Heidiland: love of nature, vineyards and brown grasshoppers

A few days ago we went to Maienfeld to hike near the area that Johanna Spyri used as a setting for her 1881 novel, Heidi. Since I moved to Switzerland I been reminded of Heidi weekly because at work there is a weekly social event whose start gets announced with a broadcast of Heidi’s theme to the whole office. So when I saw that there was a hiking area named after her I talked to Loes and she agreed to go.

Maienfeld
Maienfeld

Maienfeld, with almost 3,000 inhabitants, falls in the “small and cute village” category. Most windows have hearts in them, you can see fountains with clear fresh water and basins made of light blue mosaics, when you’re on the street you see amazing views of the surrounding mountains in all directions and you easily see toy tractors next to expensive Porsches.

The hearts that decorated many of the windows in the area.
The hearts that decorated many of the windows in the area.
Heidi Alp
Heidi Alps

After we got on the hiking trail and as we were leaving the village we passed next to large vineyards peppered with small medieval walls and towers. It was about 8.30am so the light was soft and surreal.

Vineyards early in the morning.
The end of a large vineyard early in the morning.

During the easy hike up we saw all sorts of Heidi-themed elements: a Heidi Village, a Heidi Farm with goats and a running chicken, wooden statues of Heidi characters, Peter’s stable, signposts with excerpts from the novel and description of the surroundings, you get the picture. Unlike other themed places we’ve been to these theme elements had great taste and weren’t commercialized at all.

A goat meditation group. They barely moved in the nearly 10 mins that we spent there.
A goat meditation group. They barely moved in the nearly 10 mins that we spent there.

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Besides the beautiful view of the Chur Rhein valley and the realization that this was obviously a grasshopper-dominated area, we also met several Japanese people (I like baffling them by greeting them in Japanese with the few bits that I still remember) and an Oak plantation sponsored by people from the area. As I’ve come to expect, there was a 400 years old tree which made me realize how much older the mountains are and consequently how insignificant the length of human life is compared to them…

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Heidi with her grandfather and her friend Peter.
Heidi with her grandfather and her friend Peter.
The Chur Rhine valley.
The Chur Rhine valley.
A face on the trail.
A face on the trail.
Trying to look like this.
Trying to look like this.
My beautiful companion.
My beautiful companion.

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If I had to summarize this hike I would call it “Love of nature, vineyards and brown grasshoppers”.

Science vs pseudoscience

Atul Gawande explains on The New Yorker how to differentiate pseudoscience from real science. The main idea is that a lot of people mistrust science because they cannot tell the two apart. A compounding problem is that research shows that trying to debunk specific examples of pseudoscience doesn’t work to convince people to believe in the true facts (science). So how do we go about increasing knowledge and decreasing misinformation in ourselves and others?

Atul gives us three main tools:

  • State the facts.
  • Tell a story around these facts (give your sources and an idea of the amount of evidence behind these facts)
  • Know and recognize the tactics of pseudoscience.

What are these tactics?

  • Faking scientific consensus in an attempt to suppress opposing views.
  • Producing fake experts with views contrary to established knowledge with no credible track records.
  • Cherry-picking data to support their views and challenge dominant view as an attempt to make people mistrust the whole field.
  • Wrong reasoning (eg: use of logical fallacies).
  • Asking for impossible research expectations (eg: asking for experimental errors that are just impossible to achieve).

Which are all example techniques of the more general idea of thinking critically.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

What if a Lunar colony rebelled against Earth?

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein (1966) is really a book about revolutions, colonialism and alternative family structures. There is some science fiction like the setting and the fact that one of the characters is an AI but they feel secondary to the main topics.

**WARNING: Spoilers alert**

The plot centers around a human Lunar colony that decides to rebel against Earth because it’s exploiting all of its resources. Earth sent riff-raff to the Moon generations ago and now, the second or third generation settlers, with the help of an almost omniscient AI, figure out that if they don’t do anything they will run out of food and resources very quickly so they decide to revolt. The rest of the book explains how to do it and why (all from how to conduct negotiations to how much force to apply and how to establish secure communication networks in an insecure environment).

I would have toned down the didacticism a bit but I liked some of the ideas that the book explored like how a society with 10:1 women would work (answer: women have the power and have multiple husbands) or whether settlers in a new land are allowed to become a nation or should be a colony of the nation that sent them.

Some quotes follow.

On human psychology:

Prof set us straight: easier to get people to hate than to get them to love.

