Friday, August 19, 2016

10 random tidbits about Eastern Europe

          I recently returned from a trip to Eastern Europe. It was a whirlwind experience visiting Turkey, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania. Here are 10 random tidbits from that trip.

1) The best meal of the trip was in...Albania - There were a lot of great meals on the trip, but the meal below was the best of the bunch. What's not pictured was some delicious garlic pita bread.  

        One of the differences in restaurants in Europe and in the USA is speed of service. Restaurants in Europe take their time in preparing the food, so it would often take ninety minutes to two hours to complete a meal. The food was invariably good to great, but time was needed to really enjoy.
        Fast food wasn't always easy to find, although McDonalds seems to be thriving in many parts of Eastern Europe. Gas station food in Europe is dramatically worse than the gas station food in the U.S. I would have given anything to find a 7-11 on some days. Most of the gas station food was pre-packaged croissants with chocolate filling. I hit my threshold after two of those.

2) The roads are typically narrow and inefficient and require high alert driving - There were not very many highways from city to city for most of the trip. In fact, most of the roads required going 35-40 MPH on average and going through the middle of towns and villages. This meant that I had to stay on high alert to get my rental car from crashing into anything. I saw a lot of these signs and the subsequent real life version.

3)  Border crossing between countries ranged from lackadaisical to hard core - Some of the border crossings waved me through with just a passing glance, while others wanted to drag out the crossing with a random interview.
          The weirdest exchange I had was at the Albania-Montenegro border. After asking about my job in English and giving a complicated response, the border guard commented "You speak English very well. Have you ever been to America?" He was startled to learn that I live in America and have for many years. It was then that he saw my passport and waved me through.

        When we were leaving Bosnia, the border guard gave me a hard time, because my rental car contract didn't list Bosnia as a country I was permitted to visit. After arguing for a minute or two about it and even getting an interpreter, he realized that the only thing he could do was let us through since we had already visited Bosnia. None of the other border crossings had any issues with my contract.

4) The language barrier was sometimes a problem - There were a lot of attempted conversations in two different languages. I would say something in English and they would say something in their language. After about 45 seconds of that, I would resort to gestures and body languages. At one point at a gas station in Bulgaria, the clerk eventually took out her iphone and asked me to type my question into google translate. That worked pretty well!

5) The costs between countries varied dramatically - Hotel nights varied dramatically depending on the country I was visiting. 4 star hotels in Serbia and Romania were less than $40/night on the low end. A similar hotel in Dubrovnik, Croatia was 3 times more than that. The more expensive countries tended to also have highways and the corresponding tolls to pay for it. Croatia and Slovenia were by far the two most expensive countries. The further east I went the price dropped down.
          My favorite hotel was the Azure Cave Suites next to Cappadocia, which was around $50/night. The rooms were actually caves, but the reason why it was the best was due to the outstanding food and service. Here's a picture for reference.

6) Some things are unforeseeable - One of the evenings we flew back into Istanbul, we came back to a quiet and not very crowded airport. As we got back into our hotel, the security made us go through a medal detector and x-ray machine for our backpacks. We thought this was odd, but didn't think too much more about it. Once we arrived back to our hotel and got on the internet, we realized that there had been a terrorist attack on the other Istanbul Airport at the same time we had landed at the less crowded airport across town. Although I have had other close calls in my travels, this one hit home and made me a little bit anxious and I couldn't sleep. We flew the next morning to Serbia without incident, but it was a reminder that we live in an unpredictable and dangerous world at times. Of course, there was a coup attempt a couple weeks later, so it wasn't even the worst day of the year to be in Turkey.

7) Comparisons - Based on my travels, I've become a bit of a waterfall snob. I would rank Plitvice as a top 10 worldwide waterfall, but it's a 2nd or 3rd tier location compared to Victoria Falls/Iguazu (1st tier). In the U.S., I'd rank Multnomah Falls in Oregon and vicinity and Niagara Falls higher than Plitvice. That being said, it has some unique characteristics and definitely worth a visit if you ever get to Croatia.

