Why I’m Doing Everything I Can to Stop a Trump Presidency and Elect Hillary Clinton

We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it? – Carl Sagan in his last interview

Carl Sagan's final interview. It's up there with Eisenhower and Washington's farewell addresses.
Carl Sagan’s final interview. It’s up there with Eisenhower and Washington’s farewell addresses.

When I was a kid, my physics teacher uncle took me on a class trip to a fusion energy test generator in Princeton, New Jersey. As a budding science nerd, I was fascinated. I got to talk to theoretical physicists and see an incredible machine that could make matter as hot as the Sun. At the time, I thought I’d be a scientist when I grew up. But at the end of our field trip, the tour guide told us the lab would probably have to shut down: they were losing their Congressional funding.

That moment was a wake up call for me. All the scientific endeavors I was so excited about were connected to the politics we discussed at our family’s dinner table. 

The lab, in fact, did stay open until 1997. It was at Princeton, an area represented by Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat and one of the few physicists to have served in Congress.

Princeton's Tokamak. Via Wikipedia. (Click for the link.)
Princeton’s Tokamak. Via Wikipedia. (Click for the link.)

So I grew up, went to school, worked at a museum, worked for my Congressman – Jim Saxton, a Republican who sponsored climate legislation, supported the military and protected our shore – and went on to a career that has involved helping scientists communicate what they know and why it’s important to their fellow citizens. That’s included talking to policymakers who need to make consequential decisions based on the best available scientific evidence, whether it be about the medicine we use, the technology we invest in, the safety and health of our water, air and climate, or how we manage our nuclear weapons arsenal.

I’ve been doing this work for 10 years. Helping a scientist find the words they need to explain their curiosity and their knowledge to an audience means more to me than I ever expected it to. It’s the work of a lifetime and I’m deeply honored to work with such smart, committed people every day.

And now I am deeply troubled. My country – my beautiful country that I love dearly, my country that planted our flag on the Moon, my country that cured polio, my country that has stood as a bulwark of technological and scientific progress and freedom of inquiry for generations – may elect a dangerously uninformed man to be our president. A man who not only denies evident scientific realities – from the safety of vaccines to the reality of climate change – but who also rejects the very practice of consulting and heeding expert advice. Even worse, he is a conspiracy theorist, who regularly promotes misinformation he reads online as evidence of something darkly suspicious regarding his perceived enemies.

I don’t say this lightly. Like many of my fellow citizens, I have waited for a more moderate, more temperate, more deliberate Donald Trump to emerge. He has not. He will not.

Some people assume that if Trump becomes president he will finally start listening to good, reasonable people. This is wishful thinking. He has had months to do this. He will not.

Trump’s dismissal of scientific evidence is rivaled only by his casual dismissal of Constitutional values and norms. A scientifically illiterate president is dangerous – a Constitutionally illiterate one is a threat to democracy. Trump’s dismissal of free speech rights and his groundless attack against a federal judge presiding over a fraud case against Trump University based solely on that judge’s ethnicity should deeply trouble every patriot.

So I’ve done something I never thought I would do. I asked my boss for a leave of absence. I asked my family if I could take off for a few weeks. Everyone has been incredibly understanding. They know how much my country and having an informed democracy means to me. So here I am in Athens, Ohio working with NextGen Climate, helping voters at Ohio University ensure that their voices can be heard in this election.

Caption!
Talking to physics students about the Drake Equation and astronomer William Borucki’s thoughts on climate change. He led the Kepler mission at NASA, which discovered that Earth-like planets are more abundant than previously thought.  But our own civilization remains the only point of known intelligence in the galaxy. So we must preserve, protect and defend this Pale Blue Dot we call home.

When students tell me they feel like their vote doesn’t matter, I can tell them it does. They have the power to determine the next leader of our country. The decisions that the next president makes will determine how clean our air is, how much oil our country imports and burns, how quickly we reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, and the future climate we will inherit. The young men and women here were largely not paying attention to politics just 10 short years ago, when we still had regular cooperation between the parties and people hadn’t retreated into their online ideological information bubbles. Instead, these students are growing up amid the hate and the folly Trump has brought to the campaign.

Importantly, the 2000 election is history for them. Just how close was Ohio then? If everyone who went third party voted for Gore, that would have flipped the entire election. And no Republican has ever ascended to the presidency without carrying Ohio. The road to the presidency runs through Athens and every other community in the Buckeye State.

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Doing one kettlebell swing for how many votes Gore would have won Ohio by in 2000 if the 3rd party folks had gone for him. The answer? 3,039. THAT’s how close Ohio is in general presidential elections. These students WILL pick the next president. Also, this guy did 65 swings. Beast mode!

These students are a firewall for a political system that the generation above them has almost completely broken. And they are the ones who will fix it. They have awesome power and an awesome responsibility.

So here I am. I welcome my friends and peers to come join me, if not in Ohio then in another swing state.

Go out there and get people registered, get them to vote, and get them to stop this ridiculous man from running the federal government.

If you’re a member of the scientific community, please consider signing onto and sharing this open letter on Not Who We Are. It also cites a letter from 375 members of the National Academy of Sciences who have spoken out against Trump’s dismal record of belittling climate science.

