High Summer

We are up here, blowing in the cold wind on the warmest day of the year, by our own hands.

Abolishing disease is great, something to celebrate cerebrally. But today, we’re speaking to the lizard brain: look around, make a call, and leave a message:

We build mountains!

We don’t always live up to our potential. But if you ever doubt our potential, remember this. We are the ones who build mountains.

-excerpts from my plans for a speech for High Summer

Welcome back to my blog, now moved to a dedicated site for a renewed focus on holiday crafting and secular, individualist, rationalist ritual.

My next plan is a slightly refined older design I never tested out: High Summer. In line with the wheel of the year schema, this belongs in mid-August, when Celts had Luggasnadh. Its message is the potential of humanity, as we have already demonstrated it, and a reminder of what we are capable of in the future. Its expected emotion is awe. Its medium for those is simple: feel the wind on your face from a tall, open-air place, one that is entirely man-made. Notice and remember, viscerally, that we have built mountains.

I am actively looking for a location in the middle Bay (SF/Oakland, presumably) to host this. The SF POPOS law says that all the rooftop decks should be free to the public for this kind of purpose, but it’s not enforced at all so I’ll probably have to pay money for it. I probably don’t need more than a couple other people to run the event, but a couple would probably be very helpful.

Ritual of Kith

Not all rituals should be holidays. Some should commemorate important one-time events. Marriage is an existing ritual, and one which we seem to have worked out a pretty decent secular variant of. Historically, many societies also had one for adoption; this is not something we have a worked example of in modern society.

These are also both special cases of a more general schema: ritual for acknowledging someone as family. Historically, this was very important, since a lot of social safety net was built on the family (and the rest was usually built on the parish church). Rituals like this are very useful, because it’s not enough to recognize someone as family, you also have to establish common knowledge in your community that you have recognized them as family. It is/was expected that family came before the rest of the community, unless your community member’s needs were much, much greater. It was a explanation and excuse for what would otherwise be considered unfair partiality, and if that common knowledge was in place, it avoided the appearance that the unfair partiality was motivated by personal grudges or vitriol.

So this seems like an excellent ritual we should have. However: copying the idea across naively, it fails as individualist ritual. Acknowledging family tends to move the local culture towards thinking of families as units, and that is unacceptably anti-individualist. What we need is something related, but different. Not a ritual marking someone as kin… but, perhaps, one marking someone as kith. In the sense suggested to modern ears by the phrase “kith and kin”; this sounds like it means the people who are as important as kin/family, but who are not family. (This is not what the word meant historically, but absent a better term, I don’t see any reason to let that get in the way of a good name.)

This overlaps substantially with polyamory; many people with multiple partners will have something more family-like with some, especially if there are kids, but remain commensurably close to their other partners. But, and this is very important, that is not transitive. If I am dating Alice and have been for years, and Alice is also dating Bob and has been for years, this does not mean I am kith with Bob. Generally it means I can at least get along with Bob at the kitchen table, or else there would be strain on Alice’s relationships, but who Alice considers her ‘inner circle’ is entirely her own business. It becomes my business only to the extent that this creates conflict, conflict that either I or Alice finds more intolerable than the prospect of ending our close relationship.

I do not have a design for this ritual, yet. But I do have other desiderata:

  • It has to be costly in some sense. Someone who declares five hundred people part of their kith has devalued the label to the point of uselessness, and damaged the viability of the label for others. A tentative way to do this is for the ritual to require the physical presence of your existing kith, or at least most of them; this both scales superlinearly in difficulty, and makes it very obvious to all observers, including your own, that this is getting a little out of hand.
  • It has to be public in some sense. At minimum, anyone in your kith’s kith should know, and ideally it should be something that polite gossip spreads. This might be possible to fudge with a website that declares a register of kith declarations. (This has some aesthetic similarities to Reciprocity.IO’s role as a conditional-disclosure hangout/dating interest accumulator. Reciprocity is not online at time of writing but a replacement is currently semi-public.) Less-fudged would be to allow (but not require) the broader community to be in the audience for the ritual.
  • It should be symmetrical. If there is an ostensibly-permissible asymmetric variant, but also an official or unofficial symmetric one, the symmetric one will be commonly-used, and social pressure will almost certainly push heavily for the asymmetric variant to go unused as ‘rude’. If this is true, it would be better for the ‘de jure‘ variant which is socially-banned to not exist, because it is largely a lie. And that’s probably true, and asymmetric variant a minority demand, so let’s skip the intermediate steps.
  • It must be reversible, but this has to be even more costly. If we provide pseudo-marriage, we must provide pseudo-divorce; covenant marriage is extremely anti-individualist and therefore unacceptable. No-fault dekithing is preferable, but it might be acceptable to settle for a model where an offense is needed as reason, though the bar must not be as high as it was for divorce before no-fault divorce became the norm.

