Stephen Johnson http://www.smj10j.com Tue, 20 May 2014 09:41:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0.1 Thinking Gray http://www.smj10j.com/lifestyle-experiments/thinking-gray/ http://www.smj10j.com/lifestyle-experiments/thinking-gray/#comments Wed, 19 Feb 2014 08:40:38 +0000 http://www.smj10j.com/?p=621 Since this year started, I’ve completed 496 tasks. At least, that’s what OmniFocus – the software that I use for task management – tells me. I dove into the deep-end of the productivity pool after Alberto Rademaker‘s Second Brain presentation during my trip to Chile for Exosphere. I’ve adopted the “second brain” metaphor quite literally […]

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Neurofeedback Connectivity from The Dubin Clinic for Lens Neurofeedback

Since this year started, I’ve completed 496 tasks. At least, that’s what OmniFocus – the software that I use for task management – tells me. I dove into the deep-end of the productivity pool after Alberto Rademaker‘s Second Brain presentation during my trip to Chile for Exosphere. I’ve adopted the “second brain” metaphor quite literally – blindly following the commands of my “second brain.”

Some of the tasks have been simple, recurring dailies like remembering to take my vitamins (I still have to be reminded every day…), but the vast majority of the tasks are research, communication, scheduling, and work-oriented. If I remove duplicates, there are 302 items in my completed list. Many of them are short, 5 to 30-minute tasks – things like “Try out OmniOutliner” and “Buy more face lotion.” But there are also some larger projects like “Learn to speak basic, conversational Spanish”, and “Make sure all important information is backed up on this laptop in triplicate.” At over 30 non-recurring tasks a day, I’ve had a very busy start to 2014.

Information Overload | Credit to Langwitches at http://langwitches.org/

But with all the noise, with all of the absurd amounts of efficiency and dopamine-fueled task binging, I’ve had a less thoughtful January. I’ve been in the “closed mode” far more than I normally am. I have tasks that are set to regularly pull me out of my go-go-go mentality and sit for a while and think – but because I was new to this whole task management and productivity game, I didn’t know how to schedule those items in a way so that I wouldn’t just blissfully ignore them and complete the easy, clearly-defined tasks that were of much lower priority. I’ve been in a battle with myself, in a war that I created. It’s a war that I intend to win – and fortunately for me, there seems little doubt of that being the case as I’m on both sides. But I would prefer that my creative side is the one who comes out on top. “Open mode”-Steve has lost many battles, but I think he finally has the upper hand in the war against “efficiency Czar”-Steve.

Some of my favorite novels, most notably Steppenwolf, are explorations into how our brains are capable of finding themselves on both sides of an argument. Sometimes, the opposing sides of an issue are quite divisive and it can be mind-wrenching to empathize with a contradictory point of view and attempt to understand why others can hold it to be true. Great persuasive speakers know that attacking an issue from the point of reason and logic is futile – a straw man rebuttal is easy to craft and it’s nearly as easy to unwittingly fall into believing one yourself. It’s fairly rare, and increasingly so, that arguments over important issues arise due to information inequalities between the parties. Far more common, and unfortunately much more difficult to resolve, is the situation whereby both parties have the same information and interpret it with different values. Being empathetic – having the ability to understand another’s point of view based on values that are different than your own – is hard. It’s painful. It’s not very fun and so we often avoid it as long and as often as possible.

Several months ago, I was recommended to read a book called the The Kingkiller Chronicle by my friend and coworker, Ryan Paddock. The book is a science fiction/fantasy novel similar to Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. But what’s really interesting about the world the author has created, is the way that magic works. In the book, it’s called “sympathy” and the basic idea is that you can change the state of the world by simply believing a different set of rules. You want the rock you’re holding in your hand to fly up into the sky? Convince yourself that gravity makes objects go up instead of down. Try that for a second – it’s quite difficult! The concept is a fascinating reworking of empathy and the real-world situations that we all face day-to-day of trying to move boulders by changing or understanding the values that those around us hold most dear – people who we know to be rational, who have the same information as us, but who believe different things than we do.

The Far Side - My Brain is Full | http://www.thefarside.com/

I have been trying to practice what I can best describe as “thinking gray.” Trying to disassociate my opinions and thoughts and ideas from my ego – from my self. At times it’s wonderful, feeling as light as a feather, able to switch positions at the drop of a hat – feeling like you have the right to change your mind is incredibly empowering. Especially considering that, according to some research we make decisions and then back those decisions up with facts later. We’re extremely well-equipped to rationalize away the complex nuances of a problem so we can hop on over to the next problem. Another way of saying this is that we, as humans, are built like the Chinese factories of a few years ago – we pump out a lot of mediocre decisions and hope it all works out by playing the numbers game.

