing list if they want to discuss it in more detail. I do believe that Less Wrong should have as little content like this as possible. It is both bad for signal-noise-ratio of our primary, important content, and yes, it's bad signalling to have it on the front page. (I have mixed feelings about this getting promoted - I actually do think it was important enough to warrant it temporarily, but I think it should probably be moved back soon so that passing viewers scrolling through our "good" content don't run into it)

I do think there is more going on here than signalling and applause lights, and there will be at least one more article where I explain the underlying thought process, and discuss both the utility and the danger of ritual.

I was referring to the specific paragraph, though other examples in the article can be found.

Not sure exactly what you mean - those words were very explicitly true. I am genuinely upset that there are not enough good, powerful, moving songs that express ideas that I genuinely believe in. I'll elaborate on why later.

They were ALSO signalling and applause lights - this entire article is signaling and applause lights - but I think things can be signalling and applause lights while also saying true things and being important.

I think that the question here is, were you bothered by the songs because you really don't like falsehood? Or were you bothered by them because you like to think of yourself as someone who doesn't like falsehood?

Once I put it that way, it seems silly. Almost anyone is at least somewhat bothered by something they know to be false, the first time they encounter it. Almost anyone can eventually learn to live with that falsehood, without embracing it, if they want to. People differ in degree on this, with some being more innately honest and others being less bothered by lies. (My analogy here is how illogical phrases like "could care less", which viscerally grated on me when I was younger, would long since ceased to have been peeves of mine if I hadn't domesticated and fed those peeves as pets.)

But this innate honesty is almost never what I care about. Since actually noticing that God is a silly idea is, for most people, not a reflexive action, having sensible opinions about God (and many other things) is less a factor of an innate allergy to falsehood than of a learned ability to be hard-nosed about truth-seeking. And signalling and applause lights are a worthwhile kind of evidence about whether a person has that learned ability.

In other words: yeah, "itched at the back of my mind" may be something you chose to have happen, and the "my mind" there may be largely a constructed identity rather than innate characteristics. But since I actually care about your constructed identity, I don't have a problem with that.

It's actually not a matter of "the songs bothered me because they were wrong." In fact, if that's what people got from the paragraph, I should rewrite it.

What bothered me is that there did not exist other songs, just as beautiful, with just as much cultural weight behind them, which I truly believed it.

The christmas carols weren't the problem, they were just the benchmark I had to compare a non-existent thing to.

Yes, I think you should rewrite. Not that it's bad the way it is, but it would be better if it had this more positive message.

Your story of the background to solstice holidays has some correct elements, but it is not correct that Winter Solstice is the time at which many people were in immediate danger of starvation -- that would be Spring Equinox.

December is near the beginning of the time during which one eats winter stores. The danger comes at the end. Everyone would be running out of food and edging close to starvation just before the spring harvest came, which explains elements of many spring festivals.

Midwinter was a time of celebration at the returning light, a little scary but not too scary, because winter stores were still available, as you mention later in the essay.

I have seen the above in various sources, but The Golden Bough is the best known.

A correction: hadn’t strove -> hadn't striven

Someone else pointed this out as well. I'm mulling over how to reword the intro so it retains its impact but is more accurate. I think it's still legitimate to pay tribute to scary things in the darkest part of the year for symbolic reasons.

I just replaced "it" (referring to the Solstice) with "winter" in one of the opening paragraphs. Does it still feel inaccurate or misleading? If not, do you have some specific advice on how to reword it? I can begrudgingly sacrifice the intro and rework it completely if it's fundamentally wrong, but I've other work that still needs doing.

You can emphasize that people had to rely on stored food during that time, and continue that if the food ran out before the first harvest they would starve.

How's that? (edited in another change)

There is a hard limit on how many disclaimers I can stick in before it becomes bad political art.

