Lise opines: plant identification apps

Or: why I use iNaturalist.

I constantly see posts from my Facebook friends (and even in native plant communities) asking for recommendations on mobile apps to identify plants.

Inevitably someone will pop up with PictureThis, or Google Lens, or even Seek. But here’s why I use iNaturalist.org‘s mobile app.

Free

PictureThis is ad-supported if you don’t give them money. The premium version ranges in price from $30-$50/year, depending on plan.

The last thing I want when I’m in the woods is ads. And while I am willing to spend money for apps that are valuable to me, nothing I’ve seen has convinced me the IDs are any higher quality than what I can get for free with iNaturalist. It’s also more than I spend per year for, say, Zombies Run!, which IMHO gives a lot more content (hundreds, if not thousands, of adjustable length and intensity story-driven workouts).

Also, don’t quote me on this, but I would venture that PictureThis is taking an API and/or computer vision model that is available for free — potentially even the one collated by the California Academy of Sciences (see below) — and profiting off it.

I haven’t really played around with Google Lens, but I imagine it has the same problem as any Google product — if you’re not paying for it, then you are the product. Plus my experience with Google is that as soon as they decide they no longer want to develop a product, well, fuck you, even if it’s a product millions of people use. (Google Reader, I’m looking at you).

Scope of IDs

Look, you know me. If I could do nothing all day but touch plants, I’d be pretty happy.

But I also like spiders, and snakes, and mushrooms, and birds and mammals. I don’t call myself a real life druid for no reason; I observe any living thing that will stand still for long enough to get a picture of it.

(Also poop and dead things, too, because I’m classy like that).

On the other end of the scale, Google Lens will identify anything. But that has its limitations, too. It’s hard to get accurate predictions when your model includes every picture posted on the Google-curated internet. What happens when your plant happens to look like a snake — an example I came across recently? It’s not super helpful.

(In its defense have found it very useful for “hey I took a picture of this famous building in England and I have totally forgotten what it is, please help me, Architect Google!”)

Non-profit and mission-driven

Both Seek and iNaturalist meet the criteria above:

  • They’re truly free
  • They ID not just plants, but any form of life

But it’s more than that. Both are developed by the California Academy of Sciences, a non-profit organization with this mission:

The mission of the California Academy of Sciences is to regenerate the natural world through science, learning, and collaboration.

CalAcademy has a ton of different initiatives, but they are perhaps best known for their their computer vision algorithm tuned specifically to the natural world. That includes all kinds of life, from protists to blue whales!

Moreover, that model, like machine learning models everywhere, learns from user contribution. Those user observations are made available, for free, through the GBIF API, which is used by thousands of different organizations to conduct scientific research.

The way I look at it is: By using Seek or iNaturalist, you are contributing to the mission of regenerating the natural world.

Feels good, man.

Community science

So why choose iNaturalist over Seek? After all, the Seek app is definitely slicker of the two apps — it has gamification! By comparison, the iNat app looks clunky and buggy.

One big reason pertains to community/citizen science. When you observe something with Seek, it uses the CalAcademy CV model to identify your form of life, but it does not save that observation. You might learn from it — and certainly there’s value in that! — but you’re not helping the machine learning algorithm you know. Learn.

(For that matter, it’s debatable how much it helps you learn. I get a lot of value from going back through my old observations in iNat to remind myself where and when I observed something).

On top of that, Seek is pretty much just the CV model. Once you’ve made an ID, that’s it, you’re done. But on iNat, once you’ve made a preliminary ID, that’s where the fun begins.

See, once you’ve posted the observation, other people — real humans! — can come in and refine that ID. If you posted something that the CV could only ID to genus level, maybe some nice expert comes in and says, “hey you can tell X and Y species apart from the leaves; looks like X to me!”

When two other users confirm or refine your tentative ID to the species level, it is labeled “research grade.” Research grade observations are available in GBIF — helping science across the world! — and are used to train newer versions of the CV model.

And you are the expert! Know a lot about the trilliums of Massachusetts? Go identify trilliums! (That feature is website only currently. Alas). It’s yet another way you can use iNat to give back to citizen science.