Sometimes, it’s rather difficult to “think gray.” Since I (try to) have no preset lamp posts in the form of values or ethics, I have to evaluate things almost entirely from scratch. With complex issues this can be exhausting. Worst of all, I often find out I’m wrong! Very often… in fact. It’s both the reason why I continue to “think gray” and thing I hate most about it. Endless duality.


This is the first post in the style of writing that I will be transitioning this blog to. Less external. More internal. And with a slight educational bent.

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A New City and a New Approach to Education with Exosphere http://www.smj10j.com/future/a-new-city-and-a-new-approach-to-education-with-exosphere/ http://www.smj10j.com/future/a-new-city-and-a-new-approach-to-education-with-exosphere/#comments Wed, 18 Dec 2013 15:32:42 +0000 http://www.smj10j.com/?p=529 At the end of October, I took a week off to lead a programming workshop in Santiago, Chile. In typical form, I had been up for roughly 26 hours before I hopped in a cab to begin my 21-hour trip. I can’t remember what I was thinking, but I expect sleeping on the plane was […]

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Exosphere Bootcamp - Hiking Manquehue in Santiago

At the end of October, I took a week off to lead a programming workshop in Santiago, Chile. In typical form, I had been up for roughly 26 hours before I hopped in a cab to begin my 21-hour trip. I can’t remember what I was thinking, but I expect sleeping on the plane was part of the plan. I can never sleep on planes, I always deprive myself of sleep beforehand, and I always arrive a complete mess.

After 5 hours of delays and 1 harrowing landing, I arrived in Santiago with 52 sleepless hours under my belt and black holes for eyes to prove it. Wielding the flawless logic only the insane (or extremely sleep-deprived) can bring to light, I reasoned going to sleep in the afternoon would only cause jetlag and so I stayed up till around 10pm and crashed. Hard. And then woke up after 4 hours unable to fall back asleep.

Needless to say, Day 1 was rough. And I did it completely wrong.

I dove way too deep, way too fast, and by the end of the first day half the class was wearing a Thousand Mile Stare. But at the end of the day, the students, the staff, and I discussed the problem and came up with a potential solution. I spent the evening reworking my plan and the rest of the week went flawlessly. Sure, the first day was exhausting, but being part of a feedback loop created by people who want to take charge of their education was invigorating.

Matrix - Neo Learns

For a good chunk of the last century, science fiction writers with a technological-bent have often imagined a world with human analogs that can not only perform complex mathematical calculations, but also which can observe, infer, and adjust their behavior. Essentially they can learn – they have artificial intelligence. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on where you stand on the Luddite line, we haven’t gotten close to that kind of general intelligence because it’s extremely tricky. Despite incredible advances in brute-force, dictionary-style computing and domain-specific mastery – we just don’t know how to the brain learns so quickly from a never-ending and constantly changing stream of inputs.

Smart House - A Disney Movie

Education is very much related to this struggle. We know that humans can learn incredible amounts of information, and we know that there are many different ways of learning and that some of them work better for certain subjects or certain people. But we don’t know why and we don’t know how. And if you don’t know how, the best you can call the relationship is a correlation. This is why the last major advance in education came with easy access for every student to the printed word. Everything after that has been about how to make more information available to more people – a noble goal but one that has limits. Initiatives like the Khan Academy are fantastic for those without ready-access to the subject matter, but for those with access to all the information in the world (and that is almost quite literally) there still remains the problem of relevancy, progression, and measurement.

I’ve been unhappy with education as long as I can remember. I recall vividly the day I realized that education at the college level is no different than what I had been going through for the last 2/3 of my life. I stopped going to lectures, and soon I stopped going to discussions, too. By the end of my first quarter at UCLA I had gone to more classes than I would go to during the rest of my time there. It just wasn’t worth it. I graduated with an Economics degree and a Computer Science degree, a very low GPA, and an exceptional set of memories and life lessons that took place out of the classroom. I hear this same story from people I meet time and time again. Those of us who have always felt there could be more to life – that you, as an individual, could do more – know education is broken. Unfortunately, I don’t think many of us (myself included) come to that realization until it’s too late.

