OK sorry to over-advertise but it seemed like this one would be of interest to the LessWrong and EA communities. Episode description below, audio is here, or search for "The Filan Cabinet Habryka" wherever you listen to podcasts.


In this episode I speak with Oliver Habryka, head of Lightcone Infrastructure, the organization that runs the internet forum LessWrong, about his projects in the rationality and existential risk spaces. Topics we talk about include:

  • How did LessWrong get revived?
  • How good is LessWrong?
  • Is there anything that beats essays for making intellectual contributions on the internet?
  • Why did the team behind LessWrong pivot to property development?
  • What does the FTX situation tell us about the wider LessWrong and Effective Altruism communities?
  • What projects could help improve the world's rationality?

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Maybe most relevant excerpt for the forum (taken from 01:08:45, might contain some mistakes):

DF: When you say, you became less exciting about feeling this space [~Effective Altruism] how much was FTX, the CEO of FTX, the CEO of Alameda came from this space? Cause on some level, it's not great, but it doesn't seem like the most relevant thing for evaluating it.

OH: I don't know. I feel very confused about it. I think my perspective is more that I for many years had a number of things that felt very off about the space. I worked at the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) and left after basically being depressed for 1.5 years for stuff that in retrospect feels like in meaningful ways the culture there was a precursor to what happened at FTX. Like a lot of situations, people were taking really quite extreme deceptive action. And the reaction of the organisation, and the people on the board, and the people I was working with was often a surprising amount of apathy to people doing things that, at least from my perspective in terms of honesty, were very immoral. 

DF: Like, what?

OH: I mean, people lying, like a lot. Situations that I'm pretty sure happened were: There was a decision about a major merger between CEA and Giving What We Can, where basically it was announced and executed almost fully in the week of EAG. My best guess of what happened behind the scenes here is people being like "Man, when are a lot of people who would have opinions on this going to be most busy, so that they could least object on this? But in a way that lets us claim that we technically listened to people."
[...]
Other situations were: There were a lot of people who were of very unclear employment. There was Leverage Research, an organisation that now somewhat interestingly imploded/exploded, that 'employed' a lot of people that worked at CEA. Where employment means something like: They were living together with everyone else at Leverage Research, they were getting some amount of housing and food support for it. They were not technically being paid by it, but they were present – like they had a manager designed to them under Leverage and would be held accountable to their performance in various ways. And that thing was just completely held secret and hidden from the rest of the organisation, where there were people working for Leverage Research and people would just lie about their relationship with the other organisation. These people were often also just straightforwardly referred to as "spies". And this does not spark anyone to go like "OMG WTF crazy thing is going on?" it was kind of like par for the course for the kind of adversarial epistemic environment. [...]
At various points there were situations in leadership where Will MacAskill was supposed to be the CEO of the organisation [CEA], but he wasn't really present, he was mostly busy promoting his books and so on. Which means that the COO had actually taken over most of the CEO-responsibilities for over a year, in that case it was Tara Mac Aulay, one of the co-founders of Alameda. I had conversations with her where she was just very clearly was like "Yes, and I intentionally did not tell the rest of the organisation the fact that I had taken on CEO-responsibilities and was taking major strategic decisions because I expect that this would have meant that people would interfere with my plans. And what would I have to gain from informing you about that change in the power-balance?". A terrible way to run an organisation.

DF: I want to add that my understanding is that she left Alameda well before alleged improprieties happened.

OH: I will take bets against this fact. My guess is that there was fraud at Alameda while Tara was present. 

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Man, I'm just gonna take this moment to have a Habryka appreciation subthread. For someone with his responsibilities to just speak from the heart and report what he sees with his eyeballs is rarer than I wish it was, but in my mind he really sets the bar and the tone for how EA leadership should aspire to be acting in public. 

Adding to the appreciation subthread:

Oliver Habryka's comments here and on Twitter, the ones honestly just defending his beliefs even when controversial have made me feel safer and more comfortable in EA. It's wholesome

Also I think I probably use the word "integrity" a lot more now because of him lol

Like I think he has made an actual difference in me being more honest and more willing to share my actual beliefs with others.

My guess is that some people may come away thinking something like "Will, Toby, Beckstead, Owen, and other people who remain senior in EA executed things like the CEA-GWWC merger." Is this correct, or was it mainly the Leverage people (Kerry, Tyler, Larissa, and Tara)? I don't actually know, but it may be worth clarifying.

