Category Archives: technology

Coping with Fear of Flying

Don't let go...!

Don’t let go…!

I’ve been afraid of flying since I had a nasty landing at Gatwick Airport in 1992.

That’s over 20 years ago, but I’ve continued to fly since. I’ve learned a lot about coping with my fear, so I thought I’d share my experience and techniques.

The first thing to say is to forget the statistics.

People who are afraid of flying know that flying is statistically safe, but that’s like saying to someone who has a morbid fear of spiders that spiders can’t kill you. We’re not dealing in logic here. We dealing with a disorder, and logic doesn’t enter into disorders (disorder = absence of order).

The second thing to say is that you will never overcome your fear of flying, and that you need to accept that.

You are afraid because your mind has decided that the only thing keeping the plane in the air is the fact that you are afraid it will crash, and that as soon as you stop being afraid, it will hurtle to ground. You have convinced yourself that once your presume everything is going to be OK, fate will conspire realise your worst fears.

So, once you accept that fear is going to be part of your flying experience, you can get on with minimising that fear, and finding a “sweet spot”, which is a point in your subconscious where you are sufficiently afraid to keep the plane in the air, but sufficiently relaxed not to try and jump out the window.

Here’s how I hit my “sweet spot”, and how I regain it when events throw it off kilter.

Get a window seat

One of the reasons you are afraid of flying is that you no control over your situation. When you’re driving a car, you can stop; when you’re on a train, you can get off at the next stop; but when you’re on a plane, you’re all in. Once the door closes, there is nothing you can do until it opens again.

Having a window seat removes some of the uncertainty. You can see what’s going on around you, you can see how far you are off the ground, you can scan the horizon to ensure their are no other planes about to crash into you.

That little bit of extra information removes some of the mystery of what is going on around you, making your lack of control slightly more tolerable.

Also, on a clear day, or even above a cloudscape, the views from an airplane can be spectacular, and take your mind off your fears.

Avoid early flights

If you’re like me, you’re at your most alert first thing in the morning. Your senses are heightened, and any worries or stresses that were temporarily suppressed while you were sleeping have suddenly reappeared with renewed vigour.

This makes it harder to cope with your fear of flying. Try to travel later in the even instead. After grinding through another day you’ll be more relaxed and at ease, which will help you to deal with the stress of flying.

Get to the airport early

This goes back to the control issue. People who have a fear of flying generally have a routine, and if they don’t have enough time to get through it, it can lead to heightened anxiety. Always give yourself time to go through your routine.

Arriving early also gives you more time to acclimatise to the various sights and sounds of an airport, which can make the flight itself less intimidating.

Think of your destination

If you’re travelling on pleasure rather than business, the arrival of your flight is something to look forward to, whether you’re on your outbound leg or returning home. When bad thoughts start to take over, force yourself to think about the great holiday you’re going to have, or the prospect of being tucked up in your own bed again.

Take (legal) drugs

Don’t discount drugs. Go to your GP and ask for a few valium tabs for your fear of flying. GPs get this request all the time, and are happy to oblige. I generally take 10mg of some form of valium (Xanex, Anxicalm) about 1 hour before the flight takes off. If you were to take that during a normal day, it would put you to sleep, but in a situation where you are feeling a lot of anxiety, it just brings you back down a bit. You will be still be able to function normally.

Take a nip of brandy

Again, this is one for pleasure trips. I have a little mouthwash bottle, that I half fill with brandy before I fly. I put this is my see-through toiletries bag so that I can get it through the security check (it looks like mouthwash). Just as the plane is taking off, which always the worst bit, I take a little swig. Taking valium and brandy probably isn’t a great idea for everybody, but in moderation, it works for me.

Look for signs on take off

Take off is always scary. As the plane lumbers along the runway it seems improbable that it can haul itself into the air, and when it finally does, you convince yourself that its going to start struggling under the weight of all those people and bags and tumble out of the sky into the nearest housing estate.

To get over this, decide on a few identifiable signs that you can concentrate on during take-off, and as each one becomes apparent, your anxiety will gradually diminish. Here’s a few ideas:

Clearing the airport apron; stowing of the landing gear; getting to a height where the airplane has enough momentum to glide away from trouble; getting to a height where cars appear to be moving very slowly; first turn of the airplane to the right or left (pilot is happy to continue); cabin crew start moving around the cabin; seat belt sign goes off

 Listen to music

Sit down some evening and buy some music on your smart phone specifically for flying, and get some bud earphones (you can use these with your phone in airplane mode during take off and landing). Relaxing music is best, but go with whatever works for you. I never thought I’d be calm enough to listen to music, because I wouldn’t be able to hear signs of trouble, but its easier than you think, and definitely takes your mind of the flight. A particular favourite of mine is “Flight over Africa” by Joel McNeely. Listening to that and watching the sky flow by through the window is actually quite a pleasant experience.

Have a drink

When the trolley comes around, have a drink. People have been using alcohol for centuries to sooth anxiety. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t too.

Try to have a conversation with someone

If you have enough to drink, this is inevitable. It really does help. Everything about fear of flying is in your mind, so if you can distract yourself, the flight will always pass quicker.

