The Cursed Trip to the Cursed Island
I’ve made mention in both of the previous Patreon posts for this month that it has been, quote, ‘a helluva month’. I include this story here as an isolated example of why this month seems to have been haunted. People seemed to enjoy my misery when I posted it to my Facebook, so hopefully you will too.
So, it starts like this – Manchester Met university ask me to give a keynote for a conference they were holding – this was agreed months and months ago. I say ‘sure’ and they say they’ll pay travel and a hotel. Mrs Meeple will come along, but obviously they won’t pay for her. So she books her flights, and then a few weeks later – the week before the conference – they say ‘We’re moving this online because of rail strikes’. And I say ‘Well, we’ve made travel plans’ and they say ‘Oh, no worries, come along as we agreed. We’ll still arrange flights and a hotel’. There is no direct flight to Manchester from Gothenburg, so there’s a layover. That’s okay, that’s fine.
But now instead of a four hour trip to Manchester to attend a conference, it’s a four hour trip to Manchester to stream a keynote from a hotel room 300m from the university. But fine, whatever, I didn’t sign up for two days of Zoom meetings but I can do a day of it for politeness sake. I prepare myself mentally to sit in a hotel room, staring at a screen until my eyes go scratchy. It’s like Covid all over again.
The day before the flight, we get an email from the airline (SAS).
‘Hey, we cancelled the connecting flight tomorrow but don’t worry, we’ll be in touch later with new arrangements’
Those new arrangements are now for two connecting flights that turn a four hour trip into a thirteen hour trip. But it’s the day before, and they do it just as the phone lines close, so we can’t do anything. Can’t even scream at them.
We get on the flights. In a total of ten hours we managed to travel from Gothenburg to Copenhagen. We could have walked quicker. Seriously, I’m convinced you could see our house from the airport. We arrive in Manchester at around 12am, in the middle of a rail strike, so we need to get a bus to the hotel.
Of course, it being the UK, there is absolutely no indication of what bus we need to get and how we arrange a ticket. In Sweden the process is seamless and documented in every bus stop. Manchester airport on the other hand hides its bus stop down a marathon-long stretch of dark, vaguely lit corridors which contain no useful information. If you were going to arrange a mugging, you couldn’t do better than to have it in the tunnel between the airport terminal and the bus-stop. We get on the bus an app tells us to get, only for the driver to say ‘Yeah, this bus actually goes into the middle of nowhere and stops. This probably isn’t the one you want’. He kindly directs us to a standard double-decker, on which we will spend an hour-long journey being buffeted around by a driver who is apparently being paid commission for each pothole he hits.
And then we get to the hotel, somewhere in the vicinity of 1am.
Except it turns out there are two hotels of the same name on that street and we went to the wrong one. So, after 13 hours of traveling we need to hike to the other end of a long street (with all our luggage) to get to a hotel that is so badly run that their keycards have something like a 30 minute half-life. The queue to the desk during the day is made up 90% of current occupants asking for their card to be re-activated. The remaining 10% are new customers unaware of how access to a card that will summon the lift is going to be a lottery that consumes their life for the duration of their stay. Imagine a hotel where every time you leave your room it’s a flip of a coin if you can get back in to get to your stuff. That’s where we were.
But I do the keynote and it goes fine, and now we can explore Manchester a little. And that’s nice.
There’s no rail strike on the day we travel up to Scotland, but the railway decides that it won’t let anyone book tickets on those days. Just those that had tickets for previous days would be allowed to use the trains. So we need to organise a bus journey instead.
And then it seems to be mostly okay, until…
FAST FORWARD, DAY BEFORE WE LEAVE FOR GOTHENBURG. IT IS THE 30th of JUNE.
Mrs Meeple comes into our room and asks ‘Hey, where’s your passport?’
I think she’s joking, because I gave it to her for safekeeping when we arrived in Manchester.
(Mrs Meeple disputes the facts of this, but she’s not the one telling this story)
And she might well dispute them because my passport? Nowhere to be found. The proximal cause of its disappearance? My evaporated trust in Mrs Meeple’s organisational skills.