Exosphere Bootcamp December 2013

Exosphere is an attempt to progress the efforts of individual education with a focus on entrepreneurial pursuits. It’s like an incubator that’s focused on the individual instead of the company. By the end of the program, a student will not only have been exposed to all of the components involved in building something out of nothing, but will have discussed them, tinkered with them, and put them to use in his own project. It’s akin to teaching someone to ride a bike with training wheels.

In my opinion, its success comes from the following 3 major components:

  1. Regular lectures on various topics acting as guideposts for ideas, theories, and proven ways of thinking about a topic
  2. Readily accessible resources in the form of Fellows (faculty members) for:
    1. Deep-diving into a specific part of the Fellow’s domain (for example, mine is Big Data, UX, Gamification, and software-engineering in general)
    2. Advice coming from someone with real-world experience
    3. Direction on where and how to start learning about related topics that are required for the student’s business
  3. A community of staff and other students providing:
    1. Emotional support for pushing through the topics or concepts that are difficult for the student
    2. Inspiration and motivation via healthy competition, excitement, and idea sharing

Exosphere is still new and the kinks are still being worked out – but I believe this is the kind of societal change that is necessary for education to advance.

There are many, many people focused on information dispersal – I’m thrilled to be on the side of information absorption!

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A Whirlwind 2013 in San Diego http://www.smj10j.com/future/a-whirlwind-2013-in-san-diego/ http://www.smj10j.com/future/a-whirlwind-2013-in-san-diego/#comments Sun, 15 Dec 2013 15:26:41 +0000 http://www.smj10j.com/?p=510 3 blocks to the closest surf spot When I decided to come back to the States, and being the person I am, I immediately began work on a giant spreadsheet to help me choose where I wanted to go next. Warm weather and proximity to a good surfing beach were obviously the first two entries. […]

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Pacific Beach, San Diego

3 blocks to the closest surf spot

When I decided to come back to the States, and being the person I am, I immediately began work on a giant spreadsheet to help me choose where I wanted to go next. Warm weather and proximity to a good surfing beach were obviously the first two entries. But I also had a few more personal things like how long it would take me to visit friends and family and $$ invested in new technology ventures. Looking at the table now, with Austin, Boulder, and San Diego all earning a checkmark under “Consistently Ranked as a Top 10 City to Live In”, it’s funny to see that all the things that made this past year in San Diego great weren’t part of my criteria. Of course, there’s no way they could have been.

My original plan was to take an engineering job to fill my pockets and stomach while working nights and weekends on game design. That all went promptly out the window before I even made the move down to San Diego. In hindsight, I had latched onto a goal I didn’t really want just to have something to hold onto. When I was working on SavePenguin, I was fulfilled. Being aware of that feeling as well as where my attention was presently directed, I incorrectly made a connection between game development and passion. If I had waited a few weeks longer, I would have seen that the spotlight of my focus was slowly drifting away and spilling its light across the rest of interaction design. I still just love designing and building ways for humans to interact with machines – be it games, B2B analytics dashboards, or single-button deployment processes for engineering teams.

White Wonderland New Years Eve 2012-2013

White Wonderland for New Years Eve 2012-2013

A big reason why I chose San Diego is that a few days before I wrote my first and only other post of this year, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision with Justin, who was graciously letting me stay with him after my return, to drive down to San Diego to celebrate New Years Eve with a few friends and attend my very first rave. I will go into more detail in a future post, but the friendships made and the first-hand experience of life in San Diego pushed me over the edge. The following week I shot off a few resumes and before the week closed out I had accepted an offer – what a whirlwind that was!

In the coming months, I’m going to tackle bite-sized pieces of my time here in San Diego and try to put them to words. Some of the experiences have been transformational, some of them eye opening, and some of them are just tales of non-stop fun. I don’t think I have ever let myself have as much fun as I’ve experienced within this past year – I’m not sure I really understood it was possible!

To view, click the above image and then drag your mouse to look around

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate more than I ever have before is what a life-long (or at least, a significant amount of time) friendship looks and feels like. Anyone that knows me well has undoubtedly been subject to hearing my philosophy about relationships – “We’re all just ships at sea,” I lament. “Some ships float alongside each other for a good while, but ultimately, each ship is on its own journey. And someday, when the winds permit, they will part and continue on their independent paths.” Some feel it’s a bleak outlook, but I believe it keeps me rooted in the present and ever aware of the transient nature of life and all relationships. My own personal “This too shall pass”, if you will. Along with a handful of ships that I seem to constantly cross paths with, I’ve stayed in regular contact with the two men that rode the entrepreneurial roller coaster with me across almost half a decade – Jun and Yu-kai. The former of which introduced me to the reason why I’m writing this post and leaving San Diego in a little under 3 months.