So, do a Spring Equinox ritual. There's lots of good material there: Death into Life, Dumuzi Is Risen, The King is Dead, Long Live the King ... :-)

We are in the process of planning a collection of holidays over the year. ('Spring Equinox' festival will be celebrated on Pi day, paying tribute to the cyclical rebirth of the world).

Most of these will probably be kept private, depending on how we decide to go about them.

('Spring Equinox' festival will be celebrated on Pi day,

And a Solstice festival on Tau day?

Very good writeup.

I feel a bit wary of LW/rationality based rituals, both due to the funny stuff that happens with formalized in groups and for fear they will seem cultish to outsiders. That said I think the're pretty inevitable and this sounds like a well done one.

I'll have more to say later on the risks associated with deliberate ritual. I take them seriously.

For now, perhaps take comfort in the fact that this was a huge amount of work. For the past month I've worked around 20 hours a week on this in addition to my regular job. I think it is very hard to put in enough effort that the ritual would cause something bad by accident.

I'm much more concerned about all the regular ol' ways that organizations become insular and narrowminded, which unfortunately do not have universally recognizable creepy rituals to identify them.

Could you elaborate on that last paragraph, or were you planning on making a full-length post about it at some point? I've been worrying about it myself, but I don't think I've been here long enough to start conjecturing.

Eliezer made several full length posts about it. One example

I won't be discussing that directly, but I'll be talking about what I think about ritual in particular as a cult-attractor.

I agree with the warning. I disagree with the statement that they're "pretty inevitable" - why do you think that?

That said, I think this was a good documentation of the event, and I'd like to attend something similar someday.

Just as a datapoint, though I expect my reaction is not atypical: I consider myself something of an insider — I have been to several meetups and I comment on LW regularly — and this seems cultish to me. I have to agree that, pretty inevitably, outsiders would see this kind of ritual as cultish. We would do well to understand the complexities involved.

It does sound like fun, though.

I think it takes more than a yearly ritual to make a group look like a cult. Um, things like being encouraged to give the group lots of money.

Some life-style changes are also apt to set off cult warnings, but I don't think the sorts of changes LWers make are of that sort, especially since many of the changes (for example, dietary) vary from one person to another.

As a newcomer who has never been to a meetup - an outsider - I assure you that you are right. It seems surprisingly cultish. I say "surprisingly" because I would never have imagined that LWers would attempt to ape religion and chain awe at the numinous to a specific set of rituals. I suppose in retrospect there is ample precedent, because certainly the Twelve Virtues and the litanies are pseudo-religious (presumably to lend them gravity), but... yipes!

There are parts of our brains that respond very strongly to ritual. As long as they're still there, we might as well use them to impart knowledge that's actually true. Also, if we can't figure out how to supplant religious rituals with new rituals that provide the same social function but without the false beliefs attached, then people will always see a need for religion in their lives.

Edit: Kaj_Sotala wrote a comment expounding the second point above.

The part where you read exerts from HP Lovecraft and the sequences makes my cult sensors go off like a foghorn. All of the rest of it seems perfectly beneign. It's just the readings that make me think "CULT!" in the back of my mind. It seems like they're being used as a replacement for a sacred text and being used to sermonize with. If it weren't for that, this would seem much less cultish and more like a university graduation or a memorial or other secular-but-accepted-and-important ritual.

I disagree with the statement that they're "pretty inevitable" - why do you think that?

Its mostly based on intuition and pattern matching but to break it down as much as possible.

1) It seems like most movements of this very general type start collecting rituals at this stage.

2)My own personal introspection plus the feel of several recent conversations on LW meant that I (apparently correctly) felt that an event like this would gain widespread support if someone actually organized it.
In retrospect I should have put these down in prediction book awhile ago, but it slipped my mind.

My intention is to give people the tools to put together their own event or replicate mine.

This could goes without saying, especially when I post the actual ritual book and it's filled with phrases like "And now, a reading from the Sequences of Eliezer," but seriously, thank you for all the work you did to create this community, and to create an environment where this sort of event was not only conceivable but was a genuinely good idea.

