Thoughts on the REACH Patreon

I moved from NY to the Bay sev­eral months ago.

In many senses, the Berke­ley com­munity is much big­ger than NYC. There’s a few hun­dred mem­bers in­stead of around 30. I had sev­eral friends in the Bay be­fore mov­ing here, and have made more since ar­riv­ing.

But, it didn’t ac­tu­ally feel like home to me un­til a couple weeks ago, at one of the weekly meetups at the new com­munity cen­ter.

These are my thoughts about the REACH (Ra­tion­al­ity and Ef­fect­ive Al­tru­ism Com­munity Hub) space, and what con­sid­er­a­tions I think are rel­ev­ant for fund­ing it. It has a Patreon which is cur­rently hit­ting the “juuust enough money that it might pos­sibly work so long as other things go right” threshold. But it doesn’t really have enough fund­ing to re­li­ably break even, let alone thrive.

tldr: I think there are lot of reas­ons you might want to help fund REACH, both from an ef­fect­ive al­tru­ism per­spect­ive, and from a “just buy some nice things for your­self” per­spect­ive.

...

Epistemic Status: I’m pretty biased in fa­vor of REACH, and much of my reas­on­ing was at least a bit mo­tiv­ated. I ex­pect to make a lot of use of the in­fra­struc­ture there, so my thoughts here are a bit self-serving.

I’ve at­temp­ted to ac­count for this in my writ­ing of this, and am still fairly con­fid­ent that there’s some­thing im­port­ant go­ing on here.

...

Table of Contents

  1. Ray’s Opin­ion­ated Con­cep­tion of Meetups

  2. Mech­an­ics of Berke­ley Meetup Brain Drain

  3. Enter REACH

  4. Frame­works of Funding

    1. Buy­ing Nice Th­ings vs Ef­fect­ive Altruism

    2. Nice Th­ings and Homemade Prices

    3. Okay, but is this the right nice thing?

    4. The Case for Impact

  5. Meas­ur­ing Intangibles

    1. Agency Ladder

    2. Water Cool­ers and Campuses

  6. Match­ing Funds

  7. In Clos­ing...

Ray’s Opin­ion­ated Con­cep­tion of Meetups

In NYC, meetup means “someone runs an hour long present­a­tion, mod­er­ated dis­cus­sion or work­shop.” Every week, you can show up to a pub­lic meetup. There will be con­tent to learn or prac­tice, and people you can hangout with. It’s struc­tured such that if you’re shy, or if not as many good con­ver­sa­tion­al­ists show up that week, or if you just prefer struc­ture, there’s some­thing to learn and en­gage you.

Mean­while, if you care more about hanging out with the reg­u­lars than listen­ing to a talk, you’re free to just ar­rive later in the even­ing.

Moreover, there’s a palp­able sense that this is a com­munity, more than a circle of friends. There’s a so­cial en­tity greater than the sum of its parts, and there’s a way for new­comers to get in­volved.

I think the nearby San Fran­cisco and South Bay Com­munit­ies have meetups closer to that format (I haven’t been yet), but in Berke­ley, meetups gen­er­ally take the form of free­form so­cial­iz­a­tion.

And on one hand, in NYC the free­form so­cial­iz­ing is very much the point. Hanging out and mak­ing friends is the valu­able part, moreso than the present­a­tion or work­shop. But the present­a­tion/​work­shop is what gives that con­ver­sa­tion en­ergy and a sense of cul­ture/​pur­pose.

In Berke­ley, there’s a weird com­bin­a­tion of cir­cum­stances where there’s lots of con­tent-driven so­cial events hap­pen­ing, but much of that con­tent is hap­pen­ing in hard-to-find silos. Oc­ca­sional big tent­pole events like Sol­stice or EA Global hap­pen, you might come to Berke­ley at that time and get ex­cited but then a few weeks later you’re look­ing around and think­ing “okay… what next…?”.

NY LessWrong is a small com­munity. Berke­ley Ra­tion­al­ity/​EA is like a vil­lage. You’ll walk to the deli and run into a ra­tion­al­ist on the way. There’s roughly a dun­bar num­ber of people in­ter­act­ing, and if you get your­self so­cially net­worked in it feels quite thriv­ing. But if you’re not net­worked in, you have this weird sense that some­thing is hap­pen­ing but you can’t tell where.

If you’re on out­side, this may look like weird so­cial games and pop­ular­ity con­tests. Not gonna lie – I think it’s at least a bit of that. But I think a lot of it is just be­ing stuck in a par­tic­u­lar equi­lib­rium, and if we all co­ordin­ated to build some in­fra­struc­ture (phys­ical and so­cial) we could get to a much bet­ter one.

Mech­an­ics of Berke­ley Meetup Brain Drain

Com­pet­ing Opportunities

In NYC, if you’re an agenty ra­tion­al­ist who wants to con­trib­ute to the com­munity, there’s only one ob­vi­ous place to put your en­ergy: the meetup it­self, much of which is pub­lic fa­cing.

