bendini

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The rationalist community's location problem

(Disclaimer: This is a brief low effort reply because I've spent a large amount of time on this topic with very little to show for it, but I also don't want to ignore questions which people have a reasonable expectation of getting a response.)

  • UK immigration law is almost seamless if 1) you are just wanting to visit to get a taste of living here 2) are willing to visit for less than 6 months per year and are wealthy/willing to tolerate being in the defacto legal grey area of remote work on a tourist visa.
  • Immigration to the UK is about as straightforward as immigrating to any other developed country in general. There are also specific circumstances when it becomes a lot easier that are likely to apply to a lot of people in this community (e.g. tech founders, tech workers on the occupational shortage list).
  • There are rationalists/EAs and ACX fans here. I used to organise the meetups and I know of 30-50 people here and in the surrounding area, and there were 9 people present at the first ACX 2021 meetup.
    • However, the number of people in Manchester who are in paid roles at rationalist/ea orgs is, to my knowledge, zero. The general takeaway is that due to the large surrounding population (something like 11m within a 60 minute travel radius) there is naturally quite a few fans, but due to factors such as sub-critical mass and lack of institutional support from the community, there is no hardcore scene present here.
  • While there are not hardcore scenes locally, such scenes do exist in places which are close by American geographic standards (e.g. London had ~150 at its ACX meetup and is only 2h30m away by train).
Why don't long running conversations happen on LessWrong?

If you don't write a seperate post about it, you could reply to this comment with the results. (i have nothing further to add at this time.)

Why don't long running conversations happen on LessWrong?

I think the question becomes much more social than technical. It's not about how to design the UI, it's about evolving cultural norms. I would say it's both, it's getting users to want to do something and having the UI make it easy for them to do it.

(As a side note, for some reason people have become more reluctant in the past decade to rebel against interfaces and the implicit messages sent by its design choices. Like, until about last year you could not get people to use Discord as a tool for serious work, even though it was better than Slack, simply because it was associated with gamers.)

I suppose a good starting point there would be to have a post talk in more detail about why this would be a good thing I think that would make sense as a next step.

From there, maybe the next step would be if you started to see post authors do things like making pledges or holding office hours. I think the first question that needs to be explored here is why they are not already doing something like this already. I've only ever made a single post to LessWrong, and to me sticking around in the comment section seemed like the obvious thing to do. I didn't do it out of a sense of duty, it just didn't make sense to me to spend all that time writing a post and not hang around afterwards to talk about it. (One serious possibility is that most people who write posts are a lot more introverted than I am, so instead of seeing it as a reward for their efforts, they view answering questions as a necessary evil.)

Why don't long running conversations happen on LessWrong?

I think those things would be a step in the right direction, but I'd be surprised if they turned out to be sufficient. Remember, LessWrong already notifies the subset of the userbase most likely to reply (i.e. users who have already replied) when there are new comments, but those users choose to ignore them after ~2 weeks.

For things to actually change, I predict that we'd first need a widespread perception that this behaviour is a problem, then have various UI nudges put in place. The only way you'd get the desired behaviour change without that consensus is if the UI went beyond nudging and aggressively pushed it as the default.

Why don't long running conversations happen on LessWrong?

I think points 2 and 3 are correct, but the thing I wanted to convey was that without strong explicit preferences for things to be different, it's unlikely that the necessary changes would be made.

I think that while 1 is often true in general, it is not true in this specific case. We already have the positive sum solution (notifications) which allows anyone to continue discussions for as long as they like without having to manually check for new replies, and this clearly isn't enough to unstick the norm of avoiding comment sections once a post is a few weeks old. This implies it would require a more drastic change, which likely involves making tradeoffs that will negatively impact people who are satisfied with the current homepage.

Why don't long running conversations happen on LessWrong?

I don't think it's completely to blame, but I suspect that the way the LessWrong homepage is set up encourages this cultural norm. LessWrong 2.0 has paid some attention to the need to revisit content, but the homepage is still much closer to Reddit (where discussions die out quickly) than a forum (where they don't).