Other nice to haves

  • Since iNat is community supported, you can use it to ID, say, birds by song. I’ve had a lot of luck recording birdsong in a voice memo, uploading it to iNat, tagging it as class Aves, and letting the birders have a go. Birders on iNat are an enthusiastic lot, and usually I’ll have an ID within minutes.
  • iNaturalist itself has an API (not the same as GBIF, I don’t think?) which allows you to write your own algorithm against iNat data. I’ve seen people use it to write nature quiz webapps; at one point in time I considered using it to answer the question of “how many taxa did I ID for the first time in 2020?”
  • As I mentioned earlier, iNat is a website first, and an app second. Maybe this is a con for you, I don’t know. But when I’m, you know, IDing trilliums of Massachusetts, it helps to see them on a big screen with a keyboard that allows me to write comments and use shortcuts.
  • Similar to what I mentioned above: Seek is video-based and real time; it does not save or import images to your photo app. iNaturalist can work on a live image, but most often I take the photos and ID them later.

Here’s a good comparison of the two apps.

Value to my life

This is unquantifiable, but in the early pandemic, iNaturalist saved my life. When I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, I went to the woods. I took pictures, and I participated in socially distanced bioblitzes, and identified hundreds of species. I didn’t stop using it after the pandemic, either. I’m now up to over a thousand observations across three countries and two continents.

(“What happens when you reach 1000 observations on iNat?” my friend Scott asked. I replied: “They send you a letter informing you that you’re legally a nerd”).

Could another app have done this? Maybe. But for me, it was iNat.


tl;dr: this is why I use iNaturalist, and donate $10/month to CalAcademy, even though I absolutely don’t need to.

Have I won you over? Go download the iNaturalist app for iOS or Android!

No one asked: Lise’s take on the OGL 1.1 kerfuffle

(Slightly edited from something I posted on Facebook)

For those of you (none of you) who were waiting on my hot take re: the OGL 1.1 kerfuffle, it’s a very boring, middle-of-the-road one. Merely a lukewarm take, if you will.

I am more concerned with the legal side of it than the financial one. It is unethical, if not illegal, to revoke a contract that was intended to be irrevocable. Given that this is the take of my friends who are lawyers, I sort of trust them in this.

(The fact that WotC’s defense is like “we were never gonna take away the rights of creators! This was a draft that was leaked!” when a) said contract had already been sent out to creators to sign, and b) the contract they sent out very specifically DID say they could use OGL content in any way they wanted… is disingenuous, at best).

OTOH, good points are made (by one of my current DMs, no less) that DNDBeyond is essentially a small company that was bought out by a larger one, and that by boycotting it, you are hurting the writers and developers more than you are WotC. This will always be the case in situations like this, unfortunately, because Capitalism™️. The same was said when Paizo workers were fighting to unionize, (and yes, Paizo has done some shitty things, too), or when Blizzard was staging a walkout. Generally my point of view is that it’s best to give support in the way that the workers themselves want support.

Unfortunately, the only DNDBeyond employee that I am aware of who has spoken out is the person who wrote to a bunch of TTRPG YouTubers telling them to boycott DNDBeyond, and I have heard it claimed that that letter is a fake. (Would love to see evidence either for or against — I don’t fully trust any YouTube talking head). But if you believe that letter is real, then I agree, you are perfectly in the right to cancel your DNDBeyond membership.

Have I canceled mine? No. My reason is simple — I have games in progress that depend on it, both as a player and a DM. (And uhh I happen to be writing the epic love story between a druid and a drow, based on a 5e adventure which I sometimes have to reference). Even if I were to do something like scrape the content of all the books I have access to in DNDBeyond before closing my account, I still no longer be able to use those books in what is probably one of the best character sheet generators out there.

And if I wanted to use them in, say, roll20– I say this with great dismay — the best VTT for playing 5e out there, I’d have to buy them again in the roll20 marketplace. Which also gives WotC money, if indirectly. (Or I could enter them in manually to any VTT like. If only I had that kind of time!)

(Foundry/Forge, OTOH, partners with Paizo, so all the rules are built right in and/or it’s easy to get them in there with a script. I haven’t set up a game myself, so I don’t know the details, though).

