Saturday, March 19, 2016

Addictions and my Experience with Computer Games

I have long struggled with a tendency to get easily addicted to computer games. To the point where I'd spend days just sitting at the computer and lose all sense of anything else I needed to do or any of my other hobbies, and have severe withdrawals any time I managed to actually wrench myself away for a few minutes. And it could happen with any kind of game really. It could even be something as simple as Tetris. The sad thing is, I'd begin by genuinely enjoying the game. Then I'd start to get bored with it, but be even more highly addicted. After a few days, I'd turn into an empty husk, gaining nothing from the game yet feeling even more worthless and depressed whenever I'd stop and inevitably reflect on the manner in which I'd spent my time. It's not a fun place to be.

I've experimented with various different methods of control over the years. For whatever reason, it's been a pretty complex issue for me. The simplest approach I've found for dealing with addiction is simply to quit cold turkey. For example, I did this with fast food beginning in the summer of 2010:

First, I looked at the cons of eating fast food, from the amount of money I spent on it to the health issues to the way it made my body feel. While most the time I felt fine, if I went a month without eating it then tried it again, my stomach would react almost violently to the grease. Next, I looked at the extent to which I relied on fast food as a crutch. I tended to go through a drive through several times a week and felt strong cravings on the days I didn't go. Various factors played into this, from the addictiveness of the food itself to the convenience and relative cheapness compared with eating at a restaurant, to the fact that my mom was also addicted to fast food and more than happy to suggest it and drive me there.

Finally, I considered what I would lose if I never ate fast food again for the rest of my life. Certainly I would miss the taste for a while, I thought, but there are plenty of other foods that taste good. I might miss out on some convenience, particularly if my friends really want to hang out at a fast food place, but this is unlikely and I could always plan ahead to eat something else and then hang out with them without eating there myself. Overall, I realized that if I never ate fast food again, I would truly not be missing out on anything essential or even important. So, I wrote out a list of fast food places I would never eat at again. Listing the specific places was important for me, as this way I couldn't rationalize my way out of my promise ("well, it doesn't exactly count as a fast food place...") I would also be clear on the places that I would allow myself to go to. If, at a later time, I deemed an additional place unhealthy and addictive for me, I could always add it to the "never list".

For many years I took a similar approach to computer games. While I hadn't strictly ruled them out, I simply avoided them altogether. Still, in many ways I missed the positive aspects and felt a sense of loss when I'd see others enjoying video games or computer games. Similarly, if I added all of my potential addictions to a "never list", I would very quickly wind up painting myself into a corner. At the very least, I deemed it worthwhile to try and see if I could find some other way to moderate my game usage.

One idea was to limit the amount of time I could play a game per day. In theory this was a simple, logical idea. In practice, it was extremely difficult for me to maintain. I would start out strict with myself, wrenching myself away from the screen painfully as the timer I set would go off. This never worked for more than two or three days, and even when it did I experienced intense withdrawal symptoms.

After a while I started to wonder if the problem had to do with playing games that were meant to be played for several hours at a time, drawing the player in. So I tried picking games that were simpler and could be paused easily at any point. I figured maybe I'd get bored with them easier. The results? I would indeed get bored with them sooner. The problem is, I would still get addicted incredibly quickly. And being addicted to a game I wasn't even interested in was even more irritating.

One day, after weeks of being hooked on a game I initially didn't think would hold any long term interest, I started to wonder if there were some underlying needs of mine getting indirectly fulfilled by playing various games. I thought that a need was probably getting met even by the more boring games, and the convenient and familiar method is what made it continue to be addictive even after the need was no longer getting met as efficiently. I began to analyse what the appeal of each game was (for example I enjoyed a game called Terraria because I could explore and find lots of different items that could be combined in interesting combinations to build new things, which reflected my values of curiosity and creativity). This understanding changed the way I played games, helping me get more out of them in less time by disregarding activities that weren't as fun wherever possible. Unfortunately, while I became more efficient in extracting value from my game play, I was still left with an addiction. Dropping games once I lost a sense of joy in playing them worked with a bit of attention and effort, but I would still be drawn to the next game.

Now while I obviously recognized the problem with excess and how depressed the resulting guilt and self loathing made me feel, I also felt pretty depressed and bad about myself when I denied myself all activities that weren't strictly productive; reducing life to "worthwhile" and "worthless" activities made everything feel flat, cynical and empty to me. In addition, even if I cut out computer games, there were an infinite number of known and unknown potential addictions waiting for me and I still had no reliable method of curbing them without rendering myself frozen by restrictions. And so, I continued to experiment on myself from time to time with the familiar medium.