Another comparison I made was Belogradchik Rocks as a mini-Southern Utah National Park, but with some fortress walls surrounding a few of them.

The Montenegro coast line is similar to California's, but with cities:

Durmitor National Park in Montenegro reminded me of a national park in the rocky mountains.

This bridge in Bosnia doesn't remind me of anything. It has survives some major wars.

This was my favorite castle in Hunedoara, Romania:

This was a cool spot on an island near Dubrovnik:

To end this post, here were My 3 favorite places:

8) Cappadocia (Turkey) - My day at Cappadocia was my favorite memory of the entire trip. The sunrise hot air balloon ride should be on everyone's bucket list. The geology and rock formations are pretty unique and it was just amazing!

9) Lake Bled and the Julian Alps (Slovenia) - Lake Bled and the vicinity has some of the best scenery in the world. There's a wedding chapel on an island in the middle of the lake and a castle overlooking it. This would be a great honeymoon location. After viewing the lake, the drive through the Julian Alps is jaw dropping.
Julian Alps:

10) Pamukkale (Turkey) - I hadn't heard much about Pamukkale until a few years ago, so I didn't have much in the way of expectations. The entrance requires you to go barefoot walking up travertine where there are a lot of pools you can wade into. It was a unique and interesting place to visit.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Why the law of specificity is so important

         One of my biggest goals in high school was to run a really fast mile as a member of the track team. As a junior, I was one of the top two milers on the team and I had lofty ambitions to improve dramatically on my PR as a senior. Unfortunately, I completely whiffed on my off season strategy because I did not follow or understand the law of specificity. In my defense, I had also never heard of the law of specificity.
       To provide more backstory, I had a reasonably successful cross country season improving my 5K time almost 90 seconds from my junior year. After the season ended, it was basically winter in Minnesota and the team practices disbanded until track season. My very poor strategy I planned without consultation was to run 40 miles per week on average. Almost all my runs were both alone and at a much slower pace than what I wanted to run the mile in. Fast forward to spring and I wasn't any faster than the year before...I was actually slower. It was very frustrating to work so hard and then regress. I gave myself a gold star for effort;)
      What is the law of specificity? It means that you should be mimicking what you would do in a performance in your training. The more you can replicate performance conditions, the better. What did my training do for my mile time? Not much. My training method was long and low intensity running wearing different shoes on a different surface than my future races. In retrospect, I would give myself an A+ for dedication and effort and an F for training strategy.

        To apply the law of specificity, I should have been wearing the exact same spikes as race day, running high intensity intervals on a track surface that would have acclimated my body to race pace. The A+ strategy would have been doing speed training on a track 2-3 times per week at race pace and faster. Mixing in base runs would have been OK, but the improvement would have happened primarily through the anaerobic workouts. The mile requires at least 25% of your training to be anaerobic. In the 800 meters, it's closer to a 50/50 split of aerobic to anaerobic workouts.
        Fortunately, I didn't let the first few weeks of track running slower times dictate my whole season. At some point, my father reached out to the BYU track coach who gave him the advice that speed training was what I needed to turn the season around. Once I applied the law of specificity, I improved dramatically in a different event: the 800 meters. My last race of the year put me in the top 20 all-time 800 meter performances in school history, which still stands today.
       How does this law work in other arenas? I believe that standardized test taking requires replicating test conditions in practice. I've also learned that rather than looking up the answers before figuring them out, you should struggle with the question first. Your retention rate is much higher after you struggle and then learn the proper strategy.
       I would think it would work in public speaking, playing musical instruments, giving presentations, etc. You are generally more prepared if you have already replicated the conditions of the performance in advance. If you are prepared, you shall not fear is a good rule of thumb.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Denver Broncos story

         Most of my friends know that I am a big sports fan, especially of college football. Despite my affinity for college football, I do not follow the NFL very closely at all. For whatever reason, the NFL never had the same appeal to me as college football.
         One of the best players to ever play for my alma mater was Steve Young. Once he graduated from BYU in the early 1980s, he bounced around from a defunct football league called the USFL, then went to a terrible Tampa Bay Buccaneers team before eventually being traded to the San Francisco 49ers. In a lot of ways back then, the 49ers were a model franchise with a great team overall.
         Steve Young became Joe Montana's backup quarterback and eventually took over for him and had a hall of fame career. Since Steve Young was so successful, many people from Utah where BYU is located adopted the 49ers as their team. Consequently, the 49ers apparel was being sold all over the sporting good stores in Utah.