In Berke­ley, there’s a host of or­gan­iz­a­tions you can vo­lun­teer at, fo­cused on ra­tion­al­ity train­ing, x-risk, ef­fect­ive al­tru­ism re­search, star­tups, and all kinds of small-to-me­dium pro­jects.

Or­gan­iz­ing meetups is hard, skilled labor. If you’re the sort of per­son who’s will­ing to put in the ef­fort, there’s a long list of com­pet­ing things, each of which make a cred­ible case for be­ing im­port­ant and re­ward­ing.

On the flip­side: if you’ve just ar­rived and you’re not so­cially con­nec­ted, it may take longer to find those com­pet­ing op­por­tun­it­ies. The pub­lic-fa­cing com­munity dearth is an ob­vi­ous thing to fo­cus on. But if you do, you’ll likely find in the pro­cess of do­ing so that you’ll gain con­fid­ence and skills, and you’ll meet people work­ing on other pro­jects.

Soon after, you may have a cluster of friends who you know well, who are in­ter­ested in the things you’re in­ter­ested in. I know a couple people who briefly tried or­gan­iz­ing meetups and then found there were other things that felt more ex­cit­ing to them.

Public meetups tend to be a grab bag of people with vary­ing in­terests. Even just show­ing up once a week is some­thing that com­petes with hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with room­mates and friends and cowork­ers, whose in­terests may more dir­ectly re­late to your own.

Mo­tiv­a­tions and So­cial Pressures

It seems like the only people who fo­cus on it are those in­trins­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated to wel­come new­comers into the fold. And not only is that rare, but vari­ous things subtly pun­ish that. The so­cial fab­ric re­wards people who can tell an ex­cit­ing story about how what they’re do­ing is Sav­ing The World some­how, and “I’m mak­ing this a nice home to help new­comers” is a bit harder to do that with.

Mean­while the ra­tion­al­ity com­munity at­tracts the sort of per­son who is… well… slightly so­cially and en­vir­on­ment­ally ob­li­vi­ous some­times, which makes it less in­trins­ic­ally re­ward­ing to provide a com­munity hub. The people who show up are smart and friendly but per­haps less likely to help take out the trash, which can add an­other layer of frus­tra­tion.

So, year by year, you have a com­munity of 300 people that some­how has no high qual­ity pub­lic-fa­cing way to get in­volved.

I think this is a prob­lem worth co­ordin­at­ing on, but it’s a prob­lem that has to ac­tu­ally be solved while real­ist­ic­ally ac­cept­ing the people’s in­cent­ives and goals.

Right now we have a rare con­flu­ence of per­sonal mo­tiv­a­tion, real es­tate and… for lack of a bet­ter word “com­munity ma­gic”, that makes me feel more op­tim­istic that this prob­lem is solv­able.

Enter REACH

For the past year or so, Sarah has been ex­plor­ing op­tions for a com­munity cen­ter in Berke­ley.

This is some­thing I’ve heard vari­ous people talk about for while. Some group houses as­pire to be com­munity cen­ter-esque things, but run into is­sues like “the people in the house ac­tu­ally want to live their lives which some­times means they don’t feel like host­ing trav­el­ers or meetups.”

The CFAR of­fice has made some ef­fort to be this. But it’s not really op­tim­iz­ing for it, and the build­ing’s se­cur­ity sys­tem cre­ates a bizarre set of trivial in­con­veni­ences you have to over­come to get in. (lit­eral bar­ri­ers to entry :P)

(This seems like it shouldn’t mat­ter, but totally mat­ters). It’s also a bit out of the way if you live in south­ern Berke­ley.

The prob­lem is, com­munity cen­ters re­quire lots of star­tup cap­ital, and it’s a vague en­deavor with fuzzy be­ne­fits that aren’t ob­vi­ously worth $60,000+ a year.

But Sarah said “this seems im­port­ant enough to just do it,” spent a bunch of her own money rent­ing out a cafe near an ex­ist­ing ra­tion­al­ist house, and hoped the pro­ject would prove it’s value. The Ra­tion­al­ity and Ef­fect­ive Al­tru­ism Com­munity Hub (REACH) was born.

There’s a list of of­fi­cial things REACH is aim­ing to provide a space for:

  • Weekly meetups

  • Vari­ous events that range from “so­cial/​com­munity” to “in­tel­lec­tual/​growth”

  • Coworking

  • Cheap beds for out-of-town ra­tion­al­ist/​ea trav­el­ers vis­it­ing berkeley

  • Classes or activ­it­ies for kids to help the grow­ing num­ber of par­ents in the community

  • Space and sup­port for help­ing people in the com­munity brain­storm about and start new endeavors

On pa­per, these look po­ten­tially valu­able, but I think a reas­on­able per­son might be skep­tical you can ac­tu­ally achieve them.

I’m ex­cited about REACH be­cause I’ve been to the weekly meetups, and… got a deep sense that the place felt like home.