One of my more recent experiences was getting addicted to a very, very simple puzzle game akin to Candy Crush for over a month. And I had planned on deleting it after a couple hours. Now, on the plus side, I had limited myself to fifteen minutes per day, an unusually low time limit, and I managed to stick to this limit for all but the last week I was addicted. The benefit of this small time limit combined with the simplicity of the game seemed to be that I didn't have time to get too deeply involved mentally, so it was easier to stop when the timer went off.

Unfortunately, the game also slowly evolved from being something I could easily recognize as a meaningless distraction to relax on occasion to a central part of my daily routine. Oddly, even with such a small amount of time, my sense of worth started to get attached to my increasing mastery of this silly little game while motivation in other areas of my life decreased noticeably. And, of course, the time limit eventually started slipping and I had to delete it.

This particular experience gave me a new idea: maybe part of the problem was that I had to fight my addiction on a daily basis instead of just every once in a while. Plus I would constantly feel like I hadn't played as long as I really wanted to. These two things would tend to reinforce any withdrawal symptoms. Worst of all, I had far too many chances to fail in keeping my word to myself, especially as the inevitable stresses of daily life began to set in. And once I had failed in my self moderation attempt, the depression would start to set in, making it easier to fail each consecutive time, to greater and greater degrees until I would finally hit a "rock bottom" point and ban myself from the game.

So, I thought, perhaps I could allow myself an entire day of shame free gaming. But only one predesignated day out of each month. This would give me a clearly defined limit, but one that was long enough to let me really get into the game and enjoy myself. I gave it a try and was amazed at the results; for the first time in over a decade, I spent all day playing a game (Nethack, something I greatly missed from my childhood), and I did not openly or secretly hate myself. Not even a little bit. Not even in the back of my head. Not even when it was time to stop and go to bed and I could clearly see that I had "accomplished" absolutely nothing that day. I would even go so far as to say that my self worth improved from the experience.

And was I tempted to play again the next day and just keep going and going indefinitely? Did I experience intense withdrawal symptoms? Yes. But I felt no need to act on these feelings. I simply looked forward to the next game day, clearly marked on my calendar. Why was this method so effective? I believe the primary reason is because it allowed me to feel good about myself. I gave myself permission to enjoy the day, embracing it wholeheartedly. I set clear limits. I didn't set myself up to fail with a situation where I'd be repeatedly tempted.

Most importantly, having experienced the joy and positivity resulting from that "shame-free" label, I became intrinsically motivated to maintain that highly valuable label at all costs. If I gave in after one day, or indeed any day before the next designated game day, I would destroy it. Gaming would be depressing for me again. And the joy would be far more difficult to get back than it was to destroy. While thoughts about the game continued to pop up randomly in my head for a few days, they gradually became less frequent and the painful urgency dissipated rapidly. What was left was a feeling of contentment, and a level of confidence in my abilities I was unaccustomed to.

While I still need to see what the long term results of this method will be, I am optimistic that I may have found a viable way to self moderate most potentially addicting interests and behaviours that may develop in the future.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Irons in the Fire Method

I seem to be addicted to projects where I can set something up and then check back later to reap the rewards. My recent interest in crystal growing is a great example. I can do tons of research ahead of time on a type of crystal I want to grow, set it up, then go do something else for several hours. If I haven't gotten enough of crystals yet, that "something else" might well be researching and setting up another crystal growing experiment. In any case, I get the thrill of seeing a change the next time I check back on the project. I absolutely love the idea of putting in the planning and effort up front, then kicking back and letting things progress automatically.

I do run into a problem if I don't have enough other things to do. If that's the case, I may wind up waiting around expectantly, and I'm subsequently not as excited when the results do come in. When this happens, I run the risk of losing whatever momentum I'd gained and not having much energy left to start up a new project or continue with the current one.

I'm extremely prone to forming mini obsessions that last anywhere from days to months. While the intense period of interest might keep me going with a seemingly endless supply of energy, my interests also have a tendency to switch suddenly, making it hard to plan on getting things done with this level of efficiently for any predetermined amount of time. Using the "irons in the fire" method would mitigate this, as I could follow my natural rhythm of rotating through interests, intentionally choosing projects that will yield rewards over time.