On revolution:

Revolution is a science only a few are competent to practice. It depends on correct organization and, above all, on communications. Then, at the proper moment in history, they strike. Correctly organized and properly timed it is a bloodless coup. Done clumsily or prematurely and the result is civil war, mob violence, purges and terror.

On Mike, the AI:

I got annoyed and had to remind myself than from Mike’s viewpoint analyzing jokes was just as important as freeing Luna — and you don’t break promises to a child.

Why don’t we have faster planes?

In 1969 the French and the British had the technology to build the Concorde which reached 2,180 km/h. Today, 2016, the fastest commercial airplane today is the Boeing 707 which reaches up to 974 km/h.

Why?

Quoting from the MarginalRevolution.

In 1973, shortly after Boeing abandoned the 2707, its Mach 3 government-funded competitor to the British- and French-made Concorde, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a rule banning supersonic transport over the U.S.

And why did they say they banned civil supersonic use?

Because they said they were worried it would be too noisy. Instead of gathering facts and then deciding, the FAA decided to regulate first, and ask questions later. As you can guess when the questions were answered it turned out that noise was not a problem. And that was in 1973, today there are means to make supersonic planes quieter.

Whether it was a protectionist move from the US to or a truly misinformed decision the fact remains that when the regulation is finally lifted flights that today take 10 or 12 hours would take 5 or 6 hours with all the consequences (health, time). Another point that Alex from MR points out is that the cost of a mistake is high: you are not just preventing the technology from being used today, you are significantly slowing down its development.

Trogen to Appenzell (Alpenpanorama trail)

On Sunday we escaped the intense rain that was falling over most of Switzerland. This time we tried a new national route, stage 2 of Alpenpanorama Trail, as it passes through the smallest canton of Switzerland, Appenzell. The name means “cell (state) of the abbot (of St. Gallen)” and religion had indeed a strong influence in its history: the canton is divided into two parts, the Protestant one and the Catholic one, and the capital. Appenzell is also completely surrounded by another canton, St. Gallen, because at some point in the 1300s the abbot of St Gallen taxed the people of Appenzell too much, they rebelled and eventually they became independent. The canton also has a fame of being the most conservative in the country.

We started the hike in Trogen, the capital of the Protestant part, and a place best known for its Kinderdorf Pestalozzi (Pestalozzi Children Village), an organization established in 1946 to accommodate and educate children affected by war. Whoever planned the Alpenpanorama trail had the great idea of making it pass next to the village so that was our first sight of the day.

Kinderdorf Pestalozzi (Pestalozzi Children's Village)
Kinderdorf Pestalozzi (Pestalozzi Children’s Village)

After a number of grass hills and cows we entered a forest of tall pines. From that moment on until the end of the hike I think we came across two couples over the course of the next four and a half hours.

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Trogen itself is at 750m above sea level so it didn’t take us long until we reached points from where we could see kilometers in every direction.

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The most memorable part of this hike was the large expanse of yellow flowers (flowers are not in my circle of competence) that the photo at the beginning and the following photos show. It wasn’t the view itself what I remember most, it was the fact that the trail was completely covered with grass, it made me feel more connected to nature.

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My happy hiking companion.

On the plus side we only got about five minutes of rain. On the downside that was more than amount of direct sunlight that we got.

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For lunch we sat down on a bench in front of a mud cow playground. It was either that or risking eating under the rain. Initially the cows in the field across us were randomly scattered but as we ate hummus the cows started to orient themselves in our direction and approach us, like those puppets in scary movies or like the Doctor Who Weeping Angels. Luckily a single thread protected us from them. When the cows finished orienting themselves the resulting scene first reminded me of Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, then I started looking around for an escape route.

Cows keenly interested in our hummus.
Cows keenly interested in our hummus.

Our next action after lunch was getting lost. This time we didn’t take the wrong direction, somehow we suddenly were on the wrong track. All the dirt and the trail being blocked by a pile of wooden logs should have been a strong enough cue but well…

A moment after the guide got lost. Meanwhile, in his mind: "Hmm, I like this part of the trail, it looks very rough and natural".
“Hmm, I like this part of the trail, it looks very rough and natural”.

After going down a steep hill with waist-high grass we found the trail where we continued until we reached an area with several interesting items.

I believe this was a sheep house, Loes disagrees. We still don't know the truth.
One of the various little buildings that I’m sure were sheep apartments. Loes, though, disagrees.

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Naked hikers are welcome.
Naked hikers are welcome.