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The “Nobody Puts Science in a Corner” corner in our Athens, Ohio field office. On the left, inaccurate Trump tweets about climate change, which he has called “bullshit” and a “hoax.” On the right, a letter from 375 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences warning us about the dangers of such a casual dismissal of scientific evidence. Neil deGrasse Tyson responded to that letter, saying that the future of an informed democracy is at stake. To the right of that, a letter from more than 500 members of the scientific community – and growing – about the danger of electing someone who believes in conspiracy theories on climate change and vaccines. It also calls out his running mate for dismissing evolutionary science and the obvious link between tobacco and lung disease. Above that, two gifts from scientists who are very dear to my heart. A vial of Arctic sea water and a Carl Sagan trading card that has been to Antarctica and back. Science – it’s real!

And if you’re a reasonable person on the left who is still wavering on Hillary Clinton, suck it up. Read this. You may disagree with her, but she is capable of understanding why you disagree. She is an absolutely competent leader and will make policy decisions based on evidence, expert advise, well-established values, and with the good of the country in mind. If you went for Bernie know this – Clinton has moved toward Bernie. She is listening, not just for political reasons, but because she wants to lead both the younger and older generation together, though much still divides us culturally and ideologically.

And if you hate her from the right, I’m sorry, but Donald Trump isn’t on your side, either. If you truly can’t bear to vote for Clinton, sit it out or go third party. I sincerely hope the Republican Party does better next time and embraces a new generation of young conservatives. I still believe that our country needs conservatives and liberals openly and honestly debating each other to get things done. And even if we disagree on our ideologies, we can still agree on what to do about the pressing issues of the day. That’s what Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did, dammit, and we can do it, too.

And, finally, if you think Clinton and her team aren’t ready to lead, look at the answers to 20 pressing questions at ScienceDebate.org. and the ratings the editors of Scientific American put together. On this front, it’s truly no contest.

We can choose a competent leader with a long track-record of public service – who holds herself accountable to the Constitution – or we can choose the darker path of anger, vitriol and ignorance.

These are the stakes.

The Bottom Line: #ImWithHer

If you want to make a well-sourced, credible point in response to what you’ve read, please feel free to do so. It would be helpful if you could actually quote what I wrote and respond to it as if it was a conversation. If you want to share conspiracy theories and memes with me, don’t expect a robust response. If you want to talk about Benghazi or emails, I encourage you to sit down with a cup of coffee and read through every Politifact article about them before you do so and to cite the relevant points from those articles in your response. With so much misinformation going around this cycle, we have to be the Credible Hulk and cite our sources. Thanks! 

Our Summer Vacation – Five Nights in Shenandoah Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Nothing beats getting out of the city for vacation. From our nation’s capital, that usually means heading east to the beach or west to the mountains.

This year, I wanted to go a step beyond car-camping and overnight hiking and try a longer wilderness adventure. After reading a few too many trail journals and far, far too many posts about ultra-light backpacking, I asked Tori how she would feel about attempting to hike the Shenandoah National Park portion of the Appalachian Trail. She was enthusiastic, as well as reasonably skeptical about my ambitious plans to emulate thru-hikers who had been on the trail for weeks by clocking 15-plus-mile days on the trail.

We decided that we’d go big, but stay flexible. The portion of the AT that runs through Shenandoah has many “escape hatches” for the beleaguered hiker, including campgrounds, lodges and Skyline Drive, where it’s easy to hitch.

Map

Southern portion of Shenandoah National Park. Red line is Skyline Drive. Dashed green line is the AT. Source: National Park Service.

Our friends Ben and Ariel followed us to the park and we all drove south together after dropping off our Corolla at Compton Gap, the northern-most point in Shenandoah where the AT and Skyline Drive intersect.

Ultimately, we walked about half the park, saw a couple bears, met a few bad-ass through hikers, had a great time and – speaking for myself – worked harder than I ever have before.

No, seriously, let me tell you about my pack weight

Since we were attempting a long hike, I wanted to make sure we cut down on pack weight as much as possible. While I’m embarrassed to say how much time I spent thinking about pack weight, it was probably worth it. My base weight – everything except food and water – clocked in under 20 lbs. Tori sported less than 15. This was largely due to an investment in a relatively light 4 lb. tent and a commitment to making solid tradeoffs between the weight on our backs and our comfort in camp. Neither of us ever felt burdened by our bags in the park, even as we loaded them up with meals, snacks and many liters of water.

Our friends Adam and Susanna, who had hiked most of the Appalachian Trail a few years ago, also urged us to get hiking poles. I’m glad Adam mentioned this to me twice – I needed to hear it. The poles saved my butt a few times, preventing little twists and stumbles and greatly reducing the amount of stress I was placing on my legs.

BeforeAndAfter

We did an overnight in Shenandoah about a year ago. Now we’re a few pounds wiser. Smaller pack, less gear, no big-ass camera. Source: My big ass camera, Tori’s much lighter smartphone.

