LessWrong Berlin, 11th-13th April 2014

When we were with Barbara in USA two years ago, I was dreaming about having a rationalist community here one day. (In best case, here in Slovakia, but also here in Europe would be a good start.) In Bratislava and Vienna we have communities of about 10 people. And then an announcement appeared on the LessWrong site, about European weekend rationalist meetup in Berlin. More people wanted to participate than the organizers originally planned; the final number of participants was about 50. (I think more people were interested, but the meetup was limited by space.)

Travelling from Bratislava to Berlin takes about 9 hours. We took a vacation on friday and also monday, so that we wouldn't have to hurry home, and eventually could have a walk in the city with the new friends. The train was comfortable, but I couldn't find the electric sockets (I found them on our way back, they were well disguised), so I couldn't work on my notebook during the last two or three hours. (I was translating articles from LessWrong to Slovak language.)

The main train station in Berlin is huge, and if you are there for the first time, it is not easy to find stuff. We didn't buy seat reservations for the way back, so we wanted to buy them here. The station has a few floors, because in the same building there are train stops, underground stops, and tram stops. And a lot of shops everywhere. Finally we found what we looked for. We also bought mass transit tickets, although we were not sure we bought the right ones. One ticket costs € 2.60, four tickets cost € 8.80. (We didn't know if the discount is connected to come condition; for example a group of four travelling together or something like that. But seems like no; it is simply a discount without conditions.) With one ticket you can travel for two hours, changing vehicles, both trams and underground. The tickets are marked before entering the first vehicle.

Using a tram and an underground we got to the hostel, where we met the organizers in the lobby. During the weekend every participant wore a name tag, where they were supposed to write their name and favourite topics to talk about. There were also some stickers like „organizer“, „hugs“, „no touching“, „Crocker rules“, „I live in Berlin“ and „I will stay in Berlin for a few days after the meetup“. (Crocker rules = you can tell me anything I will not get offerended, because I prefer information flow to social rules.) During the weekend there was a lot, really a lot of hugging, which was an icing on the cake of the generally friendly atmosphere.

There were three of us from Slovakia: me and Barbara, and Peter who now lives in Vienna. We communicated in English. The first evening we had a welcome dinner in the conference room; vegetarian and vegan meals were available. We met a few old friends, but also a few people whom we only knew as names from the internet. (It's so nice when right in the door an organizer hugs you and then says: „Sorry, but I am reading your comments on the web, so you feel like an old friend to me.“) At our table during the dinner we discussed meditation, altered states of consciousness and drugs, Leverage Research, obstetrics in different European countries, communism, and magnetic implants.

It can't be really repdoruced here, so just a few details: Marihuana makes people more careful that usual (unfortunately, it's not the only effect, so we can't use it e.g. for better planning). Leverage Research is an organization focused on improving the world; their employees can do anything they choose to, as long as they improve the world by doing it. In some countries instead of epidural injection woman's labor pains can be reduced using electric stimulation. A magnet implanted under the skin allows its user to feel the magnetic field and electric current, so it is like having a new sense. Two participants had these implants (they could also recognize each other by touching their fingers).

On satuday we had a breakfast in the hostel. Then we were introducing to each other in small groups. We had lectures on fast and slow thinking; and effective acquiring of new skills. Then a few participants presented their hobbies in five-minute „lightning talks“: information geometry; deep learning of neural networks; raising children; and the LessWrong virtual study hall.

Actually, I am a bit responsible for the last one, as I learned during the presentation. (Another pleasant shock: when without any warning you see your name projected on the wall, learn that you are credited with a successful project, get invited on the stage, and receive a cute plushie owl.) What was this all about? A frequent topic on the LessWrong website is overcomind one's own laziness and procrastination. One of the ideas was creating study pair using Skype or Google Hangout, so the pair would start a videoconference in the schedules time, and then silently doing each their own thing. The internet connection would provide the mutual psychological support („I have to connect today at two, because I have promissed my friend to“ and „I will read my textbook diligently, and avoid browsing the web, because my friend is workin too, and they could anytime check what I am doing“). I suggested to skip the pair planning part, and just create one „virtual study hall“, where you could come and leave anytime. It was a brave plan, because if few people would join (which is quite likely for the new ideas), the whole system would fall apart, because when anyone would join, they would usually be there alone. But in reality many people started to use this system; some of them are in the virtual study hall for an hours every day, for example during their jobs, or students learning in the evening. Over time the following rules have developed: the vistual study hall user will place their web camera to see them from aside, to create an impression of the real study hall. Who has two monitors, can put one aside and display there their „virtual classmates“. The schedule consists of 32 minutes long work / study intervals when everyone is silent (with their microphones muted, sometimes sharing their screens to others to allow supervision), and 8 minutes breaks when they have some fun. To make the virtual environment more pleasant, many people take plushies to the study hall (which is why I received one). Some students report it helped them while writing their thesis. (Ironically, I haven't used this study hall myself. I usually give advice to other people, without following it myself. In this case something good happened.)