My understanding of what was going on at the time was that the board and advisors failed to prevent Leverage from gaining a lot of influence over CEA until they finally intervened in December 2018, but that they would not have endorsed what was going on if they had fully understood the situation. Whether someone was more like a victim, a bystander, or actively deceptive matters a lot, I think.

My guess is that some people may come away thinking something like "Will, Toby, Beckstead, Owen, and other people who remain senior in EA executed things like the CEA-GWWC merger."

Will was I think still CEO when the decision was made and was directly involved in the decision. Beckstead was board member but I think was quite checked out. A lot of the momentum came from Tara, and Kerry was also pretty involved.

Agree that it matters that some people were more like victims. I do think Will meaningfully contributed to the atmosphere, and do think Nick sure failed to play his role as a board member. I don't think Owen played much of a role. I had a number of interactions with Toby that made me also not trust him (when I organized EA Global 2015 he invited his wife to change the program substantially to be more in line with a bunch of social justice considerations because she seemed to care about it, and she also leveraged her connection with him to violate a bunch of rules at EAG about not having loud children present in sessions that was one of the top complaints we got that year at the Oxford conference, and when we asked her to please be less loud or leave she was like "I am Toby's wife, you don't get to tell me what to do").

There things were substantially less severe, but it did feel like a pretty straightforward abuse of power, and has generally made me not trust Toby very much. I've also never brought this up with him, so it's pretty plausible he would have taken reasonable action if he had known.

In any case, I don't think there was really anyone I interfaced with at CEA who struck me as high-integrity who was involved in the leadership. I think Nick Beckstead was probably the best and I've generally respected him a good amount over the years. I also trust Owen a good amount, though he was just starting to get involved with stuff at the time. Julia Wise also seems like a high-integrity person, but always intentionally avoided being directly involved in leadership.

I think CEA after Open Phil stepped in and fired a bunch of people has been much less of a deceptive environment, though still quite dysfunctional, and still not very high-integrity (but definitely with less egregious lying and deception and backstabbing).

Wait, was Tara a Leverage person? Kerry and Larissa work for Leverage now and Tyler was affiliated in the past, but I wasn't under the impression Tara was particularly involved with Leverage -- though I could of course be wrong!

I do not read Oli as saying that Tara was at Leverage, and I've never heard that she was.

Yes, to be clear I don't think Oli was necessarily claiming that -- I was replying to Jonas here, who listed Tara as one of "the Leverage people" in his own comment.

I ended up talking to Will two weeks ago about some of the content of this podcast and some comments I left on the forum and made some updates. I posted them in this comment, though I'll also quote them here for convenience: 

Leaving a comment here for posterity. I just recently had a conversation with Will where we shared some of our experiences working at CEA at the time. I stand by most of my comments here, but want to clear up a few things that I do think I have changed my mind on, after Will gave me more information on what actually happened: 

  • After Will gave me more context on the overall organizational decision-making, and the context of the CEA and GWWC merger, I now think it's inaccurate to say that Will didn't do his job as CEA CEO. Indeed, many things I thought were driven by Tara and Kerry were actually driven by Will instead. More concretely, during the time when I felt like he was quite absent, he was working on the GWWC merger, a lot of staff reorginization, fundraising, getting CEA into YC and working on various outreach work as a result of the Doing Good Better launch.
  • At least Will is pretty confident that the CEA/GWWC merger was not announced at a tactically opportune time, since he scheduled it. It's plausible that either Kerry or Tara suggested that date, and it is indeed the case that my subteam was almost fully blindsided by the merger happening, because we had Kerry and Tara screen a ton of information from us, but this was more likely an accident or at least something Will wasn't aware of.
  • CEA did not apply to YC with EA Funds; CEA applied with general community building, and decided on EA Funds as the main project afterwards. This is important because my impression was that we pivoted towards funds in order to gain the prestige of being in YC, but that seems to have happened later (this doesn't really change that I think this decision was still pretty bad, but I do think it's less concerning for other reasons)
  • It was Nick, without much support from Open Phil, who ended up ramping up his trustee involvement a lot more and then eventually fired a bunch of people from CEA. Open Phil later on then got more involved during the search for the new CEO, but the original firing was mostly Nick independently (though of course he likely talked through decisions with some people at Open Phil, but it still seems important to not characterize what happened as "Open Phil stepped in to fire people", given my current understanding)

can't find on stitcher. AXRP is on stitcher though. 

Can you let me know if you can now find it on stitcher?

yep just followed. Thanks! 

Thanks for letting me know - it should be added now.