★ Buying a regulator for scuba diving

Scubapro MK17 first stage with A700 second stage (that one is a beauty)

Scubapro MK17 first stage with A700 second stage (that one is a beauty)

Like many scuba divers I used rented equipment that dive operators provided. Usually you get well-maintained basic equipment. If you commit to scuba diving, however, buying your own gear becomes desirable.

One of the first things to buy is a regulator. I found it very difficult to choose one brand or model over another. That's because there are few comprehensive reviews on the web, and little agreement in the community about what's best. I hope this article makes it easier for you to make a decision.

So, which regulator should you buy?

Short answer: It doesn't really matter. Scuba regulators are a mature technology with little variation in quality. Equipment failure is not a relevant cause of accidents compared to human error (including ignoring equipment maintenance recommendations). Any complete regulator set around 300-400 Euro will keep you safe and work well if properly maintained. So just go ahead and buy a set from one of the major brands (in Europe: Aqualung/Apeks, Scubapro/Subgear, Atomic Aquatics, Mares and others).

Long answer: It depends on what you need it for, and personal preference. I think the following criteria can be used to compare regulators and make an informed decision.

1. Total cost of ownership

Regulators need to be serviced regularly to make sure that salt water and other influences don't put you in danger. To my knowledge, some manufacturers recommend either one or two year intervals (or a certain number of dives, whatever comes first). These are often mandatory to stay under warranty. Service cost is around 100 Euro depending on the brand. As you can see, suddenly a one or two year interval can make a big difference. In order to compare regulators based on price, ask the shop that would most likely service your gear for maintenance prices and calculate the total cost of ownership for 5-10 years.

2. First stage design

There are three designs for the first stage (which attaches to the tank and reduces the air pressure).
Diaphragm. Preferred by divers in cold or dirty water (sediment, oil etc.) because of its sealed construction.
Air-balanced piston. Preferred by divers that value maximum air delivery and a simpler construction. Here water enters the first stage.
Downstream piston. Simple construction type that you should only buy if price and easy servicing count the most.

3. Second stage characteristics

While the first stage does all the work, the second stage is responsible for much of the subjective feel of breathing under water. They differ mostly by whether you can adjust how much you have to suck to start the air flow (cracking pressure adjustment; knob on the side) and whether you can control how easily air flows once it has started to flow (Venturi adjustment; lever on the side; sometimes automatically controlled without a lever). These features often carry different names to confuse you. Don't let them.

4. Availability of support

In general, important things are best discussed with an experienced person. A major consideration of which regulator you should buy is which brands and models your local dive shop or school offers, likes, and services reliably. If in doubt, go with the recommendation from an expert you trust. I also tried to consider with which brand I would easily find help abroad. I heard some conflicting information, and decided that any established brand should be fine.

Things that manufacturers want you to think are important but about which I'm not so sure

  • Innovative breathing system X. Many manufacturers have come up with nice names for minor changes in their regulator design. Looking at the current market, there's nothing I can see that sticks out.
  • Materials. These determine cold water performance (metal or plastic) and durability against corrosion (titanium, stainless steel, or plated brass). If you dive in very cold water, you need more metal. If you want to service your regulator less often, you need titanium or stainless steel. However, I think that if you follow suggested maintenance intervals, it doesn't matter so much.
  • Weight. Unless you use titanium elements, the weight won't differ that much between regulators. Not sure if the weight difference under water is worth the price difference.
  • Vents. There will be bubbles, and a newly designed vent will not change that.
  • Nitrox compatibility. Almost any regulator can handle up to 40% oxygen. If you want more, you need a special regulator.
  • Swivel. Maximizes comfort of the second stage, but is also seen as an unnessecary point of failure by some. If your hose configuration is correct, you shouldn't need a swivel.
  • Tank fitting. If you dive internationally, get a DIN connector with a yoke (INT) adapter.

Caveat: I'm by no means professional or experienced (at the time of writing). Regulators are life support devices. My goal is to provide helpful criteria regarding a purchase. Don't be stupid; go talk to a experienced professional before you make a decision.

★ My First Skydive: Correcting 7 Preconceptions

I had my first (tandem) skydive on the weekend. It was awesome. Also, it gave me a chance to learn more about the sport and correct a few of my misconceptions. Here they go.


Photo by April Ngern

1. Skydiving is a daredevil hobby.

I've always thought that skydiving is something very dangerous, and only few people take the risk to do it regularly. It turns out that—at least in Europe—it's quite safe. You jump with a main parachute and a backup parachute, and these days every rig carries a Cypres failsafe device that can activate your parachute even if you make a serious mistake (or you're unconscious). That makes it a lot safer than I thought, although we should look at data to be sure.