I have attempted in the past to construct to do lists that involve completing a series 15 to 30 minute tasks, consistently, on a daily basis. Nothing could be more opposite to my natural inclinations. The last time I attempted such a thing, I succeeded exactly once in completing everything on my list for the day. It was exhausting. Each following day of the week, I would inevitably end up spending several hours on one task or another that was meant to be "brief", and then not have enough time or energy to complete everything else. And then I would feel guilty for not having completed my goal. But why? Isn't cleaning my room until it's spotless or composing music for 4 hours technically a good thing?

Perhaps it's time that I stopped setting myself up to fail and instead worked with my natural tendencies instead of against them. Within reason, of course. (Wouldn't it be nice if you could do dishes for three days straight and then not have to worry about them for an entire year?)

Monday, March 7, 2016

Experience with Unnatural Hair Colors

It all started in November of 2014. I decided to cut my hair shorter than ever before and dye it blue. Some people would ask me why I wanted to do that. I don't really know. I guess I had just been thinking about it for a while and finally got to a point where I wasn't much concerned with other people's reactions. In any case, that's when I began experimenting with unnatural hair dyes, and it's become a little side hobby.

I thought I'd post some of the things I've learned over the last year and a half, along with some pictures of the various colours my hair has been (with my face cropped out since I didn't want to post it online).

First, my natural hair colour:
natural blonde

Luckily, my natural hair colour isn't too dark, and responds well to bleach. I only ever need one bleach session of 30 or 40 minutes to get it to the point where I can apply another colour. Less processing means less damage and healthier hair. While it is possible to add hair dye to "virgin" (unbleached) hair, bleaching it first is said to allow the dye to sink in more and thus be more vibrant and take longer to fade. Apparently, there is no such thing as a truly permanent blue hair dye, only temporary or semi-permanent. All unnatural colours will eventually fade, but some dyes last longer than others and there are ways to help slow down the fading process in general.

Although I did a ton of research on blue hair dye, I decided to have it done at a salon the first time. Here's what my hair looked like after it was cut and bleached:

it looks a little dry, I wonder if that's because they put me under one of those heating things

And after the blue dye was applied and washed (sorry for the poor quality. Apparently I only took pictures on my tablet when it was first done):
Rusk Electric Blue

I decided to go with a dark blue since I figured it would fade to the lighter blue I wanted over time, thus lasting longer than if I started with a light blue. The dye used was Electric Blue by Rusk. I was instructed to use a shampoo that is designed for colour treated hair so that it wouldn't fade as quickly, and told that I only needed to wash my hair once or twice a week (which would also help the colour last longer).

Unfortunately I encountered a problem. The dye kept coming off on everything, even turning my skin blue on my hands and face. I got a bottle of remover that is designed to take the stuff off skin. It worked quite well but after a while my skin seemed to be developing a reaction to the remover. After a few days I'd had enough, and decided to just wash my hair over and over until the dye stopped coming out. By that point I didn't care if it faded the colour significantly. I lucked out. After washing it three times, the dye stopped coming out when my hair was dry, and the colour had hardly faded at all.

Indeed, I ended up having this dye in for over a year! Of course, it did fade to quite a pale blue eventually, but still pretty impressive. The following is about three months after dying my hair blue:
Rusk Electric Blue after 3 months

This was about the colour I really wanted. However, my natural roots were starting to show through (yeah, I'm not big on maintenance):
top view

So I used this opportunity to bleach the roots and then add purple. I ordered a couple dyes from Manic Panic, Purple Haze and Ultra Violet and tried mixing equal parts of each to get a nice purple. Here's how it turned out:

Manic Panic Purple Haze mixed with Ultra Violet and Rusk Electric Blue

top view

I was very happy with the result. Sadly, the purple faded after a couple weeks. It was almost completely gone after a month. I tried reapplying just the Purple Haze (which was the darker of the two) and it faded just as quickly.

While I don't have a picture, the next thing I tried was "Purple Desire" by Splat. It was a very similar colour to the purple in the previous picture. This dye lasted three or four weeks before it faded, but the last bit of colour lingered for quite a long time. It turned almost pink after a while.

For several months my hair had a "cotton candy" look, as one of my friends put it. Pale blue, pale pinkish purple, and then white on top where I simply bleached my roots as they came in (mostly because I was too lazy to re-dye it :P).