This time I bought slowly and deliberately so I won’t be selling all my stuff – most of it is going in storage. I also have a clear deadline for re-evaluation – the end of June. And this time, instead of aiming to figure out where I’m going next, I’ll be helping others acquire the skills needed to craft the life of their dreams.

In a few months I’ll be moving to Santiago, Chile and joining Exosphere as a Fellow!

You can read more about it in my next post.

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2012 – Discovery by Elimination http://www.smj10j.com/future/2012-discovery-by-elimination/ http://www.smj10j.com/future/2012-discovery-by-elimination/#comments Thu, 03 Jan 2013 19:52:16 +0000 http://www.smj10j.com/?p=483 2012 was a year of restlessness and unhealthy work habits. It was also a year of self-discovery (or self-annihilation, depending on your view of self!) and a redefinition of priorities. 2011 was brought to a close in Maui after a month-long trip around SEAsia. What followed was a year of 80-hour workweeks and, to be […]

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Goodbye RewardMe Office

2012 was a year of restlessness and unhealthy work habits. It was also a year of self-discovery (or self-annihilation, depending on your view of self!) and a redefinition of priorities.

2011 was brought to a close in Maui after a month-long trip around SEAsia. What followed was a year of 80-hour workweeks and, to be honest, I can’t even remember where I was, who I was with, or what I did for New Year’s last year. A safe bet puts me at the office or at least within an arm’s reach of a computer.

By the time 2012 appeared on the horizon I was already starting to reach my breaking point. I booked a flight to Maui to stay in my parent’s condo (which I can never thank them enough for letting me use!) and planned to work and surf from January to March.

But 2 days before I left, work chaos would strike again and I would be up for the next 48 hours finishing a pivotal chunk of code that a (self-made-ex) coworker decided to not deliver after a month of work. I very clearly remember the sleep-deprived delirium I was in when I first set foot on the beach and toppled into the water.

I would spend the next month and a half starting every day with an early surf session in Honolua Bay and try to squeeze in another in the afternoon when surf permitted. There are few things I’ve found more enjoyable and exhilarating than riding a wave bigger than you are over a coral reef. After that it was hard to get excited about putting on a wetsuit in the rain to go surfing in the frigid NorCal waters.

Honolua Bay Surfing

The next few months were characterized by even more work and in May, we expanded our company to 17 with the addition of 4 outstanding interns from Berkeley. Orchestrating the efforts of 8 software engineers while still trying to get my own work done (not to mention planning out the long-term strategy of the company!) was a horrible, misguided experience. I learned a lot – but it was not an ideal situation. Not even close!

In June I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was burned out. I mean utterly, completely… damn near ineffably exhausted. I had no idea what I wanted to do – but it sure wasn’t this. I had no idea how I was going to talk to my cofounders (Yu-kai and Jun) about this. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

On a surreal day in early July, Yu-kai told us we had no money. Silence sat heavy in the conference room and Jun was the first to speak. “Wait. What?” Jun and I never dealt with the money. Neither did Marc, who stood slack-jawed at the side of the table. I flitted between disbelief and relief for the rest of the hour-long conversation. There was no anger or resentment – I think we were all tired and in some way, a little bit happy.

So RewardMe was over and we were all unemployed and directionless. Many games of soccer tennis were played any many ideas were floated around. One such idea (spoiler alert: it doesn’t work out) involved Justin and I starting an import/export company. It went well at first but we failed to find an adequate pipeline for distributor sourcing.

And then I moved to SEAsia.

SCUBA Dive Boat in Koh Tao, Thailand

I covered my trip a lot in this blog so I won’t detail much here. But it was while I was spending my afternoons lying on the roof of a dive boat in the Gulf of Thailand that I realized that not only could I not escape building software – but that I didn’t want to. Creative writing, storytelling, logic, and technology are what I’m built for. I love tackling messy problems and creating step-by-step processes to solve them.

So I made a game and did a lot of diving and traveled until I knew what I wanted – I want to make games that tell stories and help to expand the medium beyond just selling fun. There is so much potential that is largely being untapped. I have a long way to go and what I can make now is not where I want to be – but as Ira Glass noted – persistence will pay off.

Boracay Beach

Now I’m back and have only one big question left to answer – where am I going next? Wherever I go I plan to stay for a while – an exciting change of pace over the last few years! San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Boulder, and Austin are at the top of my list – and they all sound pretty great.

