Tag Archives: Advice

How to tolerate a commute with a limited data plan

My first rule of a commute: don’t have one. Sometimes that’s not an option. Here are a couple recommendations for how to make the most out of all that time where your eyes and hands are busy and you can’t connect to the wifi.


Audiobooks are good to download on wifi and listen to on the road. You can get a free audiobook from Audible, and you can get audiobooks from your library as well. You can even up the speed of the reading and get through books fast, although listening at 3x normal speed can be challenging. I have been listening at 1.5x myself, lately.


Podcasts can be trickier to keep from eating up your data. Many services will let you download episodes ahead of time, but I have not seen it systematized well such that you don’t need to manually download each episode and manually clear out the ones you have heard. For short podcasts it can get especially tiresome.


Try this app. The trick to this service is being diligent about collecting reading material and turning the high-quality voice off. To save an article to your pocket, on Firefox you can tap the logo between the ellipsis and the star on your URL bar. On your phone you can select the share icon and then select Pocket. Once you’ve pocketed an article, you can read it without an internet connection, but it will also read it to you. Pocket will even make a playlist of your recently saved articles so you’ll stay entertained and informed your whole drive. Do disable the high-quality voice, which has no option to turn on only in WiFi, and will eat your data.


How to Travel

I’ve been traveling a lot lately. In the past two months, I’ve been to Alaska and Maine and now I’m in Chicago. Just recently I made some changes to how I travel that have made the process much easier.

Get TSA Precheck

Contrary to what people too lazy to actually look into it will tell you, TSA Precheck is not another trick to extract money from elitists like priority boarding is. It costs $85 – a one time fee that gets you five years of coverage. For that paltry investment you are registered as a “known traveler” and receive expedited passage through security. In addition to keeping your luggage assembled throughout the process, you get your own line. As long as most people are still fooling themselves that TSA Precheck is out of their budget, it’s a vastly shorter one. In a few days I’m looking forward to taking a flight out of the much-maligned O’Hare airport and seeing just how much of the horror my fiance and I will simply saunter past with self-satisfied chuckles.

Write a Packing Checklist

This is one of those things that is so easy and obvious that it indicates the suboptimal construction of the human brain that there is anyone who doesn’t use it. I am guilty. I used to always manage to forget something when packing. Now I keep my checklist in Evernote and say goodbye to pondering what I’m going to want to bring on any given trip. Below are some items you might not think to put on your checklist.

Surge Protector

This may be out of date, but once upon a time, power sockets at an airport were a rare commodity highly sought after and the focus of much competition. In these dark days, someone with the foresight to bring a tool to multiply the available sockets was considered a genius, a hero, or both. Since I learned about this, I have left an extra surge protector in my luggage so it’s always there in case I need it.

Portable Power Supply

These are pretty cheap these days. It’s just a big rechargeable battery that you can plug your electronics into to charge them if need be. This is the sort of thing you’ll wish you brought when you are on an old airplane and your phone dies, interrupting your Audiobook just at the climax. Or maybe you’re navigating Japan and your phone dies leaving you with no GPS. Or if you’re taking pictures on a jungle tour and your phone dies. A portable power supply can be the difference between a desperate situation and a routine one. Also consider getting a phone with a better battery life.

Google Chromecast

Have you ever been in a hotel room with a beautiful 42″ TV that offers nothing but basic cable and on-demand movies so expensive you may as well be going to the theater? You may well end up laying on the bed watching Netflix on your 18″ laptop screen, or your 6″ phone screen. A Chromecast can plug into any HDMI slot, which, believe it or not, these TVs have. What it does for you is connect directly to your phone over the WiFi and play anything compatible on the screen. This includes all the major services (except Amazon Prime due to their competing device the Amazon Fire Stick, which for the same reason does not support YouTube). You can also use a Chromecast to show whoever you’re visiting travel pictures on their big screen. All this may apply equally well to an Amazon Fire Stick or even a Roku, but my experience is with the Chromecast.

Empty Water Bottle

You can bring an empty bottle through security, and water is free. Even on the plane, most attendants will happily top off your bottle rather than give you one of those silly plastic cups.

Snack Bag

This is so much more than just “bring snacks.” On the first trip you bring it, a snack bag may well be an empty canvas bag. Over time, it will fill with extras from whatever cravings you or your fellow travelers happen to have during your trip. You will also start to realize what a cornucopia of snacks are available at conferences and other events and will be able to stock up. A health benefit – whenever you are tempted to stuff yourself in case you may not see food again for a while on a long leg of your trip, just remember your snack bag and eat a gentile sufficiency. A social benefit – despite using it for no more than half of one trip and a quarter of another, this bag has already made me a hero on multiple occasions.

