Master Plan for East Coast Rationalist Megameetup 2017

By Taymon A. Beal

Executive Summary

I would like to run a rationalist megameetup in New York City, in which members of the rationalist community who are in town for Solstice weekend lodge together in a big rented house and spend the weekend hanging out and doing ingroup things together. This will require coordination for sharing the cost of the rental, as well as the provision of meals and scheduled activities. This document is my plan, to the best extent I’ve thought it out thus far, for accomplishing these things. In order to allow prospective participants to judge whether I will be able to succeed, I’m posting it publicly.

Date and Time

The megameetup will be on December 8, 9, and 10, the weekend of Secular Solstice in New York City. I think this is the only time and place it can work; otherwise, there’s a network effects problem, wherein people don’t say they’ll go because it doesn’t seem like a significant event, and it doesn’t seem like a significant event because people don’t say they’ll go. On Solstice weekend, many rationalists will already be planning on traveling to New York, and will be looking for a place to stay and for opportunities to hang out with other rationalists who will also be in town.

The megameetup will run Friday evening (December 8) through Sunday evening (December 10). I expect people who’ve traveled from elsewhere for Solstice to start arriving Friday evening and continue to do so through Saturday afternoon. The period with the greatest attendance will likely be Saturday afternoon through Sunday morning; as such, the unconference will be scheduled for Saturday afternoon, with Solstice on Saturday evening and the afterparty Saturday night. I don’t expect the majority of participants to stay through Sunday evening (particularly if they have to travel a long distance home before Monday), but I also don’t think it’ll be possible to get everyone out and the location cleaned up before checkout time on Sunday, so the rental will include Sunday night and people will be allowed to stay until Monday morning if they want to.

The exact times when people can arrive, and when they’ll be required to leave, will depend on the terms of the Airbnb rental; as such, I reserve the right to change them when those terms are confirmed.

Location

For the reasons mentioned above, the megameetup will be in New York City.

The 2014 megameetup that I’m using as a model for this one was held at Highgarden, a large rationalist group house in Brooklyn. Highgarden had enough space to host activities throughout the weekend and to allow everyone participating in the megameetup to sleep there. I think the “large house” format works well for much the same reasons as having the megameetup around New York Solstice; people traveling to Solstice will come because it solves the lodging problem, which means it’s also a default place for people to hang out, which means it’s a Schelling point for activities (there’ll be explicitly coordinated activities but I don’t think they’d be as well-attended if people weren’t already there), and there’s enough space for those activities to happen, including people going off in smaller groups (which I think is crucial for a rationalist meetup since sometimes people won’t want to be part of whatever else is going on, and a lot of value and enjoyment comes out of small group conversations).

Unfortunately, Highgarden dissolved in 2015 and there’s no large rationalist group house in New York City anymore. As such, if we want a big house, we have to rent it. Airbnb seems to be the easiest way to do this.

If we get 40 people, which has been suggested to me by a previous event organizer as a potentially plausible number, then we’ll want a house with a double-digit number of rooms. A cursory search has identified a few locations that appear to satisfy these conditions, at least some of which are also billed as friendly for large events.

Budget and Pricing

The primary expense for this event will be the Airbnb rental. There will also be other expenses, such as food. Participants will have to pay these costs, because no other source of funding is available.

For the Airbnb rental (including all fees charged by or through Airbnb), the maximum cost will be $100 per person. If I cannot rent a location for that amount, the megameetup will not go forward. The aforementioned locations that I’ve found thus far each cost approximately $1000 per night, which means that if we continue with the above assumptions on participant count, each participant will have to pay approximately $75 for the rental. $100 provides what seems to me like a reasonable safety margin while still keeping costs under control.

Participants will not necessarily have to pay the full $100; they will have to pay only their share of the actual rental cost, or, if they register after it’s already been divided up, the same amount that other participants paid. See “Registration and Payment” below for details on how this will work.

There will be no discounts for arriving late or leaving early, because the size of the Airbnb location will be determined by the number of people sleeping there Saturday night (the time I expect the greatest number of people), and no money is saved by not having it filled to capacity the rest of the time. Participants who won’t be staying over Saturday night may contact me to discuss a possible discount.