Animals distract us from animals

This is the most objectively exciting thing that happened to us on our hike:

On our third day, we stopped for a snack in a parking lot. Two women and a young man were getting dropped off by another young man. As they departed, the fellow doing the dropping off told us they had been joking with one another about who would break down and run away from the group first. Tori and I passed them, said hello, and figured they were bound to have as much of an adventure as we were.

A few minutes later, I spied a score of yellow jacket wasps in the middle of the trail hovering around what was either a desiccated animal skull or a pile of scat. All I know is it was grey and there were a lot of wasps. I stopped and surveyed my surroundings, wondering if I was witnessing the aftermath of some minor wildlife act of violence.

Perhaps I was – I looked up and saw two bear cubs and what I assume was their mother.

“BEAR,” I shouted – the same way I heralded the arrival of the first one I’d seen in the wild a bit less than a year ago in the same park. Tori and I backed up, still facing the trail and the bears, so we could warn the folks behind us. One of the bear cubs scaled a tree and looked at me. I have to admit he was pretty cute, but that did nothing to reduce my anxiety given his inability to vouch for his older relatives.

Black Bear Cub - Shenandoah National Park

Representative black bear photo. We did not stop to take our own picture. Source: Larry W. Brown on Flickr.

We told the folks behind us that there were some bears ahead. We quickly learned that this was their first hike in the woods in several years. One of the women, a self-described Air Force wife, had packed a taser in case of bear attack – something I’d not seen before – and she brandished it and made sure it was working – a lightning bolt jumping between coils.

After chatting for a few minutes, we decided to proceed – LOUDLY – down the trail.

Remember the yellow jackets? Yeah, me neither. While I had mentioned them to everyone, we had all unfortunately forgotten about them by the time we decided to hike past the bears. In a complete failure of outdoor leadership, I stepped on them, resulting in one sting for me, zero for Tori and several for the three folks behind us.

Naturally, this improved both the group’s LOUDNESS and speed. One of the women called out that she had packed an EpiPen given her allergy to bees. I searched my mind for any distinguishing characteristics between bees and wasps with regard to human allergies and came up embarrassingly empty.

We rounded a turn or two and informed the folks behind us that we were stopping. I felt terrible about forgetting the wasps – I suppose we all did! – and apologized profusely as we offered up a half-tube of Cortisone Tori had wisely taken from Ariel.

Thankfully, everyone was fine. For three people who had just spent their first hour seriously backpacking – one of them for the first time in 25 years – they took it in remarkable stride. As one of the women put it, ‘Well, I guess I learned I can run with this much weight on my back!’ We ran into them again late in the day and they seemed simultaneously exhausted and committed to their hike.

We saw no more bears that day – and we would see just one more cub on our last day on the trail.

Regardless, as Tori noted, things can turn on a dime when you’re in nature. The serenity we were feeling on our snack break was completely shattered in minutes, replaced by a mix of adrenaline and absurdity.

Still, going into the wilderness, especially a well-developed and mapped tract of wilderness, is less dangerous than driving or hundreds of other activities we take for granted. Indeed, we ran into a family early on our third day – a mother and two young children who described themselves as “flatlanders” from the Carolinas, who had internalized this sentiment completely. The mother said her friends sometimes admonished her for taking her children on long hikes. ‘You don’t know who you might run into out there.’ Well, sure, but you run into a lot less of them. And every single person we did run into on the trail was unfailingly kind.

Hydration and unlocking “full mammal” mode

We made our Shenandoah hike attempt in July, which in retrospect was a bit of a gamble. When we hit the trail with Ben and Ariel, the heat index was surely in the “caution” zone if not the “extreme caution” zone in sunny areas. And we were hiking up mountainsides. In fact, some of those mountainsides even had the audacity to face east and bake in the sun all morning. Suffice it to say, I’m glad we had a bunch of water bags on us, including an extra Ben and Ariel left us with after they hiked back to their car on day 2.

It’s also worth mentioning that July is the end of mating season for black bears, so park employees made a special effort to emphasize the need to hang bear bags and watch out for bears on the trails.

Hiking in the heat and humidity was much more taxing than we expected. We stuck it out for the second and third days, hiking about 13 miles to Blackrock Hut and then 12 miles to Ivy Creek overlook, respectively, but our spirits were flagging. Two long uphills on each of those days left me guessing as to how much pain we’d be in by the time we made it to the next camp. Even the joy of stopping by a Shenandoah “wayside” to get a burger and a milkshake was tempered by walking up a mountain in the afternoon sun to get back to the AT.

By day three, we’d been quaffing and retaining massive amounts of water, pushing our calves and feet hard, and sweating through our clothes. When we ate, we did so knowing we had to, not realizing we were hungry until a few bites into our snacks or dinner. Setting up and breaking down camp – and hanging bear bags – felt more like thankless labor instead of a simple chore.

We had unlocked what we came to call “full mammal” mode, reverting back to fairly basic senses involving thirst, hunger, aches and – in my case – significant body stank. Indeed, I felt about as gross as I ever have in my adult life. My muscles and joints felt more taxed than they ever have weightlifting or running, and I was less than 100% on-point mentally as a result.