This year started off with a bang and I’m positively thrilled about where it’s heading.

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Goodbye Koh Tao – Hello Chiang Mai! http://www.smj10j.com/travel/southeast-asia/thailand/goodbye-koh-tao-hello-chiang-mai/ http://www.smj10j.com/travel/southeast-asia/thailand/goodbye-koh-tao-hello-chiang-mai/#comments Thu, 15 Nov 2012 10:39:01 +0000 http://www.smj10j.com/?p=467 I decided to not go through with my Divemaster on just about the day it was supposed to start. The question over whether I really wanted to pursue it or not niggled into my mind somewhere in Kuala Lumpur – probably while I was staring at the ceiling fan of my 6ft x 12ft cell. […]

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I decided to not go through with my Divemaster on just about the day it was supposed to start. The question over whether I really wanted to pursue it or not niggled into my mind somewhere in Kuala Lumpur – probably while I was staring at the ceiling fan of my 6ft x 12ft cell. Did I really want to spend the next 2 months in a town with 2 roads and a dozen restaurants? Also there’s no surf. And let’s be honest, the Internet working 25% of the time is kind of a factor.

I really like this island – and if it had waves I would be staying here for a very long time. But it doesn’t. And if you’re not diving there is literally nothing to do besides eat, drink, and sit on the computer.

Which is pretty much what I’ve been doing the past 3 weeks while I pounded out my first iOS  game, Save Penguin!

It was a great experience – and game development is something that I may pursue more seriously. It combines a lot of what I love – story telling, powerful algorithms, art and emotion, and so much more. It’s one of the more multi-disciplinary areas I’ve explored and I’m interested in seeing if it’s something I could do for the long term.  But for now, I’m taking a few days off as I travel up to Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand!

I visited Chiang Mai a few years ago when Courtney and I travelled around Thailand. It’s a pretty large city but it feels a lot smaller than it is. The weather is a little cooler, the people are a little friendlier, and the air is a lot cleaner (than Bangkok, that is!).

Once I arrive I’ll be writing more frequently again – my month of 12-hour programming days is now over.

And I seriously cannot wait to go running!

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Cappuccino in Koh Tao http://www.smj10j.com/travel/southeast-asia/thailand/cappuccino-in-koh-tao/ http://www.smj10j.com/travel/southeast-asia/thailand/cappuccino-in-koh-tao/#comments Fri, 05 Oct 2012 15:30:37 +0000 http://www.smj10j.com/?p=457 Life on Koh Tao is a lot slower and a big part of my day – when I’m not seasick on a boat or 75 feet below the ocean’s surface – is spent eating, talking, and thinking. My favorite place is a French café right off the main street in Mae Haad called Cappuccino. Like […]

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Cappuccino in Koh Tao

Life on Koh Tao is a lot slower and a big part of my day – when I’m not seasick on a boat or 75 feet below the ocean’s surface – is spent eating, talking, and thinking.

My favorite place is a French café right off the main street in Mae Haad called Cappuccino. Like almost everywhere on the island, it has an open-air patio and is way too big for the number of customers it ever has at any point in time. Music from Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, and Maroon 5 wafts lazily from the interior of the café and is occasionally interrupted by raucous bursts of song from the caged birds on either ends of the patio.

Lined on the street below is an endless row of motorcycles and mopeds – a constant reminder that I’m in Thailand. And just beyond that are the kids weaving their motorcycles at 30mph between the cats, dogs, and people walking on the road. It’s never quiet here. Thankfully, my brain has learned to filter out the symphony of choking engines that seems to permeate every inch of this country.

I usually order a double latte – which is slightly smaller than a Starbucks “tall” and is served in a glass mug on a glass platter with a packet of sugar (why?). There is no option for the type of milk (“non-fat?”). For the longest time I was stumped over how to order straight coffee because the only options are “Expresso”, “Latte”, and “Americano”. I learned today that Thais refer to any coffee without milk and sugar as an Americano. Good to know.

Life here is simple. It’s a great place to think.

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Arriving in Kuala Lumpur – Public Transit http://www.smj10j.com/travel/southeast-asia/malaysia/arriving-in-kuala-lumpur-public-transit/ http://www.smj10j.com/travel/southeast-asia/malaysia/arriving-in-kuala-lumpur-public-transit/#comments Wed, 03 Oct 2012 15:59:21 +0000 http://www.smj10j.com/?p=446 I landed in Kuala Lumpur with a backpack and little more than a vague idea about where I was going. My first time traveling without a real “plan” was on my previous visit to Thailand two years ago. Arriving in a new place with a guidebook and a booked room has just the right combination […]

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Petronas Towers  in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I landed in Kuala Lumpur with a backpack and little more than a vague idea about where I was going. My first time traveling without a real “plan” was on my previous visit to Thailand two years ago. Arriving in a new place with a guidebook and a booked room has just the right combination of safety and spontaneity to get your adrenaline pumping while still knowing everything is going to turn out fine.