For expenses other than the Airbnb rental, I am somewhat arbitrarily setting the cost at $25 per person. This will include the costs of three meals for each participant (see “Food” below), afterparty snacks and supplies (see “Solstice Afterparty” below), PayPal transaction fees (see “Registration and Payment” below), and a few very minor expenses like name tags and the rationalistmegameetup.com domain name. This is everything I’ve been able to think of thus far.

The total cost will therefore be up to $125 per participant.

I would like to include any would-be participants who cannot afford to pay $125, to the greatest extent possible. They are encouraged to contact me so that we can try to come to an arrangement. I may solicit donations from participants who are willing to subsidize others.

Registration and Payment

I want to keep the per-person cost as low as possible. As such, before I choose an Airbnb location, I need to know how many participants there will be; the more there are, the larger and more expensive place I can rent (and indeed, must rent, if everyone’s going to fit). A consequence of this is that participants will need to commit before the exact price per participant has been determined.

However, the commitment can’t just be an agreement to pay later; it has to involve putting up money. This is because, from my perspective, participants are random internet people whom I can’t necessarily trust to reliably pay later, especially if they lose interest. I’m not sure exactly what attrition or repayment rate to expect, but since I have to front the money myself, I think it’s too much of a risk. So the commitment mechanism has to somehow involve putting up money, without it being known exactly what the price will ultimately be.

Furthermore, from participants’ perspective, I’m a random internet person, so my own trustworthiness is also an issue! Participants have to trust me at least a little, for the aforementioned reasons, and I’ve done my best to establish my deservingness of at least that level of trust (e.g., my history in the community; see “About Me” below). But I can’t and won’t ask for anyone’s credit card number, or for anything that would make it possible for me to create arbitrary charges on credit cards; that level of trust wouldn’t be justified.

The solution is PayPal authorizations. When each participant registers for the Megameetup at rationalistmegameetup.com, they’ll be taken to a PayPal page and asked to authorize me to charge their credit card up to $125. I can only use this authorization once, and it expires after 29 days if I don’t. (It’s technically possible for me to increase the amount up to $143.75; I promise not to do this. See PayPal’s developer documentation for more details about how this works.)

On October 30 (ten days after this announcement was posted publicly and the same day the Solstice Kickstarter ends), I’ll decide whether the megameetup will go forward, and if so, which Airbnb location to rent. It will only go forward if I can find a suitable location for $100 per person or less. Once the location has been paid for, I will divide the cost by the number of registered participants, then charge each participant’s credit card that amount plus $25.

After October 30, registration will remain open until, in my personal judgment, no more people can be accommodated in the location that has been rented. Each participant who registers after October 30 will immediately be charged the same amount that earlier participants paid (that is, the cost of the rental, divided by the number of participants who registered before October 30, plus $25). This money will be put towards non-rental expenses, since the rental will have already been paid for.

Any participant may cancel their registration (and payment authorization) before October 30. After October 30, registrations will be refundable on request, on a first-come-first-served basis with a waitlist if necessary, if and only if the current number of non-refunded registrations is equal to or greater than the number of registrations on October 30. (This is because the rental will have been paid for and I won’t be able to get a partial refund on it.) Registrations will be transferable on request at any time.

All megameetup expenses will be tracked and the final budget breakdown will be posted publicly after the event.

If expenses for the megameetup ultimately exceed revenue, I will be personally financially liable for the difference. Obviously, I would prefer to avoid this outcome. If at any point I come to believe that this is likely to be the case, and that the shortfall is likely to be more than $250, I will explain why this is the case and ask participants for voluntary donations to make it up.

If revenue for the megameetup ultimately exceeds expenses by $3 per participant or more, I will announce the amount of the surplus on or before December 17 (one week after the megameetup). Each participant will then have one week to request that their share of the surplus be refunded to them. After one week, all remaining surplus will be donated to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. If the difference is less than $3 per participant, the entire surplus will be donated, because refunds of that amount are unlikely to be worth the overhead.

Sleeping Accommodations

Participants will be able to sleep at the megameetup location Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.

There will most likely not be enough beds for all participants, so most participants staying at the location will have to sleep on the floor. Participants who require a bed for disability or other reasons may contact me in advance to establish accommodations. Any remaining beds will be allocated at the megameetup, by auction unless the consensus among participants is to do something else.