At Ivy Creek overlook, we enjoyed the sunset and debated the merits of taking an easy day or pushing ahead for what we had planned as our biggest day yet – nearly 20 miles to Lewis Mountain. After a semi-restful night’s sleep, a cup of coffee each and our layperson’s guess at how the rest of the day’s heat and humidity would shape up, we decided to hitch rather than hike.

To her credit, Tori was in far better shape than I was. She actually started the morning by telling me she was up for 20 if I was. I couldn’t even imagine it.

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Gas station style donuts make us think we are momentarily invincible. I think we ate these in about 20 seconds. Our mammal senses told us they were the greatest donuts ever made.

After just 15 minutes, we caught a ride with a north-bound liquor store manager who took us all the way to Big Meadows, where we toured the visitors’ center and treated ourselves to a lodge stay.

The visitors’ center is darn good; the Park Service presents Shenandoah’s history relatively objectively, including a fair-minded focus on how the feds dispossessed Appalachian people of their homes and heritage as they cleared residents from the land that became the park. They also highlight some frank correspondence from the post-war period when the park’s picnic grounds were finally desegregated. (I honestly hadn’t thought about this before…it used to be federal policy to segregate nature.)

Rest is nice, hiking with a great partner is even nicer

A rainstorm blew over the park after we hitched to Big Meadows and we counted ourselves doubly lucky. Attempting 20 miles in the rain would have been even worse than we had anticipated.

We definitely needed the rest. We also needed the calories. I made quick work of a pulled pork sandwich and we chased dinner with a large ice cream sundae. It certainly beat the mac and cheese and instant potatoes we had purchased the day before at a camp store.

We used a plastic trash bin in our room as a wash basin for our gnarliest items of clothing and draped everything to dry around the room.

We took some time in the lodge’s Great Room to reconnect with the world via wifi. After three days away from the Internet my inbox looked more like a burden than an information hub. How much time do I really spend on email, I wondered, since I probably check it 100 times a day? I sent two emails that seemed pressing at the time, but weren’t, and let Ben know we were at the lodge. He wrote back immediately and forcefully urged me to get off email.

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Great Room at Big Meadows Lodge, which we preferred to Skyland Resort. Source: Tori.

The next day was perhaps the nicest on the trail, We had 10 hours of deep sleep under our belts and we were excited that we had “just” 8 miles to go between Big Meadows and Skyland, where we had reserved a lodge stay many months ago. We were sore, but refreshed, taxed but not exhausted, caffeinated, but not dehydrated. It was a perfect day of hiking. The subtle drop in temperature and humidity made a huge difference. We leisurely sipped a little more than a liter of water each over the day’s hike, a stark contrast to previous days on the trail, during which we had to chug to keep up with our overactive sweat glands.

Our spirits were buoyed and we happily chatted our way through the woods.

This is the most subjectively exciting thing that happened to us on the hike: we realized that after more than a year of dating, we’ve become best friends. Tori is my partner, my confidant and my constant supporter. That was nowhere more evident than on the trail when she helpfully reminded me to eat when I got pale, take it easy when I was trying to stomp a mountain under my feet and sit back and enjoy the sun-dappled arboreal canopy unfolding above and below us. Apparently, I’m pretty okay, too, in her estimation.

If there is a time and a spot where I think I realized this, it was around Franklin Cliffs.

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Thru hikers

If the AT were dotted with places like Big Meadows and Skyland every 8 miles, I’m sure I could do it at a breezy clip and at significant expense. It ain’t – and thus all the more admiration for thru hikers.

On night one, we camped at Calf Mountain shelter, the first AT hut in the park. We met Voldemort and Roxy, a hiker and an incredibly well-behaved pup, who were making big, big tracks in the park, looking to do a flip-flop thru-hike as fall closed in on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. (“Trail names” are big out on the AT.)

They were up and out of camp long before we woke up, surely trying to beat the heat. We read a note from Voldemort at the next hut where we arrived late in the evening. She had gotten there before lunch.

We also ran into Grey Ghost, a retiree who was completing a thru-hike he had put on hiatus after breaking his sternum from a fall on the trail.

The last thru hiker we met – we were too exhausted to catch his trail name – had trimmed his pack down to the bare essentials, including a tarp tent, which gave me some mega ultra-light jealousy. The last time we saw him, we was hiking past our tent as we groggily woke up to the fourth day of our hike.

The trail wins

I had Grey Ghost in mind on Day 6 as my stride began to falter. We were doing “just 11 miles” between Skyland and Pass Mountain Hut, with a small detour for Stony Man, the 2nd-highest point in the park. The view was breathtaking, perhaps so much so that the rest of the trail started to seem monotonous. I got tired of looking at rocks, probably because they were beating the hell out of my feet. We had opted to hike in trail runners to cut down on weight and while they were holding up okay for Tori, my left foot felt like it was getting clobbered.

I was getting mad at the trail – and at the rocks, in particular – especially when I had to catch myself with my hiking poles. I wasn’t feeling great and I let Tori know. We assessed ourselves at Thornton Gap, where Skyline intersects U.S. Route 211, and I didn’t feel safe clambering over more rocks that day. I also wasn’t sure how recovered I’d be for making it another 20 miles over two days back to our car.

