Dartmoor

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I’ve been to Dartmoor quite a few times since I came to the UK. Because of that it feels like the ‘standard’ or ‘annual’ destination for me in this country. This spring was the second time we went there to wild camp, and it was definitely a memorable experience.

This time our trip would take us to Fur Tor, apparently one of the most remote places in Dartmoor, far, far away from civilization. Or, about 15 miles, as it would turn out. We never did get that far, though. Because as beautiful as Dartmoor is, once you’re in the no-mans-land, it does get incredibly monotonous. And why bother walking 10 miles more if the scenery’s not going to change?

Well, that was part of the reason we didn’t make it to Fur Tor. The other part is that we simply ran out of time. Given that we needed to set up the tent and prepare for dinner before dark we decided to change direction about half of the way in. Progress was slow on our way to Fur Tor because the land was very boggy. Not enough to pose a danger, but enough to get your feet wet after a misstep, and certainly enough to make you want to pay attention to every single step you take. Not a relaxed walk for sure.

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While the walk would have been tolerable, setting up the tent on bog land certainly wouldn’t, and neither would it be good if we could not find a stream to camp nearby (although not a disaster since we had brought plenty of water. Sadly the stream that we were supposed to cross on the way to Fur Tor turned out to be not there, and with the OS map reporting nothing but bog land on the path ahead we decided to change direction. I say ‘path’, but there really isn’t any. You can walk wherever you like, in any direction. No paths. No humans. No nothing. We went East instead in search of another stream and less bog.

Luckily we found a usable stream and some bits of land that were not boggy. Unfortunately none of the bits were entirely flat, so we ended up having to set up our tent on a slope. Setting up the tent only took a few minutes and we had a lovely evening meal and watched the sun set. During the night I left a bit of tent flap open so I could look at the stars. It was an amazing sight.

I kept waking up during the night and sliding down my sleeping mat, which was rather slippery on the angle the tent was set up on, but it could not be helped. I remember waking up a few times in the morning, seeing some light of dawn seep through the tent flap, but the sun never quite seemed to come out, so I went back to sleep again. Until finally I got up and stuck my head out, and realized that we would not be seeing the sun at all that day.

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The mist was so intense and so humid that the tent was full of moisture droplets, and just walking outside for a few minutes would cause lots of tiny droplets to appear on your clothes on the side that the wind was coming from. We ended up having to pack everything up while it was still wet, and went on our way back to civilization, via a different route than the one we came in on. Although visibility was utterly poor we had plenty of maps, compasses and GPS devices to guide our return. The way back took us past a military practice area where a bunch of old rifle shells were littered on the ground. At least the soil was less boggy than the route of the day before, and we managed to make good progress on the way back. Our plans to have an elaborate lunch under a beautiful blue sky were put on hold though, because it did not clear up at all in Dartmoor that day.

There’s something intensely satisfying about not seeing any other people for a whole day, and also from not having to follow any paths, because there weren’t any. It’s probably the closest to true, age-old nature that I’ve ever been. It’s a really good experience, and I will do it again.

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The Limit

I previously wrote about limits. I don’t think I did a very good job in conveying how much this vexes me in real life. Let’s try again.

On a good day I come home from work, having worked less than 8 hours on stuff that entertains and activates the mind, and I read a good book, try out a new documentary or attempt something creative. On a bad day I come home from work, having worked more than 8 hours on complicated and/or tedious problems that have drained all my mental energy, and I end up watching Youtube videos for the rest of the evening. It’s not that I’m unable to do more on those days, but a) it drains my willpower, and b) when I’m already drained I gain less enjoyment from the things that I love.

This is a problem, because I have many interests. There’s a lot of games that I wish to play, a lot of good movies and TV shows that I still haven’t watched yet, so many books that I just can’t find the time for, and so on.. If I made a list of all the things that I know I am interested in at the moment, I am 100% sure that I would not have enough time to experience all of them.

So why does this bother me? I blame my slow learning and limited mental capacity. Because I only become aware of new things gradually, slowly, it takes a long time for me to really get interested in things. As a result I’ve built up my real interests quite slowly over the years. Back in Japan I had a very enjoyable social life, but I didn’t actually ever spend a crazy amount of time on it. That, combined with the ridiculously short commute time and my still-limited area of interest, meant that I kind-of had ‘enough’ time to spend on my hobbies. I say kind-of because even then I was aware of the issue, it just seemed a lot more manageable.

Fast-forward to London. New country. New people. New hobbies. And a girlfriend! My girlfriend and my car are easily the biggest changes in my life here, because they inevitably end up at (or near) the top of my priority list. I’m really happy about that and I wouldn’t change a thing, but at the same time it did clearly bump the issue of “I kind of have a lot of things I’m interested and that’s cool” to “Oh shit! I could not possibly stay as mentally dedicated to all my favorite things as I previously was, and how do I deal with that?”