To facilitate sleeping on the floor, pillows and blankets will be provided in sufficient quantities for all participants.

Food

At least three meals will be provided: Saturday lunch, Saturday dinner, and Sunday breakfast. These will be paid for with megameetup funds and prepared by megameetup volunteers. Saturday breakfast and Sunday lunch will be more ad-hoc but may also be provided if there’s sufficient interest. Participants will have to figure out other meals on their own, although I think it’s likely that those who arrive earliest or depart latest will coordinate among themselves to get some meals together. Snacks will also be provided throughout the megameetup.

The primary tentative plan for meals is sandwiches for Saturday lunch, pasta for Saturday dinner, and pancakes for Sunday breakfast. However, participants will be invited and encouraged to bring their own dishes, and will be reimbursed with megameetup funds for the cost of ingredients if they do so, subject to my advance approval.

Participants will be asked about dietary restrictions at registration time. These will be accommodated to the greatest extent feasible if I’m informed of them in advance.

Activities

Aside from Solstice proper and the afterparty, the intention is for there to be a schedule of organized activities throughout the weekend. I don’t intend to run all of these myself; rather, participants will be invited to propose any activity that they’re interested in running and that they expect others to be interested in being part of. I will schedule these throughout the weekend, and post the schedule approximately one week before the megameetup. The goal is that most of the time, participants will be able to choose between an activity and unstructured socializing.

A few activities I do intend to run myself. Most importantly, the centerpiece of Saturday afternoon will be an unconference, with lightning talks and longer twenty-minute talks. These, too, will be solicited from participants. I also intend to run a ritual lab sometime on Saturday centered around Smallpox Eradication Day, and will make rationalist-themed games like Rationality Cardinality available.

Interest has been expressed in New York City tourism activities as well. These are more likely to be scheduled for Sunday.

If there are enough activities to make it work, I’m interested in the idea of an organized points competition with factions running throughout the megameetup, to take advantage of the tendency towards competition and extract more organized fun from the opportunities available.

Solstice Afterparty

Traditionally, there’s an afterparty immediately following Solstice. The megameetup location will be the obvious place to hold it, since it’ll be larger than any other space we’d have access to and participants will already be staying there.

Hosting parties in a rented residential space tends to be a bit of a sensitive issue, but it’s been done after New York Solstice every year at least since 2014 and has always gone okay as far as I can tell.

There will be people who attend Solstice but not the megameetup, and some of them will attend the afterparty as well. So, although the location will be chosen to accommodate all megameetup participants, more than that many people will be crammed into the space during the afterparty. Again, this was done in previous years and went fine. Afterparty attendees will be asked not to plan to sleep at the megameetup location unless they are registered participants. Additionally, there will be designated spaces within the megameetup location that the afterparty will be kept out of, in order to allow participants to sleep. (More locations may be designated as the night goes on and more participants start wanting to go to bed.)

I will provide disposable cups and napkins, light snacks, and non-alcoholic beverages for the afterparty. These will be paid for with megameetup funds. (This is the only instance of those funds not being spent strictly for the benefit of megameetup participants. I expect it to be a small expenditure, and doing it this way will save many practical headaches.) Alcoholic beverages will be on a BYOB basis.

Volunteering

I will appoint one or two volunteer assistant organizers, who will share responsibility with me for coordinating volunteer labor and making sure that essential tasks get done on time. Most other volunteer labor will be organized on an ad-hoc basis.

I will organize a grocery run on Friday along with anyone else who’s available and willing to take part, in order to stock up on whatever we’ll need for the weekend.

Cooking will be delegated in advance based on participants’ express interest. For primary dishes and anything else that needs to happen but no one explicitly asks to do, I’ll perform outreach to find anyone to take them on, and do them myself or with the assistant organizers if they can’t otherwise be delegated. The assistant organizers and I will be responsible for coordinating kitchen use among everyone who’s cooking anything so that everything gets cooked and contention for space remains tractable. We’ll also be responsible for coordinating dishes, which will be handled between us, whoever cooks, and whoever else we can get to help out when the time comes.