Which brings me to my next point, and the crux of the matter. D&D is the center of an ecosystem. It is the largest player in this ecosystem. It has financial, legal, social, technological, and nostalgia power. 5e is also a really good system for the type of game a lot of people want to play. Go to r/lfg (… a year ago, not today) and try finding a game that isn’t D&D. I did it, a year+ ago, when I found my ongoing Pathfinder game, and it was not easy.

There’s more. If you look to the newly TTRPG-curious, it’s probably because they watched CritRole or another popular D&D actual-play. (And yes, I know, they used to use PF1e, etc). It’s almost certainly not because they listened to Glass Cannon Podcast. Compare how many people played Baldur’s Gate III –which is still only in pre-release! — compared to Wrath of the Righteous or Kingmaker. Compare who knows about Faerun to what folks know about Golarion.

And here’s the thing. This kerfuffle is widening people’s view of that ecosystem. It is making them aware that there ARE other systems out there. That there are other VTTs, or actual-plays, or podcasts. That there are other ways of licensing Your Basic Fantasy RPG. (I am all-in on ORC, and I think it’s the best idea that’s come out of this mess).

I’ve always been aware of that; back when I played AD&D 2e with my high school friends, we also played Shadowrun and the Star Wars RPG and others that were lost to time (remember Aeon Trinity?) But we haven’t all been doing this for *cough* 25 years.

Most of the migration away from D&D has been towards Pathfinder, because they are the ones heading the ORC charge. r/Pathfinder2e has grown by THOUSANDS in the last week. It added 1,000 just on Thursday.

Paizo is, as my DM rightly pointed out, a big company, too. And Paizo has done some shitty stuff, as well — releasing an adventure about playing fantasy cops in July 2020 was more than a little tone-deaf. And certainly there were specific injustices that led the employees to unionize.

But on the whole, Paizo has taken a much stronger stance on diversity than WotC. There are no longer races; there are ancestries. The adventures contain many queer, non-cis, and non-white-coded NPCs — in fact the prototypical champion is a queer Black-coded woman. The mess with the aforementioned adventure — Agents of Edgewatch, the one I’m playing now — was followed up by an apology directly from CEO(?) Erik Mona and a reprinting of the adventure where non-lethal damage was the default and you also had the option to play as adventurers instead of cops. When Jewish folks objected to the language of “phylactery,” they changed it to “soul cage.”

People, and companies, are gonna fuck up on matters of DEI. It’s how they get back up that matters. And Paizo has consistently done a better job at that than WotC.

(Maybe it’s because they were born out of WotC fucking them over. I dunno).

While I have come to deeply enjoy playing in a Golarion, I still kind of hate the PF2e rules. And I think a lot of these D&D emigrés are going to find that Pathfinder (1e or 2e) is way too crunchy for them, too. But maybe they discover FATE, or Blades in the Dark, or Thirsty Sword Lesbians. Or, yes, Mork Borg (as my friend Alice would heckle me about 😂).

And I think that’s pretty special.

… on that note, there’s something to be said — and it’s not good — that the impetus for this migration away from D&D and to Pathfinder is licensing issues instead of, oh, you know, the continued racism in D&D products. While they’ve done some things in reparation here (like making drow less “elves in blackface”), let’s not forgot that back with Candlekeep Mysteries, they bowdlerized the work of a Black writer without his knowledge (or permission). Or that, more recently, one of the races presented in the brand-new Spelljammer book was a simian race that had some unfortunate tropes associated with.

The former event is about when I said “… maybe I should look into what Paizo is up to lately.” But apparently racism was okay for a lot of people, but licensing issues were a bridge too far? That kind of cheeses me off. Or at least, it cheeses me off that this is what was publicized — you can’t fail to hear about OGL-gate in geek spaces right now — and not the continual racefails.

So that’s where I am. Explore other systems, question shitty legal practices, maybe (or maybe not) cancel your DNDBeyond membership. I hate to be all “both sides,” because I do generally think WotC is in the wrong here. But I respect your opinions and decisions either way.

Five months of Pathfinding

(This started as a repost of a few bullet points about PF2e mechanics that I wrote on Facebook. Then it turned into a novel. Why am I like this?)