So I start trying to work out if I can replace a passport in under 24 hours.
(Narrator: He could not replace a passport in under 24 hours)
First I tried the website, which told me that thanks to unprecedented demand for passports there was no way I could get an appointment for a fast track passport, which is a passport in seven days. There’s a service that gives you a passport in 30 minutes, but only if you have the old passport. And in any case, no appointments for that either. In the whole of the UK, there is not a single free appointment to arrange passport although, the website promises, ‘new appointments are made available during the day’. The page though is static HTML so I am unconvinced by these vague assurances.
So I phone the passport advice line, for some… well, I guess passport advice. I mean, I realise now how stupid that was.
I’m on there for about an hour, during which time I am given six completely contradictory and inaccurate pieces of advice which I had to correct for them on the phone.
Every time, ‘Sorry, let me put you on hold again’ .
I was told I could get an emergency travel document from the British embassy (I couldn’t, because I was in the UK), that I could book a same day appointment online (I couldn’t, there weren’t any), that I could do it at a post office (I couldn’t, because post offices can’t issue passports) and so on.
Eventually the advice was ‘Man, I don’t know. Just get a paper form and send it in and you’ll get a passport’
‘Guaranteed seven days?’
‘No, we can’t guarantee seven days for our seven day guaranteed service’
By this time the website had actually added a few new appointments – like, twenty of them for the whole of the UK. I mean, that’s enough for any country right? The earliest one was on the 11th of July(!), which would mean the 19th of July minimum before I got a passport if all went well. But, as I remind you, they don’t guarantee seven days for their guaranteed seven-day service. I could have gotten it a few days earlier than that if I was prepared to go to BELFAST for an appointment but we’re talking going on the 8th and flying on the 18th. For that, they would only pretend to guarantee 8 working days rather than 7. ‘If you want it in seven, you need to book a morning appointment’, the website told me while simultaneously denying me access to any appointments in the morning.
(I remind you, at this point in the story, that we were due to fly in less than 24 hours)
So I did what any reasonable man would do in the circumstances. I phoned the Swedish consulate. Or rather, I emailed one consulate and phoned the other. And they were SO NICE, and while they couldn’t actually help on the grounds of ‘What the hell man, you’re not a Swedish citizen’ they did have a suggestion.
The suggestion, in summary, was this.
‘Just fly and see if your Swedish ID cards will get you into the country. I don’t know buddy, life’s a lottery. Be lucky.’
So that’s how my day of travel went.
- Arriving at an airport for a flight I had no idea if I could get on without a passport (it was also two hours late to depart, which didn’t help my stress levels).
- If they did let me board, I had no idea for sure if Sweden would let me past border control with my ID card and post-Brexit residence permit.
Technically it seemed like they should but the exact nature of the ID card required wasn’t clear. I have a Skatteverket one (from the Swedish tax authority) but it may have been the police ID card that I really needed because that’s the one that can be used as a passport.
(It later became very clear that it absolutely was the police ID card I needed since the police website categorically and explicitly tells people that Skatteverket’s ID card is not a travel document).
If I didn’t get allowed on the flight, it would be a 19 day wait for a passport.
Incidentally, my mother was coming to visit me in Sweden on the 8th. For those that are arithmetically challenged, that is *earlier* than 19 days.
If I did get allowed on the flight, there was a very real chance I’d get turned away at border control…
…at which point I wouldn’t be able to go back to the UK because I didn’t have a passport.
The emergency option there was – since I am a British national and wouldn’t be in the UK – I might be able to get the British embassy to provide me with emergency travel documents to replace my lost passport.
The thing is though… I’m not 100% sure they are all that interested in giving emergency travel documents for an emergency you so obviously and predictably created yourself.
I can only imagine the conversation going something like this:
‘So, run this past me again. You arrived at an airport, unsure if you could fly?’
‘And if you flew, you had no idea if you’d get into the country?’