I ad­mit I’m a bit biased here – there was a bunch of nos­tal­gia feed­ing into my ex­per­i­ence and I’m not sure how uni­ver­sal it is. But… fi­nally, there was an ac­tual god damn meetup – a work­shop run by a com­munity mem­ber (we were prac­ti­cing Gend­lin’s Fo­cus­ing), a dozen people help­ing each other learn a tech­nique and nav­ig­at­ing our in­ternal emo­tional blocks. And af­ter­wards, free­form dis­cus­sion, people boun­cing ideas around.

A couple weeks later I went to a second meetup, just as vi­brant, twice as many people, run by a dif­fer­ent com­munity mem­ber. And I got a strong sense that there’s a sur­plus of pent-up or­gan­iz­a­tional en­ergy in Berke­ley – lots of people who would totally step up to run events if they were given the af­ford­ance to.

Mean­while, per­haps most im­port­antly, were people in the af­ter­math boun­cing ideas around, dis­cuss­ing their pro­jects, think­ing about how to col­lab­or­ate.

I think REACH has the po­ten­tial to solve the Public Meetup Brain Drain prob­lem, via:

  • Be­ing a ded­ic­ated space for it, loc­ated within walk­ing dis­tance of a large num­ber of ra­tion­al­ists, and a couple blocks from the Ashby BART sta­tion.

  • Hav­ing a ded­ic­ated per­son work­ing at least half-time on main­tain­ing the in­fra­struc­ture (both phys­ical, or­gan­iz­a­tional and so­cial) for meetups and other events to happen

  • Since the in­fra­struc­ture is already there, it’s much easier for new­comers to get in­volved, run a couple meetups, maybe help im­prove some of the un­der­ly­ing in­fra­struc­ture, and then (most likely) end up mov­ing on as they get in­volved with other or­gan­iz­a­tions in the Bay.

  • Mean­while, old-timers with ex­per­i­mental ideas have a venue to try them out, in a way that con­trib­utes to the pub­lic-fa­cing com­mons.

Frame­works of Funding

Rent­ing the REACH space is fairly ex­pens­ive. $60k+ is noth­ing to sneeze at. Should it be fun­ded? Who should fund it?

I think this is a le­git­im­ate ques­tion. What are reas­on­able frame­works for de­cid­ing whether and how to fund a com­munity space? I’m biased in fa­vor of the REACH cen­ter, but think it’s im­port­ant to get this ques­tion right.

Ben Hoff­man noted the haz­ards of for­cing people to sell a nar­rat­ive around im­pact in or­der to get fun­ded. It forces people to lie, or warp their vis­ion to sat­isfy a fun­der’s goals (or worse, warp it into an ab­om­in­a­tion try­ing to sat­isfy mul­tiple fun­ders goals, and in all like­li­hood fail­ing to sat­isfy any­one).

Ben also ar­gued that if you ad­voc­ate a strategy that in­cludes re­cruit­ing people to the Bay, you have an ob­lig­a­tion to ac­tu­ally take care of those people once they get here, and part of that in­cludes giv­ing hu­mans a space to be.

I think both these ar­gu­ments are im­port­ant. But aren’t quite the frame I’d ap­proach this with.

People spend money for dif­fer­ent reas­ons. I de­cided to frame this post as ad­vice I’d give to al­tern­ate ver­sions of my­self. People who shared my gen­eral val­ues, but might vary along axes like:

How much money do you have?

How well do you get along with the so­cial clusters that are most in­volved with REACH? (al­though note that dif­fer­ent events and cowork­ing days-of-week tend to at­tract dif­fer­ent people)

How of­ten do you visit Berke­ley?

How close do you live to REACH?

Would you be­ne­fit from a cowork­ing en­vir­on­ment?

Ef­fect­ive Al­tru­ism vs Pay­ing for Nice Things

There’s ba­sic­ally two reas­ons I’d per­son­ally give people money:

One reason is ef­fect­ive al­tru­ism – help­ing people as much as I can with the re­sources avail­able to me (this can in­clude in­vest­ing in my own fu­ture cap­ab­il­it­ies, or fund­ing pro­jects that seem like they will have good im­pacts even if it’s not ne­ces­sar­ily their mis­sion state­ment).

That’s great and all. But, much more com­mon than al­tru­ism is that I like hav­ing nice things.

So­me­times I just want to go see a movie. Or have a nice place to live. Or art sup­plies or video games. Get­ting these things in­volves pay­ing people.

Not­ably, hav­ing Nice Th­ings in­cludes buy­ing things for my friends be­cause they make me happy. It also in­cludes en­ga­ging in pos­it­ive sum trades, and one box­ing in New­comb-like-prob­lems so that people will re­li­ably model me as the sort of per­son they can trust with good op­por­tun­it­ies.

Both EA and NiceTh­ings per­spect­ives some­times in­volve sym­bolic value – do­ing small token things to re­mind people (or my­self!) what I care about. If I’m do­ing it right (which I don’t al­ways), the token is ob­vi­ously a token (i.e. not de­ceiv­ing my­self or oth­ers), but just as ob­vi­ously rep­res­ent­at­ive of some­thing real that will pay off later.