Intelligence is one issue. It helps you to meta-deal with an area of interest. Take movies, for example. My tolerance for bad movies has definitely gone down over the years. Because I’ve been exposed to so many movies I can detect common tropes and patterns, and I can recognize the difference between a stylistic masterpiece and a pretentious piece of shit. Within limits, of course. But my point is: because I have ‘learned’ from watching movies, I can immediately dismiss a subset of movies because I know they are likely to not give me the mental stimulation I want. And here’s the thing: if I was smarter, it would take me less time and effort to detect the patterns, and I would grok the genre as a whole much sooner, leaving me with less interest in movies altogether and more time to spend on other things.

I’m not sure if intelligence would help me solve this particular issue, though. If I was smarter I’d probably just end up having more complicated hobbies. Or meta-hobbies. I still want to get into cognitive science and artificial life, but I know that, with my current life and my current priority list, I would have to sacrifice a lot in order to be able to do that. It’s not a matter of “just spend one hour a day studying a cogsci book”. If I ran my brain at full power for one hour, trying to comprehend something as complicated as cogsci or AI, I would have to spend the next three hours watching stupid youtube videos to recharge. I have reached my limits in intelligence and time, and this bothers me a lot.

 

So is there a solution? In terms of actually tackling the problem: no, there isn’t. tDSC was something I thought could help preserve my mental charge, maybe allowing me to spend that hour studying without needing 3 hours of recharge time. But recent studies have either only proved a minor effect, or actually proved that it’s detrimental to IQ.

There is a workaround, of sorts: just be zen as fuck. That’s the solution. Really. Discard all your electronics, all your exposure to media and information, and go on a long trip, preferably involving lots of physical activity. Live in the moment and travel from A to B with a clear goal in mind. This will not solve any of the problems I discussed in this post, but that will not bother you. You won’t care that you’re missing out on a really education book on a subject you’re interested in. You won’t care about the knowledge and experience you’re not cramming in your brain by doing the trip because you’ve overloaded your senses and your body to a point where you can’t afford to care. It’s a different kind of limit, and in my experience one that’s much easier and much more satisfying to live with.

There must be a better way..

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Fit and Fat

I am both fit and fat, although I am only a little fit, and quite a bit more fat. I suspect that, given the amount of exercise and the amount of food I take in, I can blame my body for that, and not my effort. It’s something I never said in public before because I didn’t want to seem like a dick full of excuses. I’m not near-100% sure of it either because I haven’t compared my data points to those of others. But after the past few months of gathering evidence I’m increasingly confident that it’s not something I have control over. I tried fasting a few days a week; I tried doubling my regular exercise regime; I had an active diving holiday, yet absolutely none of those things changed my weight. It did not go up and it did not go down. I find that suspicious.

There’s still plenty of reasons for doubting my conclusions. For one, the fasting experiment did end up with me eating more on days that I didn’t fast. Despite that I still think it was a significant enough body shock for it to have some effect on my weight, but no. Perhaps the holiday wasn’t as active as I thought, and there were a few days where I didn’t do much but ate a lot, so let’s dismiss the holiday from our evidence as well. That leaves the exercise. Sadly, I can also think of reasons why this did not affect my weight: if I built up the same amount of muscle as the fat that I lost, perhaps my weight has somehow miraculously stayed exactly the same? Either that, or the amount I’m exercising is so incredibly tiny that it’s negligible compared to all my other activities. I don’t think that’s the case.

So why can’t I lose weight? First of all, that statement is not true. I have proven that I can lose weight quite easily. All I have to do is go on a cycle trip for a few months. If I put my mind to the task and focus solely on an activity that happens to make me lose weight, then I can do it. But if I have to do it tangentially, while doing other (arguably more, arguably less) important things, such as making money and finding a house, it becomes easier to lose motivation. Plus, when you’re doing exercise for the sake of exercise (as opposed to doing it for the sake of a cycling trip) you are inevitably comparing your performance to yourself and to others. I can tell you it’s no goddamn fun at all if measuring yourself against yourself shows no progress, and measuring yourself against others only means that they’re in shape and you’re not. But at least I get the natural high of elevated heart rate and post-exercise mental clarity that I need to write a blog post like this one.

No conclusion. I could spend a period of time focusing on nothing else but exercise, but I really, seriously, honestly, have way better things to do with my time than that. Because I do exercise regularly I feel that my weight is not a problem, since I can still do anything I want (physically) when I’m on holiday and during daily life. But that’s an assumption I should get verified by professional evidence. And even if the evidence points to it not being a problem, I would still prefer to lose weight. Perhaps it’s time to get scientific about this.