Earplugs and Eyemask

If your stay turns out to be noisier than you expect, or if you didn’t realize that where you’re going it’s never night-time (hello Alaskan summers) these could be the difference between fitful slumber and a good night’s rest. Unfortunately I am aware of nothing that will fit in airline luggage that will help with the ubiquitous too-hard or too-soft bed.

Update: not 15 minutes after writing this entry I caught my my stepfather in law to be watching Netflix on his laptop. I helped him set up the Chromecast I brought on his TV and connect his laptop to it. I even brought out my surge protector when all the nearby outlets were in use.

Let me know if you have other travel tips to share, or if you have stories or thoughts relating to mine!

Informal Qualitative Personal Psychometrics

Two of my co-workers took an energy management class recently. I happened to join them the other day when they went to meet with some of their former classmates. It was a lunch meeting, so I had my usual salad. The people at the table who had not seen this before were aghast that I was eating what amounted to kale, spinach, lettuce, and carrots with no dressing whatsoever.

Without time to think of a better answer, I said “dressing is superfluous.” A little later I brought up the conversation again. I said I had considered a while ago what it was that made me reluctant to eat salad. The inconvenience of fast-decaying greens made it difficult in my house, but at my work the high quality salad bar resolved that issue. As I mentioned in last week’s post, eating in and of itself is a calming activity for me. Salad greens and carrots, I learned, were not outright unpleasant to eat so much as just boring. Therefore with an interesting main dish, a large salad is a perfectly acceptable side. I do not trust salad dressing as a regular part of my meals. In general, it’s a highly processed vector of salt, sugar, and other mysterious chemicals to wreck an otherwise healthful salad. The fat in dressing is supposed to be helpful for properly digesting salad nutrients. My mother is a public health researcher, and after a very long conversation that I had to repeatedly bring back on track when she reacted with horror to every hypothetical food I suggested as an example of the non-salad parts of my meals, I managed to get her to agree that if I am eating something fatty elsewhere in the meal there is no need for additional fat directly on the salad.

When I said this, one of my co-workers immediately identified it. “Psychometrics,” he pronounced. “You are using psychometrics.” I found this characterization amusing. I would normally refer to this as introspection, but it may also be reasonable to think if it as a sort of informal, qualitative, personal psychometrics, or IQPP. Just kidding. I’m going to refer to it as introspection.

One of the first IQPP introspection-based lifestyle improvements I’ve made surrounding food in particular has been to recognize the pace at which I cease to enjoy a food. I have long been aware that my second bite of ice cream is not as good as my first, and that by the time I get to the bottom of a large soda I am either hardly noticing the flavor anymore or actively feeling sick. Selling food in small quantities is not something that capitalism encourages. The economy of scale and simple matters of supply and demand mean that the more food companies can get you to eat, the more money they’ll make, even with extremely steep bulk discounts. At my work, I have an unlimited supply of free lemonade and every week we have our aluminum cylinder of peanut M&Ms refilled. It lasts about two days on average. This resolves the issue of purchase volume as I am free to commit myself to no more than one M&M at a time. All that remains is self-control. By focusing my attention on the diminishing pleasure achieved by each additional peanut M&M, I have resolved the age old paradox, “you can’t eat just one.” I also use the roughly quarter-cup plastic container given for these snacks when I feel like I want some lemonade. A sporadic single peanut M&M and a quarter cup of lemonade now and then maximize my pleasure-to-sugar ratio when I might otherwise be distracted by temptation or feel sick from overindulgence.

With Halloween nearly two weeks past now, we’re still receiving bags of candy in our break rooms. After helping myself to four pieces of candy, I decided it was time to stop. This did not relieve me of temptation, though. Introspection to the rescue! Shortly after picking up a full-size bag of sour skittles, I analyzed my response to it. Without even opening the bag, I was already enjoying the experience. The crinkling of the gaudily colored packaging paper and the feel of the rough sour crystal-coated skittles inside served as the lead-in to the eventual experience of eating this snack. I decided to try treating it as the entire experience, and walked back to the break room to put down the bag of skittles.

Another treat from my childhood, Nerds, is a small, tangy candy that comes by the hundred in colorful little cardboard boxes. Lifting one of these boxes in my break room, I felt and heard the candies jostling and bouncing around. This was part of the experience, no doubt like the skittles carefully designed to keep people coming back and filling up on more sugar. Again, I was able to make it the whole experience. Every single time I saw that particular box of Nerds I picked it up and tilted it, remembering the joy I had received from others like it as a small child while suffering none of the consequences of adding so much sugar to my diet.

Do any of my readers have healthy eating strategies? Share in the comments.