After I wrote my what I’m looking for in my next campaign post, I decided to apply to a Pathfinder 2e game that was advertising on /r/lfg. I was interested in giving PF2e a try, because I was getting mighty sick of Wizards of the Coast’s continual missteps on issues of inclusion and representation in D&D. I had heard that Paizo Games — the makers of Pathfinder, another fantasy RPG — were better in this regard.

I made some errors in judgment while lurking on /r/lfg, but joining this game was not one of them!

Wtf is Pathfinder, anyway?

For context, we need to go back to D&D 3.5e, and its Open Gaming License, which allowed other creators to piggyback on its rules system to build their own games. Many creators did this, and I had some experience with them — I played a lot of Crafty Games’ Spycraft and FantasyCraft, in particular.

Paizo Games, and Pathfinder 1e, came out of this. Originally the creators of Pathfinder were working directly with WotC, until WotC screwed them over in some way, so they went off and formed Paizo. (A fellow player provided this much better article as a detailed explanation).

“I’m going to go build my own games company! With kobold blackjack! And goblin hookers!”

The world of Golarion also came out of this — presumably because they could no longer use any of the brand-identifying D&D settings.

I never played PF1e, so I can’t say much about it. But from what I understand, it was incredibly similar to D&D 3.5 — so much so that people called it “D&D 3.75.”

Then came Pathfinder 2e in 2019 — arguably in response to the incredible popularity of D&D 5e. More importantly, PF2e refined many of the systems from PF1e, doing away with some of the more annoying aspects of D&D 3.5.

Given that, I initially expected a game that was more like D&D 5e. But PF2e is definitely its own unique system, and still feels more like 3.5 than it does 5.

The Campaign

I joined a game with a bunch of pretty woke players, playing Agents of Edgewatch, a pre-written Adventure Path designed to take your character from level 1 to 20.

This was not a neutral choice, it turned out, but it would turn into a good example of Paizo’s relatively strong voice for DEI in the games industry.

In AoE, you play fantasy guards at a fantasy world’s fair. I suspect Paizo was going for a buddy cop movie/Brooklyn 99/Discworld Guards sorta feel, but the book had the misfortune of being released in July 2020.

… you know, the month George Floyd was murdered and protests against police violence erupted across the U.S.

That definitely gave me pause, but this was the first test, for me, of how Paizo would handle such an issue. In this regard, I was generally pleased. Apparently the publisher, Erik Mona, issued a public apology for the insensitivity that implied, and options were added to play as adventurers looking for work, or to make all damage non-lethal without the usual mechanical penalty.

(Btw, I came to all this after the fact — Paizo/Pathfinder wasn’t really on my radar in 2020. But this was on my mind as the group deliberated what to play, and this is what I learned as I investigated).

My group chose this adventure rather than the other AP that was offered, Extinction Curse. I can’t speak to how my fellow players made their decision, but mine was informed by my Pathfinder-playing friends, who judged it as the better written of the two APs. Forging forward with that decision, we opted for the “assume non-lethal damage” option, but we still decided to go with the fantasy cop angle.

So far I don’t feel like anyone’s abused it, although I am still bothered by the fact that — since you’re not exactly dungeon-delving in this game — all your cool stuff comes, basically, from civil asset forfeiture. That’s definitely kinda YIKES in my book. But when you’re taking stuff from a half-elf you find up to his elbows in flayed humanoid skin, it feels a lot less awful.

(We still feel bad about accidentally killing Rusty the Rust Monster, though).

Currently we are level 4, and have just defeated the villain of book 1.

My character

I’d wanting to play a paladin in D&D for a long time. In Out of the Abyss, I watched my fellow player Justin have a helluva good time with his dragonborn Oath of Devotion paladin Gaulir. I found myself saying, “Yeah I want to smite things, too!”

Also, you may recall I’m a big fan of this fic, where the original female main character is a paladin of Kelemvor (a newer god of death who arose out of the Time of Troubles) who once served Torm (god of duty, loyalty, righteousness, and law).

The PF2e equivalent of a paladin is champion. (“Paladin” is specifically the lawful good subclass of champion). Additionally, in PF2e, what god you are a champion of is actually important — in 5e it feels more like flavor text. So I knew what god I picked to be a champion of was really going to matter.