I was picturing pizza and Miller High Life, too, and it was tempting to know that they were just three hours away. Thru-hikers, of course, don’t have the luxury of quickly shuttling themselves home.

We decided to bag it and hitched back to the Corolla. This time, finding a ride took about an hour, a slightly frustrating experience since we’d been so spoiled with our first hitch attempt a few days before.

Passing through the park’s Northern District in the trunk of a minivan with some local Virginians and their gregarious Texas relatives, I noted the many points at which the AT intersects Skyline Drive – points we wouldn’t be walking through. I felt a little remorse, but my foot was thanking me.

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Key stats:

Miles hiked: 48.3
Calories consumed: thousands!
Best camp food surprise: pepperoni sticks as an addition to rice and beans

Main gear:

  • MSR Hubba Hubba NX tent
  • Osprey packs: Exos 58 (no top pouch) and Aura 50
  • Big Agnes sleeping bags and pads
  • Sawyer filter and several bags
  • Snowpeak titanium cook pot
  • Trangia spirit burner stove w/ denatured alcohol fuel
  • Smartwater bottles and Tupperware
  • Luxury items: Kindle, headphones and smartphones, Starbucks Via packets
  • Hugs and fist bumps

Quitting Smoking with Vaping and E-Cigarettes: The Dilution Method to Wean Myself Off Nicotine

I tried to quit smoking cigarettes many times, either by going cold turkey, gnawing gum or popping lozenges. Those methods never worked for me. At root, I was addicted to nicotine, regardless of its form. What did work for me was switching to an e-cigarette and slowly diluting the amount of nicotine I was vaporizing before finally quitting all forms of nicotine.

While the scientific jury is still out on whether or not e-cigarettes can be used as an effective tool for quitting, I wonder if it may have advantages specifically because it’s easier to manipulate the amount of nicotine in an e-cig. Importantly, quitting in this fashion did not produce any significant withdrawal symptoms for me, which I found to be quite a relief.

I’m not looking for congratulations here: I never should have started smoking in the first place. But I do want to share what did and didn’t work for me in the hope that it might help others quit.

Smoking is stupid; at best, vaping may be slightly less stupid

Let me be clear before I dive in: switching to vaping by itself is not “quitting smoking,” in my mind, as many claim. It’s simply getting nicotine by vaporizing fluid in one’s mouth instead of inhaling burning tobacco into one’s lungs.

That said, vaping has a few things going for it: it doesn’t make you, your clothes, your car and your home stink, you can stealth vape in movie theaters, at bars and in airplanes, and, fundamentally, you don’t have to set plant material on fire to get your nicotine fix. At least for right now, it’s also cheaper than smoking for most users.

Good old Mr. Nick O. Teen, in his many-appendaged, Cthulhu-like glory. via Wikipedia.

Still, nicotine addiction is nicotine addiction. It remains costly: I was spending about a grand a year on vape stuff. And despite the rhetoric and sincerely held beliefs of many e-cig marketers, I’d be shocked if vaping turned out to be consequence-free as more scientific studies are completed. To be sure, it may have society-wide harm mitigation benefits compared to smoking tobacco, but doctors are right to urge individual vapers to quit.

A brief review of my failed quit attempts

I’ve tried quitting nicotine many times. The longest I went was a few months when I was dating someone who insisted on it. Absent that incentive, quitting felt incredibly tough, despite the fact that I very much wanted to quit and, in fact, felt guilty about being such a chimney. As workplace smoking bans and smoking in bars shut down, it became increasingly isolating to be a regular tobacco smoker.

I tried going cold turkey a few times, which was hilariously ineffective. I would break down, buy a pack, smoke a cig, throw out the pack, then break down again and buy another pack. As someone who values frugality and efficiency, this felt doubly self-defeating. And like a lot of people who have attempted to quit, I’ll admit that I’ve rooted through a trash can looking for a pack of smokes I threw out just a few minutes beforehand. It was pathetic, not to mention unsanitary.

In college, I tried occasionally smoking a hookah instead of keeping up my pack-a-day habit. That was particularly dumb and unworkable, since hookahs involve setting wads of molasses-soaked tobacco on fire with charcoal. Hitting one of those things twice a day is not recommended, especially if you like climbing stairs.

You said it, man.

Gums and lozenges were of little help. I just stayed addicted to the nicotine in the gum and lozenges. I think the main problem was that the recommended quitting methods involved extending the period of time between doses. That hurt. And I wound up immediately sweating the clock. The recommended jumps struck me as far too ambitious: I was supposed to go 2 hours between my nicotine fix one week and then double that to 4 hours the next week? What am I, the golden god of white-knuckle willpower? Please.

The gum and lozenges are also kind of shitty. The gum is generally tough and as a committed nicotine addict, I was willing to undergo a jaw workout to extract the last precious infinitesimal bits of the drug. The lozenges tend to have a medicinal flavor and can be rough on one’s gums, too.

Finally, it’s somewhat difficult and imprecise to try to “dilute” gum or lozenges by cutting them into halves and quarters, though I tried doing that, too. Thankfully – at least for me – vaping opened up a more precise and gradual avenue for weaning myself off nicotine.

