Attendants of the 2019 CFAR alumni reunion were shocked to arrive at Camp Meeker only to be turned away by police. The venue was occupied by five masked protesters in black robes. Surrounding them were several police cruisers, SWAT, and a helicopter. The figures who were reportedly there to protest had made themselves seem too sinister, and the police response was based on the procedure for dealing with a mass shooting. According to eyewitnesses the resulting showdown involved the 5 screaming at police surrounding them. Nevertheless, the masked women turned out to be unarmed when they were brought into custody. Surreal as this was for the CFAR alumni, people farther away from the situation found it captivatingly odd. The story was weird enough to even receive brief national attention when it was retweeted by Qanon.
So just who were these masked protesters, and what did they want out of crashing the alumni reunion? To answer that question we'll take a look into a peculiar online cult that operates in the Bay Area.
The central character in our story is Ziz, who writes a blog called sinceriously.fyi. Sinceriously started out as a self improvement column giving advice on motivation and habits. Over time it became a platform for Ziz to discuss her ethical and social theories. Before the Camp Meeker protest Ziz was best known for her Rationalist Fleet project. Rationalist Fleet was supposed to be a way to avoid paying high bay area rents by living on boats. The idea was that if you could extract people from paying rent they could spend the time studying and still get access to the bay area network.
As she tells it on her blog Rationalist Fleet did not go well. Having moved to the bay area so she could work on AI risk, the dysfunction of the bay wore her down. Her posts become progressively more bitter over time, until the latest ones outright accuse CFAR and MIRI of sexual and financial crimes. Shortly after these posts Ziz and four others interrupted the alumni reunion with a masked protest. The accusations might seem like the motivation for the protests but even a quick glance at the flyer that was supposed to be given out to CFAR alumni shows there's more to the story here.
Four other people went with Ziz to her protest. Doing a quick count there's at least 9 folks in her orbit who endorse her ideas and keep mutual friendships. The purpose of this document is to warn you not to join them! Ziz is a master manipulator; she is extremely skilled at selling people on nonsense ideas about decision theory and ethics that defy not just the "rules of rationality" but basic common sense.
Ziz is particularly interested in AI risk researchers, and approaches them under the guise of providing "mental tech" for people to build a singleton based on "altruism" (i.e., rewarding people Ziz likes and hurting people she doesn't like). If you're an [FAI person] who has been approached by Ziz you should read the sections Roko's Basilisk and Unihemispheric Sleep before getting involved.
The theoretical basis for Zizian social conduct is Yudkowsky and Soare's "functional decision theory". "Functional decision theory" is designed as an answer to Newcomb-like problems where the actions of others are conditional on which decision theory an agent uses. In normal English, it's about situations where the environment will change depending on who you are. The classic example is a choice between two boxes full of money. The first box has much more money in it but only if you're the sort of person who will take that box and leave the other behind. Functional decision theory says the solution to this problem is to choose a strategy which responds to this situation by only taking the first box. It asserts an acausal theory of decisions, where you do not make choices between outcomes but choices between strategies. Instead of saying "now that I'm here I'll take both boxes" an FDT agent says "I know I only get to be here if I one box; so I'll one box".
In Zizian thought this concept is expanded to justify behavior that would make a Sovereign Citizen blush. Zizians do not think it is ever valid to surrender. The reasoning goes that if someone is trying to extract a surrender from you, giving in is choosing a strategy that gets coerced into surrender. If you fight bitterly you prevent the coercion in the first place by making it too costly to fight you. (Associated phrases: "nosell"; "collapse the timeline";)
This can often be a valid way to think about things, but Ziz and her followers apply it in every scenario without considering the power difference between fighters. If you can't make it costly enough to fight you, refusing to surrender is a sure way to see the inside of a jail cell or the pearly gates. We see this in action during the Camp Meeker incident. While we can only speculate on the motives of the protesters for screaming at police, it seems likely this played an important role.
Ziz bases her social theories on the idea that a person is made up of "core" and "structure". Structure is the derived aspects of a persons identity and skillset, it is everything that is downstream of their chosen strategy. Core is the thing which chooses a strategy, it is what has moral patiency in Ziz's theories. Ziz writes that each person has two cores made up of their left and right hemispheres. Each of these is considered a full person, and when Ziz says "person" she really means an animal's core.
Ziz believes there are two kinds of core, "good" and "nongood". "Nongood" cores are the most common (about 95% of the population). A "nongood" core is one that only grants full agency when dealing with issues of self survival or protecting offspring. This is enforced by a filter that only unlocks full agency when it detects those objects in a situation. Sometimes this filter breaks, producing a "good" core. Because people have two cores, there are three basic alignments: "nongood", "single good", and "double good". "Single good" is about 5% of the population, having one broken core which allows limited altruistic agency. Ziz seems to believe the probability of cores breaking is independent. That means the "double good" alignment only occurs in one fourth of one percent of people. This is important because double goods are the only people who can have full altruistic agency in Ziz's worldview.