The (very) rough equivalents of Kelemvor and Torm in the world of Golarion are Pharasma and Iomedae, both goddesses. I decided my character — who I named Kivran — was going to be a redeemer (NG) champion of Iomedae, who was beginning to have doubts about the righteousness of her path. She had looked at how the divine right of kings was used as a bludgeon against the less fortunate, and begun to ask herself, “What is honorable in the face of suffering and death?”

Mechanically speaking, I ended up taking the Godless Graycloak background which… might not have been the best choice? It’s literally the atheist/non-religious faction of the Absalom guard. But I saw it as reactionary to corruption Kivran saw in the temple of Iomedae.

To summarize: she had lost faith in the clergy of Iomedae, but not the goddess herself.

I also gave her a family history where she was an only child, and her mother was an adventurer and a paladin of Iomedae. Thus she had been raised with the expectation that she would become a champion of Iomedae, too, and felt some pressure to join the temple before she was 100% ready.

I saw her trajectory as a character as moving from being a champion of Iomedae to a champion of Pharasma, but it turns out mechanically speaking, that’s kinda hard to do in PF2e!

One of my fellow players pointed out that I could use the Splinter Faith class feat to do this, but a) it doesn’t seem that mechanically useful; it just gives you access to a different set of focus spells, which are super limited, anyway. Point B) there’s actually not that much of a splinter between Pharasma and Iomedae. As my GM put it:

Iomedae: be valorious! do good! smite evil!
pharasma: oh, and to undead, too!
iomedae: yeah, what she said!

That said, the GM has been very accommodating, playing up or modifying aspects of the adventure to show Kivran’s growing interest in Pharasma and sorrow for the fate of those who become undead; he even wrote up a ritual of rest that Kivran has taken to using after destroying any undead. I also took the Shining Oath feat at level 3 to further expand this angle of her character.

L0ng story story, I’m still figuring out how to express this inner tension mechanically. My current leaning is to pick up the cleric archetype for Pharasma, but we’ll see.

Anyway, this is the random piece of fantasy art I picked to represent Kivran. Turns out the options when you search “female paladin fantasy art” are kind of awful.

One of the few that didn’t involve chainmail bikinis, mesh shirts, or high heels.

Kivran is a human of Taldan heritage, so I needed to pick an appropriate last name for her, too. It seems like a lot of the Taldan names are Latinate in nature, so of course the first thing that came to mind for me was the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla, possibly because I’ve listened to a lot of Hardcore History.

Hence: Kivran Sulla, native of Absalom, only child of two adventurers, troubled champion of Iomedae, former Graycloak, newly a devotee of Pharasma.

… also, thanks to a combination of factors, the party’s mom. (Glimpse of Redemption reaction, an undercover operation where I had to pretend to be the druid’s mom, said druid yelling “Moooooooom!” whenever she took crit damage and wanted me to use said reaction, and dubbing of said ability as Mom Glare).

The rest of the party

We started out as a group of four, but one player stepped away after a couple of months, and two more players joined — including my husband Matt.

The other two original characters were:

  • Nathraak, human wizard from the bad part of town (the Puddles). He has a history where he got arrested for practicing unlicensed medicine, which got him interested in law, which eventually led to him becoming part of the guard corps for the Puddles. (And, eventually, the Edgewatch). One thing I think is super interesting about Nath, mechanically, is that he really doesn’t cast a lot of spells. He seems to be built to do two things: counter spells, and heal with the Medicine skill rather than magic. Occasionally he also yeets his staff.
  • Shep, the leshy druid, and her bear companion Berry. She likes to remind us that the Starstone Isle is not entirely the city of Absalom and does in fact have wilderness. She also pretends to be offended by jokes about leshy, casts Electric Arc a lot, and once disguised herself as a human child and pretended to be Kivran and Nath’s kid.

About a month ago we were joined by:

  • Jabi, kobold alchemist, who we met when undercover in a sketchy club. Very nervous and generally high on some kind of mutagen. He also comes with his pal Rope Snake, who I’m still not sure is a real snake or some kind of construct.
  • Lucio Merenas, another Taldan human and swashbuckler from a family down on its luck. This is Matt’s character.