I started to get the urge to dye my hair orange, which happens to be my favourite colour. Unfortunately, it also happens to be on the opposite side of the colour wheel as blue. Why does this matter? Because when you mix opposite colours you get... barf brown. I did several things to mitigate this problem. First, I bid my time and washed my hair frequently, hoping the blue and purple dye would fade a bit more. Second, I bleached over the dye once. It only barely lightened it. I didn't want to do this again because I was afraid of damaging my hair.

Next, I tried washing my hair with a mixture of anti-dandruff shampoo and crushed vitamin C tablets, both of which the internet claims will help fade hair dye faster. After doing this twice I noticed even less of a lightening effect than with the bleach. I figured this would have to do as it didn't appear my hair was going to fade any further on its own. Here's what it looked like at that point:
Rusk Electric Blue (faded 13 months) and Splat Purple Desire (faded 3 or 4 months)

Note that the blue on the ends is the faded version of the Rusk Electric Blue, 13 months later.

Finally, I picked a very vibrant orange: Hi-Octane Orange by Special Effects. This dye was said to initially look more red than orange, and then "fade" to a bright neon orange. This was fine by me since I didn't mind the red and figured the strong pigment would help cover up the previous colours. Here's how it turned out (after a couple of washes):
Special Effects Hi-Octane Orange

It covered the blue and purple completely! There were small patches of the underlying colour showing through slightly after a couple months (as a brownish colour), but I'm told it was barely noticeable. I touched up the ends anyway at that point.

As my roots came in this time, I bleached them and wound up with a somewhat yellowish colour fading into the orange. I liked it so much I just left it that way. Plus it's less work. Here is what my hair looks like currently, about two and a half months after dying it orange:
Special Effects Hi-Octane Orange (faded 2.5 months) and bleached roots

top view - looks almost like flames

I'm very happy with my current colour and will probably keep it for a long time. Did I mention I love orange? It's awesome. It'll be interesting to see how long this brand lasts too. So far it's holding up quite well.

Below I compiled a table of my results. Please note that this is based purely on my own experience with my own hair. Everyone's hair reacts a little differently. Also note that in general I washed my hair one to two times per week, using a shower cap the rest of the time. The shampoo I use is called L'Anza Healing HairCare and I got a big one liter bottle when I first dyed my hair blue. (It cost me $40 which I thought was ridiculous at the time, but it's been over 15 months and I've only used 3/4 of it). I just used my regular conditioner (which happens to be Ogx brand), although technically I should probably be using a kind that's meant for colour treated hair.

Brand Color Time to fade significantly Notes on fading Notes on staining
Rusk Electric Blue 3-6 months Lasted a very long time. Very difficult to get rid of the left over pale blue even after over a year. Will stain everything after first applied. Make sure to wash it several times until it stops running.
Manic Panic Purple Haze 2 weeks Con: Does not last long. Pro: does not leave any residual color after it fades out. Might come out a little on pillow case after the first one or two washes. Use a dark pillow case.
Manic Panic Ultra Violet 2 weeks Same as above. Same as above.
Splat Purple Desire 3-4 weeks Leaves a pinkish color that is hard to get rid of. Comes out even less than Manic Panic. Still might a little bit when wet, after first applying it.
Special Effects Hi-Octane Orange unknown - at least 2.5 months Had a more reddish colour for the first two or three weeks. Covers other colours well. Came out a little on my pillow case the first week, but my hair was wet.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Monoammonium Phosphate Crystals from a Kit

I've been eyeing crystal growing kits since I was a kid, so I finally ordered myself one. The one I got is the 4M Crystal Growing Experimental Kit which I ordered on Amazon. Monoammonium phosphate is the chemical used, and the kit came with enough supplies to grow 7 different crystals of various sizes. I followed the instructions from the kit, which essentially involved dissolving the monoammonium phosphate in hot water, letting it cool, then adding the seeding mixture on the surface and leaving it undisturbed for several days. I found a candy thermometer, which was super useful for getting the exact temperatures recommended in the instructions for each step.

Day 1: The set up was completed at 2:00pm on 2/15/16. The kit came with three different seeding colors (blue, white, and red). I mixed the colors such that the small containers would have blue, red, white and purple, the medium ones have light blue and pink, and the large one has light purple. After only a couple hours, the light blue crystal were already forming shards which extended about three quarters of the way up the container. The purple and light purple solutions were too dark to see into, even after shining a flashlight into them. Granted, my little flashlight isn't the brightest.