Look for signs on landing

Like take-off, landing is the a portion of the flight that gives heightened cause for concern. As the plane slows, you feel like its going 20 miles per hour, and that whenever it banks to lines up with the runway, its just going to keep turning until and it eventually stalls and spirals into ground. You’re aware that the landing phase generally takes about 20 mins, but that 20 minutes seems to last for about 4 hours.

There are 2 things I do during the phase of the flight. The first is to keep watching the cabin crew. This is the busiest part of the flight for them, and they’re generally shuffling about and concentrating on their jobs rather than the passengers.

Cabin crew fly hundreds of times per year, so if something is not normal, they’re going to know about it. If you keep watching, and seeing that they are not in any way distracted by the progress of the airplane as it makes its descent, you can be pretty confident that things are going according to plan.

The second thing I watch for are cars. Airports are always bound in by major road networks, which accommodate traffic 24 hours per day. I always watch out the windows for the first sight of cars moving on the road. When I can see cars moving, I know the airplane is close enough to the ground to get through any malfunction. This may or may not be true, but its a waypoint that you are guaranteed to see, so use it.

And when things don’t go so smoothly….

Once you are on the plane, and its in air, and gliding smoothly along, your fear is generally manageable, and while the flight continues humming along, it may even subside.

And then there’s a slight bump, and then another, and then a it of trundling, and then PING!, “the captain has switched on the seatbelt sign”, and suddenly all your anxiety control techniques go out the window.

Turbulence is something that anxious flyers live in dread of. We know that a bit of turbulence is not going to cause the airplane to crash, but we also know that very heavy turbulence, although rare, can be dangerous, and that every little bit of turbulence might be a precursor to the that type of turbulence.

Its a control thing again, the fact of not knowing, and having to expect the worst, even though the worst never seems to happen.

My technique for dealing with turbulence is a little bit strange, but it is the most effective in my armoury of techniques.

It comes from a story a pilot told me about then they were learning to fly. During one of his earlier lessons, he encountered a his first bout of turbulent air. His instinctive reaction was to seize the controls and try and compensate for the bowing and jerking of the aircraft as it moved through the air.

His instructor let him grapple with this impossible task for a few minutes and then told him to let go of the controls, and allow the aircraft negotiate its own way through the turbulence. When he did this, the aircraft levelled out, and while the turbulence was still having an effect on its course, its general progress was a lot more stable.

I apply the same principle when turbulence heightens my anxiety. My instinctive reaction is to stiffen up, and grip the armrests even tighter than I already him. But what I’ve learned to do recently is the exact opposite. I now force myself to loosen up completely, from my toes to my fingers. I lift my arms slightly off the armrests, my feet slightly off the ground and close my eyes. I imagine myself as the airplane, floating along allowing the air to take me where it needs to.

Yes, the odd jolt requires me to concentrate harder, and I’m pretty sure than I won’t be able to sustain the illusion through really heavy turbulence, but for the general run of the mill turbulence that your experience on any flight, this really does help.

That’s also pretty much the last advice I have. If you want one takeaway from this, let it be that you should aim to accommodate your fears rather than try to overcome them. As I explained at the beginning, your mind is welded to the idea that your fear is the only thing keeping the airplane in the air, so you can never escape from that.

Once you accept that your fear is part of you, like a birthmark, you can learn to live with it, and keep flying, which is all you really want.






Going off the deep end over PRISM

Darth Vadar pulls up a PRISM developer on frequency of cat images pulled from Facebook

Darth Vadar pulls up a PRISM developer on frequency of cat images pulled from Facebook

The degree to which stories about governments mucking around with the Internet (eg SOPA) turn into forewarnings of an impending apocalypse really demonstrates how shallow our appreciation of the world around us has become.

On any given day, the US Military could fly an drone aircraft into northern Pakistan, a sovereign nation, ostensibly in search of terrorists, and kill 30-40 civilians. This would barely make the international news cycle, but as soon as a Government agency starts looking at pictures of people’s cats on Facebook, its the end of the world.

That is not to say that digital snooping on the part of a State agency is a trivial matter; it isn’t, but it needs to be presented in the correct context, rather than with the type of alarmist rhetoric that has accompanied recent reporting of PRISM.

To believe various organisations who specialise in State paranoia, and indeed certain news organisations, PRISM is a real-life version of Skynet, programmed and managed by Darth Vadar from a city-sized space ship somewhere in outer space.

On the other side of the coin, the agency that developed PRISM, the NSA, have claimed that PRISM is entirely innocuous (if you’re a US citizen) and of no more concern to your digital privacy than posting a Facebook update about what you had for lunch.

And who is telling the truth?

Well, that’s the thing, we just don’t know, but as in all these things, the truth is probably as far from either extreme as is mathematically possible.

What we do know is as follows:

1. US Law permits the NSA and FBI to obtain data about users from Internet companies whose networks are in the US. Information can be requested about individual users, groups and users and trends. For instance, if the NSA wants the personal details of any users who have used the phrase “bomb in my backpack”, they can legally obtain this from the likes of Google and Facebook.