If I’m poor right now, I might donate small bits of money, to re­mind my­self that I’m the sort of per­son who will put his money where his mouth is, so that later on when I can af­ford it, I’m in the habit of ac­tu­ally do­ing that.

I think there’s an Ef­fect­ive Al­tru­ist case to be made for REACH. (I think you can make that case without con­tort­ing people into weird com­prom­ises over their vis­ion). But be­fore we get into the realm of EA, let’s just ask straight­for­wardly:

Does a com­munity cen­ter sound like some­thing you’d be­ne­fit from?

This is not a rhet­or­ical ques­tion. Maybe the an­swer is no. But if you would be­ne­fit from meetups, or cowork­ing, or peri­od­ic­ally get crash space in Berke­ley for cheap… maybe you and oth­ers should just pay for that be­cause it’s nice and you’d be­ne­fit from it.

This’d be harder (though not im­possible) in most cit­ies – even other places in the Bay, be­cause there are only so many ra­tion­al­ists and com­munity cen­ters are ex­pens­ive. But one of the uniquely prom­ising things about REACH is that it’s loc­ated within walk­ing dis­tance of a vil­lage-worth of ra­tion­al­ists and EA folk.

If you find your­self in a vil­lage, it’s quite reas­on­able to ask your­self “do I want my vil­lage to be a place with nice things?”. What sort of nice things would you like? How much are you will­ing to pay for them?

Nice Th­ings and Homemade Prices

Quoth Zvi:

What is the price of nice things? The first price, at­ten­tion to de­tail. The quest for nice things is a sac­red quest. Creation of them, even more so. It re­quires ef­fort, fo­cus, sac­ri­fice. You have to care.
Other­wise, we can’t have nice things. Be­cause you didn’t make them.

Quoth me, in more de­tail, in Melt­ing Gold:

It costs more to build some­thing your­self than to buy it fact­ory made. Th­ings you make your­self are of­ten able to be more unique and spe­cial than things mass-pro­duced by cap­it­al­ism. They can cater to niche in­terests without enough de­mand to de­velop mass pro­duc­tion.
“Homemade” may trig­ger bad as­so­ci­ations, be­cause there was a weird fol­lowup step where Cap­it­al­ism no­ticed that people had no­ticed that homemade things took more time and were worth more. And en­ter­pris­ing en­tre­pren­eurs saw free money and learned to slap a “homemade” la­bel on products for a quick buck.
Is an ar­tis­anal hand-craf­ted cof­fee mug really worth more than a mass pro­duced ver­sion on Amazon?
But… when the homemade thing is unique, when you lit­er­ally can’t get it any­where else, and you are get­ting im­port­ant so­cial or cul­tural value from it… then… well, if you want that thing, the only way to get it is to pay homemade prices for it.
You may not be able to pay for them with money. They are usu­ally labors of love. If there was enough de­mand for them for someone to do them full-time, you’d prob­ably be able to mass pro­duce them more cheaply any­way.
It’s un­likely the people mak­ing them could ac­tu­ally more eas­ily pro­duce them if they were paid more. Or, the amount of money would be dra­mat­ic­ally more than what seems ob­vi­ous. It’s not enough to cover costs. It has to be enough to quit your day job, and then not worry about quit­ting your day job turn­ing out to be a hor­rible idea.
This means if you want to pay for a rare, pre­cious thing that you want to keep ex­ist­ing, it is quite likely that the only ways to guar­an­tee its con­tin­ued ex­ist­ence is to put in sweat and sac­ri­fice. If things are well or­gan­ized it shouldn’t need to be a ma­jor sac­ri­fice, but it may mean ser­i­ous time and at­ten­tion that you were spend­ing on other things you cared about too.
I don’t mean to say any of this in a mor­al­iz­ing way. This is not an es­say about what you “should” do. This is just a de­scrip­tion of what is in fact ne­ces­sary for cer­tain things to hap­pen, if they are things that mat­ter to you.

Or, some­times, you just plain need both a lot of sweat and ef­fort and lit­eral dol­lars.

Local Charity

There’s a say­ing: “Char­ity starts at home.” Most people’s de­fault ori­ent­a­tion to al­tru­ism is “find nice pro­jects nearby that make me feel good and donate there.”

I don’t think this mode of al­tru­ism is wrong. But I think it’s been warped by the rise of mod­ern­ity. A mod­ern city has mil­lions of people nearby, and you don’t ac­tu­ally have more con­nec­tion to them than you do to drown­ing strangers in Africa or far-fu­ture-civil­iz­a­tions. Whereas in The Be­fore Times, the im­pulse to help people around you dir­ectly led to a world where you had more op­por­tun­it­ies, were more trus­ted or re­spec­ted by your peers, and felt more ful­filled.

Naive ap­plic­a­tion of tra­di­tional char­ity res­ults in a worst-of-both-worlds, where you aren’t really get­ting much out of it, and you aren’t help­ing people very well.