Dilute like you mean it

I started with a 12mg / ml solution, which the company I was buying fluid from marketed as “medium.” I bought a big old batch of 0 mg fluid for $90, which felt silly at the time – why pay for something that doesn’t have the precious nicotine? – but I obviously needed it to seriously dilute the fluid. I also found it useful to pick up a small funnel to transfer fluid into the 30 ml bottles I carried around to fill my vape.

Over the course of ten weeks, here’s how I brought the concentration down:

  • Week 1: 9 mg (25% drop)
  • Week 2: 7 mg (22% drop)
  • Week 3: 5.5 mg (21% drop)
  • Week 4: 4.3 mg (22% drop)
  • Week 5: 2.8 mg (35% drop)
  • Week 6: 1.4 mg (50% drop)
  • Week 7: 0.7 mg (50% drop)
  • Week 8: 0.36 mg (50% drop)
  • Week 9: 0.27 mg (25% drop)
  • Week 10: Stopped vaping (100% drop)

It was haphazard, but I never felt like I was going without nicotine at any point in the process. During the first two rounds of dilution, I puffed on the vape more often, but I didn’t miss those few milligrams of nicotine. After I got down to around 1.4 mg of fluid, I wasn’t catching much of a buzz off vaping, but I also didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps that’s around where my addiction threshold lies? Or perhaps it was just a function of taking a slightly bigger drop at that point? It’s hard to say.

My dumb mammal brain having a sweet, sweet nicotine party.

By the end, I felt like I was just vaping out of habit. I’m sure my brain’s well-worn nicotine receptors were still getting a little something out of it, but I was getting closer and closer to smoking the 0 mg fluid on its own. And as my supply of 0 mg fluid dwindled, I knew I’d naturally reach a quit date: there was no way I was going to lay down good money on yet another batch of 0 mg fluid. (And I had also committed to not hauling along my e-cig bullshit on my first summer hike, especially since it weighed more than a pound and there are no wall outlets in the backcountry.)

Sticking to flavorless fluid probably helped

I used to roll my own cigs for a while and I’ll never forget the rich taste of London Export tobacco. That was some good stuff. Even as a teenager, my tastes ran more in the direction of Lucky Strikes as opposed to Camels, Marlboroughs or Newports. When I started vaping, I found the “tobacco” flavored fluids to be pretty gross – I assume it’s hard to simulate tobacco’s complex flavors – so I eventually switched to flavorless fluid – it’s just kind of sweet – and never looked back. I felt like that returned my sense of taste and smell to normal before I even tried to quit. Functionally, it also removed a variable that often bothered me during previous quit attempts.

Non-smokers might not be able to relate to this, but it’s unsettling to become aware of what your own mouth tastes like without tobacco. That happened to a much lesser degree when I quit vaping flavorless fluid. Popping a piece of gum felt like it negated that odd feeling rather than merely masking it.

Throwing out my vape shit felt awesome

One of the pain-in-the-ass things about quitting smoking is that we’re constantly surrounded by cigarettes. Every bodega, convenience store and most pharmacies have them behind the counter. They also stock a lot of disposable e-cigs nowadays, too.

As I threw my vape shit out – several batteries, 2 charger cords, leftover cartomizers, a container of unused fluid, and a beat up, nicotine-stained glasses case I kept most of that shit in – I felt free. And I knew I’d feel like a pathetic dumbass if I walked into a vape shop and purchased nearly $100 worth of start-up vape equipment again. And, thankfully, the disposable vapes at 7-11 lost their appeal to me a while ago, mostly because they taste like crap. Now, buying one of those would feel like climbing all the way back up that 10-week vape dilution ladder I had just descended. No thanks.

Two weeks without

My mom said something that stuck with me when she quit smoking her ultra-thin Capri Menthols: she was sick of looking for her cigs, worrying about how many she had around, where her lighter was, etc. Indeed, addiction is loud background music. In the same way that puffing on a vape or a cig can be an idle fallback, it’s also a burden.

This is what it feels like to not constantly indulge a nicotine addiction: I stopped reflexively reaching into my pocket to grab my dumb vape stick. I stopped eyeballing rooms I walked into for a charger. I stopped carrying around an eyeglass case with more than a pound of vape gear in it. I stopped spilling little drops of nicotine fluid on my clothes. I stopped sneaking vape drags in professional settings. I stopped looking like some bounty hunter from the future.

I stopped thinking about vaping dozens of times a day. And shit, that may mean a premature end to my career as a competitive vaper, but I think that’s A-okay.

I can’t believe this, but I’m even starting to enjoy beer and coffee in isolation. It’s weird! But this is what it’s like for most people who aren’t nicotine addicts. They actually enjoy these things in isolation!

Anyway, it’s been a relief. I hope I keep it up. After 16 years of addiction, I want to look back on this as the year I finally quit nicotine in all its pernicious forms.

