A Conference Survival Kit

(Advance warning: Yes, these are all affiliate links, but I’m writing this post because I think this stuff is genuinely life improving and not just to make a quick buck)

I’ve been to a lot of conferences over over the last year. Conferences are great, but they’re also really hard work and I often end up feeling quite broken by the end of them.

I’ve learned a few things to bring that help me to survive the various trials and tribulations of conferences and emerge feeling somewhat less broken.

Hydration

The number one thing I recommend everyone bring to a conference is a refillable water bottle. There will generally be lots of sources of water throughout the conference, and you will almost always get teeny tiny plastic cups to drink it from. As well as making it very hard to get enough water, this is also not great for the environment. Bringing a water bottle you can refill helps you get enough water whenever you want it, and helps the environment too.

I use this Siggs classic traveller bottle. It’s extremely basic, but I’m a big fan. That said, you don’t really need a water bottle to be fancy and almost anything works.

Hint to conference organisers: Water bottles make great swag. I’ve seen them given out at Europython and I’ve seen a few DjangoCon Europe ones floating around, and they’ll be well received and will make your conference attendees healthier and happier.

Food

Whenever you are on someone else’s meal schedule it’s basically a recipe for getting hangry. A meal will be too late, or too early and thus leave too long before the next meal, etc. The breaks might have snacks in them, but they’ll be something that’s basically white flour and sugar and so they’ll perk you up a bit and then half an hour later you’ll sugar crash and be back to where you started.

I really like these Cliff Bars (note: Contains mostly peanuts. Avoid if you have a peanut allergy, and be considerate of the people around you. There are also non-nut protein bars that should work well. I’ve used these chocolate protein bars before and they’re… OK). They contain sugar for the immediate pick me up and fat and protein for the long-term stability. They’re also reasonably tasty.

Occasionally if I’m too exhausted at the end of the day to deal properly I will retreat to my hotel room and a protein bar becomes dinner. It’s not the healthiest of dinners, but it works.

Handling Crowds

Conferences are noisy places. Not so much in the talks, but in the social and the hallway tracks you’ll be surrounded by an onslaught of background noise. The amount of socialization going on around you makes it really hard to hear and talk to the people you’re actually trying to socialize with! Fortunately there’s a solution to this: Musicians’ Earplugs. They will cut out the background noise much more than the conversational noise and you’ll be able to hear again. It’s amazing. I use these ACS hearing protectors.

More speculatively: I’ve been trying taking theanine during the latest PyCon UK. It’s supposed to have a non-sedative calming effect, which should help with social anxiety and generally being able to deal with a large number of people. It seems to help? It’s hard to do a subjective evaluation of this. I’ve definitely felt calmer and more able to deal with people this conference, and I’ve not been socially exhausted to even close to the degree I would expect to be, but there are a whole bunch of reasons that could be. It might be worth trying though. I’ve been taking the Solgar ones here at PyCon UK because they were the only ones I could buy locally, but they’re outrageously overpriced and I recommend finding a cheaper brand. e.g. these ones are almost certainly absolutely fine.

Theanine is also a good idea if you’re taking a lot of caffeine at the conference. Theanine + caffeine is a known very beneficial combination, it’s just theanine without caffeine that is a bit more speculative.

Sleep

Conferences will drain your energy. This makes sleep even more important than it usually is. Unfortunately, you’re also in an unknown and possibly quite poor sleeping situation: Hotel rooms are often noisy, and they’re almost always full of annoying bright LEDs.

It’s important to bring tools to counteract that: A sleep mask and ear plugs. I use this sleep mask and these ear plugs. They’re both great and I can recommend them.

Note: Try sleeping with these at home for a few days before going to the conference. I found it took 3 or 4 days of sleeping with the mask before I stopped waking up to find I’d taken it off during the night (which isn’t the worst thing in the world as it’s mainly important while trying to fall asleep, but it helps if you’re prone to waking up in the night).

Caffeine

If you don’t use caffeine you can ignore this one. But most people who go to conferences are addicted to caffeine (this isn’t just a developer stereotype – a significant majority of the west are, and probably outside the west too), and given how tired you’re going to be during the conference you may want caffeine anyway.

Bring caffeine pills. Seriously.

Conference coffee is almost never good. At best it might be mediocre, more often it’s awful. This isn’t anyone’s fault it’s just logistically rather challenging (and consequently expensive) to produce good coffee at conference scale. I recommend you just don’t bother with the coffee and stick to water and caffeine pills.

