The importance of home

It is truly important to have a place you call home, a place where you feel at home. It roots you, it provides you with a sense of belonging, it contributes to your mental health and it goes a long way toward making your life longer and healthier. The more time I spend in our home and the more effort I put forth making it our home, the more I get out of it: peace, relaxation, belonging. You could almost call it a symbiotic relationship where the house will take care of you if you take care of it. I hope you get to experience this in your own lives. There are more things I talk about in the video, so please watch and enjoy!

The toy train II

Back in 2009, I made a little video called “The toy train” and published it to YouTube. As 2017 turned into 2018, that video was seen more than 25,000,000 times. Almost ten years later, I made a follow-up video that can see it here or on YouTube.

The tracks were set up for my daughter, who loves playing with trains. It’s Thomas the Tank Engine and Sir Handel, running on two track sets, Elsbridge Station and Runaway Boulder. The various toys used to decorate the set belong to her.

If you were to put yourself in my shoes, you’d have an interesting perspective on the phenomenon that can be loosely called “children’s videos on YouTube”. When I posted my original toy train video, there was no such thing. I simply made a fun little video that I liked and that I thought children might like. I was thinking forward to the time when I might have a child of my own.

It’s now 2018 and the demand for children’s videos has exploded around me. Some of the big YT channels aimed at children get views that number in the billions and revenues that are in the very healthy millions (see this article). There are even YT channels that don’t even bother to make real videos; instead they use computer algorithms to mash together video clips and audio clips in order to create somewhat watchable gibberish, in the hope of racking up views and revenues (see this article). That’s disturbing. Children need simple, logical storylines to their videos, their young minds are thoroughly confused by computer-generated gibberish.

Rest assured my videos are real and they’re made by me. Enjoy!

Coming to terms with the complexity of life and the fear of death

I thought I’d write a lighthearted, cheery post, sort of a gift that keeps on giving throughout the year ahead, so naturally, I wrote (and made a video) about how complicated life is and how we’re all afraid of dying, but we shouldn’t be, because zombies and vampires… Wait, what?!

“We trouble our life by thoughts about death, and our death by thoughts about life.” ― Michel de Montaigne

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much… The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” ― Seneca

“You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action – that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one.” ― Plato

Here’s (more or less) what I talked about in the video.

Whatever your beliefs about life after death, one thing is for certain: this life you’re living now will end within the span of a few decades. That’s pretty short and it’s no wonder we have a hard time dealing with that notion.

I’d like to submit to you that one way we grapple with death is through the introduction of death-less characters into popular culture. Nowadays, those characters are vampires and zombies. We call both of them undead and we’ve made up all sorts of fiction to explain their existence and ways they survive this event that scares us so much. And yet, neither character is something we’d choose rationally, if we were faced with that choice. Both vampires and zombies must continually kill in order to survive and in that sense, they’re terribly selfish: they sacrifice the lives of many innocent others in order to preserve themselves. In escaping death, they force it upon others. And zombies, those putrescent, barely alive corpses, are never first on anyone’s list of ways to prolong existence.

Both these characters though, are ways in which we’re not only dealing with the question of death, but with the question of life. Both offer simplified ways to view and treat an existence which many of us find to be complicated and stressful. Zombies are the perfect example. Instead of dealing with life’s mind-numbing complexity and options, upon becoming a zombie, you have only one option: eat brains. That’s it. No more jobs, bills, taxes, children, etc. Vampires are a bit more complicated and I think that is because they were invented earlier, in the 19th century, whereas zombies, as a manifestation of popular culture, only appeared midway through the 20th century. The more complicated real life will be, the more simplistic the escapism tends to be.

If we’re to stack these deathless characters by level of complexity against others invented throughout history, we find them on the lower rungs of life. If we step back in time, we find that people invented many deathless gods, most of which led far more interesting and complex lives than the humans who believed in them. But as life started to move faster and became more complex and harder to deal with, as we experienced world wars that terrified and scarred entire continents, we began to look for simpler characters and the unfortunate “best” we came up with were blood-sucking parasites that slept in coffins and blabbering, putrid corpses that dragged their rancid meat through cities and the countryside looking for brains. It’s quite sad really, to see where we’ve arrived.

I for one miss the more lofty deathless characters of old, gods who lived interesting, full lives, were articulate, powerful, higher and better than man (though sometimes just as petty and vindictive) and gave us something to look up to. Now we’ve got coffin-sleepers and tomb-climbers… It makes for good escapism through books, TV shows and movies but it does not make for a good alternative to death, nor does it ultimately help us deal with the complexity of life. Instead, we end up terrifying ourselves even more with the various “end of days” scenarios that are fed to us when we watch or read about these characters.

There’s no easy solution to this. Life is only getting faster and more complex. At least it seems that way, because we haven’t yet learned to filter all that is coming our way, and we haven’t learned to only deal with things that are of immediate concern to us. That’s what people did 100 years or more before our time. They didn’t have access to all that we have now. We should do the same. Just because we can have access to something, it doesn’t mean we should introduce it into our lives. We need to turn off the TV more often, put our phones away and spend more time with our selves, getting to know who we are, developing the skills that we deem valuable, exploring nature, sitting in silence. This won’t take us all the way, but it’ll put us in a much better place so we can deal with life. As long as we continue to be terrified by its complexity and by its quickly-approaching end, we’ll continue to look for quick fixes that are sorely inadequate and unrealistic, grotesque versions of ourselves that end up inflicting yet more of the pain and suffering that’s been scaring us but (in theory) take us out of the routine of daily living and offer us a simpler way to see our existence.

