Travel anxiety reduction in the age of the smart phone. 

This post comes to you from seat 30D (yes…a middle aisle seat on a 767) of Delta flight 229 from Paris to Cincinnati. No, I didn’t spring for the crazy expensive expensive international wifi. Nope, they particular plane I am in is broken and awaiting a part so I decided to share some quick learnings from our (hopefully) soon to be completed trip to Russia. 
I had to be in Russia for business and we decided at the start of the year that my family would tag along. None of us had ever been to Russia before so we figured it was an opportunity for a good experience with three company picking up at least part of my expenses. 
My first trip overseas came when I was 12. I traveled to Austria and Switzerland with my family as part of the Cincinnati boy’s choir. A few years later I struck out on my own and visited Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France as part of a 6 week bicycle trip that my high school made every four years. Since then I have been to both Europe and Asia nearly 100 times. All that is to say that I consider myself to be a reasonably experienced traveler. However, until very recently there were still a few things that gave me anxiety during a trip. A few apps, an unused/ carrier unlocked iPhone 5, and a local sim card with a data plan solved all of them for me on our trip to Russia. 
Where to stay? My hostel days are behind me (for now anyway. Do they have old people hostels I can use when I’m retired?). For most tourists this means staying in a hotel. There are two classes in most cities: global chains and local spots. The local spots can be hit and miss and the global chains are usually so comfortably western that you don’t feel like you’ve left the country. The answer: AirBNB. We booked all of our lodging with AirBNB this time and had great experiences. The same rules apply to buying something on Amazon: only go for things with lots of good (and real) reviews and you should be safe. AirBNB is not just an app of course,but their app experience is very well thought out. You can do everything from browse and select a place to stay to get directions to your booking and message with your host. 

How get around? While this is second on the list it is concise tilt the source of the most anxiety, whether traveling for business or pleasure. Cabs are a constant, but the payment methods they accept are not. I can’t tell you how many cabs I’ve gotten into, asked if they take plastic, received an affirmative response, taken a rise then, upon arriving, the credit card machine is mysteriously broke and we’re on the look for an ATM. Even when I do have cash, there is always the small worry that traffic, the rate or the distance will cause the final tally to exceed what I’ve got on hand. The answer: Uber. We used Uber exclusively for all ground transport and every ride was perfect. True, we tried to use it for a 1 mile trip from one attraction to another that we didn’t want to walk in the rain to see that resulted in three consecutive cancels, but all he rides we did go one couldn’t have gone better. The cars were clean. The drivers were nice. They knew where we were going before we go in, avoiding any miscommunications or “extra” sightseeing to fatten the tab. When we arrived we just got out of the car,grabbed our bags and headed off. No worries about broken credit card machines (although I do always try to to remember to tip my Uber drivers – they are providing a great service afterall) and when the bill shows up in the app a few minutes later, it’s nearly always half of what I would expect a can to have cost. Major anxiety killer there. (Small hat tip on this point to Google maps which now let’s you download areas to your phone, so even without local cell service you can use your phone for walking directions. I loaded this with maps of both Moscow and St Petersburg on my kids phones and then saved the location of our apartments. Even without service, they could fire up their phones and always get directions to where we were staying if they got separated for some reason). 

Where to eat? What to see? I limo these two together since they are both forms of the question “how should I allocate my relatively limited vacation time to get the most out of it?”. Where to get good food, which for me means a ocombinationof value and local flavor and what things to go see (recognising that no one can see it all) are persistant questions, especially when I am visiting someplace for the first time. The answer: TripAdvisor. Of all the apps on this list I’ve been using this site and app the longest. At first for restaurant recommendations (even when traveling domestically) but more and more I’ve been using the “Things to do” section. We used it in Moscow to make the final decision on what to see in the last few hours before we left and actually booked our guided tours of The Hermitage and Peterhof Summer Palace directly through the app. The key feature is the reviews. You can see what everyone else thinks both quantitatively and qualitatively. Add in the bonus of being able to download cities (so you don’t need a data connection) and “find things near me now” and you have no more excuses to eat at McDonalds or go to the local mall. 

What’s that say? I, along with most Americans (or at least most with a passport) am ashamed to admit that really only know one language (and my friends in the UK woul argue that point). I have picked up taxi/bar/restaurant German after nearly a decade of trips there. I know less French and Italian. And I knew no Russian until I got there. (First phrase I learned: thank you). Compounding the issue is the Cyrillic alphabet (my days in there fraternity actually helped a bit here). The answer: Google translate. Many are familiar with what web site version of this or the chrome prompt that comes up when you visit a site that isn’t in your preferred language. For traveling though, the app is the bomb for one simple reason: it can access the camera on your phone and translate in screen whatever is looking at. Point it at the menu and you’ll never order deep fried monkey testicles again (unless of course that is what you wanted). No more walking in the out door or into the opposite gender bathroom (at least in places where there are gender based bathrooms…not so common in Europe and yet they also seem to have a lack of cross gender restroom predation…but I digress). It is the most mind blowing of all the apps here. I suggest you get it now, find something in a foreign language and try it in camera mode right now. I’ll wait. I do think it also offers an offline mode too although I didn’t test this). 

