★ 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.

Star Trek TNG: Conservatively Liberal

The point is, The Next Generation depicts a strict military hierarchy acting with great moral clarity in the name of civilization, all anti-postmodern, "conservative" stuff — but the values they're so conservatively clear about are ideals like peace and open-mindedness and squishy concern for the perspectives of different cultures. "Liberal" ideals, in other words. You could say, roughly, that the Enterprise crew is conservative as a matter of method and liberal as a matter of goal. They sail through the universe with colonialist confidence sticking up for postcolonial ideals.

Brian Phillips explains Star Trek: The Next Generation's paradoxical cultural appeal in his insightful 25th anniversary essay Computer Love over at Grantland. He also does Harry Potter in a fly-by.