I think it’s very good that the ra­tional/​EA-sphere spends at­ten­tion on help­ing far away or fu­ture people, even if they won’t re­turn the fa­vor. Part of liv­ing in the present era can and should in­clude no­ti­cing that you have a lot of power, and the op­por­tun­ity to use that power to help people at scale.

But, while money is the unit of caring, there’s plenty of things to care about other than far away people.

Free­thinker-esque com­munit­ies don’t just have trouble co­oper­at­ing for grand al­tru­istic pro­jects. They struggle to co­oper­ate to just buy them­selves some god damn nice things.

I’m of the opin­ion people do not spend nearly enough money in­vest­ing in their own com­munit­ies.

How much is a com­munity cen­ter worth?

If I didn’t have a job, or were oth­er­wise strug­gling, I wouldn’t donate more than a token amount. I think it is far more im­port­ant to get your­self to a po­s­i­tion of abund­ance and strength, so that you can help people for real.

If I had money but didn’t live close to REACH, I’d prob­ably dir­ect my Nice Th­ing budget to­wards more local events. (Oddly enough, I sus­pect it makes more sense to fund REACH if you live in South Bay than in San Fran­cisco, since in South Bay you get the be­ne­fit of re­li­able crash space when you visit).

But given that I live nearby, and I’m in a fin­an­cial state where I’d pay $15 for oc­ca­sional movies, din­ners or out­ings, it seems to me that the lower bound for the value of a good meetup is some­thing like $10.

If 20 people are com­ing to a meetup each week, and 15 of them can af­ford small lux­ur­ies, it seems like a reas­on­able lower bound on the meetup’s value is (15 people x 4 weeks x $10 = $600/​month), with each per­son chip­ping in $40.

If you’re get­ting value from con­nec­tions, op­por­tun­it­ies, and ful­fill­ment, then I think a good meetup can eas­ily be worth more than a $15 movie.

The func­tion of “how valu­able is it?” might not line up with “how much can I real­ist­ic­ally pay?”. But this brings up an ad­di­tional ques­tion:

If you’re someone who did get a lot of value from meetups (when you were new to a city, didn’t have a job and were strug­gling to make ends meet) but now are a pro­gram­mer mak­ing a 6 fig­ure salary… I think it is quite reas­on­able to put in some­thing ex­tra from a “pay it for­ward” stand­point, even if by now you’re spend­ing more of your time with par­tic­u­lar friends rather than the pub­lic-fa­cing meetups.

Check that it’s worth it

There’s an im­port­ant counter-view­point here:

If you’re not get­ting value out of meetups – if you showed up and hoped some ma­gic would hap­pen but it ser­i­ously just didn’t – then please do not let your­self feel pres­sured to give out of a vague pro-so­cial-guilt. I am ar­guing about why you should be will­ing to pay for nice things for your­self, not nice things for other people.

Maybe you don’t get along with the or­gan­izers. Maybe the sort of people a space at­tracts aren’t that in­ter­est­ing to you.

Only you know what things are ac­tu­ally nice.

Dangers of overcommitment

Fun fact: I ini­tially pledged $100/​month to REACH. Then I walked that pledge back to $50.

REACH is eas­ily worth $100/​month to me. But. There’s a bunch of other things in the same ref­er­ence class that are also worth­while.

Sum­mer Sol­stice, EA Global, the CFAR Reunion and other ma­jor events are com­ing up. These events tend to barely scrape by with fund­ing (and of­ten, the or­gan­izers just lose thou­sands of dol­lars). I want to make sure I can af­ford to sup­port a healthy, di­verse so­cial land­scape.

There are also other meetups nearby, which you might want to sup­port do­ing more am­bi­tious pro­jects.

I want to en­gage in fun­drais­ing strategies that will work for the long term, al­low­ing other com­munity mem­bers to get new pro­jects fun­ded – next year’s ver­sion of some­thing-weird-the-way-Sol­stice-2011-was-weird.

Part of this means be­ing care­ful with the pub­lic re­source of “dis­course around fun­drais­ing”, and not get­ting people to over­com­mit so that they can’t af­ford the next as­pir­ing pro­ject.

(Also, since I spend a lot of time at REACH, I wanted to re­serve some money to just spon­tan­eously buy spe­cific nice things for it that I par­tic­u­larly want, like the cof­fee table I just ordered. Spon­tan­eously buy­ing presents for my­self and my friends is nice. See Robby Ben­singer’s Chaos Al­tru­ism.)

Bringing the Party

One source of value that REACH brings is mak­ing it sa­li­ent that you can hold more events, or bring your own value to the weekly meetup.

Often­times, I want to try some­thing out – a new ex­er­cise, a weird event, a new way of look­ing at the world that I think is in­ter­est­ing but want to san­ity check. So­me­times these seem valu­able from an EA lens (more on that later), and some­times they’re just weird and fun.

Hav­ing an ex­ist­ing com­munity in­fra­struc­ture drastic­ally lowers the ac­tiv­a­tion-en­ergy needed to try some­thing like this out.

