Note: Secular Solstice has evolved a bit since this original post (most noteably, it no longer has a major Lovecraft theme. 

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". ... (read more)


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 t... (read more)

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: "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.
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

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.

I very much agree.
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.
Oh, specifically curious about this: 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.
Ah, it sounded like that song was somehow a damaging meme that you were afraid of.
It's not just you; I have always really liked the feel of the melody in /God Rest/.
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.

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.


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.


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 am sure there are ways of correcting this behavior if you really wanted to.
Oh my god I hate you.
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 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.

Well this is awesome.


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.

Thank you, and/or you're welcome.

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.

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.
And a Solstice festival on Tau day?
Yes, actually.

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.
This is definitely a concern of mine.
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.
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.

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

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 action... (read more)

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

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

I actually got hit pretty hard for that today, but I think that was mostly about how vague (practically information-free) my comment was. I for one will not downvote you!
I find that if I want to just say "interesting" then if I say "Interesting. " then it usually goes across fine, regardless of how much value that thing happens to be. ;)

Interesting. Does it really have to be the first thing that pops into your mind, or is the third or fourth generally better?

The third or fourth thing may be better but the first is sufficient for avoiding "downvote empty approval" triggers.

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.

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.

Not quite sure I parse that. 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).
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.
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!
That sounds completely reasonable.
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.

I feel like I have enough content for a real mini-sequence, but I genuinely don't want to take up too much real estate (even without the people who are particularly wary or annoyed by this). I'm working on the followup article(s). Here's what I want to include:

1) Why ritual is dangerous, but also why it is important, and why I think developing a Less Wrong culture would be valuable.
2) What design principles go into creating rituals from scratch.
3) Analysis of the Solstice Party - what went well, what should be improved, and discussion of how we might want ... (read more)

I recommend the mini-sequence instead of a single post, due to length-per-post.

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-e... (read more)


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 ... (read more)

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.

Good call.
Alternatively, ask someone to post something negative?
Also a good call.

This is absolutely awesome. I can't really say anything else.

I am so glad you did this, and that you are sharing.

Me too. Awesome. Thanks.
Also, I felt the need to post a link to this post on some social networks and describe it thus: "And so it begins. The NYC folks have taken a significant step in bringing the LW community to a whole new level of real-world Awesomeness and Win. Expect great things to grow out of such developments."

One thing I am slightly concerned about is having this be someone's first introduction to Less Wrong. I did spend a while trying to write this in such a way that it wouldn't be too ridiculous sounding to a newcomer. I actually set a pretty high bar for myself - I wanted my mother to be able to read this.

But I don't think I succeeded at that quite yet. At first I tried to explain why the things we believe aren't so ridiculous, and then I realized there's a good reason Eliezer took 2 years and a quarter-million pages to do so. So I went ahead and left that section more directly targeted to the Less Wrong audience.

Which is to say, I think this is a good thing to link to, but it also might be a good idea to include some kind of disclaimer about it being for people already familiar with Less Wrong. I don't really know. Depends on who's on your social network.

Yeah, I had similar thoughts actually. But I did end up thinking that this was good enough to link in a somewhat off-handed manner. Though of course, mostly I just wanted to get myself on the public record, calling this a great success in the making at such a somewhat early stage, so that I look good when future generations look back a few thousand years from now :D
Long ago, far away, ever so long ago... Aleksei_Riikonen said that this was a pretty awesome idea.

Damn, my plan is backfiring. I will be remembered as an arrogant schmuck who was slightly funny in an unintended way.

Serves me right.

I actually assumed I was riffing off the joke exactly the way you intended. Didn't mean to poke fun.