Photo by d0n mil0 from Pexels

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Nuclear Throne

I remember a long time ago, maybe a couple years, my mother became inspired by the teachings of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. She handed each member of our family a piece of dark chocolate. Our job was to be mindful of this chocolate. We were to savor and enjoy it and let no sensation achieved through its consumption go to waste. In this way we would take the first step in a very long journey towards enlightenment and personal fulfillment.

“How preposterous to start with something so easy,” I thought, looking down at my empty plate and licking the chocolate from my lips. “Certainly it will mean nothing if I can properly enjoy a piece of chocolate.”

The moral of this story is that some people are really bad at mindfulness. Me, at least. My mind wanders and is seldom at the same place as my current situation. Although it would be hard to say conclusively that it has not helped at all, over a decade of sitting in the silent group worship of the Quaker tradition has not fixed this for me. In Quaker meetings I became expert at wandering my mind rather than at stilling it. I learned the value of contemplation, but not mindfulness.

What if there were a practice that could enforce mindfulness? If my brain is not completely on the task at hand, it knows, and it gives me a gentle reminder.

Enter Nuclear Throne.

Image result for Nuclear Throne
People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar. -Thich Nhat Hanh

Nuclear Throne is a “Roguelike” game. That means its levels are procedurally generated, that it is easy to die, and that when you die you start over from the beginning. A very general term for a game like this in layman’s terms is “hard.” I can invest ten intense minutes into getting to the third level only to find out the painful way that snipers explode violently when you hit them with an irradiated shovel.

In the heat of the moment, though, each lesson is easy to forget. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve fired a rocket-launching shotgun much too close to a volatile car, attempted to raise my crystal shield to defend against a crystal shield-smashing crowbar, or got too excited with my toxic triple-machinegun and ended up eaten alive by rats as I wandered through the sewers in a desperate search for ammo.

Image result for Nuclear Throne sewers
Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. -Thich Nhat Hanh

Although “gentle” might not be right word, Nuclear Throne is not shy about letting me know when I have allowed my mind to leave the present moment. Incineration by gem-powered gatling laser beam is paradoxically centering.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand. -Thich Nhat Hanh

Or rather, it is centering if I make it so. My instinct brought on by this type of game is haste. When I have to start over again from the beginning it is such a dreadful feeling that I want to sprint to get back to where I left off, but that is the path to ruin. This is where I have to remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching – “there is no way to happiness – happiness is the way.” I must take each moment in the game as its own. If I worry about progress once had and lost I will lose what I have now. So, too, if I worry about what I could lose. Each barrage of bullets is its own, each yeti-hurtled car and exploding canister of lethal miasma. To win the game I must let go of winning. I must, temporarily, let go of the outside world. There are a great many places in life where I have succeeded while my mind was elsewhere. However, with regards to the Nuclear Throne, I must ascend mindfully, or I shall not ascend at all.

Cover image credit: http://www.vlambeer.com/press/sheet.php?p=Nuclear_Throne#images

Sam’s Guide to Relationships

A relationship is a bed of roses.  They look delightful from the outside, but once you get in one you find yourself endlessly pricked by thorns (prickles).  Fortunately, you, dear reader, have this guide.

The first rule of relationships is communication.  A good relationship is founded on clarity, not assumptions.  If something bothers you, you should let your partner know.  This goes the other way, too.  If your partner says that nothing is wrong, congratulations!  Your relationship is perfect! Think of yourself as a lawyer when you and your darling divide chores.  If her chore is dishes and she is out for a week, she cannot be mad if she comes home to week-old dishes.  This was her failure to communicate, and this lesson will be good for both of you.

You and your sweetheart, and I cannot emphasize this enough, cannot both be the best.  If your darling calls you the best, do not simply accept it, as you are implicitly telling her you do not love her by not telling her that she is wrong because she is the best, making it impossible that you could be the best.  If she responds similarly, that in fact it is you who, by being the best, prevents her from being the best, this is good.  It is a sign she respects you.  You must respond appropriately, telling her that once again she has become confused, and that her confusion stems from a misunderstanding around the notion that you are the best.  Explain to her that she is the best, and she can be the best because you are not the best, for if you were the best, she could not be the best, but she is the best.  The length and heat of this conversation is a useful barometer for relationship health.

Finally, this is a Spearow.

Spearows are the garbage bird pokemon. They are everywhere, they do not evolve into powerful forms, and unlike other common pokemon such as Pidgey, Weedle, Caterpie, and Rattata, they cost too much to evolve to be useful for power-leveling.  Once you get to higher levels and they start to break out of your pokeballs, you will spend more pokeballs catching them than the 100 experience and stardust is worth.  Do your relationship a favor.  When you are walking along a moonlit beach with your sweetheart, and your phone buzzes indicating a pokemon is nearby, check if it’s a Spearow.  If so, just put your phone down. Your relationship means more than a worthless Spearow.