I use these caffeine pills. They’re quite strong though, so you might want to take 50mg ones instead. I’ve used Pro Plus for that, but honestly caffeine is caffeine and whatever you take is fine.

Your Phone

You’re going to be using your phone a lot. It probably won’t last the day. Bring an external battery pack. I use this one currently but honestly can’t strongly recommend it.

Additionally, WiFi is going to be unreliable. Your life will be better if you have a phone SIM that works where you are. If you’re in your home country, that’s not a problem, but abroad you want to avoid roaming charges. You can probably easily buy a local pay as you go SIM, or you can use Three who have a lot of different countries that it will just work automatically in. Otherwise, this wiki will tell you what you need to do to get a local SIM.

Attitude

You’re there for your benefit. Take things at your own pace. Relax. It’s better to have a great experience attending half the conference than to burn yourself out trying to attend all of it. You don’t have to attend every talk, you don’t have to meet every person. If you need a time out, go for a walk or retreat to the quiet room if there is one. It’s OK.

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My standard dinner meta-recipe

This is a recipe style I cook a lot for myself a lot. It’s very easy, balanced and healthy, and with only a little bit of effort can be made to be extremely tasty.

It’s… lets call it “Japanese inspired”. It’s not Japanese, but that’s probably the closest regional cuisine in its heritage and it tends to use a number of Japanese ingredients.

It consists of 3-4 parts:

  • A base. For me this is almost always brown rice, sometimes with a bit of red rice added to it to give it a little more variety. I’m obsessed with Tree of Life short grain brown rice at the moment. It’s really tasty. You could certainly use other rices here though. It also works well with quinoa, and it probably works well with most other grains too.
  • Vegetables, raw or steamed. Depends on what I have to hand, but most things work here. Blanched green beans are great for this. Cucumber and avocado are both good raw. Carrots are good raw or steamed. If I’m feeling super lazy then sometimes I just use a cup of frozen peas stuck in the microwave.
  • A topping (this is either one or two parts)

I typically serve this with soy sauce, brown rice vinegar and sesame as seasonings people can add to their dish. Crushed chillies or Shichimi would also likely work well for that

The topping is of course where most of the work goes in, and also what tends to make the difference between this being a lazy but acceptable dish and all of it mysteriously vanishing.

The idea of the topping is that it’s mostly a protein source + flavour. It’s either the something simple like eggs or chopped tofu and an accompanying sauce, or it’s a more integrated dish.

Quantity wise, there should be lots of rice and vegetables and a modest amount of topping. I’d say by volume the bowl should be about 3 : 2 : 1 rice, vegetables and topping. The topping is the center piece of the dish, but the body of it is the rice and the vegetables, with the topping there to provide flavour and a bit of extra substance with the protein.

Here are some toppings I’ve done recently that I think are really good and would recommend trying:

 Spicy Tofu

This is a simple and tasty vegan topping.

  • One medium red onion, chopped into thin slices
  • Three packs of Taifun smoked tofu (I really recommend their tofu, it’s great), cut up into rough cubes
  • Three small red chillies, deseeded
  • A couple large carrots, julienned (cut into thin strips)

This served five people in these quantities.

I then then just fried these for a while in peanut oil – starting with the onions, carrots and chillies, then adding the tofu once they were cooked.

Miso and Ginger Chicken

This is loosely based on this recipe from the New York times.

I didn’t do the ingredients for this very precisely, but it was roughly:

  • 250g white miso
  • 100g butter, softened and partially melted in a microwave
  • Clearspring brown rice vinegar
  • A squeeze of honey (probably 1-2tbsp)
  • A fairly sizable chunk of peeled ginger
  • One egg
  • Some quantity of deboned chicken breasts (it was actually offcuts from a previous meal, so I don’t really know how much. Not more than 500g), chopped into small (2cm ish) pieces.

This served five people in these quantities.

I then put everything except the chicken in a food processor and blended until completely smooth. Afterwards I coated the chicken in it and left it in the fridge for a few hours (I don’t actually think this step is necessary and suspect it would have been fine without, but it was convenient to make this in the morning and then just throw it in the oven later). Finally, I spread it on a baking tray and baked it in the oven at 200C, stirring occasionally and stopping once it’s crispy and slightly blackened on the outside.

This was really tasty and I probably could have made twice as much as I did and it would still have all been eaten.

Peanut Sauce

The inspiration for this comes from Gado-Gado, but this is not Gado Gado sauce (it resembles it, but lacks some of the key ingredients).