Yeah, I just thought I'd improve on your riff a bit, and add the part that pokes fun at me :)

It has caught some attention beyond our little corner of the internet in the nearby blogosphere, but it's not Razib's first run in with LessWrong and he wasn't creeped out by it or anything.
Interesting find. I was curious if any of the commenters ended up reading the article and saying anything. All I found was this: I think this person would have approximately the same reaction to most of our stuff, not just a particularly grandiose ritual article, but this does cement my opinion that this piece shouldn't have been promoted. I'm not sure who to contact, I just sent a request to Eliezer but I'm sure we have more full-time moderators.
If we only ever promoted articles appropriate for those first running into LW, many of those promoted in the past shoudln't have been. That's far too harsh a standard to enforce. Not to mention it would make promoted articles a rather dull read (advanced rationality material is out the window and only a small fraction of intro posts would remain). I don't think it was a mistake for it to be promoted in the sense of it clearly being something most of the community enjoyed and many people only read promoted articles. In many respects I think LW is basically better at accruing those who already happen to share our peculiar memes and shibboleths rather transforming people. Which may or may not be a good thing, but it certainly isn't something that is much altered by this article.


Oh I was not kidding in the slightest.

Okay, I know it's a low-status signal to appear to be celebrating religious holidays on LW, but just admit it was a holiday party for LWers. There's nothing wrong with that as long as you recognize that the pagan holidays are founded on incorrect ideas.The verbal gymnastics in your first paragraph are seriously painful to read.

I honestly wasn't trying to hide the fact that it was a holiday party - but one of my strongest motivations was that many people don't understand that a "real" holiday party (where you actual sing carols and stuff) is something that real people actually do, and which is awesome. There is genuinely less information in the phrase "The NYC Less Wrong group had a holiday party," than: "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." That said, the awkward phrasing of "well it wasn't really Solstice so it was Solstice 6Eve" is pretty bad. I'll just scrap that because it's not actually important. If you have other specific advice on how to rephrase some things, let me know.

Thank you for doing this; as others have said, it's obvious that you've put in many hours into this project and just as obvious that the time was (in my opinion) well-spent.

Just as a data point that may or may not be note-worthy, your post, more than anything else on this site, has caused me to significantly and positively update my belief in how much I would enjoy going to a LessWrong meetup - especially of this sort.

Interesting that two people have called me on a vaguely wrong statement about when people run out of food, but nobody's calling me on the ancient people cringing in desperate fear about abandonment by the gods (which not only did I basically make up, but which I don't assign higher than 65% confidence to, at least not the way I phrased it)

As long as I'm continuing to refine this, anyone have strong opinions on that?

Mostly, parents don't abandon children, unless they die, or unless the survival of the parents or other children depend on abandoning some. If gods are just big metaphorical parents, then you wouldn't be afraid of your god turning its back on you, as much as afraid that your god will die or be overwhelmed by some greater power. Of course, you'd probably never admit that; the external evidence of this fear would probably exist only in the vehemence with which you denied the possibility.
I think you're projecting a modern sensibility about parents and morality. I have some qualms about what I wrote, but not for that particular reason.
I had considered that someone might respond that way, and still believe what I said is true enough to be worth saying. I understand that your response above is partly this same "Yes, I'd thought of that" message. (Updated because my comment above is currently at -1: I don't think the tendency not to abandon one's children unless forced to is uniquely "modern", although of course the modern world sharply limits the number of situations in which the choices are abandoning a child or risking death.)

Maybe I should start going to these meetups again... I sort of feel like I'm Insufficiently Awesome to go back, though. People there are actually Doing Things and Accomplishing Things, and I, well, don't. :(


be careful what you say about yourself. Those statements may hijack your self-image for weeks, remember. You're probably dormant totally awesome, and should go to the meetups.