Okay, but is this the right Nice Th­ing?

I’m highly con­fid­ent that we should be will­ing to spend a bunch on com­munity in­fra­struc­ture. I think it’s reas­on­able to de­bate whether this is the right Nice Th­ing to spend a bunch on, within the Nice Th­ings paradigm.

[Note: it’s a bit fraught to ask “is this the best thing to spend money on?” That way leads end­less de­cision para­lysis. But be­fore we con­verge on “spend a bunch on this par­tic­u­lar thing” it seems reas­on­able to look at some al­tern­at­ives. Is this at least a reas­on­able con­tender for ex­pens­ive thing to co­ordin­ate on fund­ing?]

Is the phys­ical space im­port­ant? Is it more im­port­ant than hav­ing a full­time per­son do­ing the meta-or­gan­iz­ing? Is Sarah the right per­son for the job? Is the cur­rent ap­proach the best ap­proach? Is the cur­rent venue the best venue?

In­stead of a venue, you could hire two full-time people who didn’t man­age a space but who did co­ordin­ate pub­lic events (po­ten­tially in dif­fer­ent cit­ies).

Ben Hoff­man asks that we take care of the people we re­cruit. From this per­spect­ive, is a com­munity-cen­ter shaped thing more im­port­ant than, say, hir­ing a full time ther­ap­ist, me­di­ator, Berke­ley-bur­eau­cracy-spe­cial­ist, other sup­port role that the com­munity could use filling?

I think that ques­tion is im­port­ant, and I’d tie that back to the “don’t over­com­mit your re­sources” is­sue. It seems ob­vi­ous to me that some­thing com­munity-cen­ter-shaped would be valu­able, and just as ob­vi­ous that other things would be valu­able. My sense is that most of the al­tern­at­ives to a com­munity-cen­ter-shaped-thing are harder to ex­ecute.

I’m not sure how to think about that. Mean­while I’d say some­thing like: If you think you’d com­mit re­sources to other com­munity-fo­cused pro­jects con­di­tional on them look­ing vi­able, maybe...

  1. If mak­ing re­cur­ring dona­tions (a la Patreon), maybe donate in pro­por­tion to how much you’d want to sup­port the com­munity cen­ter in par­tic­u­lar, if you were also donat­ing to other com­munity-fo­cused pro­jects that you con­sidered higher pri­or­ity.

  2. Mean­while, if you have ad­di­tional in­come now that you’d like to spend on com­munity in­fra­struc­ture (but no cur­rent pro­jects to give it to), maybe make an ad­di­tional one-time dona­tion.

    Since REACH is still in the “get­ting set up” stage, there’s a lot of things they could use an in­flux of cash for, like “get a real shower/​bath set up”.

My over­all thoughts here:

A. There’s been vague ges­tur­ing in the dir­ec­tion of REACH for years, with no one ac­tu­ally mak­ing it hap­pen. If you’re wor­ried about the ex­act ex­e­cu­tion, I think it makes more sense to frame ob­jec­tions in the form of “how do we take the mo­mentum we cur­rently have and op­tim­ize it?” rather than “should we even have this mo­mentum right now?”

The ra­tion­al­sphere has hit a point where I think agency and good ideas are more pre­cious than money, and I’m wary of ac­ci­dent­ally killing that mo­mentum.

B. Ul­timately, my reason for sup­port­ing the idea ba­sic­ally as-is is be­cause it’s work­ing, and I don’t want to mess with it too much.

C. Re: the “if you want to take care of people, is this the best way?” ques­tion: There are a bunch of other roles and in­fra­struc­ture that the local com­munity could use, which I’d tie back to my “danger of over­com­mit­ment” point in the pre­vi­ous sec­tion.

I also think hav­ing a cent­ral­ized com­munity cen­ter will be make those things easier to co­ordin­ate on. (I think this is also an ex­pli­cit part of Sarah’s plan, al­though I think it’s good not to over­prom­ise on a new ini­ti­at­ive SOLVING ALL THE PROBLEMS, and fo­cus ini­tially on just do­ing one thing well).

D. It seems ex­tremely rare (not just among ra­tion­al­ists but gen­er­ally) to have the op­por­tun­ity to build a good vil­lage. The cent­ral Berke­ley Ra­tion­al­ist/​EA world pretty closely re­sembles the sort of com­munity-shaped-hole that I think much of mod­ern Amer­ica has been miss­ing.

There’s around 50 people I know and (I think?) an­other 50 that I don’t who live within walk­ing dis­tance of each other. Hav­ing come so close, sort of by-ac­ci­dent, I really want to see what a ra­tion­al­ist vil­lage can do when given the re­sources ne­ces­sary to thrive.

In­fra­struc­ture seems valu­able. In-per­son com­munity spaces seem valu­able for people to thrive.

Epistemic Status: Spec­u­lat­ive and all that, but it seems real im­port­ant for vil­lages to have a com­munity cen­ter.

The Case for Impact

People buy­ing them­selves nice things only gets you so far. Many of the people who would most be­ne­fit from the nice things are people new to the area who haven’t got­ten jobs yet.

