European Community Weekend in Berlin Impressions Thread

by Gunnar_Zarncke1 min read13th Apr 201427 comments


Personal Blog

The European Community Weekend in Berlin is over and was a full sucess.

This is no report of the event but a place where you can e.g. comment on the event, link to photos or what else you want to share.

I'm not the organizer of the Meetup but I have been there and for me it was a great event. Meeting many energetic, compassionate and in general awesome, people. Great presentations and workshops. And a very awesome positive athmosphere.

Cheers to all participants!


PS. I get it that there will be an upload of the presentations by the organizers and maybe some report of the results some time later. Those may or may not be linked from this post.

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Thanks to everyone (and particularly the organizers) for a fantastic weekend!

Strongest sign of this being a good event: usually I feel drained after a social event, and by the end of the official program I was feeling that, but by the time I got home I was suddenly feeling social and energetic again. Did you people slip something into my drink to make me an extrovert?

(Okay, a lot of it was probably due to the book on charisma that I read just before the meetup and which gave me loads of confidence and useful techniques for getting into the right mindset for being social. But you all being so awesome made them much easier to use! So there. <3)

Some comments of what could've been better:

  • There were lots of people around, and I'd have loved having a chance to talk with everyone. However, a large part of our waking time was taken up by lecture/workshop-type content, during which there wasn't much of an opportunity for being actively social, Saturday's introduction start notwithstanding. I also felt mentally drained after focusing on such content for the whole day, which made it harder to be actively social afterwards: the Fermi calculation contest felt especially energy-draining, since the time limit was short and stressful enough that I basically just looked at my team's activity from the side.

This isn't to say that the lectures/workshops weren't interesting! The "supercharging your learning" and mnemonics one in particular felt like they might be valuable in the future. But regardless, I think I'd have preferred a stronger focus on social activities. One of the parts about the meetup that I found the most enjoyable was the "Socratic Dialogue" that I ran into on accident, when people engaged in it had taken over my room on Friday. I was a little disappointed that the official program didn't include anything like that.

Suggestions for improvement: favor social activities for the programmed content, at the expense of lecture/workshop-type content. Try to set up such a set of activities that everyone ends up getting introduced and everyone talks with everyone: as it was, there were some people who I simply never got a good chance to talk with. (Maybe the introductory lunch on Friday had more of this kind of thing? Too bad we Finns missed it. :( )

  • To the extent that there are lectures, limiting their length would be a good thing. Research apparently suggests that around 25 minutes is the maximum length for people to maintain an optimal focus on lecture-type material. A shorter duration would also force lecturers to focus on the essentials and cut peripheral content.

Suggestions for improvement: enforce a 25-minute limit on how long someone is allowed to lecture before they are required to either end their talk, or somehow engage their audience with e.g. workshop-style activities.

  • The meditation exercise would probably have been a better off on Saturday, since meditation while sleep-deprived does not necessarily produce good results, and Sunday morning was probably the time when everyone could be expected to be the most sleep-deprived.

Suggestions for improvement: try to schedule meditation exercises to a time when people are likely to be well-rested. (This may admittedly be an impossible task, but at least try to have them at a time when people are relatively well-rested.)


One last thing: subjectively at least I felt like I got my social skills to a much better level than on some previous occasions. But I was also mentally drained at times and couldn't always keep it up, plus there were moments when I caught myself doing what felt like mistakes, like looking away from someone too fast or not saying hi when I had the chance, etc. So general feedback of how my social skills came across, by anyone who spoke or otherwise interacted with me, would be appreciated. Here's my anonymous feedback form that you can use for this, though of course it may be difficult to stay truly anonymous: .

BONUS: References for some of the things that I mentioned in my comments during the "supercharging learning" workshop.

  • "Too rapid feedback can be harmful":

"This research does not mean, however, that greater frequency of feedback is always better. Again, timeliness of the feedback is a significant factor. For example, consider a study in which college students were learning to write mathematical functions in a spreadsheet application (Mathan & Koedinger, 2005). The particular goal for students’ learning in this situation was not only that they be able to write these functions accurately but also that they be able to recognize and fix their own errors. Students who received feedback immediately after they made a mistake scored lower on final assessments compared to students who received “delayed” feedback. Although surprising at first, this result makes sense when one realizes that the immediate feedback group was missing the opportunity to practice recognizing and repairing their own errors. In contrast, the students receiving delayed feedback had a chance to fix their own errors so they had more practice at the corresponding skills. That is, when the delayed feedback group made errors, feedback was given only when they (a) showed sufficient signs of not having recognized their error or (b) made multiple failed attempts at fixing their error. In this way, one could argue that even though it was not immediate, their feedback was given in a more timely manner relative to the learning goals at hand."