Rituals are hard to create from scratch, and even if the NYC group had somehow found each other on their own (also unlikely) this event wouldn't have worked nearly as well without a common set of writings that we were inspired by, and which supply a surprisingly coherent narrative even when you add alien squid gods.

So, seriously, thank you. A lot.

This rationality quote seem appropriate:

The key is that it's adaptive. It's not that it succeeds despite the bad results of its good intentions. It succeeds because of the bad results of its good intentions.

--Mencius Moldbug

Put me in the mildly annoyed and concerned camp.

I’m not sure what [Lovecraft's] beliefs about morality in the real world were...

For what it's worth, he seems to have said:

I am an aesthete devoted to harmony, and to the extraction of the maximum possible pleasure from life. I find by experience that my chief pleasure is in symbolic identification with the landscape and tradition-stream to which I belong – hence I follow the ancient, simple New England ways of living, and observe the principles of honour expected of a descendant of English gentlemen. It is pride and beauty-sense, plus the automatic instincts of generations trained in certain conduct-patterns, which determine my conduct from day to day. But this is not ethics, because the same compulsions and preferences apply, with me, to things wholly outside the ethical zone. For example, I never cheat or steal. Also, I never wear a top-hat with a sack-coat or munch bananas in public on the streets, because a gentleman does not do those things either. I would as soon do the one as the other sort of thing – it is all a matter of harmony and good taste – whereas the ethical or "righteous" man would be horrified by dishonesty and yet tolerant of coarse personal ways

Thanks. Interesting, and matches my model of him.

For young civilizations, it was a time when if you HADN’T spent the year preparing adequately for the future, you ran out of food and died.

This is actually around March. December is quite soon after the harvest.

I love the idea of a winter solstice ritual, though. I used to do them in high school with my friends until we got too embarrassed to light candles and say out loud the meanings we were trying to make from our fifteen-year-old worlds.

I used to do them in high school with my friends until we got too embarrassed to light candles and say out loud the meanings we were trying to make from our fifteen-year-old worlds.

Not quite sure I parse that.

This is actually around March. December is quite soon after the harvest.

I passed this to an anthropology major to see if there were any particularly horrible errors. Ah well. I edited the opening line to be slightly more vague. I think it's legitimate to celebrate the accompanying fear on the darkest night of the year, regardless of when the actual terrible consequences would end up being. (Especially given that nowadays, neither time period is threatening on its own, so its mostly about whatever is most symbolic).

Not quite sure I parse that.

Sorry, poorly phrased. It was a time (when I was about 13-15 years old) when my friends and I had left our religions of origin and were looking for some other way to make meaning about our lives. Religion was the way I knew how to do that, and we all enjoyed ritual, and solstice was a good time to do that. As I remember, they were mostly on the theme of new beginnings and deciding what we wanted for the year to come.

One nice thing about prescribed ritual is that you can do it without feeling silly, because everyone else is doing it and they understand you didn't make it up. When we made up our own rituals, I always worried about my friends thinking I struck the wrong balance of silly to serious. Which is most of why I haven't continued the tradition as an adult.

Yeah, that was one of the biggest challenges. It needs to feel like something everyone's already familiar with.

My job was made a lot easier because the Sequences already exist and we're all familiar with them, plus they even come with blatantly ritualistic litanies. I made sure to write or find songs that were reminiscent of the same themes and phrasings.

I think there is still room for improvement there, but we're definitely doing it again next year, and next year it'll have the benefit of "having already done it before" to add credibility.

we're definitely doing it again next year

Not having any meetups within 3 hours from me (and very few people nearby to HAVE a meetup), this seems like something that might be worth organizing a carpool, for those of us who can make it to NYC within a day. (Too far of a drive for a regular meetup, but could make a weekend out of it for a "big" meetup)

So...if any Ohioans, Indianans, or Kentuckians might be interested in carpooling to this next year, send me a message!