My reason for thinking the website is not completely to blame is that it seems to reflect the revealed preferences of the users. If there was a strong (and conscious) preference for long running discussions, people would work around it via the notification system. There would also be frequent calls from users to change the homepage to a forum-first design, rather than making tweaks to the Reddit-based one to nudge people towards long running discussion. That's not what we see, which would indicate that being able to have long running discussions on LessWrong is a minority preference.

The best things are often free or cheap

I don't think there are any important caveats, and I also wouldn't expect there to be. The reason I wouldn't is that if the best things in life weren't cheap, it would mean that the best things in life are the things that require lots of highly skilled labour that can't be amortised across a large number of people.

When things are expensive and highly desired, market forces incentivise people to put a lot of effort into making those things less expensive, so the only things that tend to remain that way are:

A) Things where there are hard constraints on how much effort needs to be put into creating them. 

B) Things that derive a large part of their perceived value from being produced in a way that requires lots of bespoke highly skilled labour.

Things that are B are not the best things in life almost by definition, and so few tangible products in the modern world are A (as opposed to say, human relationships) that they are unlikely to coincide with the best things in life. 

Why Boston?

To clarify, I was thinking more about the overall effect of the weather on people. You are not indoors all the time, nor can you cover every square inch of your body with warm clothing. At least from my point of view, being outdoors in 20F wind in a winter coat is worse than 85F in shorts + t-shirt. I'm not disputing that air conditioning is more technologically complex than a fireplace, I just don't think it's a major factor.

Why Boston?

Ah, that makes more sense. I think if you'd posted this last year I would have assumed you were making an individual case, but the recent interest in moving the hub away from Berkeley made me think otherwise.

Why Boston?

From what I understand, the case for Boston is as follows:

A. Similar good things

  1. Boston has similar urban amenities of the SFBA (colleges, medicine, airport).
  2. Boston tolerates the rationalist kind of weirdness (queer and poly).
  3. Boston has lots of the activity groups rationalists enjoy (contra dance, kink).
  4. Boston has enough rationalists that it's possible to run weekly events and for people to have their own little friendship groups.
  5. Boston has plenty of buildings that are suitable for large grouphouses.
  6. Tech salaries in Boston are only 10-20% less than the SFBA. 

B. Similar bad things

  1. Boston has a very high cost of living ($2800/month for a 2 bed that's 30 minutes from downtown).
  2. Boston is within the US, so is at the mercy of US federal politics (i.e. revolution risk).
  3. Boston is within the US, so it has similarly insane healthcare costs.
  4. Boston has NIMBY housing policies that are unlikely to change.

C. Large/important improvements

  1. Boston has far less risk of earthquakes and wildfires.
  2. Boston has better non-car transport options. (Although it's unclear how it compares to NYC and how much worse it is than the best cities internationally.) 

D. Small/minor improvements 

  1. Boston is much less dependant on the software industry than the SFBA. (I'm unsure if this is important for rationalists, as most of them are software engineers so the main benefit for them is less social homogeneity in their non-rationalist friend groups.)
  2. Boston has a lot more elite schools per capita.
  3. Boston's architecture is similar to Europe.
  4. Boston skews younger than the SFBA (likely due to its elite universities).
  5. Boston has 4 distinct seasons.

E. Large drawbacks

  1. Boston has the same sky-high cost of living as the SFBA, but only a fraction of the startup scene.
  2. Boston has very cold winters.

F. Small drawbacks

  1. Boston has summers that are hot, humid and swarming with mosquitoes.
  2. Boston still has it's Puritan cultural prudishness.
  3. Boston has below average food culture. (Again, probably Puritan influence.)

G. Other differences

  1. Boston has the blunt communication style you find in Northeastern US cities.

 

I can see why some individuals would be better off in Boston, but looking at the bigger picture I can't see how this would be a suitable replacement for Berkeley. It has most of the downsides that people mention (e.g. cost of living, opposition to new housing) when they complain about Berkeley, but can't offer the rebuttal of "yes, but our institutions are already here". 

If someone can spell out the case for moving the main rationalist hub from Berkeley to Boston, I'd like to hear it, but from my perspective it seems like relocating to Boston would be squandering this one-time opportunity to put the hub in the global maxima.

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