(Susan Ambrose et al., How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, citing Mathan & Koedinger: Fostering the Intelligent Novice: Learning From Errors With Metacognitive Tutoring.

See the cited paper for a broader discussion. Note that based on the paper, Mathan & Koedinger would probably somewhat disagree on Ambrose et al's characterization of the worse-performing group as receiving "delayed" feedback: Mathan & Koedinger would argue that the feedback wasn't so much immediate, but rather reflected a different conceptual model of the best kind of feedback. From their description, though, it is true that the worse-performing group did get feedback at an earlier stage than the better-performing one.)

  • "Shorter and easier math problems are better than longer and harder ones": don't have conclusive evidence since the following paper discusses a method that's broader than just changing exercises into shorter and more numerous ones, but see regardless pages 4-5 of and the results of their method.

  • Bonus bonus: another method for increasing intensity that I don't remember being mentioned is interleaved practice. E.g. if you're practicing movements associated with a physical skill, rather than repeating one move over and over and then doing the same with another move, it's better to increase the challenge by alternating the two, or even picking randomly between the two. May generalize to cognitive skills as well. See .

Strongest sign of this being a good event: usually I feel drained after a social event, and by the end of the official program I was feeling that, but by the time I got home I was suddenly feeling social and energetic again. Did you people slip something into my drink to make me an extrovert?

Quite alike with me. I made an effort to get to know as many as possible of you on the event and it also didn't exhaust me. And I was surprised to be able to relate to everyone, even those I didn't feel congenial to or would normally have avoid to approach. Everybody was open, friendly. Every contact revealed depth and topics to relate.

I really liked the extended tag system because it totally took away the awkwardness of an unclear social protocol (shake hands, just talk, hug, whatever) and instead allowed me to give and receive human warmth - which I generally felt a lot beside the generally present positive energy.

I also made extensive use of the crockers tags which were worn by most of the participants and gave lots of feedback. Personal or general feedback which in some cases pointing out things that troubled me and that could have been received negatively. But it was accepted exclusively positively. It was appreciated in surprising ways. It partly lead to intense and long discussions. And I got some valuable feedback too.

I was also surprised by the significantly higher than expected number of people with children (at least 7 if I remember correctly). I expected to have difficulty to spur interest in my parenting presentation but quite the opposite. I was asked about his multiple times and I was urged to create or add to a rationalist parenting blog. A great encouragement.

As far as social interaction with you personally goes, we haven't interacted that much. I also don't have a comparision to your past social skills.

I would judge your social skills as better than average of the people who attended the event.

The hug at the end felt good and was for me the best male-to-male hug of the event.

As far as the meditation goes, having having meditation that focuses on breath instead of one about thought monitoring would probably have been better as far as keeping people awake.

After the meditation session there was the question about side effects. For this you might want to look at this thread:

I, too, have an anonymous feedback form: . I didn't wear a Crocker's Rules tag on the weekend, but you may assume that I'm wearing one now.

I had a great weekend! I want a plushie now. (When I got home I searched for Cthulhu plushies on Amazon, but they were expensive enough not to be impulse buys, so I don't have one yet.)

It was great to meet everyone, very well done to the organisers. And I liked how most of the speakers included some kind of exercise.

The primary criticism I have is that many of the talks got derailed several times by people asking low-value questions that could have waited until afterwards, and then following up on the speaker's reply. After getting sufficiently annoyed, I arrested two of those discussions on the sunday, but I wish I'd been more proactive about it. (Many of these questions felt uncharitable, like "what you just said seems unlikely to me, and I'd like you to back it up" instead of assuming that the speaker probably knows what they're talking about.) This contributed to almost all of the speakers overrunning.

Suggestions to help with this (though after writing them, I'm realising that "google for advice about this from people who know what they're talking about" would have been a good idea):

  • Ask participants not to ask low-value questions; a rule of thumb might be "if you didn't understand something, go ahead and ask; if you'd like to know more, wait until afterwards".
  • Assume that participants will ask low-value questions anyway, and tell the speakers to be ruthless in cutting off these discussions. Organizers should also cut them off.
  • Assume that these discussions won't get cut out completely anyway, and advise the speakers to plan for, I dunno, 10% of their talk to be lost to them? If the talk is too short, Q&A or socializing afterwards are not bad things.