2. I will be afraid all the way up.

I expected to be terrified. While I'm not technically scared of heights, I do respect them. Especially with my first time skydiving and not knowing what to expect, I should have been afraid. In fact, my motivation to do this was to battle fear. However, I felt no fear at all. I can't explain why, it's just the way it was. Sure, my body tensed up a little when they opened the door at over 3km height, but I didn't have that characteristic heavy feeling in my stomach. I've certainly been more afraid of a handful of conversations recently than of this jump. It all just felt… right.

3. I will have a moment of panic when I actually jump out of the plane.

First, you don't jump. Your tandem partner controls when you exit the plane, so you are jumped. Second, you tilt your head backwards and look at the sky. It might be just a safety measure, but it prevents you from looking down when you leave the plane. There's no panic—there's only in the plane and outside of the plane. The adrenaline kicks in, for sure, but it feels great rather than horrible.

4. Free falling will feel like jumping off a tower in the swimming pool.

It doesn't. That odd feeling in your stomach when you accelerate—it's just not there when skydiving. I guess there's two reasons for that. One, that feeling comes from your stomach being pushed up. When you're skydiving, you're either level to the ground or you dive head first, so your stomach isn't pushed up. Second, when you jump out of an airplane, you already have quite a bit of initial speed (around 180 km/h). You don't feel acceleration as you might expect, although you end up at around 250 km/h in a tandem. It feels more like floating, but with strong wind in your face. It feels awesome.

5. It will feel like you're falling forever.

That's what the brochures say. For me, that didn't hold true. You fall for about 50 seconds, and that's pretty much what it felt like. Sure, they were awesome 50 seconds and time does change somehow, but it does feel like it's over too soon. The 5 minutes or so of gliding make up for that fact, though.

6. There will be a strong jolt when the parachute opens.

There was a jolt, but it wasn't as strong as I had expected it to be by far. I think it's because the chute doesn't open immediately, but takes a few seconds to unfold completely, slowing you down a little more gradually. Then you hang there, just air around you and you watch the landscape below your feet. You're actually flying! I got to steer for a while, which is surprisingly easy, but will result in G forces that make your head spin.

7. The landing might be rough.

The info sheet/waiver you sign warns you that you might break a leg or at least get a little hurt when you land (right next to where it says you might die). For me, it was completely smooth with my (experienced) partner doing all the work. You lift your legs up in front of you, and when your partner says run, you run. I got about three steps in, and then we were standing again. I watched a few solo jumpers afterwards, and some managed to land incredibly softly on their feet without additional steps.

8. You will be on an adrenaline high.

That was no misconception—I was high as a kite for a few minutes. It feels great, I was high-spirited and felt lighter, less substantial somehow. Even some time after, I could still feel it in my bones. It's an experience I would recommend to anyone.

★ Hidden Skills #1 – Leaving Books Unfinished

Three types of hidden skills

I believe there are three types of skills that most of us don't recognize as such. The first type are skills that seem too minor to be "worth" anything in most contexts, like being able to pick the exact amount of spaghetti you need for three people. The second type are the ones that are just not fully business-compatible and quietly get self-censored because they would never end up on a résumé. Who cares if you're a good storyteller if you want to work in accounting, right?

The third type are skills we don't understand. We don't see them because we attribute their effects to chance, or our overall personality. For example, the skill to connect with people that are very different from ourselves. We neglect these skills because their nature seems very unlike other skills we have: we don't know how we learned them, they seemingly can't be built up (if positive) or dropped (if perceived unhelpful), and there's little conversation about them (as measured in self-help books and shining heroes who mastered them). Yet these skills exist, and they work for us whether or not we understand how they work.

All of these skills are worth exploring: learning about them is not only helpful to understand people better, it's also plenty of fun. In addition, some of these skills are really valuable. Which is why I'd like to start collecting a few on this site. The first one is about reading.

Excursion: How I read

My relationship to reading books is vivacious and volatile. There are phases in which I buy and read books by the handful, easily get lost in great stories and fascinating ideas, and have a hard time to put my Kindle away to deal with life. There are other phases in which I don't read books at all and my thoughts wander off whenever I try to sit down and read. Also, I'm often so busy that I forget reading exists.

In general, this relationship is working out well for me. Books are there for me when I need them, and leave me alone when I'm not interested (we're talking about books here, okay). I've realized that there are some situations that put me off the current book and push me into a "no reading" phase. The most common one is when I'm trying to read a book that I have a hard time finishing. My self-discipline wants me to complete it, but my inner self is doubtful whether it's worth the effort. Hence, I guess, I had to develop the skill to leave books unfinished.