There are lit­er­ally bil­lions of dol­lars float­ing around in the EA sphere.

Is REACH a reas­on­able dona­tion tar­get from an EA paradigm?

This re­quires a more care­ful an­swer than the “buy ourselves nice things” per­spect­ive. When buy­ing nice things, it’s im­port­ant not to overthink it too much. Choices are bad and can in­ter­fere with the hav­ing-of-your-nice things.

When try­ing to save lives and bring about the best pos­sible longterm fu­ture, it mat­ters a lot more whether your strategy is good. You should be at least a little sus­pi­cious if the ques­tion “what’s the most good you can do?” out­puts “buy your com­munity some nice things.”

But un­der­con­fid­ence is just as real a sin as over­con­fid­ence. And by 2018, the sheer track re­cord of meetups clearly in­dic­ates that com­munity in­fra­struc­ture is a con­tender for “ser­i­ous EA cause”.

Quoth Mingy­uan in What Are Meetups Ac­tu­ally Try­ing To Ac­com­plish:

> I don’t work on meetups just be­cause I want people to have friends (al­though that’s def­in­itely a nice side-ef­fect); I work on them be­cause it seems that they have his­tor­ic­ally been able to pro­duce people and out­puts that have maybe mar­gin­ally con­trib­uted to us be­ing less likely to go ex­tinct within the next couple of dec­ades. So let’s try to fig­ure that out.

At the very least, meetups are a weird black-box that out­puts agenty people and pro­jects. And just like you might want to keep fund­ing ba­sic-phys­ics-re­search be­cause it seems to out­put cool shit without a clear case for the im­pact, I think we want to keep pour­ing ef­fort into local com­munit­ies.

But I do think we can get more spe­cific than this.

Meas­ur­ing Intangibles

The most sa­li­ently high-im­pact out­put of meetups I’m aware of:

  • The Bo­ston meetup provided a lot of en­thu­si­asm and vo­lun­teer in­fra­struc­ture that al­lowed Max Teg­mark to launch the Fu­ture of Life In­sti­tute, which in turn got Elon Musk in­volved with AI. (There’s room to de­bate if this was net-pos­it­ive or not. But my cur­rent guess is yes, and the mag­nitude of the im­pact was both un­mis­tak­ably high and un­mis­tak­ably causal with meetups)

  • I’m not sure how rel­ev­ant the meetups were, but my im­pres­sion is that years ago in NYC, the ex­ist­ence of the ra­tion­al­ity com­munity lowered the ac­tiv­a­tion en­ergy for Mi­chael Vas­sar in­tro­du­cing Holden Karnos­fky to Carl Shul­man, most likely sub­stan­tially chan­ging Givewell’s dir­ec­tion.

More gen­er­ally, meetups seem to :

  • Foster the growth of ra­tion­al­ists and EAs, many of whom then go on to work on im­port­ant pro­jects. So­me­times this ef­fect is im­me­di­ate, some­times it hap­pens over the course of years

  • In­tro­duce people to each other (and to the broader eco­sys­tem of or­gan­iz­a­tions and thinkers) that in­creases the over­all “luck sur­face area” of both in­di­vidu­als, and the col­lect­ive ra­tion­al­sphere.

  • Provide a change-in-so­cial-en­vir­on­ment that al­low im­port­ant ideas from the se­quences to ac­tu­ally take root, lead­ing even­tu­ally to more cap­able in­di­vidu­als and ideas.

  • In­cub­ate pro­jects (I think FLI counts. MetaMed didn’t work out in the end but I think from an ex­pec­ted-value and learn­ing frame­work it coun­ted. I think many or­gan­iz­a­tions have their roots in people boun­cing into each other at meetups)

There are two par­tic­u­lar as­pects of this I’d like to dive into:

The Agency Ladder

Agency – the abil­ity to look at a situ­ation, no­tice things that could be im­proved, and that pro­act­ively set out to do those things on pur­pose – is a muscle that can be trained. And it’s easier to train with a smooth dif­fi­culty curve, with stakes just high enough to be mean­ing­ful but not so high as to be para­lyz­ingly in­tim­id­at­ing.

Weird fact: a lot of people I know (my­self in­cluded) gained a bunch of agency from run­ning meetups.

When I ar­rived in the NYC com­munity, I no­ticed an op­por­tun­ity for some kind of winter hol­i­day. I held the first Sol­stice. The only stakes were 20 people pos­sibly hav­ing a bad time. The next year, I planned a lar­ger event that people traveled from nearby cit­ies to at­tend, which re­quired me to learn some lo­gist­ics as well as to im­prove at ritual design. The third year I was able to run a ma­jor event with a couple hun­dred at­tendees. At each point I felt chal­lenged but not over­whelmed. I made mis­takes, but not ones that ruined any­thing longterm or im­port­ant.