This person knows what they're talking about.
I think you should start going too. Here's something I've noticed that you may not have noticed: People reliably publicize their most awesome qualities and actions. The result is that the more superficially you know a particular person, the more uniformly awesome they seem. It's like each person has a histogram of assets ranked by awesomeness, and you only get to see a little window of that on the extreme awesome end; as the window widens, the average awesomeness may decrease. So you should imagine everyone as less uniformly awesome than they seem. EDIT: So here's one way you could use this idea: If there's a particular person in the community who does something impressive and this makes you think "oh, I'm not as impressive as that, I don't belong in their company", you can tell yourself "well, they've probably done something really unimpressive that I haven't heard about too, and when I focus on that hypothetical failure or weakness of character, they don't seem that intimidating at all".
Instead of average awesomeness, I tend to care about total awesomeness and peak awesomeness, which can't go down as I learn more about the person. "Judge talent at its best, and character at its worst" - Lord Acton
Keep in mind that at this early stage of the game, many of the most active meetup attenders would love to help you become more awesome, and they ask nothing more in return than an open mind of above-average intelligence and a willingness to try hard. Being awesome is the goal-state, not the prerequisite for hanging out with people. The prereq is wanting to be awesome, which it sounds like you have.
I'd certainly like to be Awesome, but there are a lot of ways of becoming Awesome that take far more work than I'm willing to do. (Per Scott Adams, "work" is defined as "anything you'd rather not be doing right now.") I did have a plan that I'd been working on for becoming Sufficiently Awesome, but I've hit a setback. If I were to qualify for the Magic Pro Tour, I'd consider myself Sufficiently Awesome. (Zvi said he's not particularly interested letting me work with him on Magic unless I actually managed to qualify.) When I heard that the next Pro Tour Qualifier format was going to be Modern, I was very happy, because I had a really good deck for that format. Had being the operative word, because a very important card in that deck just got banned. :(
I have had a long affair with magic the gathering. I too had the goal of joining the pro-tour for many years, and failed to do so. That being said, I think I learned enough to be helpful. First, as a rationalist, you have to abandon attachment to a specific deck. The basic skills of magic are the basic skills of a rationalist- understanding the probabilities of a given situation, understanding that biases you have that are going to try and sway you to incorrect action, and taking the action that allows you to win, even if that action doesn't "feel" right. Play the deck that has the best chance of winning. Even if it is crazy popular. Your goal isn't to be the player who has the crazy innovative deck that no one is ready for- there is a time and place for that, but not at the beginning of the journey. Your goal is to be the player that takes the best deck, and consistently wins the mirror match because your play skill is very high. Play the deck that beats the majority of the field, and focus on learning the skills that allow you to win the hard matches. The format will change, the decks will change- you get to keep the investment you make in your skill set. Second, understand you will lose. You will lose to people with inferior skill, playing inferior decks. You will lose when it "feels" like you should win. The best players, when they play other plays of equal skill, win only slightly more than they lose. It follows then, that in order to improve, you must not allow losing to become a bar to growth. This is not to say you should be resigned to losing- obviously, the goal is to win as much as possible. It is instead to say that the emotional attachment to losing can become so great, that it makes you "feel" like you are inferior. You must find methods that allow you to evaluate each match- to learn from your mistakes, but not "feel" like your loses indicate an inability for future success. Third, play constantly. Play past the point you are tired of playing. Play