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The limit

Imagine if you could read a book, while playing a game, while simultaneously watching 2 movies, both played at twice the normal speed. Right now you’re thinking: that’s a crap idea. Because you can’t imagine it. You think you will lose the ability the appreciate each individual activity if you start mixing them up, because that’s exactly what happens right now if any normal human tries it. But what if there was a way to train yourself to do this? You’d probably need artificial enhancements. A novel combination of drugs and tDCS might get you a decent way there. Would the life be fundamentally better? Would you gain spectacular new insights that you otherwise never would have had, potentially helping humanity move forward? I believe it’s vital to move in this direction, to become better at becoming better.

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“Things” don’t make you happy

“Things don’t make you happy, experiences do”. It’s a fairly well-known saying. Let’s dispute it.

What is an ‘experience’? Few would dispute that a holiday in an exotic place would count as an experience. But if you go to the same place year after year until you’ve been there a gazillion times, does that still count as an experience? If you do something that you already know (more or less) exactly how it will play out, I don’t think that counts as a new experience, and surely it’s new experiences that we’re looking for. Say you’re good at programming, using a framework you already know to build something you can already see in your mind will still make you better at it; you’ll still improve your internal representation of the concepts that are already there. But it’s not a new experience, it’s a refinement of what’s already in your head. Whereas if you try a new language or a new concept that’s slightly beyond your current skills, that would definitely counts as a new experience. And that’s what makes you happy, says well-known saying.

If we’re scoping ourselves to the concept of ‘new experiences’, what else would count as a new experience? Reading a book you’ve never read before? I would think so. Watching a movie you’ve never seen before? Yup. Or going out for a cycle and taking a path you’ve never taken before. Or perhaps taking a path you’ve taken before but stopping off somewhere and having a chat with someone you’ve never met before. All of these are ‘new’, all of these are ‘happy’. It’s still something that needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis though. For example, if I am a person who has read 1000 mediocre sci-fi novels, then I am unlikely to gain a lot of new experience by reading yet another mediocre sci-fi novel. Technically speaking the words of the new novel will be new, but the patterns behind them are not. Similarly, there are only so many new bland, similar, suburban streets you can cycle through before your brain says ‘enough’. There tends to be a pattern behind experiences that, once comprehended, will limit the amount of new-ness you will gain from each subsequent experience in that category.

So why don’t ‘things’ make you happy? One theory is that because the brain focuses on the joy of obtaining the thing and then once you have it, it’s never as good as the sensation of wanting it. This can be easily refuted by thinking of things not as a goal in and of themselves, but as tools to achieve more or better new experiences. A new microwave oven might not make me happy intrinsically, but it may take less time for me to prepare food, allowing me to spend more time on experiencing a new book or a new movie. A better bike might be shiny and new at first and boring and meh after a few months, unless you use it to cycle further and see new things. Things are tools meant to help you experience more.

Given this, I believe that the subjective emotional value that people place on things is too high. When measuring things in terms of experiences, a $1000 bicycle will not deliver you twice as much new experiences as a $500 bicycle. But it might take you to that one place you’ve never been able to get to in the past simply because you could not go fast enough on your old bike, or even because you needed that feeling of ‘I’m driving a really nice bicycle’ to motivate you into getting out more. Either way, measuring things by their thing-ness makes way less sense than measuring them by experiences gained. A TV that’s twice as big as your old one won’t make you appreciate a new movie twice as much. But it will facilitate you in appreciating it. And when judged by that metric it can absolutely be a thing that makes you happy.

Acquiring things is not true happiness. Using things to gain new experiences, is.

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Thoughts

  • Hyperreality is not reality
  • Excessive use of hyperreality and multitasking makes you appreciate reality less. Shut down, sit down, do one thing.
  • During a flight, while not doing anything in particular, I started thinking about how Shazam works and suddenly understood the algorithm behind it. Felt good.
  • If two people understood each other 100% of the time then they wouldn’t need each other.
  • Seeing new places, people and things is the absolute best way of expanding your mind and understanding, really understanding, how the world works.

EXPLORE

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How life eats you

It saddens me how much of my time these days is spent thinking about mortgages, which areas to buy a house in, how to financially support myself in the long term, what best to invest in, and so on. It would be so nice not to think about that any more. I think a reasonable compromise can be reached after finding and dealing with obtaining a property. Reasonable. Not optimal.

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Why Interstellar is bad

  • They pretend it’s actual science.
  • Gaping plotholes.
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