I’ll close this with an old song, one my grandfather sang from time to time, including a few instances in which he conveyed unheeded warnings to his grandson about the pitfalls of taking up smoking:

Hacking Mint to Account for the Unexpected; What I Learned from a Year of Spending and Saving

I like Mint. Truly, I do. There’s something empowering about knowing all of your transactions live in one place. But in trying to be all things to all people, Mint tends to overwhelm users with a daunting number of categories and sub-categories. Additionally, Mint’s basic set-up makes it difficult to account for irregular or unexpected expenses, whether it’s a busted taillight, a friend’s spur-of-moment-birthday getaway or coming to the realization that you no longer fit in some of your dress pants.

For me, those expenses are the most stressful ones to bear: What should I cut back on to pay for that car repair? Can I really afford this trip? Why do I feel bad about spending more than $50 on a pair of dress pants even though I literally don’t have any dress pants that fit?

Thankfully, Mint’s categories can be tamed. And using rollover budgets can help users account for unexpected expenses. I took a deep dive on a year of my spending data and took advantage of some Mint tools I had been neglecting. This allowed me to finally see how my real-world spending choices were stacking up against my carefully calibrated — and theoretical — personal budget.

1. Keeping categories simple and meaningful

I doubt many people need to know how much they spend on “Amusement” versus “Movies and DVDs.” Similarly, I’m sure most people would be happy to know how much they spend on their pet without breaking it down into pet grooming and pet food. I assume that Mint uses such oddly precise subcategories to help target advertisements to its users. More power to them — and I’m not one to complain about free products supported by ads — but it doesn’t work for me.

My main problem with Mint’s default categories is that they conflate needs and wants. For instance, paying my mortgage is not an option, but buying a new piece of furniture or a painting for the wall certainly is. Never the less, Mint defaults to categorizing all those expenses under the “Home” category.

In looking at all of my spending, I realized there were just a few truly major categories under which all of my spending fit: home, food, transportation, bills and utilities, health, and, finally, “shopping,” a catch-all category for all the “optional” expenses in my life.

MintCats

Caption: Mmm…pie chart. The “other” category above is where I track transactions related to the coffee club I help run at work. I suppose “caffeine addiction” could be its own category, too!

2. Using “goals” to account for savings

The second big issue I had to tackle was that I had never set up my saving goals in Mint, so my budget looked like I was running a huge cash surplus and presumably stuffing Benjamins under my mattress. Mint’s defaults are good at tracking spending, but you have to take some time to play around with the “goals” section to account for retirement and other savings. Obviously, it’s important to “pay yourself first” and save a significant portion of your income. I wish Mint prioritized this a bit more over tracking spending, but working through all the “goals” ensured that my monthly budget was in balance.

3. Putting all the “wants” in one big bucket

It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to deal with all those “want” expenses. I wound up shoving them all under the “Shopping” category and created a bunch of sub-categories that might be worth tracking over time. For instance, I spent a surprising amount of money on backpacking gear this year, so I don’t want to spend any more on gear for a while. Similarly, I bought a lot of new dress clothes, so I should be good on that for many months if not a full year or longer. Other major sub-categories included home improvement, charitable giving, and, finally, vacations and other trips.

OH MY GOSH IT’S MADE OF TITANIUM Shut up and take my money. (Source: Wikipedia)

Grappling with the spending choices I’ve made over the past year made me realize that my wants fluctuate a lot throughout the year and are hard to plan for. Throwing them all into a “shopping” category makes it easier to separate the money I “have to” spend to live from the money I “get to” spend on things I want and things I want to do.

I also included a lot of stuff in this category most people probably wouldn’t consider “wants” at first blush, including random Amazon purchases like oven cleaner, sunglasses, chapstick and gum. In thinking through how I wanted to categorize all those old purchases, I realized that, yes, I could live without oven cleaner; it’s simply a convenience I pay for to more easily clean my oven. Same goes for chewing gum and chapstick — I’m not going to suffer too much without them. Even sunglasses are not necessary for a full and happy life. Pants that actually fit might arguably be a different matter, of course, but ultimately, updating one’s wardrobe is also a “want.” (Mr. Money Moustache has a lot more to say — perhaps in more challenging terms — about the culture of convenience and what we perceive as wants vs. needs in life.)

4. Setting up Rollover Budgets to Adjust as You Go to Account for Unexpected Expenses

Mint is great at tracking monthly expenses, but it’s pretty awful at tracking infrequent expenses. For instance, whenever I paid my car insurance, I’d get an alert from Mint telling me that my spending on “Auto and Transport” was high this month. It’s like, “Mint — dude — I know. Chill out.”

Thankfully, there’s a work around. When you set up budgets, you can check off the box that says “S

All good, right? Of course not! Life happens. Just this past week, I got a parking ticket and had to pay to get my car out of a tow lot. A few days later, I got a speeding ticket. I’m generally a pretty careful driver, so this was a rare double-whammy. Naturally, I felt a bit stupid and shook my head at the prospect of being $300 “in the hole” on unexpected car-related expenses. But thanks to how I set up my budgets, I can take that $300, divide it by 12 and adjust my transportation expenses up by $25  a month.