After a lunch in a vegan restaurant we debated raising children and school system in Finland. The debate about children was a pleasant change for Barbara from the workshop in USA, where the women didn't have children nor planned to have them in the near future; so she didn't have a role model. Here the debates about children were more frequent. (Maybe one day when our community grows larger, it will be usual during similar meetups to bring your children with you, and there will be an alternative program provided for them.) Finnish education is an interesting phenomenon for me, because by population Finland is comparable with Slovakia; in international comparison of mathematical education Finland is usually at the first or maybe second place, while Slovakia is a bit below the average; but at the international mathematical olympiad, participants from Slovakia usually score better than those from Finland. So it seems the Finnish school system is great at taking care for the average student, but can't accomodate the needs of the talented one. I learned that in Finnish schools, students are graded not just by their knowledge, but also by the amount of work; so for example even the most talented student can get average grades despite knowing everything, just because they don't take additional voluntary homework; and an average student can surpass themin grades by doing a lot of activity. Competitions outside of the school (which could motivate even the best local student to try harder) are not supported much. I think with a bit of effort this could be fixed, for example by translating Slovak correspondence competitions to Finnish. (Yeah, my megalomania was growing astronomically during this weekend. I am thinking about improving the education in Finland. This kind of ambition is not exceptional in this environment.)

Afternoon lectures were about differences between the „guess culture“ and „ask culture“, and about Fermi estimates. In some cultures it is a custom to try „read minds“ of the other people. If someone wants something, they can't ask directly, because it would be very impolite. For the other party, it would be impolite to refuse them, so they would do what they were asked, even if it was very inconvenient for them; but then they would be angry at the person. The correct procedure in this culture is to keep noticing what other people are doing, and offer them initiatively the things you suspect they might want. And if you don't do this sufficiently frequently and well, you probably get an image of a selfish person. The opposite is a culture where people say whenever they want something, and it is okay to say „yes“ or „no“. Each culture is balanced on inside, but there are problems when people from different cultures meet. (I guess in the „guess culture“ it is also a problem if a person has atypical wants and needs, so the others can't guess them well. I think this system works in places where people have very stereotypical roles, so it is widely known what a person in the given role might want.) One of the solutions for this intercultural conflict could be a „tell culture“, where you explain your thinking, plans and priorities to the other person (without asking them about anything), and then it is obvious what could be offered.

In the evening people played Ultimate Frisbee; I didn't. Then we went to a pizzeria. There I did possibly my most useful thing of this weekend (I start noticing a pattern, that the things with greatest impact are usually not those I have planned and spent a lot of energy doing, but those which happened kind of accidentally), I connected Oliver and Vasco, so they could plan spreading the rationality culture in Europe. (Oliver is one of the organizers of the Berlin weekend, and he has a permission from CFAR to use their curriculum to teach reationality in Europe. Vasco had an internship at the Leverage Research, and he planned to teach rationality in Vienna, together with Günther who wasn't at this meetup. So with a bit of luck we might have the licenced and motivated rationality teachers in one hour distance from Bratislava.)

On sunday we had a lecture about positive effects of meditation (increases immunity, decreases perceived pain, decreases sunk cost fallacy), and a very short meditation training. Followed by a lecture on mnemonics; creating vidid associations that allow to remember things better. Then a lecture on effective altruism in Switzerland and the Giordano Bruno Stiftung Schweiz organization. The frequent problem with organizing effective altruists is few organizers, who don't focus on increasing their core group, and don't share know-how with other groups. The core should have at least 4 people willing to spend about five hours each week. Then: start the loca group, connect with other people with similar values in your area, organize a meetup, prepare professionally, and make success visible. As humans, we are strongly influenced by our environment, but we can change this environment and search other humans to have fun together.

At this moment the official program ended. Most of participant went to the pizzeria together. After lunch me and Barbara took a walk through Berlin. We have seen a few interested things, but I was disappointed, because some things labeled as „park“ on the map happened to be construction areas in reality. Then we had a dinner with a few other participants who also stayed in Berlin after the meetup. Unfortunately, this was when I found out that I was sick and had a fever, so I returned to the hostel. Monday morning I spent in the bed, and then we returned by train (where I wrote this article, to avoid postponing it for a few months as usual).

viliam@bur.sk