2. To facilitate this (the transfer of data from the companies to the agencies), agencies like the NSA have hardware located on the premises of these companies. This was explicitly referred to in some of the documents leaked to the Washington Post and the Guardian.

3. Companies affected are legally prevented from disclosing the nature or existence of such systems (which is why they didn’t refer to the existence of such equipment in their statements about PRISM).

4. Companies like Google and Facebook, for whom privacy is a key selling point in the delivery of their services, are not required to allow any State agency connect directly to their servers. They are only required to provide data in accordance with specific legal requests, as indicated in their various responses to the PRISM story.

And that’s really about it.

What this paints a picture of is a permanent and sophisticated IT infrastructure that allows the likes of the NSA and FBI to quickly obtain specific data from private companies when those agencies have obtained legal permission to do so.

The payload of data, which is derived from parameters entered into the system, could include a large portion of information which is of no interest or value to those agencies (eg a picture of your cat), but it is gleaned none the less. Seemingly, only that information that is relevant to the particular investigation made by the agency is kept and used further.

What this doesn’t paint a picture of is a system which is sucking every single piece of data directly out of Facebook and storing it permanently in a State owned database which is then opened up to tax authorities, health insurance companies and private detective agencies.

So, is this something you should be worried about? Well, yes and no.

Yes, because it demonstrates yet again that the US citizens have no problem with their Government pushing the envelope on civil liberties to the absolute limit in terms protecting “National Security”; and no, because if you’re a regular, sane person, you’re not including highly sensitive personal information in Skype chats and Facebook status updates, let alone sharing plans for dirty bombs with your friends, and will therefore not be of any interest to anyone working for the NSA or FBI.

But isn’t there some sort of principle involved here, that should prevent the State looking into your inner most secrets, even if those secrets involve no more than pictures of your cat? Isn’t it the thin end of the wedge, that will ultimately result in CCTV in our living rooms?

Probably, yes, but these compromises arise all the time in our daily lives. A law enforcement officer can stop any motorist at any time and ask them to perform a breath test; you can be denied bail even if you have not been convicted of a crime; tax authorities can require you to  provide details of your income and assets.

All of these are infringements of civil liberties that we take for granted, partly because we recognise their value in preserving order in society, and partly because they have been around for a long time.

However, when it comes to the Internet, perspective seems to go out the window at even the slightest mention of State intrusion. The difference seems to be that the Internet is regarded as some sort of frontier territory which has been colonised by “good guy” activists and which the State now belatedly wants to control. The fact that the Internet is also a “hip” subject to offer your opinion on (unlike dead Pakistani peasants) and widely misunderstood in technical terms are also contributing factors.

And what of claims from EU leaders, that the NSA is infringing the rights of EU citizens by looking at their data?

There may be something in this, but how it can possibly be policed is beyond me. Are we going to have an EU-only Facebook, Google and Twitter, where nobody in the US can interact with anyone in the EU, and vice-versa, or is the EU Commission going to ban Google unless Google locates its entire data infrastructure (for the entire world) in the EU?

This would appear to be another case of politicians thinking that global data communication can be regulated in the same way as dog licenses.

Over the coming weeks, a lot more technical detail will probably emerge in relation to PRISM. The NSA will most likely review its use, and rebuild it in some other way, and the detail about the old system will lose its security value.

This will give us a better picture of what PRISM was/is capable of. It may be the case that Darth Vadar is in fact at the controls, but I’m guessing that probably isn’t true, so for now, just  follow the Golden Rule re. Internet Privacy and you’ll be fine:

Nothing on the Internet is private

Twitter goes all cheap on Apache

Are things really that bad in Twitter?

Are things really that bad in Twitter?

Back in April 2012, the Twitter Engineering Group released a blog post in which they announced that they were going to start sponsoring the Apache Software Foundation (ASF), the non-profit group that maintains the world’s most popular Open Source Web Server, Apache, as well as numerous other platforms which form a core part of Twitter’s IT operations.

The blog post makes such grand eloquent statements as:

“Sponsoring the ASF is not only the right thing to do, it will help us sustain our existing projects at the ASF by supporting the foundation’s infrastructure. We have a long history of contributing to Apache projects, including not only Mesos, but also Cassandra, Hadoop, Mahout, Pig and more. As Twitter grows, we look to further our commitment to the success of the ASF and other open source organizations.”

At the time of the announcement, Twitter didn’t specify what level of sponsorship they were going to provide, but given Twitter’s girth in the world of e-Commerce, most people would have presumed that a sizeable donation was in the offing, certainly in at least the Gold Tier of the sponsorship levels that the ASF provides for.

Not so it would seem. A quick glance at the ASF’s web page for current sponsors show the likes of Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google in the Platinum Tier, but no sign of Twitter.

To find Twitter, we have to scroll all the way down through the Gold and the Silver Tiers to the Bronze Tier, which signifies a donation of just $5,000 (!), where we finally find a reference to Twitter in amongst such Internet Star Destroyers as Two Sigma Investments and Digital Primates.


How many users does Twitter have again? Are things really that bad financially in the world’s largest micro-blogging website?