Leaving books unfinished

The first hidden skill I'd like to draw your attention to is the skill to leave books unfinished. To some people it's natural; they forget about books they never finished. To others it's a very hard thing to do—the fear of missing out on a late revelation or the plot finally coming together is a strong motivator. And so is the feeling of leaving unfinished business.

The benefits, however, are substantial. Consciously deciding to stop reading a book frees up time and mental energy to do (or read) something else. Saying no means saying yes to something else, as the oft-quoted phrase goes. It's also about psycho-hygiene. Some books weigh on you because of their length or the complexity of their language as well as their hard-to-deal-with content, psychological depth or lack of quality. Letting go of these gives you a certain sense of freedom, coupled with the satisfaction of having made an active decision—which feels much better than feeling disappointed in yourself because of a lack of self-discipline.

So if you consider this skill valuable, you can do these things to practice it:

  • Try to read a bad book every now and then to make it easier for you to put it away for good
  • Buy popular science books where satisfaction comes from understanding the fundamental concept on the first 70-100 pages and reading on provides only diminishing marginal utility
  • Go digital and buy ebooks that are mostly out of sight when you don't read them anymore
  • Create a book pipeline (as a list or an anti-library of books you own but haven't read) to remind you of the compromise of reading one book versus reading another

★ Creativity & Overcoming That Emptiness Anxiety

I'm not sure if you're as connected addicted to the waterhose of news as I am. I'm reading my feeds or browsing through my Twitter stream almost every free second. When I have to wait in line, out comes my iPhone. When I'm in public transport, the same. When a conversation gets interrupted and I'm idle, likewise.

It's great, because it gives me a quick fix of something new and wonderful that someone at the other end of the world has thought of. It's horrible, because it prevents me from being as creative, as productive as that other person.

So I stop in mid-motion and put the iPhone back into my pocket. I feel bored. Boredom is something I avoid, and it's gotten so easy. Yet, boredom is really important for being creative. It would be easier to accept if this boredom felt like the old boredom. The "I don't know what I could possibly do with my time" boredom.

But it doesn't. It feels like a terrible void, an emptiness coupled with anxiety. It feels like falling and often results in giving in, using another task or distraction to bend my mind on its cognitive vector—like a handrail for a shaky body.

If, however, I boldly suffer through this feeling, something wonderful happens. My mind takes a breath, and I start to see my surroundings differently. I notice things I ignored before. My own thoughts—too long held back—come rushing into my consciousness with chaotic force.

After that, I reconnect with myself. My thoughts play with each other and reach new heights. Instead of taking in, I transform and digest the things I know and start to have original ideas. This is the place I want to be at, this is what I need to excel.

And I realize that this is a frightening place, exactly because it is so empowering. Who knows what I will think of once I let my mind wander? Who knows what minor thought will lead me to a path where there is no going back?

This might have been what Nelson Mandela meant when he said this:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?

★ Death of the Industrial Age, Rise of the Service Age

In his Vanity Fair article The Book of Jobs, Joseph Stiglitz describes the current decline of working class jobs (that Godin called the Forever Recession): 

The trauma we’re experiencing right now resembles the trauma we experienced 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, and it has been brought on by an analogous set of circumstances. Then, as now, we faced a breakdown of the banking system. But then, as now, the breakdown of the banking system was in part a consequence of deeper problems. […] The problem today is the so-called real economy. It’s a problem rooted in the kinds of jobs we have, the kind we need, and the kind we’re losing, and rooted as well in the kind of workers we want and the kind we don’t know what to do with.

Where Godin lays out the characteristics of future jobs, Stiglitz stays in the realm of classic economic advice, and demands government spending in infrastructure to move to a service economy. It comes as a surprise to no-one that the outdated, industrial education system is one of his four major targets:

We have to transition out of manufacturing and into services that people want—into productive activities that increase living standards, not those that increase risk and inequality. To that end, there are many high-return investments we can make. Education is a crucial one—a highly educated population is a fundamental driver of economic growth.

An investment in traditional education systems is essential, but not enough. Until money put into primary and secondary education shows an effect the world will be a very different one. Funding post-secondary education and basic research will introduce new technologies and ideas. Without infrastructure to bring them to life, however, they will not prosper.

We need to prepare all organizations to use new ideas, play with them and make them better, and execute on their realization. We need to do that now. Too few are prepared for that.

★ Millennials: We’re Not Selling, We’re Building

As Generation Y or the Millennial Generation, we seem to be a puzzle to generations before us. While some have deeper insight, many portrayals of our generation mix a feeling of disappointed incomprehension with accusations of being conforming, jaded and value-deprived. Or, as William Deresiewicz has interpreted us in his New York Times opinion piece, commercial.

What makes Deresiewicz’s article so difficult is not only that it feels a little insulting. It’s that he has identified the right symptoms, but is mistaken about the underlying patterns. Aiming to rebut and explain, I’d like to make a few points about the Millennial Generation.