Along with others, I would have liked more social activities.

I also didn't realize before the weekend that most meals weren't included. It wasn't a big deal, but I would have brought more money with me if I'd known.

Once again, though: it was a great event! Big thank you to the organisers, speakers, and everyone who came.

I think having a lot of people act as agents works well. If you were the person who asked for tabling of some of the mnemonics discussions I comment that point.

People should be able to ask high value question and at the same time people should be able to ask for discussing that don't seem high value to be tabled.

I think there were various times in the event where people who hadn't formal authority just took responsibility to get stuff done to make the event better.

I think it would be wise to make a general call for people to take responsibility for things happening at the beginning of the event.

First, I would also like to thank the organisers for a well-run and diverse workshop. The quality of the talks was generally high as was the level of the discussion.

Phil/ With all due respect, I don't agree with the above. You always get the odd question that would have been better left unasked at any talk, but generally speaking I don't think there were too many questions (though it could be argued that some of them should have been deferred to the Q&A.) In my opinion more time should have been allocated to questions and discussions.

(Many of these questions felt uncharitable, like "what you just said seems unlikely to me, and I'd like you to back it up" instead of assuming that the speaker probably knows what they're talking about.)

If the speaker doesn't give sufficient reasons for their claims, then one should point that out, in my opinion. Critical discussion is a central part of rationalism. On the other hand, one shouldn't be nit-picky either, and exactly where the line goes is often hard to tell. I certainly think, though, that the points I made in this regard were sufficiently important to raise during the talk in question, rather than after it (or not at all).

I realise I might be in the minority on this point but these are nevertheless my views.

Critical discussion is important, but there's a time and a place. In the speaker-audience model, I'm not sure we should expect the speaker to present much evidence for the things that they say. The format isn't well-suited to it, when neither the speaker nor the audience is capable of looking up references. It would be better for the speaker to prepare a list of references and share it outside the talk, and for the talk itself to focus on the things they're actually trying to say, which perhaps the speaker-audience model has a comparative advantage for.

I do agree that it might not be obvious whether a question is valuable, so perhaps a better rule of thumb would be "if the speaker answers a question, don't follow up on the reply".

Thanks for the weekend! Got to put a face on a few names, and talk of interesting things ...

Random notes:

  • The nametag thing was a good idea
  • The systematic schedule slip was a bit annoying (and predictable), and beginning/end times could have been enforced a bit more strictly.
  • I liked the learning workshop, and the one on mnemonics, and the one on Fermi estimates; but there were interesting ideas dispersed in all workshops.
  • Something to avoid for the next mnemonic workshop: an exercise where people can be asked to form a vivid mental link between "vomit" and (... though ... I imagine that might sometimes be a useful hack to improve one's diet by eliminating some particular unhealthy things from it ...)
  • I was a bit surprised by how hard I found it to understand some people's German accent ...

I would probably have preferred less workshop and more interesting side discussions, though I'm not sure of a good way of ensuring that the side discussions stay of high quality.

Overall the organizers did a great job at finding a usable location in a nice part of town for so many people, finding places to eat for everybody, etc.

I liked the presentations. The pre-presentation package for the Fermi estimates thing was great, and the lightning talks round was a great concept to get some really distilled presentations in.

Random practical notes for the Fermi estimates lecture: If you want people to do an estimate with a hard time limit, don't have the questions pre-printed on the work sheets you pass around, that will lead to people pretty much automatically cheating and reading ahead on the questions. Just pass around empty paper and pens and show the words in slides. When showing the correct answer slide, also show the explicit range of values that are accepted as the right answer to make it trivial for the audience to see if they got a good enough answer.

With the exercises on the mnemonics lecture, it turned out to be pretty obvious that speaking single English words out of context to an audience of non-English speakers and expecting them to get the words right doesn't work all that well. Have the words written on slides instead.

Socializing-wise, I ran out of let's-play-nice-with-other-people mental energy about three hours in as I usually do on meetups, which was sort of unfortunate on a 40-hour meetup.

Giving everybody nametags was good.

Short version: It was awesome!

Long version: see here

I learned that in Finnish schools, students are graded not just by their knowledge, but also by the amount of work

I think that I should insert the disclaimer that although this was my experience, it may not be true everywhere: Finnish schoolteachers are also given a large amount of autonomy in exactly how they want to organize and grade their lessons, so it's conceivable that other schools might have done things differently. Also, things may have changed since the time that I was in primary school.