    (I feel kind of bad for Matt, because he joined the campaign right before we fought two big bad humanoid enemies. Thus the story of his game thus far has been failing to Tumble Through the squares of enemies with ridiculously high save DCs. I think he’s still having fun? But that’s at least part the awesomeness of the group itself).

I like the style of play in this group. It scratches my itch for both roleplay and tactical combat, for sure. It’s also a good level of seriousness for me — people clearly care about the adventure and their role in it, and they’re minimally distracted during game (I’m probably the worst about distraction, especially since it’s Thursday night right around when my ADHD meds start to wear off…) But no one is playing an edgelord character, either, and we often fill Discord with memes and gifs OOC.

On the whole, I feel like I got what I was looking for in my original post!

The party, lined up for photos at the end of last session. Things got rough.

And finally, what I came here to say…

Mechanically, I have some Thoughts about how this plays as an RPG system, having played for a few months now:

  • Most important: I’m having a lot of fun.
  • It is WAY crunchier a system than I was expecting. There’s a reason they call it Mathfinder.
  • At the same time, that crunchiness brings a lot of options, allowing you to build the sorts of characters that would be impossible in 5e.
  • Yes, yes, rules-light systems exist, but sometimes what you want is to roll high numbers and feel like a fantasy badass.
  • That said, you don’t roll a lot of high numbers at lower levels, it seems. It’s hard to feel effective when you’re level 4 and you absolutely cannot hit a target to save your life.
  • You do feel pretty badass, though, when Shield Block saves you from eating an owlbear’s crit at level 1.
  • That’s another thing — you really feel like a whole character starting at level 1. One of my least favorite things about 5e is that you don’t really gain class identity until you pick your subclass, which for quite a few isn’t until level 3. In PF, you get it right at level 1. It wasn’t like Kivran had to do a rotation to decide what sort of champion she wanted to be.
  • PF2e has moved on a lot from its origins in D&D3.5, but one thing that remains: you have to min-max to some extent or you will have a bad time.
  • … why yes, I AM still traumatized by memories of the miserable 3.5 campaign I was in, where I spent most of my time stuck in melee range as a half-orc archery ranger constantly failing Will saves.
  • Luckily, I do enjoy min-maxing to some degree, and more importantly I know a fair number of people — both in my game and out — who are happy to provide guidance. Also this PF2e champion class guide helps.
  • I feel like the classes are pretty well balanced, at least across a representative sample of enemies. There are definitely fights where I feel more effective than others — and I’m sure, given their relative strengths and weaknesses, Nath and Matt feel the same way — but I also don’t look at the druid or wizard and be like, “okay, I will never be that effective.” CoDzilla, it is not.
  • Everything is a feat. And you get a LOT of them — even without variant rules, you get something like 11 class feats alone by the time you get to level 20. (Not counting skill feats, general feats, archetype feats, etc). I had to create my own cheatsheet just to keep track at a high level of everything my feats allow me to do. And this is level 4 — I imagine it will only get worse as we get higher level.
  • Each feat alone is generally a pretty small or niche benefit. It feels weird to take a feet that, say makes you better at climbing, but when you get so many of them…
  • Feats build on each other and combine in interesting ways.
  • There seem to be fewer feats that are outright traps in PF2e compared to 3.5. (Although one could argue that the Group feats are, at least in this campaign, where our GM never bothers with the rule that Diplomacy/Intimidate/etc can only be used against one target at a time. Why yes I’m still annoyed I spent points on Group Impression).
  • This is a system where it REALLY helps to plan out your character to level 20 in advance, since there is a lot of “how many class feats will I have by X level, and how does that affect what feats I take now, or what prerequisite feats I take?”
  • Relatedly, my kingdom for the free archetype variant rule to be included in the web version of Pathbuilder!
  • I like the three-action system a lot; it gives a lot of flexibility that you just didn’t have with 3.5’s “move and two actions and also you get a five-foot-step” system. I can move twice and raise my shield! I can attack three times!(admittedly with an increasing penalty after the first attack)
  • While ranged attacks in melee range still provoke attacks of opportunity (*shudder* *flashes back*) I enjoy that attacks of opportunity aren’t something anybody can do. Generally only fighter or champion PCs can get them, and in monsters, you can usually guess by what sort of creature it is.
  • For all that it is a crunchy system, combat doesn’t bog down or interfere with RP the way I remember it doing in 3.5. Maybe it’s the campaign level; maybe it’s that my fellow players seem to actually, yanno, plan out what they’re going to do when it’s not their turn. Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how it works out at higher levels, when we all have more feats.