Variants we might want to support:

  • Temporary declarations. Several people in the rationalist community have made use of handfasting, commitments to behave as married for a specified duration (typically a year and a day), and in some cases repeated that some number of times and then formalizing their relationship as a marriage. These have been, maybe counterintuitively, among the marriage-like relationships with the best track record for sticking together long-term, so there seems to be something valuable there.
  • Mutual declarations by groups of more than two people. It may make sense to have these be formally designated ‘kin’ relationships, since it is a mutual agreement by a group of people to treat each other as an inseparable unit. For an anonymized real example, two married bioparents and their roommate, who has been coparenting the married couple’s biokid. They determine that the kid would be traumatized as much by losing the coparent as either bioparent and therefore formalize this as a family unit. This took the form of a public statement on social media making clear their wishes in the event of something happening to the bioparents in regards to custody of the kid, which worked pretty well. But formalizing a mechanism for this seems desirable, and the informal method doesn’t work if there isn’t a kid.

Unfinished Thought: Walking Back Opposition to Authentic Relating et al.

Epistemic Status: Better thought-through than previous things I’d written on the subject. Still very fuzzy and iffy. Being kicked out of my drafts folder after about 3 years.

As anyone who reads this blog is probably aware, I have had some vehement, public disagreements about community norms, Circling(/Authentic Relating) and how much to distrust status instincts. I had an extended conversation about that whole cluster with Divia Eden at a dinner party some time ago, and concluded that at least a substantial part of my motivation was poorly-grounded, causing me to significantly underestimate the costs of my preferred approach.

The crucial point is that if you ditch the goal of these projects as “useless if not actively bad“, as I had done, you should expect to get gut-level motivation weakening and falling out of step with intellectual motivation. Particularly, going too far in that direction is like to produce very intelligent, dedicated, completely depressed and lumpen people. We have so many of those hanging around the Berkeley rationalist cluster that the specific subset who are transwomen acquired a collective name (together with a couple extra traits): “catgirls”.

A Testable Prediction has been made, in Accordance with The Law. Behold! The test came back positive. We do need something in this genre, or we will, directly, fall into this failure mode. However, I still think that most practitioners here are Not Paranoid Enough. More care is needed in how we align intellectual priorities with internal felt priorities and, ideally, with socially-shared priorities. This is necessary, but it is very, very easy to get wrong.

So we need something better planned. We need the Bardic Conspiracy

Ritual Inception

What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.

— Dom Cobb, Inception

EAMES: We tried it. Got the idea in place, but it didn’t take.
COBB: You didn’t plant it deep enough?
EAMES: It’s not just about depth. You need the simplest version of the idea-the one that will grow naturally in the subject’s mind. Subtle art.

Inception, shooting script

Making a ritual or holiday is very much like performing inception. The nature of ritual is to smuggle an idea past most conscious filters, sticking it straight into your audience’s aliefs. As in the movie, once it’s in place you have very little control over it; it is very difficult to displace, and it may have large unintended consequences. (The movie depicts this through the character of Mal.)

Also like inception, the difficulty of imparting the idea scales very quickly with the complexity.

Aligning your aliefs with your beliefs is hard[Citation Needed]. So ritual can be very valuable! But for the same reasons it’s effective, ritual used carelessly can misalign your aliefs severely, and you may not even notice the problem. Because unlike in the movie, a misfired ritual will not pursue you through your dreams with murderous intent. It will just be a new cognitive bias you have acquired, and noticing your own biases is hard.

This is why I am extremely careful in my ritual design, to the point of taking years to actually iterate. Because failure is not necessarily recoverable.

A General Theory of Bigness and Badness

So, a glib take you’ve probably heard is that the problem with Big Government, Big Business, Big Etc. is not the government or the business or the etc. but the “Big”. This is extremely superficial and is essentially elevating a trivial idiosyncrasy of the English language to an important structural principle of the universe, which makes about as much sense as nominative determinism. I think it’s true anyway. Here is my theory of why:

Large groups of people are increasingly hard to coordinate. Getting a group of one person to be value-aligned with itself is literally trivial, 4 people is easy, 12 people is doable for fairly complex values, 50 gets difficult, etc. For a very large organization getting the whole org focused on a complex, nuanced goal is basically impossible.