       Of course, Steve Young ended up retiring eventually. Correspondingly, the level of interest from the State of Utah fans waned and the apparel sales seemed to suffer as a result. I don't know if all the stores got the memo right away that Steve Young was the sole reason that people from Utah were wearing 49er apparel.
        This is where I re-enter the story. It was a couple years after Steve Young retired and I was shopping in Utah where I found a very nice 49ers Starter brand jacket that are normally very expensive for about 90% off. Despite the fact that I didn't follow the 49ers, I snagged the jacket and put it into my wardrobe. I didn't really need it for a few years while I lived in Florida.
        Fast forward a few years later to 2006 when I had moved to Denver for graduate school where it is very cold in the winter. I would wear my 49ers jacket here and there and nobody ever commented on it. It was warm and it looked it looked something like this:

         That's not me in case anyone is wondering;)
          One particular day I wore my 49ers jacket was on New Year's Eve in 2006. I was traveling that day and had just come back from the airport. There were numerous people giving me dirty looks in the terminal and especially on the parking shuttle. Finally, one of the persons staring at me spoke up and told me about an NFL game between the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers that had just ended. The 49ers were double digit underdogs with a losing record and the Broncos only needed to win to make the playoffs. The game apparently went into overtime with the 49ers ended up winning the game in a heartbreaker. The Broncos got knocked out of the playoffs. That was the source of everyone's ire! I knew nothing about any of this until just then.
       This is the game recap:
       I stopped wearing that jacket for the rest of the Denver winter. The irony was 6 months later, I had landed a job in the bay area and the 49ers jacket fit right in. That's life.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The top 12 places to travel to in Europe

         In the last two weeks, I've received a couple of requests to provide my recommendations where I'd go in Europe. Similar to my Africa list, there are way too many great places to visit to put into this blog post. Therefore, I will just write about my twelve places I either have been or I'd really like to see.

12) Lake Bled in Slovenia - This has often been a setting for the world rowing championships, but the scenery should be enough to lure you in at other times of the year. That's a church on an island in a lake, which looks fantastic!

11) The Fjords in Norway - I haven't been to Norway, but I have a reliable source that told me that a summer trip is a must. The trifecta of Iceland, Norway, and Finland makes for a solid vacation. There are a lot of camping and hiking opportunities along the fjords, but a cruise may be the way to do. It's pretty far north, so unless you bring heavy winter gear or want to visit Lapland (in Finland) you'll probably want to target the warmer and lighter months. It stays light much later in the summer.

10) Plitvice Lakes, Croatia - This is on my short list of places to visit. My brother went earlier this year and found some legit waterfalls and incredible scenery. It's not super easy to get to, but appears to be well worth the effort.

9) Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany - This is known as the Disney Castle located in a beautiful valley in southern Germany. It's very central in Europe, although not that close to anything. I've been to this place 3 times and it's interesting every single time.

8) La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain - Somebody started building this place in 1882 and have it planned to be complete by 2026. It's the craziest looking building I've ever been to and a very interesting place to visit. There are a bunch of other places that are must-sees in Spain like Alhambra and Seville.

7) London, England - There are too many things to visit to list in the title. Buckingham Palace (and the changing of the guard), London Tower and Bridge, Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. As a bonus, they speak English and drive on the wrong side of the road. The downside is its an expensive city to visit.

6) Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany - I lived in Berlin for a few months back in the day, so I'm pretty familiar with the area. Berlin has a ton of history due to it being divided into sectors and having a wall dividing it for several decades. Most of the historical stuff is within walking distance downtown near Checkpoint Charlie and Brandenburg Gate.

5) The Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles in Paris, France - There are a lot of things to see in Paris, but nothing more iconic than the Eiffel Tower. I'd also go to the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, Arc de Triomphe, and then stop by the Palace of Versailles. One of the downsides to France is the French aren't always friendly to tourists that don't speak French. Nonetheless, it's still well worth visiting.

4) Prague, Czech Republic - There are lots of things to see in Prague. Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, Vyšehrad, and Old Town Square are a few of them. Eat some svickova. Go to Cesky Krumlov if you want some place to visit outside the city.

3) Grindelwald, Switzerland - I challenge you to find a more beautiful place on the planet. Northern Italy, Switzerland, and southern Germany are all incredible, but I give the nod to the Grindelwald in Switzerland.

2) Budapest, Hungary - Budapest is easily one of the best cities in Europe to visit. You'll find bath houses like the one below of interest (Gellert). Széchenyi is another popular one. St Stephens Basilica and the Parliament are worth a stop by.

1) The Coliseum and the Vatican in Rome, Italy/Vatican City - The list is a mile long of things to see in Italy, but the two biggest in Rome are the Coliseum and the Vatican in Vatican City. These belong at the top of anybody's list. The canals of Venice, the Tower of Pisa, Pompeii are all worth visiting in other parts of Italy.

I realize I excluded places like Austria, Belgium, Greece, Turkey, Portugal, the Ukraine, Sweden, and others that legitimately belong on the top places to visit depending on your priorities. I've been to all of those except the Ukraine and recommend all of those countries too along with many others. Europe can be an endless exploration venture, but you have to start somewhere.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The top 10 places to travel to in Africa

I should provide the caveat that I haven't been to all ten spots on my list. However, I've heard about and researched the ones I haven't been to. 

10) Namibia Sand Dunes, Cheetah Conservation Fund, and the Etosha National Park - Namibia used to be a part of South Africa before gaining its independence in 1990 and was the setting for the new Mad Max Fury Road movie. As highlighted by the movie, the sand dunes are expansive and the largest in the world. There are plenty of activities that go along with the dunes such as sky diving, 4 wheeling, and sand boarding. Since Namibia is the 2nd most sparsely populated country in the world, you are likely to not see too many people. The Cheetah Conservation Fund will allow you to get up close and personal with cheetahs and watch them run! Cheetahs are endangered, so there's only a few places that you have a decent chance at seeing them. The Etosha National Park is a good place to view the endangered black rhino.

9) Gorilla tour in the Democratic Republic of Congo- Virunga National Park seems to be the best spot in Africa to do a gorilla tour, since 3/4 of the gorilla sub-species reside there plus the scenery is excellent and there are two active volcanoes in the park. DRC is currently safe, but that should be closely monitored based on somewhat recent history. Rwanda or Uganda provide pretty good alternatives if there is any political turmoil in the DRC.

8) Perinet Reserve in Madagascar - This is the place to go if you like seeing species of animals that exist nowhere else on the planet, since there are at least 615 new ones in Madagascar. If rare wild lemurs and chameleons are your thing, this is the place to be.

If lemurs and chameleons aren't your thing, then skip Madagascar and head to island of Mauritius. This is an island most Americans haven't heard of, but it might be a cheaper alternative to visiting the Seychelles.
7) Masai Mara/Serengeti in Kenya/Tanzania - These two parks are adjacent to each other, so I've lumped them together. These are arguably the two best day safari parks for the entire continent. You get the classic savannah plains with tons of diverse wildlife. One of the most interesting things to watch for is the wildebeest migration.
The native people around there are from the Masai tribe. My sister took this picture in Tanzania back in 2006 of some Masai warriors. One of their main hobbies is jumping, which happens to be one of my hobbies.

6) Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania - This was my favorite safari area to view wildlife. There is a natural valley that contains more than 30,000 animals. It's considered the most compact wildlife venue on the planet and often gets compared to the Garden of Eden. We caught up with this lion sitting in the middle of the road:

5) The Seychelles - While this is technically Africa, it's really the island that many Europeans escape to for honeymoons and vacations. It looks to me like a worthwhile visit based on pictures alone.

4) Cape Town and vicinity in South Africa - There is a lot to do in the Cape Town area. Table Mountain provides fantastic views of Cape Town. You can tour Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Cape Point is a relatively short drive down the coast, which is the southern most point in Africa and where the scenery is top notch. Getting a tour of the townships will completely change your world view of what poverty is. This is my sister's picture from the top of Table Mountain:

3) Hike up Mount Kilimanjaro - If doing multi-day hikes at high altitude is your thing for a huge payoff, then hiking Mount Kilimanjaro might appeal to you. The hike takes about a week and ends up at around 19K feet. You get unparalleled views at least theoretically. I am not personally too excited about this hike, but I know many people who have it on their bucket list.

2) Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe/Zambia border - This should be on your bucket list if it isn't already. Victoria Falls is easily the 2nd best waterfall in the world. This is a picture my sister took on our visit there:

Interestingly, this waterfall is famous for being able to dangle on the edge without being sucked in. This is called Devil's Pool, which shouldn't be confused with Devil Throat at Iguazu Falls.

1) Egyptian pyramids and the Sphinx - The pyramids are a world wonder and very much worth the visit. Egypt has a lot of ruins to explore, so you'll need a few days. I recommend going with a big group, because Egypt isn't the safest place and scammers are everywhere. This is a picture from my visit there.

There are a lot of things to do in Africa. I could have expended my list to 25 and filled it up with all the wonderful places to visit. My first visit in 2006 changed my world view dramatically. Even though I came as a tourist, my eyes were really opened to how differently much of the world lives. Even though visiting can be high stress in places, it's worth visiting at least once.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Supreme Court case analysis

I decided to sit down and read the 103 page Supreme Court decision decided on June 26, 2015 on the topic of gay marriage. Here's my summary of that reading.  

Both the majority and minority decisions seemed incomplete leaving several issues unsettled. Neither the majority nor minority opinion went through the steps of determining whether sexual orientation is a suspect class to be subject to the equal protection clause or whether traditional marriage passes the rational basis test for states to justify excluding anybody from entering into non-traditional marriage partnerships. The majority opinion, especially, seemed to have a weaker legal analysis than some of the appellate court case decisions that got it to the Supreme Court in the first place. On the other hand, the Justice Roberts dissent was the most persuasive of all the opinions.  
The biggest disagreement between the majority and minority opinions came down to their interpretation of "pursuit of...liberty..." clause of the Constitution. The majority relied on a previous SCOTUS decision in a 1967 interracial marriage case (Loving v Virginia), which linked the pursuit of liberty and the right to marry together. The problem with the majority relying on the Loving v Virginia case was that the interracial couple would have been sent to prison if the state law banning their marriage had not been voided. It was easy to see why that court threw around the word "liberty" in describing what was at stake for that couple. In contrast, the case to be settled by the 2015 SCOTUS was a request for access to government entitlements, which doesn't seem to fit into the definition of liberty. Despite the differences between those cases, the majority took no issue rationalizing gay marriage as being a part of the pursuit of liberty.
Fundamentally, the difference between most of the majority and minority judges is their view of the Constitution and the role of judges in interpreting it. The minority judges typically view the Constitution as an inspired document that should be interpreted to the Framers' intent. On the other hand, the majority judges see the Constitution as outdated and are therefore comfortable interpreting it loosely. For all intents and purposes, the SCOTUS created new law from the bench in this case.