After 12 hours: The light blue and pink crystals were both of significant size already. I could tell that the pink crystal had a different, more rounded shape than the others. The white and blue crystals were both forming tall skinny shards, the tips of which were just barely sticking up past the surface of the solution. I was surprised at how quickly these particular samples grew.

Day 2: The small red sample was forming very small crystals at the bottom of the container. The blue and white crystals had a couple shards each which were forming past the surface of the solution in really interesting shapes. I began to wonder if I should take them out at that point, since I wanted them to still fit in the provided plastic display containers... but these crystals were so thin that I was worried they would break. I decided to wait one more day.

Day 3: I removed the blue and white crystals to keep them from getting too tall to fit in their cases. I also removed the light blue, medium crystal. Although it was growing quite well, it too had the tips of some of its shards sticking out above the surface. Unlike the smaller samples, however, the tips just seemed to get cut off rather than developing interesting formations above the surface. The medium sample was pretty solid, but the smaller samples were super delicate, and I lost a few small shards during handling.

medium light blue crystal
it probably could have grown bigger if it weren't for the container wall

small blue crystal

small white crystal
piece that broke off
separate white crystal formation

After taking pictures and painstakingly putting them back in their cases, tragedy struck. I dropped the small blue crystal, which fell out of its case and shattered into a dozen pieces. Horrified, the first thought passing through my head was, "but I haven't even named it yet..." Odd because I wasn't actually planning on naming them, but Wilson would have been a good choice. That way when I cried out "Nooooo!" I could have also fallen to my knees and yelled, "WILSON!!!" On the plus side, Wilson's demise doubled my collection of monoammonium phosphate seed crystals, which I'm storing in a ziplock bag for future experiments.
this is all that was left of Wilson...

Day 5: I removed the medium sized "pink" crystal. This one actually came out more red than pink and didn't have the layer of clear crystal the way the light blue one did. I'm pretty happy with the formation however. It was even easier to handle than the other medium sized crystal.
medium pink crystal

Day 8: I still couldn't see into the purple solutions, although quite a bit of solution had evaporated off, especially in the large container. I didn't see crystals poking out of the solutions, so I figured they could use more time.
I could just barely see some crystals forming on the bottom of the small red container, and a couple shards were starting to stick out of the solution and hit the walls of the container. There were also tons of crystals forming on the sides of the container, so I decided to take this one out since I didn't want the crystals on the sides to disrupt further formation. In hindsight I probably could have let the main crystal grow a little bigger and then just knocked off any excess crystal formations. There were two slightly smaller crystal formations in the container as well.
small red crystal

Day 12: I removed the small purple crystals. There were four separate pieces in the container, which turned out more of a pinkish color with clear sections.
small "purple" crystal

Day 15: The solution in the large container (which was supposed to be light purple) had more than half evaporated by this point, and there were three or four places where the crystal was starting to poke above the surface. After removing the crystal, I could see that it looks mostly red overall, but in certain lighting one can see a purple color towards the base of the crystal. This is definitely my favourite crystal of the seven.
large "light" purple crystal
bottom of the crystal

Conclusion: Some crystals definitely grew better than others. In most cases, allowing the crystal to grow above the solution seems to result in the exposed surfaces getting "worn away". I suspect this has something to do with the moisture in the air slowly dissolving the crystals, as the kit instructions recommend keeping the crystals in their display cases after they're complete in order to prevent this. The exceptions to this were the white and blue crystals, which developed formations above the surface of the water; since they grew fast and were only left exposed to the air for a day or two, there wasn't any noticeable "erosion".

Mixing colors didn't yield exact results. For example, the "pink" turned out just looking red, the "light blue" looked about the same as the blue, and the purple looked more pink. Nevertheless, mixing colors did result in a little more variety and had some interesting effects (even if they weren't the expected ones).
the seven crystals in their display cases

I kept a zip lock bag of "seed crystals" that I plan to use in future experiments. Now that I've had the kit experience, I may, at some point, purchase monoammonium phosphate directly and do some research on how to grow these types of crystals from scratch.
monoammonium phosphate seed crystals
shard that broke off from the large crystal

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Appeal of Poetry

Poetry is permission to say things exactly the way you feel them.