So the larger an organization gets, the more its de facto goals become simplified, even if it keeps paying lip service to nuanced goals. Theoretically it should be possible to keep nuanced goals at a large scale, but it would take more and more effort per person as you get bigger, and I suspect it would reach “you must spend 110% of your time working on tasks to keep yourself value-aligned”, i.e. impossible-in-practice, somewhere in the 150-1000 employees range.

So that’s part one of the theory: goals get simplified and nuance disappears as the organizations get bigger. By itself this is sufficient to strongly suggest that big organizations are bad in and of themselves. But there are some corollaries which make the case stronger.

Corollary the first: Flatness of hierarchy does matter. The deeper the hierarchy, the more large sub-organizations exist within the large parent organization. The same forces that push the parent org to have a simple goal push each sub-org to have a simple goal. This can explain the rampant bureaucratic infighting in large hierarchical organizations; each sub-org is following its default goal and those come into conflict. This is approximately the Hanlon’s Razor (“Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence”) analog of  The Gervais Principle.

Corollary the second: “Big” may not imply “evil” but it does forbid “good”. Only simple goals are sustainable for large orgs. But not all simple goals are equally “reproductively fit”. For for-profit companies the most reproductively fit goal is “make a profit”. For political parties it’s “get (re)elected”. For bureaucracies it’s “maintain/expand our budget”. For charities…probably it’s “keep our incoming donations high”, but I’m not confident in that. The bigger the organization, the harder it is for well-intentioned members, even well-intentioned leaders (CEO Larry Page and and President Sergey Brin, President Barack Obama, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, …) to keep the organization out of the “low-energy well” that is the default self-perpetuation goal. Organizations which are kept on task for an unselfish core goal will do poorly relative to their peers and tend to die out.

In summary: No manager could possibly keep a large organization on target for a complex goal, and attempting to keep a large org on target for a simple but unselfish goal will rapidly kill the organization. This applies fractally to sub-organizations and super-organizations.

Does this teach us lessons about what to do? Well, it cautions us against trusting that large organizations consisting of benevolent people will act benevolently. It makes me somewhat more skeptical of OpenAI. But nothing specific, no.

Individualism and Holidays

It’s pretty unlikely that anyone’s following my blog and not the much superior blog of Sarah Constantin. But if you are, take a read of her most recent post, In Defense of Individualist Culture.

I care very much about protecting individualism, and I think this clarified a couple things for me. One, this is at root of much of my objection to ritual and other holidays; they are not religious, but they are still usually anti-individualist in form if not in content, and I think that’s where most (70%?) of the danger of religion actually lies. Two, why I have a strong, visceral “Enemy!” response to David Chapman’s Meaningness and other pieces of postrationalist thought that descend from it.

While I’m on the holiday topic: I have let this project lapse quite a lot, and have moved to the South Bay where it’s harder to work on. I do have ideas for an August holiday and some next steps (look for tall buildings with rentable open-air access high up), though, so I’m going to give it a shot. (I’m also on the list of potential Winter Solstice organizers, but that’s not my call.)

Holidaying: An Update

As described in Points Deepen Valence, I’ve been contemplating and experimenting with holiday design. Here’s how it’s going:

I ran a Day of Warmth at a friend’s apartment (on the weekend after Valentine’s Day), and it went fairly well.
Good points: a ritualistic quasi-silence was very powerful, and could probably go longer. The simple notion of it being a holiday, rather than a party, does something to intensify the experience. Physical closeness and sharing the taste and smell of food were, as hoped, good emotional anchors. Instinctual reactions about what will be well-received, based on initial gut impression, seem to be pretty accurate.
Bad points: a loosely planned event is not immune, or even resistant, to the old adage that no plan survives contact with the enemy (or in this case audience and participants). I tried to have a small handful of anchors and improvise within them, since the event was small, but without planning problems came up faster and more wide-ranging than I expected. The anchors went off alright, but not as planned; everything between them required more constant thought than desired. Breaking bread, without clear parameters on the bread, did not work well physically. And the close-knit atmosphere of comfort desired was not actually compatible with the intended purpose of deepening shallow friendships.
(A longer-form postmortem is here.)