In conclusion

This has been a really long way of saying:

I’m liking Pathfinder. It’s different, but in good ways. I really like my character and I feel invested in her success. I like my fellow players and I like the style of play. I like options that aren’t continuing to give Wizards of the Coast money as they continue to do shitty things.

I still wish Pathbuilder worked for me, though.

That’s all, folks! Tell me about your own Pathfinder experiences, and revel in telling me where I’m wrong.

Treat your sleep apnea, yo, for your health and my sanity

I made a joking post on Facebook a while back about sleep apnea:

Ah yes, larps. Where you learn how many people you know probably have untreated sleep apnea.

The context was that I was larping in the woods, awake at 3am, listening to someone in the next cabin gasping for breath in between thunderous snoring. This is not a new phenomenon at larps; indeed, in the bathroom the next morning, I heard several people complaining about the snoring of their cabin mates. (We even came up for an in-character term for it: “nose thunder”).

I may have been joking there, but ultimately sleep apnea is no joke. And I wanted to elaborate a little more on this, since I realized many of you don’t know me well enough to know that I too, have sleep apnea. It has made me a bit of an evangelist about the condition. I hate to see people suffering when there is a solution out there.

My history with sleep apnea

In 2009 I got diagnosed with moderate sleep apnea. I had spent the three previous years — maybe more — never feeling rested. I had serious problems staying awake at the wheel; on my commute to work, I would continually punch myself in the leg just to stay conscious. I could sleep anywhere — unfortunately, that included boring client meetings at my job. (I eventually lost that job, and that was partially why). On my rare free days, it was hard to motivate myself to do anything, and I would inevitably need a three-hour nap in the middle of the day.

I got a CPAP machine fairly quickly after my diagnosis. A CPAP applies “continuous positive airway pressure,” i.e. it fits over your nose and delivers constant air flow to keep your airway from collapsing when you sleep. It’s basically the gold standard for sleep apnea treatment; there are also surgeries, but none of them are very effective. If this sounds really annoying, well, at first, yes, it can be. But I adapted to it very quickly, perhaps because at that point I could sleep through anything 😉

After two or three nights, I wasn’t exactly convinced it was doing anything. My daytime sleepiness lingered for a while. It wasn’t until I was at a larp event a month later — and I wasn’t falling asleep on any horizontal surface — that I realized it was working.

If you snore — especially if people tell you you stop breathing — please, please, please get a sleep study. If you have unexplained daytime sleepiness, even if no one tells you you snore, please get checked.

Some of the objections and questions I hear about sleep apnea and CPAP therapy, and my answers (keeping in mind that I am not a doctor):

“But I don’t fit the profile for sleep apnea.”

Neither did I, according to the PCP who wrote my referral for a sleep study. While I was overweight at the time, I wasn’t significantly so, and heck, I didn’t even think I snored. I got checked anyway, and so should you. Even if you don’t have obstructive sleep apnea, there’s also central apnea — where your brain just stops telling your body to breathe in your sleep — which can also be treated.

“I’ve just started using a CPAP/I use it intermittently, and I don’t notice any difference.”

The thing about sleep apnea is it’s insidious. You won’t notice 1, 2, or even 3 nights of low-level sleep deprivation. But you sure as hell notice months and years of it.

And your health will, too. Spending a third of your life gasping for breath takes its toll on the body: it raises blood pressure, increases risk of stroke, and probably other stuff we haven’t even discovered yet.

“How the heck am I supposed to get used to having air shoved down my throat all night?”

It’s amazing what the human body can get used to, really. If it helps, most CPAP machines have a “ramp” function, where they start at low pressure and gradually ramp up to their full pressure over a time you set.

Additionally, durable medical equipment companies (DMEs) have really been working on the problem of making these things comfortable. There are masks that touch as little skin as possible, humidifiers, preheat functionality, leak testing, and all kinds of conveniences.