The deck I had, Zoo, was the awesome deck everyone was playing (or should have been). Which is why there was a banning in the first place. Now I've gone from "I'm gonna kick everyone's ass with the best version of the best deck" to "I have to figure out what the best version of the best deck is so I can play it." And I don't know how relevant this is, but there have indeed been times when I've made the rogue deck and kicked lots of ass. This, this, this, and this are four examples of decks of varying levels of originality that I've done very well with. I'd say that, in general, I'm actually better at deckbuilding than at technical play; I find it easier to get an edge through deck tweaking than through outplaying opponents. I've been wishing that I could find someone better at technical play to coach me, but I don't know how to find someone who would be willing to do that. Yeah, I'm familiar with this. I don't have to like losing, but it will (and does) happen. It's really only losing streaks that start getting to me... I'm almost exclusively a Magic Online player, and I play in a lot of queues.
MTGO is a strange beast. It gives you access to almost unlimited testing matches- this is a good thing. Unfortunately, it also trains you in ways that will trip you up in IRL tournament play. First- it actively reminds you of all triggers- learning to never forget to use a triggered ability is key, when many of your games will come down to one or two points of damage. Second- MTGO games are played in silence. IRL, there is mental warfare going on. I know players who never sit down to a tournament game without some evidence that they have attended a pro-tour- for many, that knowledge is intimidating enough that they start playing badly. MTGO can help you figure out what the correct plays for a given deck are, but it will not give you the complete set of skills you need. Somewhere in your area, there are weekly tournaments that are being attended by the people who go to every ptq and gpt in your area. You need to be at those tournaments. After a month or so, you will know the regulars, and you will have played most of them. The best way to gain the help of someone with better skill is to join their community of players. To improve, surround yourself with people better than you are. I spent the evening reviewing modern, and the decks that are available. It seems very clear that this is a format that until recently has had very little activity- which means the best deck is very undefined. I would expect to see this format flux for quite a while- from past experience, I would expect an early surge of burn and fast creature decks. I would also expect that control decks will be under represented in numbers, but over represented in top 8 play. As the season progresses, I would not be surprised if a combo deck or high synergy deck comes out of no where, while control decks evolve and refine. Were I you, I would find a solid control deck, and play it. Personally, I think Martyr decks look strong, but choose what you like.
I spent the first half of the year trying to be awesome in a way that required willpower and hard work that I didn't want to do. I spent the second half of the year trying to be awesome in a way that I totally enjoyed the entire time, never had to force myself into, and involved loads of hard work that I loved every minute of. My not-so-humble opinion is that it worked out pretty well.
It's not as simple as I just made it sound, and no I won't expound here right now, but I am planning to do a "year one of rationality, in review" a little later. The specific applications won't generalize for most people but hopefully some of the underlying thought processes will be useful.
Probably because it was very important!
Another point that might make you feel better about attending meetups: Speaking as a person who attends and arranges meetups, there's a variety of ways someone can contribute to the goodness of a meetup or community, even just by showing up. There are lots of LWers who I'm glad are there, and not all of them are accomplished. Some of them are really nice, some of them have interesting things to say, some of them call me out when I'm rationalizing, some of them give me backrubs.
I don't think I really became awesome until towards the end of this year (just prior to working on this, which gave me the confidence to do it). And regardless, awesome is not a binary state. None of us are sufficiently awesome - that's the point.

