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My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage)

I think that CFAR, at least while I was there full-time from 2014 to sometime in 2016, was heavily focused on running workshops or other programs (like the alumni reunions or the MIRI Summer Fellows program). See for instance my comment here.

Most of what the organization was doing seemed to involve planning and executing workshops or other programs and teaching the existing curriculum. There were some developments and advancements to the curriculum, but they often came from the workshops or something around them (like followups) rather than a systematic development project. For example, Kenzi once took on the lion's share of workshop followups for a time, which led to her coming up with new curriculum based on her sense of what the followup participants were missing even after having attended the workshop.

(In the time before I joined there had been significantly more testing of curriculum etc. outside of workshops, but this seemed to have become less the thing by the time I was there.)

A lot of CFAR's internal focus was on improving operations capacity. There was at one time a narrative that the staff was currently unable to do some of the longer-term development because too much time was spent on last minute scrambles to execute programs, but once operations sufficiently improved, we'd have much more open time to allocate to longer-term development.

I was skeptical of this and I think ultimately vindicated -- CFAR made major improvements to its operations, but this did not lead to systematic research and development emerging, though it did allow for running more programs and doing so more smoothly.

My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage)

Unfortunately I think the working relationship between Anna and Kenzi was exceptionally bad in some ways and I would definitely believe that someone who mostly observed that would assume the organization had some of these problems; however I think this was also a relatively unique situation within the organization.

(I suspect though am not certain that both Anna and Kenzi would affirm that indeed this was an especially bad dynamic.)

With respect to point 2, I do not believe there was major peer pressure at CFAR to use psychadelics and I have never used psychadelics myself. It's possible that there was major peer pressure on other people or it applied to me but I was oblivious to it or whatever but I'd be surprised.

Psychadelic use was also one of a few things that were heavily discouraged (or maybe banned?) as conversation topics for staff at workshops -- like polyphasic sleep (another heavily discouraged topic), psychadelics were I believe viewed as potentially destabilizing and inappropriate to recommend to participants, plus there are legal issues involved. I personally consider recreational use of psychadelics to be immoral as well.

My comment initially said 2014-2016 but IIRC my involvement was much less after 2015 so I edited it.


Thanks for the clarification, I've edited mine too.

Shoulder Advisors 101

I noticed this also but intentionally did not bring it up because I consider this area to be extremely negative. Hearing that someone is getting into "tulpamancy" is for me a gigantic red flag and in practice seems linked to people going insane -- not sure if it's causal or correlational or what but I would very much like the community to avoid this area.

My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage)

I worked for CFAR full-time from 2014 until mid-to-late 2016 and have continued working as a part-time employee or frequent contractor since. I'm sorry this was your experience. That said, it really does not mesh that much with what I've experienced and some of it is almost the opposite of the impressions that I got. Some brief examples:

  • My experience was that CFAR if anything should have used its techniques internally much more. Double crux for instance felt like it should have been used internally far more than it actually was -- one thing that vexed me about CFAR was a sense that there were persistent unresolved major strategic disagreements between staff members that the organization did not seem to prioritize resolving, where I think double crux would have helped.

    (I'm not talking about personal disagreements but rather things like "should X set of classes be in the workshop or not?")
  • Similarly, goal factoring didn't see much internal use (I again think it should have been used more!) and Leverage-style "charting" strikes me as really a very different thing from the way CFAR used this sort of stuff.
  • There was generally little internal "debugging" at all, which contrary to the previous two cases I think is mostly correct -- the environment of having your colleagues "debug" you seems pretty weird and questionable. I do think there was at least some of this, but I don't think it was pervasive or mandatory in the organization and I mostly avoided it.
  • Far from spending all my time with team members outside of work, I think I spent most of my leisure and social time with people from other groups, many outside the rationalist community. To some degree I (and I think some others) would have liked for the staff to be tighter-knit, but that wasn't really the culture. Most CFAR staff members did not necessarily know much about my personal life and I did not know much about theirs.
  • I do not much venerate the founding team or consider them to be ultimate masters or whatever. There was a period early on when I was first working there where I sort of assumed everyone was more advanced than they actually were, but this faded with time. I think what you might consider "lionizing parables" I might consider "examples of people using the techniques in their own lives". Here is a sample example of this type I've given many times at workshops as part of the TAPs class, the reader can decide whether it is a "lionizing parable" or not (note: exact wording may vary):
    • It can be useful to practice TAPs by actually physically practicing! I believe <a previous instructor's name> once wanted to set up a TAP involving something they wanted to do after getting out of bed in the morning, so they actually turned off all the lights in their room, got into bed as if they were sleeping, set an alarm to go off as if it were the morning, then waited in bed for the alarm to go off, got up, did the action they were practicing... and then set the whole thing up again and repeated!
  • I'm very confused by what you deem "narrativemancy" here. I have encountered the term before but I don't think it was intentionally taught as a CFAR technique or used internally as an explicit technique. IIRC the term also had at least somewhat negative valence.