Sam’s guide to money

This is a guide for managing money. If you don’t have money, don’t despair! Put this guide down and find a way to get some money.  If you do have money, you’re in the right place!  This simple guide will help you to get the most out of your legitimately earned cash.

In the distant past, the ancient philosopher Benjamin Franklin discovered a secret that has helped people with money to make good use of it ever since.  Sitting beneath a fig tree, Benjamin Franklin had an amazing enlightenment.  “My word, a penny saved is a penny earned!” he shouted, startling a flock of bald eagles and marking the tree as a holy site thenceforth.

At that time, Benjamin Franklin’s teachings were only theoretical. As it was difficult to calculate the precise amount of money that one was saving at any given time, one could not empirically validate his claims until much later.  Now, however, the technology for measuring saved money is so common that many stores will provide it to you as a free service with your purchase!

If you are shopping at one of these stores, you can learn how much money you have saved by simply looking at your receipt.  Consider that one penny saved is equal to one penny earned, and a quick rule of thumb you can use is to convert the dollar amount you saved into pennies, then with the 1 to 1 ratio calculate how much you’ve earned and finally convert pennies back into dollars! The larger this number is, the more money you have earned!

As most receipts can tell you, simply shopping at any store is often enough to earn money.  However, to get the best return on money earned to money spent, one should seek sales.  As many of you probably know, tomorrow is the fourth of July.  In America, this is a holiday during which we celebrate our own nation’s Brexit from Europe.  We refer to this day as “The Fourth of July,” and in celebration we launch great artistic works of fire into the air in states where it is permitted by law, and launch great sales to customers in all states.  Benjamin Franklin’s wisdom is not lost on Americans, and so you will find many people driving to earn as much money as they can on the 4th of July by saving as much money as they can by making as many steeply discounted purchases as they can. The best shoppers are not distracted by the notion of whether something is useful in their lives. The reduction in price is all that matters when earning by saving.

Keep your eyes open in the stores on July 4. If you pay close attention, you will notice that the people who buy the most deals are the wealthiest, thereby proving Benjamin Franklin’s ancient wisdom correct.  You will know they are the wealthiest because they are the ones with the money to buy the most deals.  This bears out the old American saying by the Roman philosopher Plautus, “Ya gotta spend money to make money.” Armed with your new knowledge tomorrow, it’s time to get out there and celebrate our country by getting filthy stinking rich.  When you’re rolling in your piles of $100 bills in your beachside mansion, take a moment to look at the picture.  Do you recognize that man?  It is good to give your respects. A simple “Thanks, Ben,” will do.

Sam’s guide to writing: Practice

The key to writing is to practice on a regular basis. A human being can become an expert in almost anything with 10,000 hours of practice. This is not a guide to math, but that’s approximately one hour a day for 10,000 days. If you need something to write about, consider keeping a blog of events that have happened to you or that people close to you have shared in private. If you and your friends are boring, take it as a challenge! See if you can present your mundane existences in a way that makes them seem passably like they might be worth living. If you are concerned that other people may make fun of you for your blog, a recent twist on the blog phenomenon has people writing blogs only for themselves to read. These “privablogs” as I call them are often written on paper in books. I tried keeping one until I filled up all the pages, and then I was forced to stop. This seems to be a limitation of the privablog format.

If you find you have the opposite problem, and instead of making fun of you people simply ignore your blog, consider Facebook. Facebook is a good place to practice writing because at all times all of your friends are always looking at all of your posts. If at any moment you are not receiving a like from a given friend on a given post, you can be statistically certain that that friend does not like that post or does not like you. Although simple, this feedback can be very helpful for a young writer honing his craft. Just remember that if people don’t like your posts, don’t give up. Just keep posting until people like you. For targeted feedback, consider asking politely, “why didn’t you like my post?”

When you are ready, it is also good form to give back to the community. Rather than just not liking a Facebook post in order to show that it needs work, consider leaving a comment. Good examples of opportunities to comment include helping someone understand how properly to spell something that they may have been confused about how to spell before and helping to correct mistaken political beliefs. Like Facebook posts, these comments are an art that must be practiced. If you find that people hate your posts as indicated by a lack of likes, just keep commenting until you find success.

Whether your chosen medium is the blog, the privablog, or Facebook, finding success as a writer is the result of hundreds of thousands of minutes of practice. Make sure to find these minutes wherever you can. Write while you eat your breakfast, wait at a red light, or become bored in a conversation. Think of the Marquis de Sade, who wrote in his own feces on the wall of his dungeon cell after the church tore out his tongue. That is the level of dedication that writing requires. Think of life as a dungeon wall, and of every moment as an opportunity to put down the contents of your mind using the feces of your creativity. Now get out there and write!