Here is my peanut sauce recipe. I recently did this served with boiled eggs, but it also goes well with chopped smoked tofu if you want it to be vegan:

  • A couple peeled garlic cloves
  • A couple red chillies (seeds included depending on how spicy the chillies are and how spicy you want the result)
  • Peanut butter (just use the cheap stuff, no need to be fancy here)
  • Lots of limes, squeezed
  • A little bit of soy sauce

I fry the garlic and chillies in oil until they’re reasonably well cooked then add everything to the food processor and blend until smooth.

There are no standard quantities for this. Once it’s blended I then taste it and see how it is and adjust the quantities if it doesn’t taste right. If it’s not liquid enough, I either add more lime or a little bit of hot water.

“Japanese” chicken livers

I have no idea how close this is to anything that would actually be made in Japan. I suspect not very. It’s loosely based on some googling for Japanese recipes for chicken liver and most closely resembles this recipe, adapted to what I had to hand.

  • A small pot of chicken livers (I think these are 150g? I didn’t measure)
  • One small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 tbsp brown rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • Toasted sesame seeds
  • Butter (50g or so?)

This served two people in these quantities.

I mixed all the liquid ingredients together to form a sauce.

I then fried the onion in the butter on high heat until it was caramelised, added the liver and continued frying until it was brown (this took about 30 seconds to a minute), then added the sauce on top and continued cooking until the sauce was thick and reduced, at which point I added the sesame seeds and cooked for another minute or so.

Anything else

The great thing about this style of dish is that it’s suitable for almost endless improvising on because the only core ingredients are ones that keep more or less indefinitely in your cupboard. As long as you’ve got a base and the seasonings, everything else can just be done based on whatever is in the fridge.

e.g. last night’s dinner was the liver topping above, steamed carrots, raw cucumber and avocado as the vegetables on top of a base of brown and red rice. I didn’t start with any plan to do that – I had bought the liver with an intention to do liver one night this week, but didn’t really know what I was going to do with it. Once I decided to do it in this style I googled a bit for Japanese chicken liver recipes on the off chance that I’d find something appropriate, and improvised it into this. The vegetables were then just what we had available.

It also tends to keep quite well: When I’m on my own and short on time I will often batch make a topping (particularly just boiling a carton of eggs and making a large batch of peanut sauce, but this works well with most other toppings too) and some brown rice. The topping and rice can just be heated up in the microwave and fresh vegetables can be done each day to keep it varied.

Anyway, that was a lot of words to basically just say “Hey did you know you can serve things with rice and vegetables and it’s pretty great?”, but you can and it is, and I don’t really see people doing it enough, so maybe you should give it a try?

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Nasal experiments

First an obvious warning: Despite the domain name, I am not a doctor. None of this post is medical advice. Talk to your GP. etc. etc.

Now, some backstory: This is part of the project I’ve dubbed “The War on Sleep”, which is me finally getting bored of the fact that I’ve spent most of my life waking up feeling terrible every morning.

The latest cause I’m investigating is that this might be a “simple” matter of mouth breathing at night, caused by the fact that it turns out I more or less can’t breathe properly through my nose. Mouth breathing is definitely supposed to affect quality of sleep, so it seemed like a reasonable hypothesis.

But do I actually have trouble breathing through my nose? I mean sure it’s harder to breathe through my nose than my mouth, but that’s normal, right? I compared with my brother and father (both of whom also have sleep issues) and they seemed to have about the same experience, but that could be anywhere between this being normal and us having some genetic nose design flaw (we all have very similar noses).

Turns out, it’s closer to the latter. In order to determine what’s normal I put together a small experiment and asked the internet to participate in it. It’s not very scientific due to sampling bias, small sample size, erratic data collection, etc. but as a starting point to just get a sense of what things look like it worked pretty well.

The experiment is this: Breathe out fully, then breathe in fully as hard as you can. Time how long it takes you to breathe in, breathing in as hard and fast as you can. Repeat this in four different ways: First breathing in with just your mouth, then with just your nose, then with just your left nostril, then with just your right nostril.

The idea is that this time to complete a breathe in is a pretty good proxy for how difficult it is to breathe in in a particular way: You’re using the same lungs to draw air through each time, so the only difference is how much air you can get through that passage way.

For me a full breathe in with my nose takes about 5-10 times as long as a full breathe in with my mouth, and my right nostril takes a bit under twice as long as my left. That doesn’t sound good, certainly, and when comparing with other people on the experiment it does turn out to be atypically bad.