We thought about advertising to Less Wrong, but we weren't sure if we were ready to share this with too large a group. I am planning on advertising it next year.

My bad! I had somehow gotten the impression that it was open invite. But I think I was just making assumptions I shouldn't have.

Glad it is potentially open invite next year, though!

I probably should have hesitated before saying that for sure. There are some legitimate reasons to keep it private. For one thing, there's a finite amount of seating available. We can handle a few extra people, but we would have difficulty handling another 20.

One of the factors that lead to the decision this year was, did we want a big, grand Rationalist Gathering, or did we want a cozy celebration among family and friends? Both could be awesome in their own way, and I'd like to try the former next year, but this year we decided to try the latter (in particular because a lot of this WAS experimental and we weren't sure how it'd play out). There was also an afterparty at an apartment and if we hit a certain threshold of people, we wouldn't be able to invite everyone back.

We did have one guest who have never seen Less Wrong content before, who DIDN'T seem to think we were a crazy cult... so that was good.

Well, that's why I said potentially open-invite. Assumption being, that if it's not, then said carpool would not happen. I am not at all interested in party-crashing!

How about this:

Should you decide to make this an open-invite, Grand Rationalist Gathering, then I will happily organize a carpool with other people.

Should you decide to make this a cozy celebration among friends, then of course I completely understand, and wish you best of luck!

Possibly out-of-date information: some 20 years ago, I went to at least one micro sf convention-- held in a motel, so there's one function room and the whole thing isn't very expensive. Now that I think about it, there's one such still going on.

This is just a thought thrown in if you want to expand the solstice celebration.

Firstly let me just say: this is brilliant.
I'm not sure those words quite encapsulate the awesome but they'll have to do. Kudos on putting it all together, very well executed.

This reminds me of something I heard at a Secular Society talk a while back about a minister who identified as a Christian-Atheist. Reportedly he promoted religion as a human-made construct rather than a set of beliefs about how the world is.

Though on avoiding the whole becoming-cult thing it might be an idea to change the theme yearly? I mean Lovecraft is beyond epic, but having a different "Santa" each year might help to counter possible cult-ishness. Also having a different range of rationality-inspired literature each year should help toward the same goal. Though those are just suggestions of course.

I have definitely considered that - both for the "Santa" parts as well as particular narrative parts. For instance, this year I focused specifically on Stonehenge and some symbolism that it suggested, and the song that came after Beyond the Reach of God tied in with that.

I think it's valuable to keep the song, because changing songs each year means that things can't really acquire ritual oomph. But the song only really made sense in the context of stories I told earlier, and the stories were interesting in part BECAUSE they were genuinely new information for some people.

I think it'd be interesting to change the narrative each year, whether the sillier or the serious parts. It's worth noting that that IS a lot of work, which I may be willing to do a few times but might come with an opportunity cost of not making it awesomer in other ways. I think I intend to keep all the things I liked for next year (including at least a few lovecraft-inspired things), just so we can see what they look like when done with a full year of work instead of a month.

After that we'll see what people feel is really worth keeping.

I have to agree with you on the song, although if it only really made sense in the context of the stories you told, perhaps a short prelude could be added to the beginning? (I assume this is one of the songs you wrote yourself?)

Given that it is a lot of work, have you looked at potential collaborators? Again just a suggestion, but the end result could be that more time gets spent on each element of the ritual and it would greatly lessen the strain on yourself. Of course that's providing your fellow collaborators are as effective as yourself in ritual construction!

If this is what you've achieved in a month though, I'm almost scared of what you could achieve in a year.

I actually had a hard time getting local people in the group to collaborate, but I did get good collaboration when I posted things here I needed help with, albeit mysteriously. I kept the project secret because it WAS targeted to a personal audience, I wasn't sure how the Lovecraft stuff would sound without having a lengthy post to explain it in context, and to some extent I just wanted to be able to surprise people with a finished product.

But this year collaborating on Less Wrong would definitely be valuable.