‘That’s correct, sir’
‘And now you’re trapped in an airport terminal, unable to go into Sweden and unable to go back to the UK?’
‘That is an essentially accurate analysis of my current situation, yes’
‘Because you decided ‘screw it, just do it and be a legend’ as your main philosophy for travel?’
‘Sir, if there was a single salient point you could put your finger upon, that would be it’
‘Sorry, are you actually allowed to travel by yourself or is there a carer I should be talking to?’
‘Yes, but she’s the one that lost my god-damn passport’
(Again, Mrs Meeple’s account of who was responsible for the passport loss will be different, but also wrong)
They did let me on the flight with my residence permit, albeit with a fair bit of reluctance as I worked my way through every piece of ID in my wallet. They let me in the country with my ID card and my residence permit although they probably shouldn’t have. All they did was give me a little mini-lecture on the importance of getting a new passport ASAP because at the moment I can’t leave Sweden.
And then I was home, and it felt great.
Until I plugged my computer back in and it fried the wall outlet.
Seriously, this trip has been haunted from the start.
I guess I shouldn’t have been so cavalier about smashing the cursed amulet I bought at that disappearing market stall.
Project Unplug 2022
I think Project Unplug 2022 has reached a natural end-point for phase one. As I’ve said in previous updates it just feels like I’m spending more time in the bureaucracy than I’m getting back in benefits. My final review of the approach of ‘Shut down the Internet entirely except for some whitelists and except for work hours’ is – yes, it’s doable. It’s not even really difficult. But I’m not sure it’s worth it. I’ve given it six months, and the remaining six months of 2022 will be given over to phase two.
- Phase one – block the Internet, only let a few things in.
- Phase two – open the Internet, block things when they take up too much of my attention.
I think phase two is probably the better, more feasible approach because as I’ve said before – in the ramp up to this project I already improved the Internet by 90% simply by blocking access to those sites that leave me most depressed. Twitter and Reddit are the two big contributors to the low-level misery of the Internet and I can’t access them. They’re blocked. With them gone, a lot of the unpleasantness of being online goes away. All news sites are blocked too. Boardgamegeek and a pile of other online morbidities – all gone. And when you do that, you’re already maximising the area under the curve of what you get out of the Internet. Just block the stuff that is making you unhappy.
What the past six months have shown me though is that you absolutely can significantly disconnect from the Internet and you won’t really miss it.
These are the figures of my average daily (non-work) Internet usage for the past six months. The baseline in 2021 was 300 minutes a day online, although that includes non-work time in the figure. January 2022 also includes work time, but from February onwards we have an operable basis for comparison that is just ‘frivolous’ online activity. That’s because I omitted all work activity from the stats:
- 2021 – 300 minutes
- January 2022 – 84 minutes
- February 2022 – 23 Minutes
- March 2022 – 13 minutes
- April 2022 – ??? (I was in the UK for a portion of this and so I didn’t track the figures the way I normally would)
- May 2022 – 5 minutes
- June 2022 – 11 minutes
May was obviously the point when I was most aggressively policing my Internet time and it was also the point where I think I was getting the least out of the project. I’d dart in and out of websites like a frantic mouse, trying not to accumulate too much on the time tracker. But looking at the time tracker stats in terms of where the minutes went, I never really saw much listed for the month that I felt was a genuine waste of my time. You can certainly live on five minutes of (non-work) Internet a day. It’s just not really worth the hassle. Time spent goes down, but visits go way up.
So, thus phase two. Phase one was the whitelist approach and it dealt with one pillar of healthy Internet engagement – amount of usage. Phase two is going to look at a blacklist approach and it’s about purifying my online experience. From now on, if I see a site creeping into my time tracking and it’s not something I’m happy with – it goes off into a blacklist.
Facebook has remained, throughout 2022, the biggest portion of my online time. With all my various browser runes and sigils, Facebook is borderline pleasant. All I see are the news updates of my friends. I recommend the browser plugin Facebook Purity wholeheartedly – it gets rid of so much of the frustration and stress of using Facebook. Seriously, you don’t even know how unpleasant the site is because you’re drowning in it. FB Purity is a life rope.