In the Bay, there are many or­gan­iz­a­tions, some of which are look­ing for vo­lun­teers. But there are only so many vo­lun­teers an or­gan­iz­a­tion can pro­duct­ively make use of (and of­ten, even those po­s­i­tions re­quire skills that a new­comer may lack, es­pe­cially if they’re young).

There isn’t enough sur­face area for new­comer-mo­lecules to bind with and start build­ing their skills and net­work. One of the most im­port­ant ser­vices I think REACH can provide is be­ing op­tim­ized for provid­ing agency-lad­der op­por­tun­it­ies to new­comers, in a scal­able way.

Water Cool­ers and Campuses

I’ve talked a lot about the meetup-as­pect of REACH, be­cause his­tor­ic­ally I’ve been a meetup-ori­ented guy and I have a lot of opin­ions about it. I also hadn’t really seen the cowork­ing as­pect of REACH start to bear fruit un­til re­cently.

But I’ve lately come to be­lieve this is ex­tremely im­port­ant.

There’s a cam­pus based model of in­nov­a­tion I’ve been chat­ting about with Oliver and oth­ers. There’s a reason Google tries to get all its en­gin­eers to spend a lot of time at Google Cam­pus, provid­ing for all kinds of phys­ical and so­cial needs. It keeps en­gin­eers from dif­fer­ent de­part­ments bump­ing into each other. It makes for an en­vir­on­ment where people can slowly come to know each other in an or­ganic fash­ion, bounce ideas off each other (cas­u­ally at first, then per­haps more ser­i­ously).

It means that if you want to know some­thing about someone’s pro­ject, you can just ask someone the next time you see them at lunch, without the vaguely ob­lig­a­tion-shaped vari­ant where you send them an email and they have to get around to re­spond­ing.

Water Cooler talk is an im­port­ant as­pect of in­nov­a­tion.

I think the cowork­ing as­pect of REACH can be very valu­able for this. In the­ory, CFAR of­fers this, but in prac­tice CFAR is far enough away (and again with the trivial in­con­veni­ences of their se­cur­ity sys­tem), that I wouldn’t visit the of­fice nearly as of­ten as I’d visit REACH.

Re­cently, Katja Grace star­ted ex­per­i­ment­ing with an “People work­ing on in­de­pend­ent AI pro­jects get to­gether to co-work” thing some­times at REACH, in­spired by a sim­ilar thought pro­cess.

This is the sort of thing a com­munity cen­ter can fa­cil­it­ate.

Match­ing Funds

From an EA grant­mak­ing per­spect­ive, I don’t think REACH should be at the top of the list of things you’d want to give money to. But I do think it should be some­where on the list. This is a case where the rel­ev­ant ques­tion is “are you more money con­strained, or shovel-ready-pro­ject con­strained?”

If you’re an Earn­ing-to-Give per­son who has non-trivial but lim­ited amounts of money, an­other im­port­ant con­sid­er­a­tion is that, with OpenPhil and BERI fund­ing many of the most ob­vi­ous, cred­ibly high-im­pact-pro­jects, most of the value of be­ing a mid-level donor is in us­ing your local know­ledge to seed-fund early stage, fuz­zier pro­jects.

From both per­spect­ives, I think it may have been fair to not want to fund the pro­ject be­fore it had any track re­cord. I think I prob­ably roughly agree with CEA’s de­cision (at the time) to not give a grant – at that point it was hard to tell what was go­ing to hap­pen, and it was fairly ex­pens­ive as far as com­munity pro­jects go.

But I think a reas­on­able way to eval­u­ate this sort of pro­ject is a match­ing-grants paradigm. The fact that in­di­vidu­als have put for­ward $2500/​month on Patreon by now is pretty strong “put money where your mouth is” evid­ence that REACH is provid­ing the value it as­pired to.

So… In Clos­ing…

I think REACH is pretty good.

If you’re con­sid­er­ing donat­ing from the “buy ourselves nice things” per­spect­ive but aren’t yet sold… well, just come on by and check it out. Weekly meetups are on Wed­nes­day at 7pm. Co­work­ing is every week­day (and hope­fully soon on week­ends once we work out some kinks).

If you get value out of it, I think it makes sense to pay for a nice thing.

If not, no wor­ries.

If you’re con­sid­er­ing it from an EA/​im­pact per­spect­ive and think it’s prom­ising but have some spe­cific con­cerns, it’s prob­ably at least worth a chat with Sarah to see if those con­cerns can be ad­dressed. As noted earlier, I think it’s im­port­ant for pro­jects not to be too be­holden to fun­ders, but I do think there’s room for an earn­est ex­change of ideas.

If you’re liv­ing in some other geo­graphic area, think REACH sounds great and wish you had one in your area… you might want to think about how to make that hap­pen. Dif­fer­ent cit­ies may have dif­fer­ent con­straints, but I sus­pect it will of­ten be achiev­able. There’s a range of pos­sib­il­it­ies between “group house func­tion­ing as de-facto com­munity hub” and “full fledged cen­ter.”

The Berke­ley REACH Patreon Page is here.

If you’d like to make a one-time dona­tion, you can do so here.