That said, I would be very happy to see you improving the education in Finland. :D

Following the trend I want to invite feedback for the talk on meditation at the European Community Weekend. You can do so either anonymously or non anonymously (at your own choice) in this Google form.

It was really great to give a talk in front of such an active and critical audience that clearly saw all the strength and weaknesses of the research presented.

Some photos. The album is available only through this link and I will of course remove any photos that you feel are not showing your faces in good (enough) light.

It's a pity so few people took any photos at all.

As for my thoughts. I was surprised by myself. I have a huge personal space, so I feel invaded pretty much all the time (only my kids have unlimited hugs with me, even tkadlubo doesn't). And here, maybe partly because of the tags system, I almost never felt invaded. I did feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of people around me, but I could cope surprisingly well (by my own standards).

I think next time we could expand the 5-10min speeches part. For me it was the best part of all of the workshops, because all the people who did talk, talked briefly and engagingly about what recently is interesting to them. I also think we should make all the workshops more explicitly voluntary. Everybody attended (which is great), but the few people who chose to omit one or two were left without anybody to talk to. This is one of my insights from comparing this meeting with Polish Mensa Annual Gathering (I told Christian about the others, but if required, I will write them down here, too). PMAG is much larger and has an ample schedule of lectures, workshops and contest, but at all times many people are just hanging around talking to others.

I think next time we could expand the 5-10min speeches part.

There were slots for 10 five minutes speeches planned but not enough people volunteering fro speeches. That's why some speeches then expanded to take 10 minutes.

It's a pity so few people took any photos at all.

As far as photos goes I think there was at least one person who made a decision not to be on the final group photo. The person probably also wouldn't want to have been on photos done by individuals.

The formal legal default in Germany is that it's not allowed to make photos of people without their consent.

Maybe we could solve this with a tag system next time around. A no-photo tag and another tag that signals to be happy to be photographed.

There were slots for 10 five minutes speeches planned but not enough people volunteering fro speeches.

I thought that there would be so many people, that I didn't volunteer (by the time Gunnar's speech was over I had outlines for 3 interesting speeches, though one of them would likely be too inside of the topic for our public).

The formal legal default in Germany is that it's not allowed to make photos of people without their consent.

I asked some people, others were delighted when I took those photos (so I assumed consent), others still also thought it pity to have so few photos. But I didn't consider the legal side. Do you think I should take those photos down? I don't think I asked everyone I photographed.

And BTW, they are low resolution, so if someone wishes a higher quality pic of their own face, PM me please.

I don't think the person who went outside of the room for the group photo is clearly visible on one of your photos, so I don't expect there to be a practical problem with the photos that's you posted.

On the other hand going forward I would want to have a system that allows people to clearly signal that the don't want to have photos taken of themselves.

From the LessWrong regulars, if gwern would attend a meetup I would guess that he would be uncomfortable with photos of him afterwards being available online.

While being a toastmaster I remember having a board member of my local toastmasters club who didn't want picture of him on the internet because he had a public persona as a musician and didn't want the information of being in a toastmasters club associated with that persona.

The formal legal default in Germany is that it's not allowed to make photos of people without their consent.

I find that unlikely because that would make most of street and news photography impossible. If, say, Der Spiegel publishes a photo of a protest somewhere in Germany, did it really get consent forms from all the people in the picture?

Consent doesn't mean that you have to have a consent form. Most people have consensual sex without signing consent forms.

There are also a bunch of expectations. You can make photos of a protest to cover the protest.

In this case the question is whether a LW meetup is a public event or a private get together. Is a person who reads the annoucement supposed to have a reasonable expectation that his anonymity might get blown by attending the event?

Given the way the event was communicated I don't think that's the case. On the other hand if we would have sticker system to mark people who don't want to appear on photos, not marking yourself as someone who doesn't like to be photographed creates that expectation.

It's a pity so few people took any photos at all.

Taking photos or making a video of the event was discussed on the Berlin chapters mailing list - and decided against for privacy reasons. So the organizers left everybody to their own decision and the result we see: Workshops are more important.

I am not on that list and I got the impression that people generally thought there were too few photographers. Hence my opinion.

Following the examples of Kaj and Gunnar I also set up an anonymous feedback form:

Oliver's presentation about Fermi estimates makes the point that it's useful to separate an Fermi estimate into multiple subpredictions.

Is there a tool out there to make the task easy?

I could imagine a webapp or android app, where you say how you want to split and that then adds up the numbers for you. Is there something like that out there?

Following Kajs lead of using Google forms for structured feedback I also created one and would really appreciate your feedback here: