Incremental Life Improvement: Headaches

Life could be better. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make progress on the big problems I have. Unfortunately, those are hard to make progress on and often have long feedback loops. All of these problems would be easier if I were overall healthier, smarter, more functional, and more energetic.

My current project is to find things that make my life 1-5% better. One reason is that these are cumulative and will make solving the rest easier. Another is the theory of low-hanging fruit. I haven’t taken this particular approach to improving my life recently.

First, I started by listing domains that had potential for those 1-5% improvements.

  • Annoyance from construction next door
  • Difficulty sleeping: House is hot, high resting heart rate
  • Climbing: Need shoes that fit better, lessons, a cheaper way to get there
  • Guitar: Mediocre quality, less fun to play
  • Skin quality: Figure out way to reduce hyperpigmentation, anti-wrinkles?
  • Headaches: How to be systematic about them?
  • Eyes: Might help with headaches as well. Maybe need better sunglasses?
  • Nutrition and supplementation: Am I deficient in anything?
  • Better backpack: Bulky, few and inaccessible pockets. Poor flow.
  • Things I do every day: brush teeth, drink water, facial care, hygiene, food preparation and leaning, anti-fragile night routine

Right away, I could see that some were easily fixable. In five minutes, I went to the Wirecutter to see which water bottle they recommended and bought the best one.

Next, I chose one that seemed like it would have the best time / reward.

Headaches

What’s the problem?

I get headaches for several hours perhaps on 10-20% of days. Headaches make me stupid, unmotivated, and in mild pain. There are two problems: Figuring out what causes headaches such that I can prevent them, and figuring out what makes them better such that I can alleviate them.

There are a lot of possible things that cause headaches. I started by listing a bunch of possible contributors.

  • Smoke: I’ve been trying a variety of incense types to see which ones I’m allergic to, and it turns out that I’m mildly uncomfortable with all of them (some more than others). Burning sage or fire in my fireplace does a similar thing. Which sucks! I like burning things.
  • Eye strain: I watched a movie with my blurry vision from 20 feet away, and it was fine during it, but afterwards I had a strong headache for hours. This was helpful, since then I had a clear cause / effect.
    • This might be fixed soon with Lasik.
  • Caffeine
  • Lack of caffeine
  • Deyhdration
  • Having my hair up
  • Chocolate
  • Looking at my phone in the car

These are too many things to practically track and do data analysis on. Instead, I will have to do research and make models on which of these are most likely, and then isolate those variables and see if it has an effect.

Also, I wrote down any other clues that seemed relevant:

I suspect there are multiple causes that are contributing to my headaches. They all feel like tension headaches, located in my temples and behind my eyes. I never have a headache in the morning. Instead, it feels like the headache builds throughout the day.

Next, I started trying to find out why these various things might cause headaches, and started trying to make a model. The important thing isn’t to have a perfect understanding of what’s going on, but to get an idea for what the different factors are and what things I can try.

Tension Headaches

My symptoms fit the most common type of headaches, tension headaches.

Hypertension

Well, my blood pressure is pretty low, and a study I found suggests that hypertension and headaches aren’t as connected as common knowledge suggests.

Possible intervention: Clonidine

Vasoconstriction

I don’t fully understand the mechanism of either vasoconstriction or vasodilation, but vaguely, vasoconstriction manifests as headaches sometimes. This is when blood vessels become narrower throughout the body. Causes of that include caffeine, sodium, other stimulants, antihistimines.

I take antihistimines. That plus caffeine could contribute to that.

The opposite of vasoconstriction is vasodilation. One mechanism that vasodilators work includes increasing the production of nitric oxide. Alpha blockers like clonidine are primarily for hypertension, but might work for vasoconstriction too [TODO: figure this out]

Supposedly, dark chocolate helps with the production of nitric oxide. However, it also has caffeine and other stimulants in it, which could cause vasoconstriction. This makes it a confusing variable to have around, and reducing intake might help clarify what’s going on.

Possible intervention: Decaf coffee

Possible intervention: Tapering antihistimines (potentially costly experiment)

Dehydration

There’s another type of headache caused by dehydration. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it seems like it’s partly from the brain contracting within the skull and also loss of blood volume. The symptoms don’t match mine exactly, but I’m not sure. Drinking more water is cheap and beneficial anyway.

One strategy could be to avoid things that cause dehydration, like diuretics and things that suppress anti-diuretics in the body. Alcohol, tea, and caffeine are in this category.

Possible intervention: Avoiding or reducing diuretics.

Possible intervention: Carrying a water bottle around. Good thing I just ordered one!

Next steps: Figuring out how to incorporate drinking more water into my life.

Eye Strain

Things that might cause it include squinting or trying to look at things far away without my contacts.

Possible intervention: Carrying around sunglasses. Finding sunglasses I like. Owning several pairs of sunglasses.

Possible intervention: Lasik (planned). We will see what happens.

Posture

There’s a type of headache I used to get when I played a lot of Nintendo Switch. I had magical thinking about it, and kept hoping I wouldn’t get another massive neck tweak from playing so much. But it’s real and very uncomfortable. It seems like certain types of screen activities semi-reliably cause it.

I have had little success in fixing this type of headache when it happens, and I’m not sure how I would get better at it. Chiropractor training? Posture classes? Regular self-massage?

Other causes seem to be having a heavy purse that rests on one shoulder and having my hair up for extended periods of time or in the car (because of the headrest).

Possible intervention: Topical magnesium lotion. This has led to imbalance of muscle tension in the past, though.

Possible intervention: Physical therapist or something similar to retrain muscles.

Possible intervention: Limit screen time to five hours in a day. Watch fewer shows, or watch them from a screen further away with proper vision.

Misc

I’m also going to try having ibuprofen on hand and taking it more often. It doesn’t help solve the root cause, but does add a few hours of functionality to my life.

Try Things

The next step is to try some of these interventions and pay close attention to how I’m feeling. The better attention I can pay to myself via introspection, the better the feedback loop. At some point, if I’m not getting anywhere, I might do more research to understand the biological mechanisms in more detail.

The Trees

I wasn’t lonely around the trees. I found two basking in some sunlight. Dead trees. No branches. Still stolid and present. They were my friends for a minute. I stood between them and imagined being a tree. It would be nice, I think.

There were windy ghosts creaking in the tops of the eucalyptus. I was scared. The ghosts didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. What if a tree fell on me? Would I scream? Would I die instantly? If I screamed, would that attract predators or friends?

I didn’t bring my backpack with water, since I thought I’d be going on a short walk. But I couldn’t help but consider what would happen if I just kept walking. Walking past the sunset. Staying on the trail but with no sense of direction. I would become dehydrated first. Hunger would register second. My lips would crack and my gums would dry. I could keep walking, still. My limbs would grow tired, and I would eventually collapse in the dirt. But that wasn’t important—the important thing was that I could keep walking.

These thoughts make me feel isolated. I came back from that walk feeling much better about life. Perhaps part of me thought it wasn’t safe to have thoughts like that around other people. But we all do, sometimes, and that is okay.

Fun with Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasma Gondii is a single-celled parasite that can only sexually reproduce in cat feces, infectious up to 12 months after expulsion.

T. Gondii life cycle

In a warm-blooded host like us, T. gondii will start out by entering all sorts of cell types and asexually reproducing in vacoules, virus-style. This will continue until the cell bursts, spreading toxoplasma all over the body and destroying cells in a domino of break in and explode out.

This stage ends when the host’s immune system kicks in. Then, toxoplasma will slowly replicate from within a cyst. These cysts can persist for a long time, eventually bursting and forming new cysts.

Humans end up contracting it a couple of ways: exposed to cat feces directly, dealing with it indirectly in dirt outside, or eating raw meat (especially free range and pig / boar) with cysts that contain the parasite. There are more people infected in France just because they eat more raw and undercooked meat.

If the host is not immunocompromised, there will usually be no symptoms. But some of the fun effects include increased mood disorders, Alzheimer’s, traffic accidents, and a 2.7x higher risk of schizophrenia.


I think a lot about how I can provide value to the places I’m going, and in a few months I’m going to a party in the woods. It would be beyond valuable to have a volunteer station that can provide tests for toxoplasmosis while there. It fits with the theme.

The CDC website describes a few screening methods:

  1. Screening blood for the genetic tissue of Toxoplasma gondii using PCR.
  2. Isolating and spotting the parasite directly via a tissue biopsy, blood, or other bodily fluids. Bronchoalveolar lavage is one invasive diagnostic technique for this.
  3. Testing relative levels of IgG and IgM to detect antibodies, present in blood, saliva, spinal fluid, and semen. This is the normal screening method.

Unfortunately, all of these require blood or similar. Fortunately, anyone can buy an IgG kit for $299.20 + shipping. The site doesn’t require any credentials. That’s under $4 per test. Downsides are needing a freezer and incubator, as well as needing 2 hours of waiting with steps to be done at very specific time intervals.

The test requires 100µl of serum. Serum is the liquid portion of blood, and to get it, we need a blood draw of 2-3ml, which we then allow to clot for 30 minutes. The clot is removed using a refrigerated centrifuge for 10 minutes. A good finger prick draw is right on the border of getting enough blood. I don’t know if it is possible to make serum from finger prick blood, because “milking” the finger causes blood cells to explode.

I reckon that it would be a bad idea to do a blood draw in my tent, primarily because I am an untrained phlebotomist. Setting up a sterile blood draw station in a van is relatively easy [citation needed], and following the directions to bind antigens seems simple enough. I also haven’t looked into what the law has to say about non-diagnostic blood draws and testing for fun.

Freezer, incubator, blood draws, centrifuges, and antigens, oh my. But perhaps this all might not be necessary. The older you are, the more certain it is that you have toxoplasmosis. Especially if you garden, have a cat, or eat raw meat.

Seroprevalence of Toxoplasma gondii, by age and sex, Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988–1994. □, men; ▪, women. Done in USA with around 17,000 samples. [Source]

So instead of a blood draw, maybe this is what must be done: “Doctors” helpfully offer free toxoplasma screening, doing saliva swabs of innocent party goers. The doctors then rip off their doctor outfit, revealing a cat costume underneath. Instead of being tested, surprise! they’ve been given toxoplasmosis by Big Feline. After all, if the infection rate is 100%, who needs screening?

One-shot: Punkbusters

2055 Los Angeles has expanded subterraneously. Elon Musk’s legacy tunnels and bootleg basement construction provide a place for people of all sorts to escape the heat–literally and figuratively.

You’re a member of the LA Special Containment Patrol (LA:SCP), sort of like a cyberpunk ghostbusting unit. Weird things are happening. Good luck out there.

Spoiler warning for Introductory Antimemetics. This is a one-shot based heavily on SCP lore, and new missions can be adapted from the files there. If your players are already familiar with Introductory Antimemetics, the last battle will be too easy for them.

This follows the story format 1, 2, Twist: There are two official missions, then an encounter with a twist. Run time is between 2-5 hours. The more people, the longer this will take.

A few documents should be printed out ahead of time.


Characters

Director Mary Hutchinson, your team’s dispatcher for the day. She shows up on a large screen in the LA:SCP base, as well as communicating through your badge.

Alastair Grey, appearing as a business executive. Only asks questions. Not fully conscious, just a representation of a human.

Setting and Flavor

Travel underground happens by autonomous vehicles hailed via almost any electronic device. Boston Dynamics “Doggos” roam pedestrian and off-map tunnels as delivery vehicles and cop mounts.

Bootleg augments are done underground at street clinics. Implanted LEDs powered by skin conductivity are the most common one. Dramatic plastic surgery, sense enhancements, and electronic tattoos are also popular.

The lights in the tunnel reflect time of day outside: blue in the day, red at night.

  • “Cheapest dentist you’ll ever find!”
  • Genetically modified giant rat pet on leash
  • A man missing one of his eyes is standing in the middle of the street, shouting about the evils and inherent sin of bioagumentation. “Shut up, Peter, you’re just saying that cuz you can’t afford augs!”
  • An old woman wearing a VR visor bumps into the party
  • “She Blinded Me With Science!” blasts from a bar
  • Shady dealer notices badges, smiles, backs away. “I’m getting the stuff from my car!” and ditches
  • 8 legged bootleg Doggo passes over the party
  • Converted ambulance with cut off top drives by with disco lights

The Base

The base is a large converted warehouse in the LA warehouse district. Characters begin in the sleeping area. The tools room has all of the tools they bought with their point buys. The training room contains some mats, weights, and punching bags. They enter the underground through a large elevator.

The server room contains tables full of monitors and several large server towers. Take care to describe this. The tables have usb sticks scattered across them, as well as some on the floor.

The medical bay has four vats with naked bodies floating in some sort of fluid, as well as a locked chest with blue amnestic drugs. If a character dies in the first mission, they are replaced by one of the spare bodies.

Missions

The Trashbeast

“A humanoid entity is roaming the underground near the city downtown. It was reported after removing the hand of one victim. There are no known fatalities at this time. Your job is to neutralize the target, one way or another.” – Director Hutchinson

The beast is reportedly last seen in the utility tunnels, and might be in the dark off-the-grid tunnels by now. It can be tracked by its weird sonic signature, the screams of victims, or whatever the party needs.

When located, it looks like nothing more than a pile of trash, containing pots and pans, a refrigerator, cardboard. It will attack and advance on the party when disturbed, doing bash attacks with parts of its body. If it overwhelms someone, begins to consume their body parts like a woodchipper.

It’s vulnerable to fire. Inside the refrigerator is a phylactery that looks like an overgrown terrarium, but of flesh. Destroying this will make the trashbeast collapse.

Info Spiders

“A series of unusual reports are coming from a mall down in Beverly Hills. People coming in as one person and leaving thinking they are someone else, down to speaking new foreign languages. We ruled out drugs. There are no signs of violence except for circular bruises on the victim’s legs and arms.” – Director Hutchinson

“This may be a memetic or antimemetic hazard, so we are authorizing you to use the kits in the med cabinet.” Tools in this cupboard include syringes full of blue serum.. These are amnesiac drugs that cause forgetting of all info for 5 minutes, 1 hour, and 1 day. There are enough for each player to have one full set.

“New task: Recover at least one of the spider bodies. Keep it as intact as you can.”

The Spiders resemble a virus, with a plunger and injector located on the bottom of them. They work in groups to inject garbage data into their targets. Easy to kill with a solid hit, but there are a lot of them.

They inject information to an overwhelming degree, overwriting memory or filling brain with out of context facts and skills. When a hit lands, draw garbage data from the page “Junk Data”. This works well cut up and stuffed in an envelope.

The Nest unfolds out of the fiberoptic data line in a maintenance area of the mall. It resembles a grotesque metal octopus, with no visible center, just a twitching, pulsing mess of cables melted together spewing new spiders and electric sparks. A large amount of damage will cause the nest to retreat back inside the data line, while destroying the data line itself will starve it out.

When the Nest makes direct contact with the party, they need to save to avoid getting a major delusion:

  • Belief that your body map is that of a velociraptor: 3 feet tall with talons
  • UFOs are terrifyingly true. You have been abducted, once. Bright lights remind you of this.
  • You believe that you’re a spy for another agency.
  • Any injectables (amnestics and mnestics) are disgusting pro-vaxxer paraphernalia
  • You have a lot of imposter syndrome. Should they really let you on these missions, using these dangerous tools?
  • Intense phobia of the dark.
  • You’ve been a plumber your whole life. You constantly notice water piping and always find how the situation relates to plumbing.

Blue amnestic drugs will prevent delusions and junk information from taking hold.

Alastair Grey

“Hell of a first day, isn’t it?” – Alastair Grey

When the team returns to the base after the Infospiders mission, they’re greeted by Alastair Grey.

“What do you mean? This isn’t your first day. Who’s talking? I don’t see anyone. My memetic shielding software isn’t letting me see you either, this is bad news.” – Director Hutchinson

The information in the Alastair Grey PDF will noisily begin printing from a computer in the server room.

Attacks: Alastair Grey will go up to a player and ask them an innocuous question. They roll a save (DC 14) and forget that information on a failure. The severity of the memory loss elevates.

  • (2) Name, family, job, friends, hobbies
  • (2) Appearance, personality, ability to recognize self / team members, layout of the building
  • (2) Ability to read, unique skills, understanding of objects around you, understanding of languages
  • (1) How breathe, talk, see, stand
  • Death

Weakness: Anything full of data will hit him, causing an “Ow” or description of Alastair in pain. There are numerous computers, servers, and usb sticks around the base. Hitting him with enough servers will kill him, reconnecting the party with the real world.

Ending

If Alistair Grey is defeated, Mary Hutchinson will come back online and tell the characters that their training has served them well. This was not their first day, they’ve been working at LA:SCP for 4 years now. They’ll put their heads together again, no doubt. They’ve done it before.

If Alistair Grey isn’t defeated, the vats will break open, and Director Hutchinson will great the new players, saying that there has been a tragic mishap and that their service will be needed now. There is no sign of Alastair Grey, for now…


Rules

This is rules light so as not to need prep on the part of the players, and is inclusive of people new to RPGs.

There are three stats: Brawn (Strength / Constitution), Brains (Intelligence / Wisdom), and Moxie (Dexterity / Charisma). Each character has one strong stat that they roll with advantage, one stat they’re ok at, and one dump stat that they roll with disadvantage.

You’ll need a lot of D20s. Advantage = roll with 2 D20s, take higher number. Disadvantage = roll 2 D20s, take the lower number.

Each character has 2 wounds. If they are strong in Brawn, they have 3. Wound levels are mild / moderate / severe.

Character Build

All characters get a name, a background, and points to buy items. This should take less than 30 minutes.

Background gives them a +2 for their specialty skills. No promises of balance.

  • Occult Historian (Occult, History, Perception)
  • Bruiser (Intimidate, Unarmed combat)
  • Fast Talker (Persuade, Doublethink)
  • Iron Man (Carry, +1 health)
  • Acrobat (Acrobatics, Climb, Jump)
  • Medic (First Aid, Medicine)
  • Investigator (Communications, Arts/Crafts/Photography)
  • Head Doctor (Psychology, Doublethink)
  • Sharpshooter (Firearms, Ranged Weapons)
  • Mad Scientist (Chemistry, Physics, Biology)
  • Hacker (Research, Computers)
  • Light Fingers (Slight of Hand, Stealth, Drive)
The Head Doctor: A character sheet

Players get 5 buy points to start, and as a DM you can reward players with points after missions as seems fit. Also not particularly balanced.

1 point2 points3 points
Shooting earmuff + blindfold
TaserFirst aid kit
Sharpies + duct tapeHeavy hammerPistol and ammo
FlashlightGrenadeRifle and ammo
GoPro
Flashbang x 2Bulletproof vest
Polaroid cameraBowie KnifeIndustrial vacuum cleaner
(backpack style)
Hard driveFire extinguisherRocket skates
Lighter x 2
Bow and arrows x10Infrared goggles
Spray paint x 2Nootropic spray x3
Baseball bat
Hand radio set

RPG Self

This Google Doc is my todo list.

I’ve played a lot of video games and RPGs, and the way characters in them pursue goals feels so compelling. I’ve been writing up goals as quests and self-improvement tasks as ways to increase stats, and my meaning-maker loves this. Being productive is awesome.

I don’t force my perception of life to line up with the system, but rather try to make the system match my real life—while adding a good dose of dramatic and whimsical flair.

The RPG sheet is for me, not me for the RPG sheet. Sometimes my overall path changes out from under me, and none of the quests are applicable anymore. Then it’s time to find new goals that are compelling and write those up.

This is just the beginning.

The framework is highly inspired by Mage: The Ascension.

In general, stats go up by an order of magnitude. 0 is below average, 1 is average for a human adult, 2 is average for someone who has put in a good amount of deliberate effort, 3 is the level of someone who has dedicated their life to this, and so on. 5 is incredibly rare. 0, Unskilled: No training in the ability; rely on natural talent.

So for something like reputation, being well-regarded by 1000 people might be Reputation 1. The next level would be at least 10,000 and so on.

Traits are mostly for flavor. Next up, quests:

Example quests

For quests, the difficulty of them is related to the Impact Level. I can comfortably do Level 0 and 1 quests, maybe taking a month for the hard ones. Doing a Level 2 quest might take me half a year or longer or a lot of resources I don’t have yet. One day I’ll get to Level 3. Like with Skills, the difficulty goes up approximately an order of magnitude with each increase in number.

Poiesis

Poiesis is bringing into existence what did not exist before. It is the power of manifestation and reification. Mage: The Ascension refers to this as Prime. And that is what I’m doing now, by writing this.


A few months ago, I tried to manifest an idea of mine into an organization (a startup). But the more progress I made at manifesting it in the larger world, the less buy-in I had with myself. At some point I couldn’t convince myself (let alone anyone else) that it was worth the effort to try to manifest it anymore. This was disheartening! It still seems like a good idea. So why couldn’t I realize it in the world?

I think there’s a missing skill. Some people seem to have lots of it. And I don’t yet have enough of it. So, how does one get better at the skill of raw manifestation?

Here’s my model for how poiesis works so far:

  • Vision. This will determine how much energy is necessary to manifest it. Proper nouns / naming, consistency, repetition, and details enhance vision. The more vision, the less susceptible this is to distortion from others. Sarah Constantin wrote up this advice for reifying her organization.
  • Buy-in. This can be from yourself, your friends, a target audience, etc. They can lend their poiesis to co-manifest your vision. Subskills are getting, keeping, and controlling buy-in.
  • Reaction to challenges. When met with opposing poiesis, what happens? Some strategies are avoiding, ignoring, and convincing. Lack of ability to stand up to opposing poiesis is a reason why some people HAVE TO surround themselves with yes-men or disconnect from reality to go forward.

More examples of the thing I’m talking about:

Improv is all poiesis. If I walk into a scene and say, “Stop stealing my horse!” and the other person says “I’m not stealing your horse,” it’s hard to move forward. Buy-in is key, but this also teaches strategies to maintain poiesis in the face of resistance. “Oh, you would deny it, thief? The nerve!”

In Dungeons and Dragons as GM, I’m learning that consistency of the world over time and small details add to the realism and player buy-in. You can’t lead DnD if the players don’t buy-in.

An event can happen by telling 100 people to come to a place at a time. If there are too many setbacks, I lose the ability to feel like I can really make 100 people come to this place at a time. Losing the feeling of confidence is similar to losing the ability.

“Where do you want to eat?” “Let’s go to Angeline’s unless you have a strong preference against that.” This has gotten easier over time.


Poiesis is a skill that could be valued and sought-after in the same way that one might train up in Charisma. I don’t see much about it in the common discourse. What are ways to train up in poiesis?

Mindscapes

3 years ago, I stared at a crystal ball until I happened to hallucinate a house on a hill. Over time, that house became my mindscape, a consistent internal visualization that I’ve checked in on over the years.

It’s no place I’ve been before. A log cabin / hewn stone castle is half-buried on a craggy hill studded with lichen-covered rocks. No trees around. Steep stairs. Mist.

In the center of the cabin is a pillaring fireplace, around which the floor is sunken in and filled with sheepskins and pillows. To the left, there’s a staircase that goes up one level and down.. who knows how many levels down. I can’t see much down there. It’s dark.

My mindscape is also a memory palace. I put a strand of rope on the mantel above the fireplace three years ago, and it’s still there. More recently I added a bottle filled with a brightly glowing spark.

I also like to summon models of people I know (“daemons”) and talk with them. It’s a good exercise for empathy. And tiring.

I can only access this place while sitting down. My eyes can be open if not much is going on. I tend to see myself in 3rd person, probably because of how many video games I’ve played. I wonder what that does for my sense of internal cohesion (“self” as one).

Sitting in my mindscape feels peaceful and safe, more safe than I’ve been in a long time. Surprisingly, when I’m there I don’t feel alone.