It’s all small and portable too, so you can take it with you while larping, assuming the site has power. Heck, you can even by cozies for your CPAP hose so that they look less medical. (Or, in my case, so that my cats would stop chewing on the delectable plastic).

All I have to say about this is: if my mother — in her 60s, with chronic health problems, and sensitive to anything touching her skin while she sleeps — can get used to a CPAP machine, then you can too.

“Isn’t the sound of the machine just as annoying to my bedmate as snoring?”

Not even a little. Modern CPAPs are almost silent when the mask is fitted to the face. (If the mask slips loose, you will hear a “whooshing” noise, though). It’s white noise at worst.

“But what do you do when you have no power?”

That is a problem. Depends for how long, I suppose. I can go without for a couple of nights, but my sleep apnea, as I said, is only moderate, and mostly harmful in the long term. Luckily most larp sites these days DO have power, and CPAP machines are actually a very low draw, which is a concern at some sites I’m at.

There are also DC power solutions for CPAP, to allow you to hook up to some kind of battery, though I admit I haven’t experimented with them. (They look super pricey!)

“It’s expensive!”

Without insurance, oh, definitely. Most insurances, however, will cover this stuff pretty extensively, because it’s cheaper to treat sleep apnea than it is to treat the respiratory and circulatory issues this will eventually cause.

Again, I use the example of my mother — as a self-employed person with chronic conditions, she is still able to get her paltry insurance to cover her CPAP equipment and supplies.

That said, I realize that CPAP therapy is still not accessible to all. If you can’t manage the expense of the diagnosis or treatment, one of the best self-treatments is sleeping on your side. There’s even the “tennis ball technique” to prevent back-sleeping.

“All these people getting diagnosed with sleep apnea is just a scam by doctors/medical equipment companies/insurance to sell people equipment they don’t need!”

Yes, I have really heard this. What I will say is that given the expense of doing a sleep study — which is basically an EEG plus a bunch of other monitoring while you sleep — I guarantee you no one is making a fortune on selling you CPAP units afterward.

If anyone is making any real money off this, it’s the insurance companies, and they aren’t keen on sharing it with the doctors and the DME.

But hey, that’s the fucked up American healthcare system! Either way, your suffering isn’t going to stick it to The Man.

“Speaking of sleep studies… I can’t sleep in hospitals. Especially when there’s a bunch of stuff glued to my head.”

Sleep studies aren’t exactly super fun times, but they’re still way better than most medical procedures. I found the worst part to be trying to sleep on the schedule it enforces, which has you going to bed at 9pm, and then being kicked out of the hospital (not literally) at like 5am.

But the staff will do everything to make you comfortable — I remember mine bringing me ginger ale and asking me if there was a TV show I wanted to put on. And yeah, it took me a long time to fall asleep, but once I did they got the data they needed, which is what mattered.

(Generally they’ll do half the night just observing, and then if they see apneas they will hook you up to a CPAP to get your titration numbers, i.e. how much pressure you need. This is so you don’t have to come back for a second sleep study).

My mother told me horror stories about a sleep study where it took an hour to hook her up to the equipment. It… did not take me that long. They had it all hooked up in about fifteen minutes.

You do have to wash conductive goo out of your hair afterwards. No big deal.

Oh hey, and I’m told that in some places, you can do a sleep study at home. Like the hospital gives you a kit to hook yourself up, and then you send the data back to them the next day. That’s pretty neat, if that’s an option for you!

“I don’t want another medical condition to manage.”

If this applies to you, you probably already have a medical condition. You’re just not managing it.

Management, incidentally, is super low intensity. I have an appointment with a pulmonologist once a year (every six months for the first year), and every few months my DME calls me and says “hey do you want new supplies?” The biggest challenge I ever had was when I tried to get an auto-titrating machine two years after getting my first machine, and that was quickly resolved when they saw my compliance data. (Which lives on an SD card that you stick in the back of your machine. Some machines can send it directly to the DME/doctors, too).

In conclusion

Take care of your health, and the sanity of your fellow larpers. Please get checked ASAP if you think any of this applies to you.

If you have any questions about my experience with sleep apnea — especially as a larper with sleep apnea! — please feel free to drop a comment!

Photo credit: Jordan Whitt on Unsplash.