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Nomadism and Burning Man

The past few months had been quite nomadic even by my standards. Visiting the MIRI fellows program, EA Global, Alaska camping (in 4 different parks), CFAR alumni reunion, and finally Burning Man. It was an exciting social time – I had many great conversations and coordinated with various people. It was also tiring to keep up with all the schedule changes, packing and unpacking, and my habits fell through the cracks (meditation, exercise and the like). It is a relief to be back at Citadel with all my stuff in one place, in a stable work and social environment. It almost feels like I’d never left.

It seemed appropriate to conclude the wanderings with Burning Man, which was the most like an actual vacation for me. This year was a good combination of spontaneity and scheduling, adventures and conversations.

Janos and I practiced the beginner mindset at various circus arts. In the long wait on the road into BRC, it turned out that the car in front of us had some hula hoops, buugengs and fans, and people who knew how to use them and were willing to teach. A buugeng is an S-shaped wooden object that can be twisted and thrown around – learning to throw it over my shoulder and catch it involved a lot of running around and hitting my fingers, but I got it eventually. We discovered that our camp was right next to the Hellfire Society, which ran fire spinning classes. We were late for the actual instruction, but got to do a 30-second demo with a real fire staff (turns out, even the most basic clockwise spin looks cool with real fire), and watch Michael Vassar spin fire poi like a pro. We also went to an aerial silks workshop, which inspired at least one friend to continue learning this in the default world.

We got to fight in the Thunderdome! This consists of whacking each other with foam swords while hanging from the ceiling in harnesses. The fighter who is judged to be the most aggressive wins, though they make a bigger deal out of the show than the outcome. Part of the challenge is retaining contact with the other person (or their sword) while whacking them with your sword as much as possible. We stood in line for an hour watching other people fight, despite our attempts to bribe the leather-clad staff with a bottle of alcohol to skip the line (they refused to accept anything other than their customary bribe of good whiskey). The deafening metal music and the shouts of the numerous spectators built up a lot of adrenaline. I promptly forgot all the advice the staff gave me about positions and strategies, and just had fun getting my ass kicked by Sam. Janos fought a guy who was a head taller than him and skilled in martial arts, who he managed to disarm twice. We left the place excitedly tired, and spent the rest of the evening in a relaxing cuddle puddle.

Our playa adventures were interspersed with various conversations and reflections:

  • A (surprisingly analytical) talk about shame at Mystic camp. The main insight was that a lot of what sustains addictions is the shame around them, and the shame itself is addictive. One prediction made by this theory is that signaling endorsement for addictive activities (e.g. eating junk food on a nice plate at a candlelit table) reduces their addictiveness a lot. It might be useful to install a trigger-action plan like “notice I am ashamed of something I do regularly -> try self-signaling endorsement for the activity”.
  • A discussion about common sources of motivation for doing things. I’m often motivated by importance or indignation about the status quo, while puzzle-solving motivation is something I used to engage more in my math contest days, and could use more of now. There is also a kind of motivation to do procedural things with my hands, like helping to build camp, which could be called tactile motivation, though that doesn’t sound quite right.
  • Learning about an underappreciated physics phenomenon called counterflow heat exchange, which allows two containers of fluid to go almost all the way towards swapping temperatures. (h/t Danielle Fong)

Burning Man is a good place to practice spontaneity, going along with whatever comes up. This year I tried to retain this frame of mind even while going to scheduled events. The go-to phrase that I kept repeating in my head was “roll with it”. This was actually quite effective at eliminating fear of missing out, which is usually pervasive in a place where a hundred events are going on at any given time.

This is also the only time when I actually manage to “unplug” for a whole week. It doesn’t seem to work during other vacations – for example, in Alaska I kept looking for wifi during rest stops in towns. Burning Man, on the other hand, was both sufficiently stimulating and sufficiently remote that I experienced no desire to check email or other internet things, even though there is actually a wifi camp on the playa. Occasionally reminding my system 1 that the sky does not fall if I ignore my email for a week is pretty valuable. I am now trying to sustain the spontaneity and email-ignoring mindsets in the default world to some extent.