We have another trip coming up in a month+, this time to Ireland We’re renting a car and I’m told most of them speak English so no need for Uber or Google translate. But we will be using TripAdvisor, Google maps and all our overnights have been booked through Airbnb. Any other must have travel apps? Leave a comment. 
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Update : the short delay turned into a long one. Still here 6 hours later. Looking for parts. 

Slow is fast, except when it isn’t

I shot an IDPA classifier this past weekend. It was a bit of a cluster.  I’ve been pretty busy so I had little time to prepare, much less practice, which resulted in me having to shoot my Glock 35 rather than the HK VP9 which I’ve been using as my match gun for the last year or so since all I had sorted, cleaned and ready to load was 40s&w brass and components.  Lack of prep time included the day of the classifier, since I had to drive back from Columbus the morning of the match and head straight to the range.

Since I wasn’t prepped mentally and didn’t have my preferred setup, I decide to shoot it as an experiment: what would happen if I forced myself to go really slow.  Could I improve my points down enough to make up for the extra time on the clock.

Here are the results from the classifier I show last Nov, the first I did with my HK VP9:

 

2016-05-25 10_18_43-Event Details - NKSSA IDPA Local Classifier Match - IDPA

And here are the results from this past weekend’s match with the Glock 35:

2016-05-25 11_23_38-Event Details - NKSSA Annual Classifier - IDPA

I was 14 fewer points down (=7.5 seconds under current scoring) and added 7.72 seconds of clock time by trying to go slower for essentially a wash in total score.  I was shooting 40, so this is somewhat of an accomplishment (to tie my previous score shooting 9mm), but still not what I was hoping for.  June is going to be crazy, but I need to carve out some time for some practice if this is going to get better.

450 second book review: A quintet to clear the decks

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any book reviews.  It’s not that I haven’t been reading…it’s just that I haven’t taken the time to write up my thoughts and impressions.  But no more.  With this post I am clearing out my backlog of book notes and clearing the decks.  In no particular order, here are some quick notes on books I have finished in the last few months:

Amusing Ourselves to Death

I started and finished this one most recently.  I ran across a copy in the portal where the gods send me books to read from my too long/unprioritied wish list (AKA Half Price Books) a few weeks ago and read it in about a week.  It was written more than three decades ago, and although Mr. Postman sets his sights on Television, he makes a few mentions of the threat posed by “Micro-Computers” ;-).

His general argument is that television fundamentally alters the nature of discourse as compared to print.  A “print culture” has cohesion of thought based on the fact that everything in print is placed in context.  Based on that context, the reader has the ability to ferret out any contradictions and thus determine the truth of any claims made by an author.  Shifting to television, Mr. Postman writes:

The fundamental assumption of that world (refering to the world of television) is not coherence but discontinuity.  And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.

I would argue this is even more true of more recent media such as twitter and facebook.  Don’t even get me started on vine!  An alternative explanation of his thesis is that Huxley was right and Orwell was wrong.

The first half of the book establishes the argument, then the second half explains the impact of the change from print to television as the primary media for discourse on news, religion, politics and education.  Hint: none of the impacts are positive.

The book ends with a couple suggestions of how to restore conhesion to discourse.  In that discussion he writes what I think is actually the most interesting idea in his book:

Public conciousness has not yet assimiliated the point that technology is ideology.

Mr. Postman admits that the suggestion first is unworkable, at least in America: eliminate Television altogether.  The second suggestion, using the school system to give people the tools to “help the young learn how to interpret the symbols of their culture”, is held up as the only option.  As prescient as the rest of Mr. Postman’s book is, this hope seems awfully naive by comparison.

This is Why I Came

I discovered this book via a review from The Atlantic. , which I subscribed to earlier this year in an attempt to look smart to my mail lady.  (Actually I suscribed to Reason magazine the same day.  Nothing makes me giggle as much as when The Atlantic, Reason and the NRA magazine all show up in my inbox the same day.  I think I’ll subscribe to the National Review and Foreign Affairs next year ;-).