 Here are some highlights of the 3 dissents:

1) Justice Roberts described the majority's abuse of power as follows: "The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent. The majority expressly disclaims judicial “caution” and omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society according to its own “new insight” into the “nature of injustice.”...Stripped of its shiny rhetorical gloss, the majority’s argument is that the Due Process Clause gives same-sex couples a fundamental right to marry because it will be good for them and for society. If I were a legislator, I would certainly consider that view as a matter of social policy. But as a judge, I find the majority’s position indefensible as a matter of constitutional law...The truth is that today’s decision rests on nothing more than the majority’s own conviction that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry because they want to, and that “it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right...The Court today not only overlooks our country’s entire history and tradition but actively repudiates it, preferring to live only in the heady days of the here and now."

2) Justice Thomas focusing on liberty: "...governmental recognition and benefits has nothing to do with any understanding of “liberty” that the Framers would have recognized...The majority’s “better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define . . .liberty,”—better informed, we must assume, than that of the people who ratified the Fourteenth Amendment...Our Constitution—like the Declaration of Independence before it—was predicated on a simple truth: One’s liberty, not to mention one’s dignity, was something to be shielded from—not provided by—the State."

3) Justice Alito using the unknown argument: "We can expect something similar to take place if same-sex marriage becomes widely accepted. The long-term consequences of this change are not now known and are unlikely to be ascertainable for some time to come. There are those who think that allowing same-sex marriage will seriously undermine the institution of marriage. Others think that recognition of same-sex marriage will fortify a now-shaky institution. “At present, no one—including social scientists, philosophers, and historians—can predict with any certainty what the long-term ramifications of widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage will be. And judges are certainly not equipped to make such an assessment. The Members of this Court have the authority and the responsibility to interpret and apply the Constitution. Thus, if the Constitution contained a provision guaranteeing the right to marry a person of the same sex, it would be our duty to enforce that right. But the Constitution simply does not speak to the issue of same-sex marriage. In our system of government, ultimate sovereignty rests with the people, and the people have the right to control their own destiny. Any change on a question so fundamental should be made by the people through their elected officials.”
Regardless of how incomplete this case seems, there should be a collective sigh of relief now that the legality of gay marriage has been settled for better or for worse. We can move on to more pressing issues.  

Friday, April 3, 2015

Life Experience vs Material Things

       This article came across my facebook news feed recently. The premise of the article is that if we spend our discretionary income on one-time experiences versus buying upgraded material things it will lead to greater happiness. Even though it's a somewhat counter intuitive premise to throw your discretionary income at say a 10 day vacation versus driving a nicer car for the next 5 years, it seems like a no brainer choice for me to take the vacation and drive a worse car.
       The article pointed out that one of the detriments to having upgraded material things is that you eventually adapt to them. Adapting to nice things may seem like a net positive, but I see it as a net negative. You really only enjoy new things the first few weeks of having them and then there's a 'meh' effect. The upgraded material thing become the new status quo and you start taking it for granted. Even worse, it is much harder to appreciate lesser quality things in the future.   
         If the truth be told, it's unrealistic and probably not advisable to spend 100% of your income on buying your way into experience based activities. There has to be some sort of balance. You have to live somewhere, have some mode of transportation, and have enough decent clothes to change regularly and present yourself effectively. If you decide to buy a house and a car you like, it doesn't make you materialistic or a poor steward over your money. Having a place that serves as a sanctuary at home and on the move is highly beneficial to productivity and making progress towards your life goals.
        What does experience have to offer that material things can't? You gain memories from experience that can never be taken from you, whereas material things degrade over time. Experience makes you more interesting and gives you a different perspective than anybody else. Even if you travel to the same place as someone else, chances are you will stay at a different place, eat at different places, get different weather, and meet different people along the way. On the other hand, if you buy a nice car, there is probably someone else who has the exact same model and features. Even most houses are not unique.
          I will conclude this post with a line from the new Cinderella movie: She was imprisoned in her attic by her stepmom and chose to stay positive, because she knew that her time with her parents and the prince would become beautiful distant memories (paraphrased). Even Cinderella understood that material possessions degrade and devalue over time, whereas good memories can be brought back in an instant no matter how dire life's circumstances are.