In this model "core" cannot be changed and you're stuck with the morality you have. This is important to consider in later sections where we talk about what Ziz tells people about their cores.
This is a brief summary of a very detailed model. If you want more information read Hemisphere Theory: Much More Than You Wanted to Know.
Zizians believe normal ideas about morality are mostly obfuscated nonsense. They think real morality is simple and has already been put to paper by Jeremy Bentham with his utilitarian ideas. Bentham famously predicted an expanding scope of moral concern. He says if humanity is honest with itself it will eventually adopt uncompromising veganism. Zizians think arguments which don't acknowledge this are not about morality at all, they're about local struggles for power delaying the removal of an unjust status quo. This is a lot of the reason why they're so unhappy with MIRI / CFAR. To them these organizations waste their time on fake philosophy problems. In trying to "figure out human values" they are not fighting philosophical difficulties, but rather their own cowardice and refusal to update on their poor moral practices.
This also suggests a desire to secede from society. In the mind of a Zizian, liberalism means the same thing it does for a Communist or Nazi: an opportunity for decadence, vice, and corruption. Because we "already know" the correct moral policy is a ruthlessly enforced altruism towards all or almost all living creatures; supporting liberalism is to participate in crime on a mass scale. They believe that now is the time to [betray our corrupt society] and establish a vegan hegemony.
Ziz writes on her blog that she spent a long time "suffering from Basilisks". This anxiety seems to have been resolved by trying to become one. Ziz doesn't write about it publicly, but supports "Nuremberg Trials" after the singularity to punish people for eating meat:
Other Zizians seem to share her viewpoint. In the pamphlet distributed at Camp Meeker is a passage threatening to punish "nongood" people:
Eliezer offered us heaven Ill considered-solace in hopes of heaven worships hell
Two futures only? Extinction vs Utopia Why two? What really prevents an evil/unjust singleton? “No motive for predation post scarcity??” - false. Indifference is not enough 1. Evil cannot create (but can capture) 2. Good will destroy hell and punish all those who would build itClaiming we’re safe because good would destroy hell puts the cart before the horse. Dark gods whisper lies of logical order.
It's important to read the post Net Negative to have the full context for this. In it Ziz describes how she doesn't just think animals and insects are important moral patients, but of approximately equal moral worth to human beings:
I think we discussed the unilateralist’s curse. Also in the context of talking about consequentialism, I told a story about a time I had killed 4 ants in a bathtub where I wanted to take a shower before going to work. How I had considered, can I just not take a shower, and presumed me smelling bad at work would, because of big numbers and the fate of the world and stuff, make the world worse than the deaths of 4 basically-causally-isolated people. (I said I didn’t know whether ants had feelings or not. But I ran empathy in a “I have to feel what I am doing” way for the people they might have been.) I considered getting paper and a cup and taking them elsewhere.
When Ziz talks about punishing people who will build hell, she really means people who are singularitans without being vegan. The basic idea is that human values might endorse conditions for the rest of earthly life that are unacceptable from a Bentham-utilitarian viewpoint. She also probably means a bunch of other people, but if you're reading this the important point is that she has you in mind.
One of the techniques that Ziz uses to manipulate people is unihemispheric sleep. Unihemispheric sleep (or UHS for short) is a form of sleep where only one half of the brain rests at a time. Normally it is not possible for human beings to sleep with only one hemisphere. However a weak form of UHS can be achieved by stimulating one half of the body and resting the other. Like hypnosis or fasting, this is a vulnerable psychological state for a person. Entering UHS requires the sleeper to be exhausted, it also has disorienting effects so they are not quite themselves. The Zizians exploit this state to convince the unwary that they are actually two people. Ziz believes themselves to be "double good", and almost without exception tells the people she is recruiting that they are "single good". By doing this Ziz establishes a relationship of moral superiority over her followers. See this post by Jay W for examples.
Ziz uses UHS as a secret she rations out to her followers. But the process itself is simple. To perform UHS:
One of the dangers of UHS is that it provides a false sense of rest after waking. If you pay close attention though you'll realize that you are inhibited and need real sleep. It's also unknown if UHS reveals a twin personhood or causes it by desynchronizing the sleeper. You might be giving yourself split personality by using this technique.
For readers who plan to try anyway we suggest doing it alone or with a trusted friend. A trusted friend means someone who does not have an interest in the results you get (i.e., not Ziz or one of her friends).