My initial idea for the Vernal Equinox was a mental spring cleaning, Tarski Day. I haven’t been able to find buy-in to help me get it together, and this month’s weekends are actually very crowded already, so I won’t be doing that. Instead, I’ve been researching other ritual and holiday designs to crib off, and looking for events to observe. One group I’ve been looking at is the Atheopagans, who use the “traditional” pagan framework of the wheel of the year without any spiritual beliefs underlying it. I don’t empathize much with the ‘respect for the earth’ thing, personally, but cribbing off their notes (and how that blogger, specifically, modified holidays for the California climate) is valuable data. He also wrote this document on designing rituals, including some points I agree with and can take advice to include, and some I dislike and consider to carry the downsides of religious practice, to avoid.

There are also the connected “Humanistic Pagans”, and a description of the physical significance of the eight point year (Solstices, Equinoxes, Thermstices and Equitherms) here. It also includes some consequences of the interlocking light/dark and hot/cold cycles for what activities and celebrations are seasonally appropriate, which is food for thought.

I’m not sure where I’m going from here. After the Spring Equinox comes the Spring Equitherm, aka Beltane, which in many traditions and by the plenty/optimism vs. scarcity/pessimism axis, to be naturally a hedonistic holiday. I am not a hedonist by nature, so while I’m sure I could find friends who would be happy to have a ritualistic orgy and/or general bacchanalia, I’m not sure I’d want to attend, which somewhat defeats the personal purpose of learning holiday design. But I don’t want to leave a four-month gap in my feedback loop between now and the Summer Solstice. I suppose I’ll keep you posted.

Points Deepen Valence: Ideas for Seasonal Celebrations in the Rationalist Community

I have been thinking again about the Eight-Point Year in the context of designing community celebrations for the rationalist community. Almost all knowledge of traditional pagan religion was totally lost before modern pagans even started constructing their ritual calendar, so they effectively built their celebratory calendar from scratch. And they’ve had a lot of success, so it seems to me that we should use their example to build our calendar out from the winter Secular Solstice.

The basic formula for a seasonal celebration in this template is to embody the attributes of the opposite season, in a celebratory way. Celebrate light in the darkness on the darkest night of the year; celebrate the fading of the light on the sunset of the longest day. Creative destruction, making room for the new, at the beginning of spring growth; show what you have made, built, and beautified at harvest time. These themes show up not just in pagan ritual, but also in many seasonal religious holidays and traditional practices; harvest festivals with art are traditional across Europe and beyond, and festivals of light in the early winter are common worldwide. So how can we build our own practices to fit? Let’s walk around the calendar.

Winter: Brighter Night

We’ve got this one covered already, with many variations. Personally, I think that the SF version, with a choir and speeches, is most appropriate to the time of year, but I prefer the aesthetics of the Catholic Midnight Mass to the singalong style envisioned by Ray Arnold for the original and many of the splinters. In any case, the lighting, snuffing, and relighting of candles, to symbolize the darkness of the world and how we can bring light to it, is genius and the core of this celebration’s resonance. If you have that, you can probably tailor a lot without losing much.

Note on naming: As we expand the calendar, ‘Secular Solstice’ may cease to be a distinguishing name for the winter celebration. I’d suggest ‘Secular Solstice: Brighter Night’; Secular Solstice to distinguish it from pagan Solstice and Brighter Night to distinguish it from other times of year.

Winter/Spring: Day of Warmth

Around February 4th, this is the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. It is the coldest part of the year, and should be a celebration of literal and metaphorical warmth. The most natural expression, in my opinion, is a explicitly community-focused event. Baking together, huddling in a cuddlepile, enjoying each other’s company and celebrating that we have found people to share the time with. This may be a more intimate gathering by nature than the larger Winter Solstices, but that doesn’t seem necessary; possibly a larger gathering on a Saturday or a Friday night, and a tradition of smaller intimate gatherings across the rest of the weekend, would be most fitting. Excellent venues for this would be a cabin or hall in the mountains, or a gathering outside in chill air near a warm building to return to. Broader ideas for variations might replace baking with cooking in general, and given the tendencies of our community some intimate gatherings could celebrate physical intimacy in the form of orgies.

Assuming there is a large gathering, this might be some resolution to some recent debates about children at Solstice; Solstice/Brighter Night could be more solemn and ‘keep your children from interrupting’, like a Mass or Jewish High Holidays, and the Day of Warmth could be very explicitly inclusive and accepting of children and their energy and noise. (Note: I strongly discourage inviting children to an orgy.)