But here’s the thing — now that $25 has to come from somewhere else. Given how I set up my budgets, it can’t come from any of my needs — man’s gotta eat and that roof over my head is pretty cool — so it must come from the “shopping” budget where I shoved all my “wants.”

parking sign

Caption: In retrospect, I should not have missed this no parking sign in Hyattsville, MD.

Alternatively, I could jack up the transportation budget $300 this month and drop other budgets by $300. Then I could return to “normal” next month. Either way works as long as one doesn’t blow up multiple budgets in a given month and, hey, that’s what emergency funds are supposed to be for, right?

I can imagine doing the same thing with other unexpected expenses, especially healthcare since it’s hard to plan on getting sick. On the flip side, if I get lucky with lower transportation expenses than expected or my utility bill plummets for a few months in a row, I’ll be able to see that “surplus” in my budget and can put it to work as more savings or funding more “wants.”

5. Clarifying Choices and Tradeoffs

Playing around with that big “want” category was also an interesting exercise in thinking about tradeoffs. For instance, this is a big year for friends getting married while last year was quieter on that front. That’s incredibly exciting and it also means that I’m probably going to count those weddings as trips or vacations under my catch-all “shopping” category for the purposes of budgeting. (Mint doesn’t let users create new root categories.)

It’s also useful to think about what I really want to do to my home. Are new kitchen cabinets and appliances worth it? Maybe. My dishwasher sounds like a wounded marine mammal, but replacing it costs just as much as a weekend getaway. Which expense should wait: the dishwasher or the trip? When I think about it in those terms, the dishwasher is fine and I feel better about getting another (noisy) year of use out of it.

Personal finance is just that — personal — and a reflection of all our weird idiosyncrasies. I’m glad I finally sat down and “tamed” Mint for my purposes.

I hope folks find this helpful!

Lessons from joining the 1,000 pound club

I finally hit the 1,000 pound club, a minor, but respectable achievement in powerlifting.

I’ve tried a lot of different exercises over the years, but plugging away at my three main lifts has been motivating enough to stick with. I can’t say the same for running, P90x or even distance cycling, all of which I’ve found slightly mind-numbing.

Importantly, lifting has also been efficient. It takes just as long to squat 200 pounds as it does to squat 300 pounds. I worked out, on average, 3 to 4 times a week and each session was between 45 and 90 minutes. All told, I’d guess I devoted about 400 hours of time over two years.

  • Starting body weight: 180
  • Ending body weight: 180
  • Squat: 180 to 370
  • Deadlift: 245 to 405
  • Bench: 135 to 225

Here’s what I learned:

1. Consistency is crucial

I prioritized my workouts. On some occasions, I traded — or delayed — happy hours for workouts. I sought out a gym with weight racks while traveling for work or vacation. Finally, I installed a rack and weights (from Craigslist) in my home. That quickly paid for itself in avoided gym fees. It was also so easy to come home, make dinner, then work out while catching up on reading or laying waste to my inbox between sets.

2. You can’t learn everything on the Internet

Most of my knowledge about lifting came from Starting Strength and posts on reddit.com/r/weightroom, which proudly avoids cat pictures and memes. But the most valuable advice was from paying for a session with a seasoned coach. It also made the time I spent studying online more valuable since I could relate articles, cues and videos back to the coaching.

3. Small wins mattered

If I set a new PR 2.5 pounds heavier than my previous record, I felt great. If I hit a new rep max, I felt about as great. Eventually, I started programming lifts around hitting new rep maxes, leading up to a new 1RM PR. That made me work harder, look forward to my workouts more and — I believe, but can not prove — let me hit this long-term goal after plateauing for a while. That said, I still overshot on a lot of workouts and wasted time trying to get PRs that were out of my reach that day. (John Phung has some good stuff on this, too. Also, buying 2” washers that weight 1.25 pounds each is a lot cheaper than buying microplates.)

4. Programs are outlines, not prescriptions

I spent 80 percent of my time following a program: Starting Strength, Madcow, Texas Method, 5/3/1, GZCL, etc. Eventually, I learned that programs aren’t that different at their core. While Texas Method and GZCL taxed me too hard, 5/3/1 felt easy and didn’t produce significant gains. Eventually, I started setting goals for each workout depending on how my warmups felt. A good day meant hitting two or three new PRs at different rep ranges. A bad day meant squeezing out one or at least going to failure. That solution won’t work for everyone and from what I’ve read, any lifter has to eventually figure out what works for them based on their genetics and recovery abilities. Hopefully, I’ve found my sweet spot for a while.

5. FOOD SLEEP FOOD SLEEP

Besides form, these were the only other two factors that seemed to affect my performance. I’m sure fish oil and creatine can be helpful, but it’s hard for me to imagine that many people need a lot of supplementation unless they’re looking to compete or simply perform at a much higher level.

6. Disrupting homeostasis

One phrase from Starting Strength resonated: “disrupting homeostasis.” You can’t expect any physiological or health changes unless you stimulate your body enough to cause an adaptation. You have to increase the duration, intensity or volume of work you’re doing to improve. That was a fun lesson to learn in lifting and it probably applies to other areas of life, too.

I’m not quite sure what my next goal is, but I’m really happy I achieved this one.