We left this nudist friendly area through another mud field that made us extremely grateful of wearing Gore-tex hiking shoes.

The culprits of the chocolate cake like trail. To be fair they let us pass when we reached their point.
The culprits of the chocolate cake like trail. To be fair they let us pass when we reached their point.

The rest of the trail took us through more rolling hills with impressive views of Mount Säntis and the mountain chain around it.

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Dark forests.
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Rolling hills.
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Eventually we reached the town of Appenzell, known for its wall frescos but we were quite tired so that will have to wait until the next visit.

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Trail stats:
Distance: 13km (~4h20m)
GPX file
More info

Former CIA counterterrorism and intelligence agent talks about terrorism

Amaryllis Fox, CIA counterterrorism and intelligence for about 10 years, talks about terrorism, human biases, the propaganda that fuels these wars, and how to obtain peace: listen to your enemy and fight policies, not oversimplified and biased views of people.

For people in the Middle East the West is Darth Vader and the Empire, a technologically more advance force invading them, and they are Luke and Han Solo, a small pack of people simply trying to defense themselves.

What to say when you talk to yourself

What to say when you talk to yourself is the most effective book on personal growth that I’ve read in the last year.

The premise of the book is that our behavior, feelings, attitudes and beliefs are all a direct product of our mental programming. And our mind’s programs get recorded not based on whether they are true or false but simply by how many times and with how much attention we listen or “experience” the programming which, most of the time, happens as we talk to ourselves in our heads. So if you want to change certain behaviors or habits in your life the best thing you can do is focus on changing that self talk. I have been doing exactly that for more than a month now and I’m seeing progress with habits and behaviors that I hadn’t been able to change through other means so I’m spreading the idea.

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Here are some more notes I found interesting:

Most of our programming has made it into our brains unconsciously: it came through our parents and family, friends, tv and our environment in general. If you live in a poisonous environment and you’re not careful it’s likely that you have a poisonous programming.

Our brain is biologically designed to take in whatever programming we give it. It doesn’t care if it’s false and self-destructive. Once programmed, our minds will do their best to follow those instructions or make them reality (“fake it till you make it”).

Besides this external programming we also have our own mental self-talk: the stuff that we repeat to ourselves all the time. We are usually unaware of it and if the self talk is negative (“I’m so slow”, “I’m so clumsy”, “I’m an idiot”) you are not doing yourself a favor.

Your programming is likely to be extending to others because what you tell yourself all the time is more likely to come out of your mouth.

Ok, so you’re convinced you want to change your mental programming, how do you do that?

Most self help techniques fail because they don’t take into account two things:

  • Your self-talk is like muscle memory, you need to repeat yourself your new programming daily if you want to overwrite the old one. It this doesn’t become part of your daily routine and you don’t repeat it for at least a month you won’t see results.
  • When you want to change your habits you are not just competing for willpower against your old programming, you are also competing against the demands of daily life (work, kids, commute, etc). This means that any efforts to change yourself that aren’t simple are less likely to work because we physiologically have less energy to counteract the old, bad programming. Ideas must be simple, easy to use and they must work when you use them.

Five ways of reprograming yourself via self-talk:

  • silent: listen to your mental chit chat and notice what you tell yourself when you tell yourself something negative.
  • self-talk when you talk to others. Same as the previous one but take note when you talk to others, eg: “I’m so clumsy”, “I hate my job” and, if you can, stop saying them.
  • talk to yourself out-loud: it’s more effective than the previous two methods because it involves more senses and that means more neural connections and therefore stronger memories.
  • write positive self-talk (eg: in a diary): this isn’t for everybody but if you try it and it works for you keep doing it. Writing requires even more attention than talking which means stronger “recording”.
  • listen to self talk: very low friction method. Record your own affirmations or hunt for some that resonate for you on the internet and listen to them in any of the many 2 or 3 minute moments during the way that we generally don’t do anything.

Because of the way the brain works it does not matter that you tell things to yourself about yourself that are not true now. By repeating them constantly your brain will simply assume that they are truths and it will try to, within the physical world limits, make them reality. There is a difference between “I can fly” and “I’m a calm person, nothing stresses me”.

I suggest pairing this with kaizen.

Tactical notes: I started with 3 or 4 affirmations, each 2 or 3 minutes long but it was too complicated. Now I have 1 affirmation that takes me 5min to say out-loud and that I repeat fully 2 or 3 times a day (via phone reminders).