As a work of fiction, this is a bit of a change up from my normal reading list, but it was well worth it.  The story starts and ends with Bernadette entering and exiting a confessional, but in reality that is just a “prop” for Ms. Rakow to tell her real story: the woman’s rewriting of all the major stories of the Bible.  Those of you that believe in the Bible as the divinely inspired word of God might stop reading here, but stick with me (or at least skip down to the next review).  The Atlantic review is better than anything I could write here, so I won’t attempt any deep analysis, rather I’ll focus on the few things that spoke to me personally.

Bernadette seems to be motivated to come to confession (repeatedly from what I can tell) from some deep seated guilt about her doubt.  Her doubt is so deep, that she took up the task of rewriting “the greatest story ever told” into something that she could relate to.  In that way, This is Why I Came, may be on of the most “protestant” pieces written since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle church, in that it is quite literally a personal retelling of the stories that we all know.  In those stories, Bernadette is reflecting back what her interpretation of what she hears when she is told the story of Adam and Eve or Jesus in the dessert.  What I find fascinating about this aspect of the story is that in the end, the priest who hears her confession points out that rather than acting as a source of guilt, Bernadette’s doubt should be seen as her gift:

To doubt the God you believe in is to serve him.

The idea that asking questions (i.e. doubting) is a gift in a religious context is so refreshing to me in an age of increasing dogma from many religious circles is a breath of fresh air.  In Bernadette’s stories, I saw her getting closer to an understaning of the Universe and her place in it.  And if that’s not what religion is supposed to help us do, then I am not sure what it’s for.

War of Art

Changing gears completely to a immenently practical book, this could end up being a really short review since the most imporant this I can say is that everyone reading this should click the link above (no, it’s not an affiliate link), but this book, and read it from cover to cover as soon as it shows up.  Seriously, JUST READ THIS BOOK.

What’s it all about you might ask?  In a word (Mr. Pressfield’s word in fact): Resistance.  The resistance that keeps you from living the life you really want.  The resistance that keeps you from having the relationships you really want.  The resistance that keeps you on the bench instead of doing the only thing that will make you better…which is doing something.

Steven Pressfield is a fiction writer, but this book is squarely in the “how to” genre.  Pressfield describes his process for getting off the dime and doing the hard part, described so well in this quote from Jerry Pournelle (not cited in The War of Art, but great nontheless):

The hard part of writing at all is sitting your ass down in a chair and writing it. There’s always something better to do, like I’ve got an interview, sharpening the pencils, trimming the roses. There’s always something better to do.

Resistance takes many forms, but the most common one is fear.  Pressfield has the most wonderful take on fear that I have ever read:

Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.

Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

In these few words, he turns fear from something you should be afraid of (duh!) into an indicator of what you should be paying attention to.  This one idea is worth 10x the price of the book.  Buy it and read it anyway.

The cultivation of the ability to notice where my mind is that I have been developing through my mindfulness practice combined with this simple idea has helped me recognize what’s important (hint: it’s what I feel resistance to getting done), explore the source of that resistance and then overcome it to get things done.  This approach has put me more at peace than anything else in the last few years.

Remember:

Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.

(NB: in full disclosure, I didn’t read this book, I listened to it.  For this type of book listening worked great, so if the prospect of sitting a reading casuses you resistance (see what I did there), then download an audio copy)

Free Will

I’m starting to realize that this post is a reflection of my magazine subscriptions and iTunes music library.  That is, it might one day be used to prove some sort of mental error.  This book is anothe left turn.

I first heard of Sam Harris at last year’s Porcfest and ended up subscribing to his podcast shortly thereafter.  For those of you that don’t know, Harris is one of the so called “New Atheists” along with folks like Chrisopher Hitchens and Dan Dennet.  Harris is a neuroscientist by degree and profession (in addition to being an author and “personality”) and he comes at everything with a seemingly level (cold some might say) scientific rationalism.

I continue to read and listen to things from Dr. Harris for two reasons: he is not afraid to engage in precisely the sort of discourse that Mr. Postman feared television was killing (side note: I do wonder what Mr. Postman would think of podcasts as a medium?) AND because he makes me think.  At the end of half of my thinking about what he has said or written, I find myslef agreeing with him.  At the end of the other half, I find myslef disagreeing with him, in some cases violently (which is to say severely…I mean no harm ;-).  In the case of Free Will, it is most definitely the latter.

In this rather shor book (and I mean that as no disparagement – I like the fact that he can make his points directly and doesn’t feel the need to go on and on) Dr. Harris makes the case that free will as it is commonly perceived is an illusion.  I think he tries to make the case that this does not place him in the determinist camp, but I must admit that this point wasn’t entirely clear to me, nor did I fully grasp the difference between his view and that of the classical determinists like Bertrand Russell.

