Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Intelligent Commuter

As a constant commuter, I know the pain of travelling on a slow-moving bus in rush hour. If you're one of the lucky ones to even nab a seat, you're sitting, looking out the window, maybe listening to's all pretty boring. I actually commuted four hours a day to work a 9-5 job for five months in 2015 (do the math - 4 hours x 5 days x 4.5 weeks x 5 months = 450 hours).

For the over-achievers-at-heart, this time can get a little frustrating – there's got to be a good use for this sort of ‘limbo time’. Odds are you can't move around, you can't use a big bulky computer, and you probably don't have reliable internet access. That instantly removes exercise, watching Netflix, doing your taxes, pretty much all the necessary things in life. What should you do to fill the time?

I've developed a list of activities that will make great use of your time if you happen to be in the same sorry situation I was once in. And, as many people experience motion sickness on moving vehicles (yours truly definitely included), all of these options are friendly to those who are easily disturbed by motion. You don't have to focus on your phone screen so you won't get sick, and you won't miss your stop! A bonus of this limitation is that if you happen to be a motorist, your need to concentrate on the road affords you the same situation as someone who is affected by motion sickness: being able to enjoy an activity without looking at your phone screen.

To recap, the parameters for which an activity will be held suitable to be conducted in-transit are as follows:

  • not necessary to concentrate vision on something (phone screen, page, etc.)
  • should not disturb others (loud sound, bulky equipment, brash movements, etc)
  • must be portable (easily continuable while making transfers between vehicles, while standing on buses)
  • should not require constant access to data/internet (download ahead of time, offline mode)
  • and of course, the activity should be mentally fulfilling in some way that will keep your brain from melting into mush on your rush-hour crawl home

1) Podcasts
I must admit, it took me a long time to get into podcasts. I feel I'm not alone in my original (incorrect) assumption of what podcasts were - a boring recorded conversation between two or more people, basically spending half the time laughing at their own inside jokes and the other half being empty silences because the producers don't bother to edit them properly. Who wants to listen to someone else's conversation in such a passive way? Certainly not me.

So, why not listen to a podcast that's well edited, has interesting content and gives you something interesting to talk about at the office water cooler? There are so many amazing podcasts out there, and I'd say that the hard part is finding one that suits your interest. In my research into a sliver of the expansive library of podcasts available online, here are my top picks:

The Moth
The Moth comes up every so often on my blog because I love it so dearly. If you're a fan of honest storytelling from all walks of life, this is the podcast for you. I've laughed, I've cried, I've gasped so loud that I scared an old lady sitting beside me on a crowded streetcar. All episodes are recorded at live events all over the world where anyone (not necessarily but sometimes professional storytellers) can take the stage to share an experience that happened to them. These “storyslams” are competitions where storytellers can compete for victory and the honour of the best story. Think, Humans of New York in podcast form.

If you become really attached to a story as I often do, you can supplement your listening with extra images and content accompanying each story on the Moth's website.

This image accompanied a story called My Life as a Guinea Pig.

99% Invisible
Another favourite and no stranger to my blog is 99% Invisible hosted by the talented Roman Mars. The podcast examines a new topic each week, every one stranger than the one before. Each subject follows a pattern of an extremely interesting and eclectic topic, phenomenon, piece of history or otherwise that you may never have heard of but are glad to know. Excellent fodder for the water cooler right here, covering architecture, infrastructure, design, culture, and more. Past episodes of note have included the best-designed city flags of the world, highway sound barriers and the evolution of noise, and a special episode called “Redesigning for Urban Death: From Flameless Cremation to Digital Afterlives.” How can you not want to know more?

Trampoline Hall
This podcast is the product of my favourite barroom lecture series. Trampoline Hall may have nothing to do with trampolines but it's still one of my favourite things. Each month, a lovely little bar called the Garrison plays host to three lecturers who each speak for ten minutes on a subject in which they must be an amateur. No professional topics here; only hobbies, musings and obsessions. While the talks themselves are wonderful, the true shining moment is the Q&A that follows each talk. The audience heats up, asking all sorts of questions, getting into arguments (sometimes between lecturer and audience member but often between two audience members), booing bad questions, and some excellent entertainment. The live show has been happening for 15 years, but the podcast was just launched in January 2017. For a relative newcomer to the live shows like me, the podcast offers a window into the archive of lectures since the live show's inception in 2001.

Each episode features one talk and its accompanying Q&A, as well as a slice of the delightful live show opening ramble by MC Misha Glouberman.

2) Audiobooks
If you're a bookworm at heart, you may want to check out audiobooks. I remember borrowing audiobooks on cassette tape from my local library when I was a kid. I think it all goes back to the human desire to hear someone tell you a story. To me, it's comforting and reminds me of childhood. Although of course, you can listen to almost any book on any subject so it's definitely not just for kids.

I personally find listening to audiobooks more preferable than reading books for a few reasons. First of all, they can live digitally in your phone so you don't have to worry about carrying a heavy book, especially ruining it with spilled coffee or missing the deadline to return it to the library. Listening to audiobooks also removes the need to actually look at the pages, so it's motion-sick and car-driving friendly.

During my five-month commute, I managed to polish off all five books of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones) as read by the AMAZING Roy Dotrice. I really need to give this man a shout-out because he makes the books literally come alive. Dotrice actually holds the Guinness World Record for most character voices for an audio book – at an astounding 224 individual voices. Having watched the HBO series before digging into the audiobooks, it was immediately clear to me that the show's casting was highly based on the imaginative and colourful voices that Dotrice invented. As an old man, I am particularly impressed with his ability to impersonate female characters.

Dotrice was also given a role in the tv series, as Hallyne the Pyromancer

3) Music Ear Training
Thinking back to my high school years of music theory, I have fond memories of ear training courses with my music teacher. If you have an unexplainable hunger for music theory like myself and my coworker who has tried and tested this skill on the subway, why not learn some music ear training? Then, whenever someone asks you what notes make up a song, you'll be able to answer! Not that anyone will ever ask you or be able to tell if your answer is correct.

But all joking aside, you can use this skill to teach yourself you favourite songs on guitar and other instruments. There are many apps for this purpose, many of which work offline. Keep in mind that you'll probably be humming to yourself as you learn, so this activity isn't for people who are self-conscious.

For an app with a good offline experience, try Complete Ear Trainer.

4) Learn a new language
You may have heard of Duolingo as one of the most popular and successful apps for learning a new language. Duolingo provides users with bite-sized challenges to complete each day that involve listening and dictation exercises in your preferred language to learn. Of course, like Ear Training, the downside is that you'll have to be alright with having a conversation with your phone in front of a large number of people on a crowded bus. But that shouldn't be a problem, right?

My friend who uses Duolingo on her subway commute to work says that using it in offline mode works alright, but often the results of her tests are not saved and she has to complete levels more than once. I'd argue that while that is surely a bug that degrades the experience of the app, you could think of it as extra-curricular practice for your language that doesn't count toward your final score. After all, your main goal here is to practice a language, not to become a high scorer in a language-learning app. So really, you're getting the upper hand if you think about it.

Hopefully you find these suggestions useful along your commute. Or, if you begin to find that your commute becomes too stimulating or fruitful, you can always take a break and listen to music, download some television (preferably nothing NSFW in case someone is watching over your shoulder), or just take an old-fashioned nap.

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