Just found a good Cthulhu-based song that's a parody of Hey There Delilah, and thought of this.

Raemon, this is really great. As a lay leader of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I love what you say about the importance of ritual -- it can be strongly affecting, and can motivate people to action they might not otherwise take. If we can construct rituals that inspire and invigorate, without misleading, then that is a win.

I'd suggest that when doing this kind of ritual, we should invite guests who are almost-but-not-quite in the rationalist camp. It can be a tool to attract new minds.

I will try to do a similar event at my church next year. We h... (read more)

I expect this is wrong both as a model of the community and of Raemon's model of the community. Appearances don't matter, and psychological effects do.
Noted. I'll try to update accordingly.
Yeah. I did expect most of the community to react more or less as they have. However, I did also expect there to be a minority of people who were upset by this, or at least mildly annoyed. I do honestly want that silent minority to speak up so I know what the costs of this are. It will inform how far I push in this direction, both publicly and privately.
Well, OK, since you asked... while small doses of it aren't worth the costs of objecting to, to the extent that the site as a whole moves in the direction of discussing bonding rituals and similar community-for-the-sake-of-community activities, the site becomes less valuable to me.
If, after a few initial articles to explain what I'm doing and why, this became something organized by private meetups, would that still bother you? What if it took place only in the discussion section? (Perhaps, only to say: "hey guys, want to come to another forum/mailing-list where we can collaborate on this?")
The most honest answer is that I don't know. The discussions themselves don't bother me, it's more that I fear the dynamic where devoting energy to community-building becomes a self-perpetuating runaway process that distorts or steals the oxygen from everything else. I know there's a point where that happens, but I have no idea where the threshold is. That said, my best guess is that treating these ritual sessions as a special case of meetups is relatively harmless.
Thank you for the input.
It is honestly frustrating that every time anyone asks you "Why don't you think this a bad idea, like I do?" you respond with "I will justify myself later; for now, go along with it and do not object." This bothers me as much as or more than the ritual stuff itself does. If you decide it's a good idea to do something and then ignore all criticism of it until you actually do it, this has a good chance of ending up with you ignoring all criticism ever. Once you've actually pulled this off, you are a lot more resistant to the thought that it might not have been worth doing to begin with. And much as I don't want to see discussion of the ritual activities again, if you take that discussion somewhere else all the issues with criticism will only get worse. To be honest, after typing this up and reflecting on it once again, I'm beginning to consider the secondary hypothesis that you're deliberately mindkilling yourself to avoid ever being convinced that you are wrong.
I'm not responding to criticism in detail yet because I am honestly in the process of writing a detailed article that addresses all these concerns at once, in a more coherent manner than I can do responding to a bunch of individual posts. I am soliciting criticism now in case there are potential issues that I haven't thought about yet. My intent is NOT "do not object." I want you to object. I am dealing with dangerous forces and I want to know about as many factors as possible. I've thought about some, but I'm sure there are more reasons to be afraid and many specific examples of the more abstract concerns I've thought about. I am fairly confident that when all is said and done, I will still believe this is a good idea. I am open to persuasion otherwise, if people have concrete concerns that I can't address. But I will also be making the case that this is not just fun but genuinely important, and I think you should at least be open to that possibility.
I was curious if you'd read the followup post, and if your opinion had updated in any noteworthy direction.
I haven't read it until just now. My initial thought is that you've given this enough thought that you might be right, and I have to think about it some more. This thinking is probably going to end up coinciding with thinking if I want to stop reading and posting here (which I might do even if you are correct overall -- it's possible that the presence of people with my mindset, if there's not too many of us, is insignificant enough that it falls neatly into your cost-benefit analysis). Anyway, thank you for pointing me to your post, I appreciate it and the fact that you obviously did pay attention to my criticism even if it was not always generously worded.

I really like this idea and would love to attend such an event. Ritual is a powerful tool for creating a deep and lasting impact on people, and I imagine that a ritual created by someone who knows the sequences and ideas of LessWrong could be a really amazing experience.

Amazing evening you must have had.

I'm sure you're aware of the risk of happy death spiral and evaporative cooling associated with such "rituals", and are able to keep the awesome part while mitigating the risks.

Just pointing to a typo : "The Gift We Give Tomorrow" it's the "The Gift We Give to Tomorrow" or it doesn't have the same meaning at all.

Heh. I actually read it the same either way, but to avoid potential confusion (and just be, you know, correct) I shall fix it.
Well, to me in "the gift we give tomorrow", "tomorrow" answers to "when do we give it ?" not "to whom do we give it ?". But that may be because I'm not a native English speaker, in English the "to" is indeed not mandatory, so the sentence could technically mean both. In French the "to" (well "à") is mandatory, so my french-wired brain probably stops scanning once it found a way to interpret the sentence in a french-friendly way. Unless directly asked "could there be a second meaning ?" and then it'll dig further into non-frenchy ways. That's the way I feel it at least... But IMHO, better use a sentence that can only be understood one way, when possible, especially when trying to convey a very strong meaning.
In some cases, where you have multiple words with the same meaning, it can be more poetically powerful to choose the ambiguous meaning. The best choice is going to very from culture to culture.
On the other hand, "The Gift We Give Tomorrow" can have both meanings (English doesn't require "to" before the indirect object of "give") and it scans better, so you may not want to change it.
I do think "Gift We Give Tomorrow" scans better, but the original post had a particular name, and I figure we should stick with that, at least in official writeups. (Casually I intend to keep saying "Gift We Give Tomorrow")

I do think "Gift We Give Tomorrow" scans better

Let me adapt a pun from Terry Pratchett, and mention that this can also become "The Present we Give to the Future" :-)

Really torn about how awesome and how terrible that pun is. (I'd total use that phrase if it didn't distract from the seriousness of what I'm talking about. Maybe reference in the opening toast when it's okay to be sillier) I actually watched the Hogfather movie just after this event, which was surprisingly relevant.

Ah, so this is why you were working on spoken-word versions of Sequence posts!