I suspect you'll probably find it much easier to get local people to contribute next time around given the awesomeness inherent in this time around.

Perhaps you could put all the resources (in terms of data) you've used for this year’s ritual in one place (I've no idea where you might host it though) to provide the basis of a kind of "ritualist's toolbox". The idea being to over time build up enough resources in order to hold future rituals indefinitely and ensure the kind of variety in content required to prevent cultishness.

An added bonus is that it means you can make the resources to be used for the next ritual open to collaboration while keeping the specific narrative planned a secret, the ritual the oomph can be maintained all the better. (While a new narrative may not contain more information than present in the toolbox it will present it in a different manner causing its implications to be perceived differently, something along the lines of Making History Available )

Just some thoughts.

I'm coming to this conversation pretty late because I just saw it was featured on the front page. I think there is a lot worth considering, both in the article and in the comments below.

Not too long ago I had my first experience with a Tarot reading. I was meeting a friend of mine who is sort of an atheistic/rationalist/materialist neopagan, and I made a disparaging comment about New Agers with their crystals and Tarot cards. He promptly and unabashedly informed me that he always carries a deck with him.

Needless to say I was wary at first. What changed my mind was when he explicitly told me that there was no magic whatsoever in the process, and in fact a Tarot reading couldn't tell you anything you couldn't in principle know through other means, i.e. high-powered introspection. What it can do, though, is use evocative art and symbolism to knock loose boulders of insight from the unconscious. It can sort of scaffold your stream of consciousness along unusual and valuable tangents that might be hard to find with other means.

I won't pretend that I was blown away by the process, but I can definitely see how interacting with a deck over a period of time could lead to actionable insights. Even in that first reading (as of now there hasn't been a subsequent one) I was fascinated by the emotions which manifested and by the thoughts which I projected onto the deck.

The dangers here are clear. It would be all too easy to start seeing profundity where there isn't any, signal where there is only noise, etc. I've been giving thought to writing an essay on LW to the effect of "how much fire can you play with before the rational thing to do is drop it and run"? Anyway, I'm glad to see that thinking on this topic is alive and well here.

I don't think there is any taboo in this community against posting other sources, so here is an essay written by Eric Raymond that I've found to be well worth contemplating:

http://www.catb.org/esr/writings/dancing.html

It's certainly possible to think that way, but it's suspicious.

If I was talking with a skeptic, I'd say things like, "No, you don't need to think of the Tarot as a mystical force to think that it works -- it's designed to work, the cards are designed to be about human experience, it's just a useful hook to hang a conversation on." But if I was talking with a fellow believer, I'd say things like, "The cards don't lie."

-- Greta Christina, When anyone is watching: metaphors and the slipperiness of religion

An excellent point. Follow-up question: do you think there is any good way to guard against or even notice this sort of thing happening in yourself? In a way I guess Less Wrong is kind of an answer to that and closely related questions.

Another thing worth pointing out is that things which begin having little to no structural similarities to religion can start to look like them over time. Cults spring up in unlikely places, which is not all that surprising if you think about it. Given the deep and powerful grooves which religions fill so well it's only natural that unrelated entities might settle in them over time. Loyalty to philosophical ideas, sports teams, etc., can reach a deeply irrational fervor which makes more sense when considered in the light of the tribal EEA, when loyalty was a matter of life and death. I can't help but think of the cultishness of Ayn Rand's later life. (Yes, I'm aware that's been written about elsewhere on LW).

Sunlight, I suppose. Write down things you say in various circumstances and reread them in others and make them public. Hash out your beliefs in deep detail, so that kind of slipperiness requires deeper changes.

Or even running through how you would explain it to your more rational friends, even if you don't get a handy opportunity to explain your views on tarot or the eucharist or whatever to them.

These are both good suggestions. The exercise of trying to explain something in my head to an imaginary rationalist friend is something I already do. I also frequently go public with opinions so that they may be savaged by those that disagree with me. Alas, however, even these two things must be handled with care; it's possible that, having survived arguments and various degrees of perfunctory research, you may assign the label of "rational" to an irrational idea, feeling an enormous amount of confidence that you've done the necessary thinking when in fact you've only engaged in rationalist hand waving.