This was a bit different.

The last time I looked up information about my trip to Malaysia was when I booked my flight a few months back. Once I found that Americans are granted 90-day visas on arrival I closed my browser and went on to other things. That’s all I need, right?

So when I landed in (what I would come to learn was called) the LCCT terminal of KUL with no plan, I started to get nervous. I felt a bit silly a few minutes later when I stumbled into the largest McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Coffee Bean I’ve ever seen.

Based on the fact I was flying Air Asia – one of the largest budget airlines in Southeast Asia – I figured I was probably in a separate terminal from the main airlines. It’s fairly common throughout Asia to have terminals that are physically separate under the same airport code. A sign labeled Low Cost Commuter Terminal confirmed my suspicions and I was off to find a way to get to the main terminal (KLIA).

A few minutes later, while cruising on what would be called a luxury bus in the U.S. for about US$0.75 I started laughing – quickly drawing questioning looks from the other passengers. I’m constantly amazed at the quality, frequency, and clarity of instruction on public transport in Southeast Asia. Despite my challenges early this same day in Bangkok’s airport (BKK), here I was – 15 minutes after landing at a foreign airport – on a bus in the right direction with a 90-day visa. Incredible.

When I arrived at KLIA I still didn’t have a map – something I really wish I would have found on arrival. I assumed I would be looking for something like “City Central” and hoped it would be on some kind of light rail. As soon as I entered the terminal, “KL Sentral” caught my eye. I’m already starting to like Malaysia.

Granted, no light rail – but it’s hard to complain about a 45-minute luxury charter bus ride for US$3 that’s faster than a cab.

SIDENOTE!
Airports of the world – please, please, please heed the following advice! A public WiFi network throughout the airport with access to basic airport, transit, and tourism information would be INCREDIBLE. Free internet would be great – but at the minimum at least let us take advantage of carrying around these SIM-less bricks in our pockets.

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It’s Hard to Leave Bangkok http://www.smj10j.com/travel/its-hard-to-leave-bangkok/ http://www.smj10j.com/travel/its-hard-to-leave-bangkok/#comments Mon, 01 Oct 2012 15:56:43 +0000 http://www.smj10j.com/?p=441 I had a decision to make: buy a last-minute ticket to Manila or take my chances on making the cross-city bus ride to the international terminal in time to catch my flight to Kuala Lumpur. With a little under 90 minutes till my flight and an estimated bus ride time of 15 minutes it wasn’t […]

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Crying at Airport  in Bangkok, Thailand

I had a decision to make: buy a last-minute ticket to Manila or take my chances on making the cross-city bus ride to the international terminal in time to catch my flight to Kuala Lumpur. With a little under 90 minutes till my flight and an estimated bus ride time of 15 minutes it wasn’t an easy call to make – but I decided to make a mad dash for the international terminal, Don Mueang. Worst-case scenario, I figured, was that I would miss my flight and end up buying a ticket to wherever looked interesting.

50 minutes later (15 was a bit optimistic) I was jumping out of the bus on a race to the ticket counter. As I power-walked through the terminal I followed the “Domestic Departures” signs because I wasn’t seeing any “International Departures” signs and I only had time to check one route. Weaving through confused Germans with too much luggage and identically dressed Korean couples I finally found the Air Asia ticket counter (of course, it was the last one). Thankfully, Air Asia doesn’t seem to follow the 45-minute counter-closing rule that they bolded, italicized, and underlined on the emailed itinerary.

At 12:35 I reached immigration – a mere 5 minutes after the boarding of my flight began. I started mentally patting myself on the back over my superb on-the-fly decision making skills. I wondered where I would have gone if I hadn’t made this flight. Probably Hong Kong or Taipei – both are on my short list for must-see-soon places and they’re close to my next stop, the Philippines. Or maybe Jakarta – I do really miss surfing and Indonesia is a world-renowned destination for it…

A frustrated Englishman bumped against me as he huffed and switched passport control lines again. What the hell was taking so long? I tip-toed over the person in front of me and saw the “In Training” sign on the counter in front me. I sighed.