There are two events that need to be preceded by concerted cleanup efforts: the afterparty, and the end of the megameetup. Each of these will have a half-hour block in the schedule in which everyone is explicitly asked to help out. Depending on the exact timing of dinner and Solstice, it may prove necessary for me and a small number of other volunteers to skip the reception after Solstice and do some last-minute cleanup ourselves. Shorter (e.g., five-minute) concerted cleanup efforts may be scheduled at other times, such as after the unconference and/or on Sunday morning.

Publicity

Publicity efforts will be managed jointly with the organizers of NYC Secular Solstice. The initial announcement will be made on October 20 on Less Wrong 2.0, in the same post announcing the Solstice Kickstarter. We will also post links to it in other rationalist online spaces that are likely to contain people interested in participating. To avoid annoying people too much, I will stagger the posts I make as roughly uniformly as possible in time between October 20 and October 30. Platforms where such communities might exist include Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, IRC, Discord, and the Slate Star Codex open thread.

Risks and Challenges

The weak point in this plan that I’m most worried about is myself. My track record of actually finishing projects when working by myself is not especially strong. This announcement really should have gone out almost three weeks ago, to ensure enough flexibility in renting a location on Airbnb. It didn’t, because writing this document was aversive and I procrastinated on it. I’m trying my hardest to make sure I don’t burn out, but from the outside view, there seems to be a non-negligible chance that I do so. I’m not sure exactly what happens in that case. As long as we’ve got the Airbnb rented, hopefully participants can mostly take care of themselves; it might not be as good as if I’d been running it smoothly, but it’d probably be survivable. There’s also hope that other volunteers might be able to pick up some of the slack in running things.

It might prove impossible to rent a suitable space on Airbnb. If this occurs, however, the megameetup will be canceled with plenty of advance notice and without my having taken anyone’s money.

PayPal might decide to arbitrarily freeze my account. If this occurs, I’ll contact participants and try to negotiate alternative methods of payment. In the worst-case scenario, I simply lose some money; I think it’s reasonable for me to be responsible for this risk.

I don’t yet have a real plan for acquiring enough suitable blankets and/or sleeping mats for everyone to sleep on the floor. I’ll plan to reach out to others soon to ask for help on this. Any offers are appreciated.

The non-rental expenses might go over budget. For the plan for dealing with this possibility, see “Registration and Payment” above.

The space might be more cramped than anticipated for the number of people in it. If this occurs, participants will unfortunately just have to live with it. It might be unpleasant but it will be survivable.

Volunteer labor might be impossible to come by due to the bystander effect. In the case of cooking, I’m seeking to get commitments ahead of time; if these don’t occur, I’ll change the plan to something less labor-intensive, possibly just serving food with low preparation effort, the logistics of which I can deal with myself. I will attempt to mitigate the bystander effect on cleanup by including specific times for concerted efforts in the schedule.

Retrospective Evaluation

A survey will be sent out immediately after the megameetup, asking for feedback on each of the major facets of the event (such as the sections of this document). Aggregated results will be posted publicly. This survey will be formulated later.

About Me

I’m Taymon A. Beal. Although I was never active on (the original) Less Wrong proper, I’ve been involved in the rationalist and effective altruist communities for quite some time. I started reading the Sequences in 2012, started posting on rationalist Tumblr and Slate Star Codex comments in 2014, attended the 2014 East Coast megameetup (the model for this event), and moved into a rationalist house in Boston in 2015, where I’ve been a fixture of the local community ever since.

I was the primary organizer of Boston Secular Solstice 2015 and 2016, and one of five organizers of EAGxBoston 2016. In addition, I’m a core organizer of the Cambridge Less Wrong meetup group and previously organized MIRIxCambridgeMA workshops. In a previous life, I was a production manager and stage manager for a college theatre group. I haven’t taken on an event quite like this one by myself before, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity to make it work.

Personal references include James Babcock, Victoria Krakovna, János Kramar, and Vincent Luczkow, whom I’ve worked with in the Boston rationalist community; Jeff Kaufman and Julia Wise, whom I’ve worked with in the Boston effective altruist community; Raymond Arnold and Chelsea Voss, whom I’ve worked with on Solstice; and Randy Carlton, Mi Shan Wong, Dillon Bowen, and Allison Smith, my co-organizers from EAGxBoston 2016.

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