Spring: Tarski Day

Spring is marked by spring cleaning, by Christians the celebration of the perfection of the world through a symbolic death, and by Jews the growth of the Jewish people to cover Israel from the destruction and pain in Egypt. For the rationalist community, a great celebration is growth through being wrong and correcting our mistakes. Thus, Tarski Day, from the Litany of Tarski:

If the sky is blue,
I desire to believe that the sky is blue;
If the sky is not blue,
I desire to believe that the sky is not blue;
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

This is a time to gather and celebrate the errors you have corrected and ones you can correct now. Recalculate cached thoughts, search for crony beliefs to evict, and socially reward people who do. A good celebration might involve a hat full of slips of paper with topics to think about, and the group picking out random topics to find beliefs they haven’t checked recently. If you think you should undergo Jeffreysai’s Ritual of the Empty Room, well, you should probably do it immediately, but if you want to schedule a Schelling time to do it, this would be appropriate.

Spring/Summer: Hedonism?

May 4th, the midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice, is Star Wars Day, and also the wettest time of the year… in some climates. It’s the driest in others, though, so I depart from Sonata Green’s axes to describe this one. I would describe this distinction as, for lack of a better word, optimism vs. pessimism; at the spring-summer cross-point, things are growing and looking up; at the fall-winter point, they are headed toward the lean times. So the spring/summer celebration should perhaps be described “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” Have a raucous party (or as raucous as you get; frankly I might pass on this particular party). Recognize that sometimes, life is short, and we should fill it with life while we can. (If you enjoy exotic altered states, this would be a good time for it.)

Summer: Sunset of Civilization

Almost all midsummer celebrations take place the night before the day in question, whether that is the actual solstice, St. John’s Day, or another day around that time. (The closest Jewish analogue, Lag Ba’Omer, usually falls 30-60 days early.) Traditional celebrations tend to be joyous but also to commemorate the delicacy of the world, thankfulness that it has been preserved through another year, and hope that it will be protected from dragons, demons, witches, etc. A good theme might be the celebration of society humanity has built, but with awareness of all the times it could have been easily destroyed, and the ways it still could be. Bonfires and evoking ghost stories seem like excellent ways for this to manifest. The natural progression would seem to be starting the celebration before sunset with a focus on celebration of civilization, and letting the Sunset of Civilization proceed to the scary stories portion of the evening as the sun falls and the air gets colder.

Summer/Fall: ???

This day, around August 4th, ought to be a memorial for cold during a hot time. I’m not sure what this ought to do. My personal inclination might be to scale mountains or visit the roofs of tall buildings and stand in the wind, marveling at the magnificence and scale of the world and what we’ve built in it. I don’t think that makes a great community celebration, but maybe there is a place for a shared but solitary celebration. (Also I found that climbing high places is a somewhat traditional celebration of Lughnasadh, the August 1st holiday in the Celtic Pagan tradition.)

Fall: Day of Achievement

Fall celebrations are harvest festivals and parties of crafts. From Halloween to Sukkot to Vendimia, creating and decorating are common. This would be an excellent time to teach, create, share skills and demonstrate them, and generally celebrate excellence and foster it in our friends. If you want to test how well you can explain a useful new mental move or share the understanding you have gained over a new mathematical field, if you have greatly improved as a dancer or want to take up watercolors, if you want to practice improv or show off a well-carved jack-o-lantern, this is the day to do it. Specific traditions for this day: Over the course of the year, make notes of times people express that they don’t have a skill yet (growth mindset); when the Day of Achievement comes around, remind them that ‘yet’ may mean today, and encourage them to learn. This is an excellent celebration to open to anyone from any community; skills are for sharing, and if we believe truth and skill support us, then sharing them is, to paraphrase Methods, offering them a part of our own power, gambling that they can’t use it without becoming more like us.

Fall/Winter: Prepper’s Day

This cross-point falls around November 4th, and in balance to the optimism I suggested is characteristic of the spring/summer point, this is a pessimistic season. To properly honor it, Prepper’s Day should be using the bounty of our lives to prepare for lean times and tail risks. If the infrastructure gives out, a storm or earthquake blocks the roads that bring the bounty of trade to our doors, or a new Depression hits our wallets and communities, it would be good to have prepared. To remember the things we have built and could lose, I suggest listening to Landsailor. Other preparation might include sharing security tools and building a web of trust to guard against losing the bounty of trustworthy open internet.

 

And that brings us back around to Winter again. This doesn’t include other specific days; Petrov Day just after the Fall Equinox, July 4th, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day. I might also include holidays for regular intervals in the count of seconds since the beginning of the Unix Epoch, in the spirit that we will not remain Earthbound forever and so neither should our marking of time.