10 minutes later (and for those keeping time, that’s 5 minutes before the plane’s doors are closed), I was digging through my bag to find the scissors that I was trying to sneak aboard the flight for apparently nefarious deeds. I finally found the weapon (a pair of hair trimmers with ¼ inch blades) and threw them in the trash – much to airport security’s delight. Free to go I grabbed my half-open backpack and started my final trek to the very last gate in the terminal. It was an awkward journey – walking while stuffing things back in my bag. At last, just minutes before my flight was to depart, I reached my gate to find my plane had not yet arrived.

Thanks again, Bangkok!

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This is Not What I Thought I’d Be Doing http://www.smj10j.com/travel/this-is-not-what-i-thought-id-be-doing/ http://www.smj10j.com/travel/this-is-not-what-i-thought-id-be-doing/#comments Mon, 24 Sep 2012 11:03:35 +0000 http://www.smj10j.com/?p=425 This is not at all what I expected I would be doing when I left 3 weeks ago. I try to stay away from using cliches as much as possible – but this quote by Lennon is too good to pass up. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I […]

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Mae Haad Pier, Koh Tao, Thailand

This is not at all what I expected I would be doing when I left 3 weeks ago. I try to stay away from using cliches as much as possible – but this quote by Lennon is too good to pass up. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I think this is the first time that I really get that quote.

I had planned on traveling around Thailand for a month before my trip to Malaysia. The goal was to find a place that I wanted to stay for a 2-4 months to work and write and figure out next steps. Things were going as planned during my first two days in Bangkok – the city very quickly reassured me that it was not somewhere I wanted to stay for any length of time!

I was divided pretty evenly between the next 3 places I was going to go: Chiang Mai – a big but quiet(er) city in the North of Thailand, Ubon Ratchathani – a less-frequently touristed city on the far East side of Thailand, or Koh Tao – an Island known for diving in the Gulf of Thailand. I chose Koh Tao on a whim (I wanted to see the ocean…) and have been here for the past 3 weeks.

When I return from Malaysia and the Philippines in mid-October I’ll be starting my Dive Masters Training on Koh Tao and won’t be leaving until the beginning of December at the earliest.

To be honest – this both terrifies and excites me.

Here’s what’s exciting:

  • I’ll be learning something new in a medium I’ve loved for a large part of my life (water)
  • The people here are friendly and interesting
  • I love islands and have wanted to live on one for a long time
  • I’ll be diving twice a day, almost every single day

Here’s what’s terrifying:

  • I would have to run 2 laps around the perimeter of the island to complete a marathon. For reference, two typical college campuses would not be able to fit on this island. Not having options when it comes to where to go, what to eat, and what to do is frankly not something I’ve been exposed to for any length of time.
  • I’ll be spending a lot of my time doing something unplanned. This isn’t bad – in fact, experiences like this are what I’m doing this for – but it’s often a bit scary diving (ha) into something new
  • I’ll be diving twice a day, almost every single day (I sure hope I keep liking it!)

And yet, despite my concerns, I’m more than happy with where I am right now.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve seen how what I thought I wanted and what I actually wanted can differ greatly. Even though we all try to pretend that things don’t change and that the future is predictable – it just isn’t true. Not even a little bit. Think back 5 years ago and try to get inside the mind of who you were then. Try and recall where you thought you’d be and what you thought you’d be doing in 5 years. How’d you do?

Goals change, friendships and relationships come and go, industries are created and economies crash – the only constant is change and I’m trying my best to embrace it!

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The Islands of Thailand – My Experiences on Koh Tao http://www.smj10j.com/travel/southeast-asia/thailand/my-experiences-with-the-islands-of-thailand-koh-tao/ http://www.smj10j.com/travel/southeast-asia/thailand/my-experiences-with-the-islands-of-thailand-koh-tao/#comments Thu, 13 Sep 2012 13:13:50 +0000 http://www.smj10j.com/?p=345 “Okay now please put on ze bikini,” she said. “My bikini?” “Yes. You have it on, no?” “Uh, yeah, sure.” I turn around in my brown swimming trunks. “Does my bikini look alright?” “Fine. Good. Yes.” She says, half-smiling over her shoulder. I see now what people say about the French not caring much for […]

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Koh Tao, one of the islands of Thailand - Sunset over the ocean

“Okay now please put on ze bikini,” she said.

“My bikini?”

“Yes. You have it on, no?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.” I turn around in my brown swimming trunks. “Does my bikini look alright?”