Yup! Soon you'll see the final product. Big thanks to everyone who collaborated on that. It was definitely a better experience because of your input.

I may be nine years too late to make any kind of difference, but I would caution against any strong attachment to H.P. Lovecraft in particular due to his astounding racism. His fears about the unknown and the "others" are perhaps most apparently race-related in The Shadow Over Innsmouth (it's easy to see how the fishmen are an allegorical representation of people with skin colors Lovecraft didn't like) but in general I think the fact that Lovecraft was super racist is a compelling reason not to hold him up as an icon of rationality, even if some of the non-racist or only-racist-in-context themes of his work are valuable or relatable.

I think it's nice to talk in general terms about this, but it would be even better if we could all see your liturgy. I'd like to make a comment about styles of "audience" participation (based on my limited experience with fandangos jarochos and quaker meetings), but without seeing how you've done this in your liturgy, I can't know if I actually have anything to add.

Don't worry, this is coming. I just want to correct some obvious problems first. Edit: I'm putting together a "director's cut" of the book, which begins with this introduction and concludes with an additional essay about what this means to me. That second essay is written for an extremely challenging audience: my parents. I'm aiming to have this done in time to give it to them for Christmas, so expect the final thing sometime early next week. Ordinarily I would say "you shouldn't have to explain your art," but the art is essentially for people who already understand certain things, and there's a huge amount of inferential gap I'm trying to cross. (My goal is not to "convert" them so much as for them to understand the person I've become in the past year).

Raemon, did you write something about organizing meet-ups? I can't remember. If not, I think you should. I'm moving to Chicago for college next year and their meetup group seems much less active than it could be, so if there are tips on how to make things like this (and consistent meet-ups in general) happen, I would like to have them.

Interesting fact: I'm good at doing the plans for this sort of thing, but I'm approximately average at actually presiding over it during the execution. (Maybe a little above average, just from having a small amount of experience during which I rapidly learned some basic concepts). The skills are related but don't automatically transfer. Some of the problems that arose during the Solstice night stemmed from the fact that I can't identify people-related-problems and think strategically about them in realtime. At least not well. (At the Solstice, certain logistical issues ended up being solved by having other people nearby who were better at that). I organize smaller, goal driven meetups for the NYC group rather than the general audience discussions with mass appeal. (Drawing workshops, running meetups). My few attempts at organizing a general meetup, apart from this one, were not very successful. I think I can learn to become good at it but wouldn't consider myself a reliable source of knowledge.

Wishing I lived in NYC. Can't wait to read the PDF. Give me a shout if you need someone to proof read, format, and/or make any visual suggestions.

Just realized I never took you up on this, and it would have been helpful. Feel free to proofread the it anyway, in case I missed anything!

Huh, according to Wikipedia at least the solstice won't be until Thursday morning at 5:30 (UTC, i.e. 12:30 a.m. New York time IIRC).

Originally this article had a lengthy disclaimer about it being Solstice 6Eve (that's what we were officially celebrating). It sounded obnoxious, and in another few weeks no one would be able to tell the difference, and it's still celebrating the idea of the Solstice, so I decided to just edit it to what you read now.

But an important part Solstice Festivals IS the fun, the joviality.

I can't parse this, is there a missing word or words?

I would imagine there's an 'of' between 'part' and 'Solstice'.
In hindsight, that seems obvious. Thanks.

Holy crap, why wasn't I invited to this? I'm only a short train ride away!

Sorry! (We posted to the NYC mailing list, unfortunately we wanted to keep it as a semi-private event this year. I am leaning towards a public event next year. (If you're not on the NYC mailing list and want to be, send me a pm)

When I read the title of this post, and then the line about "a Just-So story, true enough for our purposes" I almost jumped right to to the bottom to make an indignant comment. I'm glad I didn't, though, because this sounds like something really worthwhile.

One of the things I picked up from this blog was the idea that the various bits of mental machinery used by things like religion and politics could also be used to support ideas that had been thought about first and believed second, and I think this is a great example of that.

With that said, t... (read more)

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I don't think you needed to retract this comment, although I like your other comment too.