But still, while Facebook is now much better to use it’s still not something I want to spend too much time on. So while I’m not blacklisting it I’m moving to a permanent system of time control. I have a 5 minute allowance in the morning, a 5 minute allowance in the evening, and that’s the maximum I can spend on Facebook in a day. Even that might get cut down a bit as we go along. The other blacklisted sites just get blocked – no time limit allowed.
I’ve been following this system since I got back to Sweden on the 1st of July and it’s working out well so far. The key will be discipline – when I see myself spending too much time on a site with no real return, then I need to be diligent about blacklisting it.
But some of the past few months have also instilled some better practice in me as far as Internet usage goes.
Youtube, for example, is no longer something I casually browse – because I couldn’t. Instead what I’d do was add videos to a special playlist and then download them externally. My usage of Youtube then is much more mindful and if I see it creeping up again I can just do the same sort of thing I do with Facebook – a short allowance, intended to let me save videos for later viewing.
I’ve become a lot better at simply keeping my phone in my pocket and not pawing at it for distraction when the world doesn’t have anything interesting to show me. Part of that has been blocking all notifications, and part of it has been paring down what apps I have on it. In Sweden you can’t really function without a phone – everything from public transport tickets to electronic identification lives there. But since my phone has no social media and no notifications it just – stays in my pocket more. I’m more inclined now to stare out a window than stare into my electronic nightmare rectangle.
The place where Project Unplug has more dramatically failed though is with my pledge to only check email twice a day. That’s not feasible really in my line of work, and it’s already been the cause of a few problems. The best I can say is that I do shut my email client down for long chunks of the day (especially weekends and evenings) but realistically I can’t see myself doing better – at least in the short term. I have removed email from my tablet and blocked all email notifications on my phone. That may have to do for now.
So, I’m going to end this phase of Project Unplug 2022 by condensing my advice for those that want to cut some of the reliance they have on the Internet. This is the most impactful advice that has the least negative impact on your life and doesn’t need you to do anything as extreme as I did in the first six months of 2022.
- Block all notifications. On your phone, on your tablet, on your computer. You should be the one that decides when it’s time to be updated about things, not the app or the website.
- Stop reading the news. Anxiety is not activism, and the news is more interested in your attention than it is in your education. If you need to know, someone will tell you.
- Install Facebook Purity in your browser. It is a god-damn magical treasure.
- Install the Unhook Youtube plugin in your browser. It paves over all the rabbit holes.
- Get yourself a plugin like Web Activity Time Tracker and watch to see where you spend your time online. Look at the sum of what you’re doing and ask yourself which of those sites earned the time you spent on them.
- Get yourself an app like Cold Turkey – it lets you set blocks and time allowances for websites and applications. Whenever you see a site leeching time from your life, blocklist it. Or at least ration it – I’m doing that with Facebook now. Two five-minute allowances during the day.
- Alternatively if you’ve got an old laptop or phone, put all your social media on there and keep it somewhere awkward. Make it effortful to check these things so as to break the harmful patterns of constant refreshing. Strip your phone of all its pointless distractions.
- Consume mindfully. Don’t sit on the Internet reading some ridiculous article – save it to Pocket and come back to it when you have the time to really delve into it. Buffer up your Youtube stuff and watch it by appointment. The best place to read most of the articles that the Internet sends your way is on the toilet. That’s where your should contain all the shit anyway.
Remember you only get this one life, and we’re all spending sizable fractions of it online. Budget your life the same way you budget your money. Don’t spend it on things that you don’t want or need.
Depth Year 2022
No news here – it remains straightforward, with the only exception being the need as usual to keep the taxman away from the MLU account. I’ve had so much on this month though that even if I was minded to engage in an orgy of spending, I didn’t have the time to do anything about it. I’ll have more to report next month, I hope!