“Fine. Good. Yes.” She says, half-smiling over her shoulder.

I see now what people say about the French not caring much for learning English. Joelle would be my dive instructor for the next 5 days – taking me on 9 dives all around the West side of Koh Tao. Koh Tao is known as the best island in Thailand for diving – and now I understand why!

I arrived on Koh Tao with no real plans. I thought I might go diving or I thought might wander around and leave in a day or two – the odds were about 50/50. So when I hopped off the ferry, slightly seasick and disoriented, I walked unseeing through the cacophony of “Taxi Boat!?”, “Taxi Cab? Hey! Hey! Where you go?” and found myself on the Southern part of Mae Haad with very few other tourists around.

Mae Haad, Koh Tao, an island of Thailand - Alley It’s currently one of the “off seasons” in Thailand (September-October). It was pretty noticeable in Bangkok, where I was often the only Westerner around and I would go half a day without seeing another non-Thai person. In Koh Tao it was shockingly obvious, but for a slighly different reason. The islands of Thailand are almost exclusively driven by tourism, and when there are no tourists, the cities look like ghost towns for half the day.

I stepped onto a nearby, open-air patio, remembering to leave my sandals on the steps, and walked over to a woman casually reading behind a desk. I was so exhausted from my 12-hour journey (and that’s one of the fastest ways to get there) that I agreed to the 500 baht charge for a room that should probably be around 300. Welcome to Koh Tao (and the islands of Thailand in general) – where everything is 20-100% more expensive!

Sairee, Koh Tao, an island of Thailand - Main Street I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I thought I was in Sairee my entire first day in Koh Tao! Even after renting a motor scooter to tour the island (for just US$5 a day!) and seeing dozens of “Mae Haad Guesthouse” signs on my way out, I still had absolutely no idea that I wasn’t in Sairee. So after a long and rather uneventful day I headed back to my room and strongly considered hopping on the next ferry out.

Thankfully, I woke up the next morning and decided I would regret admitting that I had visited one of the best and most affordable places to learn to SCUBA dive and didn’t even get wet.

Scuba Diving on Koh Tao

Diver Statue in Mae Haad, Koh Tao, an island of Thailand Koh Tao and dive schools should be a case study of the affects of decision paralysis. There are something like 40 dive schools on this 8 square mile island. I tried doing research on the internet before-hand, I really did. But, in the end, I just ducked into the first place I saw that looked semi-respectable – Easy Divers. And it turned out to be pretty great! After the 3-day Open Water course, I was hooked and  immediately jumped into the 2-day Advanced course.

Because it’s the off-season, I was just about the only person learning to dive and so both of my courses – from first learning how to use a regulator to diving down to 100ft – were taught one-on-one. In fact, on several dives, there were just 4 people on the boat – the captain, the deckhand, Joelle, and me! Combined with the fact that Easy Divers schedules their dives around the other schools, we were often the only other divers in the area and had the reefs to ourselves. That means that for 45 minutes at a time I got to explore an entirely new world without seeing another soul (well, just one other soul). I can’t stress how amazing this whole experience was – I can’t wait to go on more dives to explore things like underwater wrecks! Apparently, the other islands of Thailand, including Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi, have their own, distinct environments to explore!

Titan Triggerfish in Koh Tao, an island of Thailand My final dive was a night dive. It is literally pitch black just 30ft underwater and it was a little unnerving when a sleepy, but normally very aggressive, triggerfish appeared in the beam of my flashlight just a few meters away. Fortunately, it was in no mood to fight and lazily drifted out of sight. The night dive ended up being my favorite dive because of the sheer number and variety of animal life that becomes more active at night… though walls and fish suddenly appearing in front of you takes some getting used to!

Staying on Koh Tao

Koh Tao is a very, very small island. There are no Western chains besides a few dive shops and 3 or 4 7-11s. Internet is horrible. Hot water is hard to come by and I only know of one places that sells decent coffee and bread. There is almost nothing to do besides work, lay on the beach, or go diving.

Yet for some reason, I want to stick around for a while. After living here for 8 months, Alex Baackes explains life on Koh Tao better than I can. So I’m staying here for a while – at least till the end of the month when I’m going to visit Malaysia and then head to the Philippines to meet Courtney for a weekend before she heads back to the States. Yesterday I rented an apartment for a month in the middle of sleepy Mae Haad (there are literally 3 main roads, each only a few blocks long) for US$275. And that’s not even on the low-end!

So, for now, the plan is to work and dive and explore one of the islands of Thailand. Hard to complain!

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