A First Impression Review of the CFAR NY Workshop

UPDATE: This review is old. My revised take is here.

I'm writing this on the train on my way back from the Center for Applied Rationality's workshop in Ossining, NY, a little less than an hour north of the city. Because I was wondering what to do and my brain wanted to do this instead of just reading. So that's a good sign.

Please bear in mind that this is just a first impression and that I am likely to change my mind about both both the good and the bad over the next few months. If you read this and a lot of time has passed, feel free to contact me directly to find out what I think then.

I went to the equivalent workshop back in 2011, when the institution was still part of the Singularity Institute (now called the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, or MIRI), and was excited to see what had changed and improved as a result of CFAR's extensive testing and iteration. I was hoping the training would resemble the Jeffreyssai stories much more than it did then.

My literal first and last impressions were actually pretty bad. I found out only a few weeks before the event that it wouldn't actually be in NYC like I'd thought but in much harder to get to Ossining, 45 minutes north of the city. (By contrast the site in Berkeley was within walking distance of a BART station.) Then about a week before the workshop I finally got the promised email with logistic information, which said there would be pickups provided at the Ossining train station. Amtrak only goes to the nearby Croton-Harmon station, and I didn't want to go all the way across Manhattan to transfer to the Metro-North commuter train that does go to Ossining, so I asked if they could pick me up from there. It's a lot closer than the airports they promised pickup from, so I figured this would be a reasonable request. No response. A few days later I got an email asking me to fill out a survey, which also asked what my transportation situation was. Again I asked about pickup from Croton-Harmon. Again no response, though I did get another email asking me to fill out the survey. Finally, the day before the workshop, I sent another email asking what was going on, and got a response that they had gotten my survey answer and also could pick me up from the Croton-Harmon station, and to send a text message when I arrived.

When I got to the station, I sent the text message, and got a response saying wait 30-45 minutes and they'd be able to pick me up. Half an hour later I got a text that said "Here now. In parking lot. Where are you?" I was looking at the parking lot. After a few confused texts back and forth, I called and it turned out that they were at Ossining, not Croton-Harmon where I was, the shuttle was full, and they wouldn't be able to pick me up. They said they had lost a driver and might not be able to come back soon. They suggested I try to get a cab. ... At least they reimbursed me for that one, and at the end of the workshop they told me with a bit more warning that I had no ride (but no reimbursement). But you'd really hope people running a workshop on cognitive bias would know to make sure the first and last parts of the experience are extra good.

Whining aside, things were better once I finally got there. We were busy pretty much all day for four days straight and in nearly every session I got either a technique I'm excited about applying to my life, or a major insight about a skill I need to develop. I really want to do some goal factoring to figure out if my current behavior is well suited to the goals it is trying to satisfy or whether there's a more efficient or effective solution is be happy with, aversion modeling to figure out why I'm not doing things I think I want to do, offline habit training to"practice" a new habit with the power of imagination,, urge propagation to build positive urges to do things that accomplish outcomes I like, value of information calculations to learn when I should spend resources on gaining information to optimize my life, build an emotional library to gain control over my emotions, and practice moving between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system modes.

I also learned that I don't have a good memory for the bodily sensations associated with my emotions, so I'll need to practice that. And I dissolved some confusion around long term planning, when I realized that my goals were actually a bunch of different things: urges/desires, behaviors, plans, and preferences about future world states.

Now for the bad stuff, especially by comparison to the Singularity Institute minicamp in 2011 - these core epistemic rationality issues were not covered much if at all:

  • Noticing confusion
  • Noticing rationalization or motivated cognition
  • Doing literature research effectively in order to use existing scientific knowledge
  • Becoming curious and noticing curiosity, and what to do when you're curious about a factual question (gather data, ask an expert, review the literature, etc)
  • How to change your mind
  • Why and how to "stick your neck out" and make testable predictions (though there were prediction markets, which was great).
  • The relationship between beliefs and anticipation - making beliefs pay rent (though there was a related instrumental rationality segment called "internal simulator")

This felt like a rational self-improvement workshop, not a rationality workshop. To be fair, the epistemic rationality segments in 2011 were the worst segments - I agreed with the content but didn't learn any skills. But the thing to do in make it better, not drop it entirely!

A lesser disappointment was that nearly everything was in a "class" format, except for Comfort Zone Expansion, or CoZE, where we went out separately to practice with little accountability or real-time feedback. Some of the units made sense this way, but for example there should have been drills in Being Specific, and sticking your neck out, exposing yourself to the possibility of being wrong, since many participants seemed to lack that skill on the 5-second level. And in a lot of other areas I would have benefited from paired practice out something else that would have put me on the spot and forced me to execute one step from a technique.

Most of the classes focused on a single technique, and were specific about what situations the techniques were for. I loved this level of specificity and it made the knowledge feel more genuinely procedural and usable. But for a few of the classes, it took a while to figure out exactly which techniques were applicable to which problems, because the techniques' intended results were often described vaguely. For example, a class on how to develop habits turned out to be a class on how to develop a tendency to remember to do something, when there wasn't an aversion stopping you. (Whereas I'd figured at first, not unreasonably I think, that a habit is just a regularly repeated behavior.) In one case there was the opposite problem - the technique was so universal and high-level that it seemed difficult to translate it into specific actions.

All in all, it was a very fun experience, and I think it will turn out to have been well worth my time. The instructors were great, the missing pieces were mostly things I already had, and I think what I learned we'll make me much more effective.

The workshop also comes with 6 follow-up sessions via Skype, which is a great idea; one of the best things about the minicamp in 2011 was the follow-ups the participants did with each other. I'm really looking forward to that too.

4 thoughts on “A First Impression Review of the CFAR NY Workshop

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