I don’t have a proper statistical analysis of the experiment results (sorry), but here’s what eyeballing the data shows:

  • Some people have the same breathe in times for mouth and nose
  • More normal seems to be taking about twice as long with nose
  • It’s actually pretty unusual to have a significant difference between left and right side – only two other people who took the experiment had more than a 20%ish difference between them (one had 1.5x in one nostril, the other 3x). I don’t know who you are, but you might want to talk to a doctor about that if you don’t currently have a cold or know what’s up with that.

A couple observations of experiment design:

  • I should have checked what time of day it was for participants (or at least how long ago they’d woken up). It turns out that the nasal cycle is a thing. I’ve noticed this myself now that I know to look for it – when I first wake up I can barely breathe through my right nostril (I genuinely can’t get enough air – it feels like I’m suffocating) but later in the day it’s just slow.
  • really should have asked people if they had any known complications that would explain their results. It would have been much more useful data.

Still, the experiment largely served my purpose and I think the results are interesting. Also, the basic structure of it works pretty well, so I’ll be reusing it.

Armed with this data I went to my GP and explained what was up. Off the back of that, I’ve been issued with a steroid nasal spray. It supposedly will take about two weeks to take effect.

And the great thing is that because I have a pretty good objective experiment demonstrating the problem, I can track that effect! I’m going to be running this experiment several times a day for the next month or so to see if the spray is making any difference.

This feels like a big deal to me. I don’t know if this is what’s causing my sleep problem, but it certainly seems like a problem, and having an objective assessment I can just run and see whether it’s helping is going to be great. Doing a subjective “do I feel better today than yesterday?” is almost impossible, but being able to track the improvement (or lack of it) by the numbers is going to be a big help.

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The Caffeine Alarm Clock

A friend asked me on IRC for tips on waking up early, and it reminded me that there’s a thing I do that works really well and isn’t common knowledge. I can’t actually currently do it because of my current draconian restrictions on caffeine (Hi, I’m David and I am a caffeine addict. It has been 25 days since my last fix), but that’s no reason to stop you.

The trick is this: Before you go to bed, put a large glass of water and a 200mg caffeine pill  (depending on your caffeine tolerance you may wish to reduce this – it’s the equivalent of a very large coffee but isn’t an unreasonable daily intake of caffeine) next to your bed. Set your alarm for about half an hour before you want to actually get up. When your alarm goes off, take the caffeine pill and drink the glass of water.

You are now permitted to roll over and go back to sleep if you want. You are under no obligation to get out of bed.

But you almost certainly will quite soon. Within about half an hour you will be buzzing and probably need to go to the bathroom, so you won’t want to stay in bed, and you will get up at the intended time.

People look at me funny when I tell them I do this, but I think that’s just because it makes the caffeine habit a bit too transparent. People will judge you for a caffeine intake that is strictly smaller than theirs if you take it in pill form and they take it as beverages.

I am not naturally a morning person, and this won’t turn me or you into one, but as a way of getting out of bed when your first inclination on waking is that you really don’t want to, it’s incredibly effective and as long as you don’t mind the caffeine dependence I can strongly recommend it.

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Better Sleep Data through pulse oximetry

I wrote a while back that I was looking for recommendations on getting better sleep data. It turns out that there’s an easy and affordable solution for doing this that is directly designed for this problem.

The required device is a pulse oximeter. It measures both heart rate and blood oxygen content, and is used for diagnosing Sleep Apnea. I bought this one off ebay (it’s a v3.5 Contec CMS50F) for really very little money. It’s easy to wear while sleeping, as it’s reasonably comfortable and stays on just fine even if you move about.

There is then good open source software called Sleepyhead which is designed for CPAP machines but also handles Pulse Oximeter data (there is also proprietary software for Windows which I haven’t tried yet because it comes on a CD and I got Sleepyhead working before my Amazon Primed external CD drive arrived).

I’ve not been super happy with Sleepyhead, but that’s more because my use case is not what it’s designed for: I don’t have a CPAP machine (yet?) and would quite like access to the raw oximetry data, which the export doesn’t provide. I’m going to stick with it for now, but I’ll also try the proprietary software at some point, and may try writing a Python script for doing data export from the oximeter, as its protocol doesn’t appear to be very hard.

I’ve only been using it for two nights, so too early to say if this data is going to prove useful or not, but the data does seem suggestive that something is going on. I may/probably will post further updates.

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