We don’t need to revolt

We millennials had an experience that is somewhat unique in history. We understood the fast-emerging digital technology considerably faster than our parents, and they never caught up. When technology became more mainstream, we were our parents’ teachers at an age when other teenagers feel disempowered. 

This is our source of self-confidence. We figure that we can add value to the world in a way that most people before us can’t. We’re not fighting previous generations because we don’t have to. We mostly don’t need them to do what we choose to accomplish.

There’s a certain kind of power that comes with this realization, and it has made us incompatible with large, naturally conservative organizations. In corporations, politics, and academia, you have to work your way up to succeed. This power imbalance contradicts our generation’s feeling of empowerment. We secretly feel we’ve leapfrogged this system, and often choose entrepreneurship over climbing the ladder. 

We’re not selling

Deresiewicz called us Generation Sell for our skill of marketing and giving our identity a voice—behavior that he finds to be typical of sales people. I think there’s an underlying characteristic that describes us better. Our generation grew up in the information age, and we have unprecedented, easy access to information. We drank it in as fast as it dropped onto the screen: We’re eager to learn. The skill of marketing ourselves and our ideas is just the symptom of that—it’s important in the world, so we learned how to do it. 

Similarly, we strive to become more socially competent (in his words: “polite, pleasant, moderate, earnest, friendly”) because at the core of how we work is collaboration and leadership. Our “smile and hearty handshake” is sincere much more often than not; we know how important relationships are, and we place value on building them.

Our culture is hard to grasp. “No anger, no edge, no ego.” Correct, we’re pragmatic, not angry. We know that anger is what people feel who’ve been left out, the feeling of those who set the banlieues of Paris or London on fire—and most of us don’t feel like that. Also, we apparently don’t display edge, but that’s just because we have our discussions where older people seldom go. Social change has become harder to gauge if you look in the wrong places (hint: you don’t read about it in the newspapers). Lastly, we don’t need ego, because we have self-confidence.

It’s not uncommon for culture and art to be equally misunderstood. It does hurt, though, to read this: “The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan”. Really? Has Deresiewicz ever been to Vimeo? Listened to studio-quality, home-recorded music or enjoyed a perfectly written essay by a (yes, self-publishing) journalist? I don’t see businesses making money. Most often I see artists who don’t ask for money at all, and sometimes I see artists fortunate enough to make a living by delighting a million patrons earning average income, rather than a handful rich ones. That doesn’t make them more of a business than Michelangelo.

We’re building something

No, a business plan is to this generation more like a work contract to baby boomers. It makes sense, and therefore we set it up. Our passion is directed elsewhere: the common denominator of entrepreneurship is not the business plan, it’s building something of value. We’re a generation of creators.

Although we will if we have to, we don’t always need to fight for rights and values anymore; our parents and grandparents did that. They succeeded—at least in many places in the world. We’re now using this victory to build and re-build business, society and politics based on their legacy. 

The reason why some of us look like sales people is also because we’ve started in areas where change happens more quickly than in others: business, and more specifically digital products. The rest will follow, and everything will implicitly be based on the values of previous and current generations.

We believe in freedom of thought, speech, and creation. We believe in democracy, protecting and empowering minorities, as well as justice. We support diversity in our countries of origin, and we’d rather live in another country than send soldiers. We think listening to many sides is more important than defining one truth, and moral views should be discussed instead of imposed. Self-realization comes before dogma; openness, transparency and change before holding on too much.

What we build reflects that. It’s transformative. It’s real. Come visit our websites.

★ It’s becoming personal

I remember when I started using the internet. It was a place of pioneers: vast, full of potential, and a place very distant from everyday life. Back then, the web was a haven of anonymity. You didn’t login to sites, no-one was tracking your path from web page to web page. These were times before pervasive things such as data retention. It was pre-Google, pre-Facebook, and pre-Foursquare. 

Then chats and forums started to become interesting to me. Pseudonymity was on the rise, which signified both the mistrust of such a public, uncontrolled space and the freedom of reinventing your identity. Do you remember the fervor with which Neo pushes for the use of his (chosen) handle over his birth name in The Matrix

Now we live in very different times. The web is lawful like any other public space, users are accountable for their actions and “the social” brought real identity back in fashion. Although I’m told there are a few fake name accounts, most people don’t want to use a pseudonym on social networks—the services tie into real life too closely for that to be viable.  

Instead of login, nowadays we authenticate. Where a person from the eras of anonymity and pseudonymity would have felt threatened or awkward, respectively, when mentioned by their real name in discourse, today it’s demanded—and failure to comply punished by the community itself.

The web has become personal. The web has become real.