Trying to find truth and avoid your own biases too is akin to climbing up a steep hill, if that hill is covered in a sheet of ice, fraught with land mines, and has packs of velociraptors patrolling it's base.

I definitely teared up reading this. It really makes me desire local rationalist friends to share this real and moving idea with.

This sounds fantastic.

It also sounds like it was a huge chunk of work for you! I can imagine doing something similar with the group I'm with, if it was as powerfully affective as it sounds. If anyone else that attended this sees this, how did you feel about it? I realize it can be very difficult to describe a complicated collection of emotions -- in which case, did you enjoy it? Would you do it again? If not, why not? How did it compare to other events in your life?

Also, I'd enormously appreciate if you can release those materials in a format more easily-edited than a PDF as well. If we take this sort of ritual seriously as a community, then making it "open culture" will have powerful benefits. In particular, open editing and sharing of results, should let us try variations of the same rituals. We might more-efficiently reach some of these psychologically-complicated mechanisms by distributed trial and error.

Moreover, by setting up both precedent and easy mechanism for "peer review" of the content of these rituals, we might be able to reduce the risks-to-clarity that such rituals might entail.

I'll discuss this in more detail later, but this question is worth answering now (in particular because there IS still time for other people to put together such an event this year, if they want to. I think using it as a New Years party would work well. A week and a half is enough time to do this IF you commit to a lot of work in that time)

1) The party was absolutely worth doing, even if it were just for general warmth, fun and togetherness

2) I did not personally achieve the profound feeling I was hoping for at the event in particular. But I did achieve it several times over while I was planning it, and I think I burned out on profundity before I actually got to the night in question. It was also warped somewhat by performance anxiety. I didn't actually feel like a participant in the event - I felt like a performer, and to some extent a scientist observing a phenomenon. I think that was mostly unique to me, although it will probably apply to anyone putting the event together for the first time.

3) So far I've spoken to a few other participants after the fact. Reactions seem to range based on how susceptible you are in general to warm fuzzies (more importantly, what I've come to call "warm shivers"). Everyone[1] seems enthusiastic about doing it again, and most people seemed to have at least one moment that touched them, but different people reacted strongly to different parts of the evening.

4) A fairly common reaction was "this was a great idea and a good execution, but I have a strong sense that MUCH more is possible." (This was my reaction as well)

There are certain obvious things to improve which became apparent after seeing the ideas in action. Some of them I can fix in the next few days. Others I consider "open problems" which I'll be soliciting help with.

If you (that's a collective 'you') DO want to have a similar event in the immediate future, I can link you to the google docs now with some pointers on which sections need work. If you're interested in planning for next year, I'll have some more detailed notes and evaluations in another week or so.

[1] No one's explicitly said "no we shouldn't do it again" but obviously that doesn't count for much - in the face of conformity and having just put time and effort into it, we'd be looking for reasons to not admit that we didn't just waste time. But my tentative reaction, observing the people who I expected to be on the lower end of the "actually want to have a profound pseudo-spiritual experience" scale, my sense is that those people still at least enjoyed it as a themed event.

I actually think a good heuristic is "if this Less Wrong article sounded really awesome to you, then you will probably be the sort of person who'd get something meaningful out of the event."

No one's explicitly said "no we shouldn't do it again" but obviously that doesn't count for much - in the face of conformity and having just put time and effort into it, we'd be looking for reasons to not admit that we didn't just waste time.

In case you haven't thought about it, you might want to send an anonymous poll/feedback form to everyone who attended. It's not going to take care of some of the effects (consistency bias, not wanting to make you sad, etc,), but might increase your chances of getting good feedback by reducing conformity pressures.

Is it acceptable practice around here to comment just to say, "that's really cool"? Because that's really cool.