I should clarify that I have been less involved in "day-to-day" CFAR stuff since mid-late 2016, though I have been at I believe a large majority of mainline workshops (I think I'm one of the most active instructors). It's possible that the things you describe were occurring but in ways that I didn't see. That said, they really don't match with my picture of what working at CFAR was like.

My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage)

What does "significant involvement" mean here? I worked for CFAR full-time during that period and to the best of my knowledge you did not work there -- I believe for some of that time you were dating someone who worked there, is that what you mean by significant involvement?

My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage)

Eliezer has openly said Quirrell's cynicism is modeled after a mix of Michael Vassar and Robin Hanson.

My experience at and around MIRI and CFAR (inspired by Zoe Curzi's writeup of experiences at Leverage)

I worked for CFAR full-time from 2014 until mid to late 2016, and have worked for CFAR part-time or as a frequent contractor ever since. My sense is that dynamics like those you describe were mostly not present at CFAR, or insofar as they were present weren't really the main thing. I do think CFAR has not made as much research progress as I would like, but I think the reasoning for that is much more mundane and less esoteric than the pattern you describe here.

The fact of the matter is that for almost all the time I've been involved with CFAR, there just plain hasn't been a research team. Much of CFAR's focus has been on running workshops and other programs rather than on dedicated work towards extending the art; while there have occasionally been people allocated to research, in practice even these would often end up getting involved in workshop preparation and the like.

To put things another way, I would say it's much less "the full-time researchers are off unproductively experimenting on their own brains in secret" and more "there are no full-time researchers". To the best of my knowledge CFAR has not ever had what I would consider a systematic research and development program -- instead, the organization has largely been focused on delivering existing content and programs, and insofar as the curriculum advances it does so via iteration and testing at workshops rather than a more structured or systematic development process.

I have historically found this state of affairs pretty frustrating (and am working to change it), but I think that it's a pretty different dynamic than the one you describe above.


(I suppose it's possible that the systematic and productive full-time CFAR research team was so secretive that I didn't even know it existed, but this seems unlikely...)

Common knowledge about Leverage Research 1.0

I agree, but I wanted to be clear that my original comment was largely in reply to the original post and in my view does not much apply to the Medium post, which I consider much more specific and concerning criticism.

Common knowledge about Leverage Research 1.0

You know, I'm not necessarily a great backer of Leverage Research, especially some of its past projects, but I feel the level of criticism that it has faced relative to other organizations in the space is a bit bizarre. Many of the things that Leverage is criticized for (such as being secretive, seeing themselves at least in part as saving the world, investing in projects that look crazy to intelligent outsiders, etc.) in my view apply to many rationalist/EA organizations. This is not to say that those other organizations are wrong to do these things necessarily, just that it's weird to me that people go after Leverage-in-particular for reasons that often don't seem to be consistently applied to other projects in the space.

(I have never been an employee of Leverage Research, though at one point they were potentially interested in recruiting me and I was not interested; at another point I checked in re: potentially working there but didn't like the sound of the projects they seemed to be recruiting for at the time.)


EDIT 10/13: My original comment was written before the Medium post from Zoe Curzi. The contents of that Medium post are very concerning to me and seem very unlike what I've encountered in other rationalist or EA organizations.

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