According to someone familiar with the matter Ziz played a large role in the death of Maia Pasek (also known as squirrelinhell). Maia tried UHS as a way to gain awareness of their twin personhood, what Ziz calls "debucketing". We're told these sessions were done with Ziz and involved telling Maia to focus on their suicidal impulses while in a disoriented state. Ziz briefly mentions this in her post Good Group and Pasek's Doom, but skips over the details for obvious reasons. Supposedly Maia began using UHS as an alternative to real sleep. If you paid attention to the previous section you understand that's a bad idea. Between their natural suicidal impulses, the sessions with Ziz, and prolonged sleep deprivation from substituting real sleep with UHS Maia probably had a mental break and committed suicide.
Ziz will tell people they are in the process of indoctrinating to get away from trusted family, friends, and lovers. Jay gives an example of this on her blog with the comment:
It’s still noteworthy that Ziz tried to break up a happy marriage so like, someone could spend less time being with a partner and more time trying to save the world though. Doing that is a good way to get people to stop satisfying their values, and in turn become less effective.
During her work on Rationalist Fleet she would try to get potential recruits to move into her boat, which isn't exactly [bad behavior] on its own but in the context of other stuff very concerning.
Many people find Ziz's blog nearly impossible to read. It's thick with odd jargon that confuses readers. Familiar terms such as "Good", "Justice", and "Alive" are given new meanings skewed towards Ziz's perspective. Ziz's enemies are "vampires", the mass of unenlightened humanity "zombies", nice folks who don't see things her way "single good". The construction of "good" is particularly jarring. Ziz comes out and directly says she intends to fight any use of the word "good" that doesn't agree with her perspective:
What a turnabout that I’m calling my values “good” after saying “‘Good’ and ‘right’ are a set of values that is outside any single person.”
It turns out my values just happen to correspond as well as language can expect with that word. And i.e., if other people think carnism is okay, and roll that into the standard definition of “good”, then I won’t let them claim this word insofar as convincing me to describe myself as a “villain” like I used to. Because in a sense I care about, and which people I want to communicate with care about, that’s them executing deception and driving out our ability to communicate.Our word. Hiss.
This jargon serves multiple purposes. An important one is that it separates Zizians from others. The cost to read and understand Sinceriously is substantial, and most people are not willing to pay it. Another is to warp the beliefs of people who use it. The connotations and affect of Ziz's jargon encode her moral beliefs about the world separated from the quality of reasoning used to produce them. By offering language that reinforces these judgments Ziz creates conditions where even engaging with the beliefs of her followers requires the repetition and reinforcement of their frame.
The idea that every human being is actually two people is not just recognized as an abstract fact. Zizians encourage the adoption of a new identity along these lines, giving a name to each hemisphere (e.g., Ziz's left hemisphere "Xalis"; right hemisphere "Yanrae"). They also encourage new members to make significant and often uncharacteristic lifestyle changes. Most often a new Zizian is told they need to become vegan to remain in the group. Wardrobe changes might also be encouraged. Ziz herself famously wears "dark robes" at all times, a preference which explains the ill fated decision to show up at the alumni reunion in sinister garb.
All four of the people arrested as part of Ziz's protest were transgender women (the fifth was let go without charges). This is far from coincidence as Ziz seems to go out of her way to target transgender people. In terms of cult indoctrination such folks are an excellent fit. They're often:
All of these factors combine to make Ziz, themselves a transgender woman, more credible to recruits than she might otherwise be. A privileged cis person with close family and stable housing might reject boat housing out of hand: "I don't know, that sounds iffy to me". For someone facing mortal danger after their rude ejection into the underclass it's an easier pill to swallow: "It can't be worse than sleeping on the street right?"
Another important concept Ziz uses to manipulate people is the idea of being "bigender". Ziz claims that each hemisphere has a gender and that fairly often people have opposing gender identities between hemispheres. This provides a convenient basis for her to undermine the identity of people she's recruiting. If the target is cis, tell them their other half is trans, if the target is trans tell them their other half is cis. It's a similar disorienting trick to the idea of single and double good. If the target identifies as good tell them their other half is irredeemably evil, if they identify amorally insist that half of them is a saint. The pattern is to take aspects of folks identities that they're invested in and disrupt them by creating a domain of self which Ziz (and only Ziz) has knowledge about so the target is forced to trust their interpretation.
Because they've operated in obscurity until recently, it seems likely that the most concerning or abusive aspects of Zizian philosophy are not public knowledge. What is known at the present is more than enough to be alarmed. Ziz preaches a doctrine of radical high-tech veganism that promotes punishing your ideological enemies. She rejects the idea of "niceness, community, and civilization" that's often at the core of Effective Altruism and AI safety movement member concerns. They use unethical tactics to onboard new members (e.g., encouraging isolation from friends and family). Perhaps most concerning is her indifference to the felony conspiracy charge caused by their poor protest planning. As far as we can tell, the Camp Meeker incident has not been a wake up call for anyone involved.