What I did grasp, however, was the thread of the main argument backing up his claim, which to me seems to be this: since we are neither concious of every possible option available to us nor we in control of every particle of our beings, free will does not exist.  If Dr. Harris was not an atheist, he might state it like this: free will is illusory since we posses neither the mind nor the will of God.

This seems like a rather binary position to me.  Since we can’t control and know everything, we can’t control or know anything.  What really bothers me (and in some ways makes me think I don’t fully understand Dr. Harris’ chain of reasoning here) is that it seems horribly inconsistent with what else he has written and said.

For example, he is perhaps best known as a vocal opponent of poltical islam and its reaches into international terrrorism (which as an aside, I always like to bring up to my more fundanmentallt religious friends since its something they agree on with a devout atheist ;-).  If I understand his view on free will, then Dr. Harris should say that a terrorist blowing himself up on a bus or flying a plane into a building was predetermined at the moment that universal inflation began billions of years ago.  But he doesn’t say that; he seems to be awfully sure that something can and should be done about the problems posed by political islam.  Perhaps he would say that he doesn’t have any choice in saying that either?  As I said, he makes me think and in this case he’s made me think about the limits of materialism.  I believe in science and rationalism, but as Godel tried to (and perhaps did?) prove any system is either complete or consistent.  It can’t be both.  Dr. Harris seems to disgaree.

Radical Acceptance

And now for a u-turn from the previous book.  I learned about Tara Brach on the Tim Ferriss podcast.  I’ve been interested in Buddhism for the last year or so.  No, I’m not ready to ship off to Tibet quite yet, but I do find fascinating the corrleation between Buddhism and Stoicism as well the Buddhist mindfulness and meditation practices.

There is a little bit of “woo-woo” in this book, but I was able to get past it and retain some pearls of wisdom.  Dr. Brach opens with a discussion about first listening to and befriending yourself.  She asks the interesting question “If I talked to others the way I talk to myslelf, would they want to be friends with me?”  From here she goes trough a whole series of exercsies to first recognize your self talk for what it is, then to simply accept it as the path to moving forward.

I think the most important thing to understand about the book is that the word “acceptance” as its used here doesn’t mean saying “it’s OK” to everything or “turning the other cheek.”  Rather I took it to mean identifying things as they are.  Not fighting against the current state of reality.  Reading the facts on the ground as they are, accepting them as true.  Once you have done that you can then decide what to do next.  In this way, acceptance in Buddhism is very much like the input stage of the Trivium: coming to understand things as they are.  Another fascinating cross-over between seemingly very different ideas.  Anytime that happens, I get the sense that there is some universal truth being uncovered.

If you are looking for some ideas about how to be a better friend to yourself, this book is a great place to start


 

So there you have it.  5 book reviews and 5 things checked off my to do list.  Now to finish up a few more of the three or four books I am in the middle of.  Then I can finally visit that mystical book portal again.

Trusting your tools

IMG_2782.jpg

I am an amateur beekeeper.  To be honest, the only thing I am professional at is being an amateur.  I had to get into my hives over the weekend and this is the first year that I’ve had a full bee suit – jacket with a hood, gloves, and pants.  I used it the for the first time a few weeks ago, and then again today.  Somewhere in the middle of using it today, I completely forgot about the swarm of angry bees flying around my head (bee suits are designed to attract the bees to your head and away from everywhere else you can’t see them) and was able to just focus on the work.  I was able to relax, trust the suit to do its job and not worry about getting stung.

The tools I use to manage my work (personal and business) have become the same way.  Between meditation, journaling, GTD, Swipes and Evernote, I can ignore the daily buzzing of a million things that I could go do and focus on the job at hand.  It’s nice to have tools you can trust.

 

GoPro Video from April 2 2016 IDPA Match

For your viewing pleasure, GoPro video from this weekend’s IPDA match at Lloyd’s WMA in Crittenden, KY.  It was a rough morning (truck died on the way to the match) and I had the normal distraction of setting things up and getting things going which comes along with being the match director, so when I told myself to slow down and make my shots, I was actually really happy with my performance.  I had been slipping in the rankings the last few matches, and was able to claw my way back up a few spots (6th out of 19 in this case).  I still had a few fumbles with my reloads due to improperly functioning index fingers (i.e. even though it was April, it was still cold and the VP9 reloads seems to be a warm weather function for me…).  I’d still like to find time to practice more (need to get on with that dry fire program…), but overall I am happy that at least I get out once a month to practice on the clock.

 

Check out my IDPA page if you are interested in the match at Lloyd’s / to sign up for the once a month email with scores from the previous match and links to sign up for next months match.