Excessive bass is the bane of modern music

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In much the same way that too much sugar will give you diabetes and too many calories will make you fat, bass-boosted music ends up being a hollow, crappy experience that will make you deaf and piss off your neighbors. And hopefully, it will also bring you lots of fines for noise violations, fines which you will thoroughly deserve.

Manufacturers are sticking more bass into everything with speakers these days. Singers and studios are busy boosting the bass on their songs too — hey, it doesn’t matter if your song is tired and it recycles the same rhythms and loops used by every talented music creator in the past… just stick a few reverse beats in there (they freshen up the whole mess) and turn up the bass! Bass bosted songs are all over the internet, much like pigeon poop is all over rooftops and statues in busy cities. You’ll find tons of these “improved” songs and you’ll also find tons of tutorials on the subject. So in that sense, this article is going against the grain. I’m aware of it. But I’m sure I’m going to be made aware of it repeatedly by some of you.

The problem is made worse by the people listening to these cacophonies. It’s the wrong type of people, isn’t it? It’s the screw-ups, the ones who don’t amount to much in life, the ones with no regard for those around them. The idiot son of the neighbors a couple of houses away, the one who can’t hold down a job and mooches off his parents, he’s got speakers with lots of bass and he plays them loudly. The no-good neighbors who practically live off social aid and whose idea of a good time is grilling pork in the yard, getting drunk and listening to loud music, they’ve got speakers with lots of bass and they love their bass boosted songs. Any dumbass, jackass or just plain ass who buys a car nowadays and drives it with the stereo turned up and the windows down, they’ve got speakers with lots of bass and they’re sure to let you know. They want everyone to know! Heck, they’ll also stick a subwoofer in the trunk, to ensure the whole bodywork rattles with every shitty bass beat.

Even the partially deaf and elderly neighbors who just bought a new TV, they’ve got speakers with lots of bass, even though they didn’t ask for them when they bought their TV.

The problem is two-fold:

  1. Adding anything extra to the music as it was recorded and as it’s meant to be played ruins the music, the inherent goodness of the song (well, if the song is any good at all, anyway). Mind you, I’m not talking about sprinkling a little salt on the soup! Boosting the bass on a song, both in the studio and on a stereo is the equivalent of heaping shovel-fulls of salt onto the soup. Let’s face it, if all a song has going for it is the boosted bass, then it’s a crappy song.
  2. Excessive bass angers everyone around you, no matter how low the volume on your bass-bosted stereo is kept. The bass sounds travel through anything, and that’s all that your neighbors will hear.

A great speaker is supposed to reproduce sound just as it was recorded, with all of its frequencies, not just the low ones that are collectively called “bass”. A good speaker comes fairly close to it. An idiotic speaker made for dimwits will have thumping bass sounds and little else. Even if you listen to an idiotic speaker at low volume, it’ll still transmit the bass sounds through walls, disturbing everyone around you, because all they’ll hear is the thump-thump-thump noise, the beat, without any of the accompanying sounds. Even if the song is great, it’ll still sound like shit as the beats pound the neighbors’ brains, boom-boom-boom, until they get a migraine.

The situation is made worse by the compressed music of today, sold mostly as MP3 and AAC files, which cannot reproduce all of the frequencies of the sounds that were recorded in the studio. It muddles them with the compression algorithm. So the producers rely more heavily than necessary on bass and beats in order to make the songs catchier. I realize this is an oversimplification, but it is true.

I would like excessive bass to be outlawed, just as excessive noise is currently outlawed. I’m not kidding. I realize I’m going completely against the grain here, but this has become a constant nuisance and these people who go on abusing our ears and our laws are everywhere. I’d like you to begin to notice them as you walk through a city and you’ll soon realize there’s a constant cacophony of bass beats that pollutes our lives, whether we’re indoors or outdoors, whether we’re awake or trying to sleep. If it’s not the neighbors playing music or watching a movie, it’s some douche driving down the street with the music turned up in his car; even if he’s got the windows up, the bass beats travel through the body of his car, across the street, through the walls of your house and into your brain. Why do we tolerate this nonsense?

To me, this thing is akin to a deranged hobo who throws poop at people as he wanders the streets. Bass beats may not be made of physical poop, but they’ll stink up your life and leave a mess behind. You may not need to wash them off, but even if you wanted to, you couldn’t. As the years go by, you’ll be able to see those same crappy beats as furrows on your forehead, as white hairs on the temple of your head.

Civilized cities already have very good noise regulations in place but they do not address excessive bass. In Europe, noisy cars aren’t even allowed to enter certain city centers, which I think is a wonderful thing. And yet no one directly addresses the problem of excessive bass. I don’t think the measures to be put in place should be complicated. Let’s not have to measure the decibels or the frequency of the sounds. The measure to be used should be as simple as possible. Is the sound traveling through the wall or the window of the house? Can it be heard on the street, or by the neighbors? Then it’s too loud. In the case of cars, is the sound of their stereos coming through the car’s body? Can it be heard on the street, even if the windows are up? Then it’s too loud.

Let us start to penalize excessive bass with excessive fines. The manufacturers, the studios and the people listening to music will follow suit, unless they enjoy paying hefty, wallet-burning fines.

More thoughts on computer piracy in Romania

In 2009, I wrote a post entitled “Is it any wonder there’s computer piracy in Romania“. In 2011, after a couple more years in the country, I wrote another post entitled “Rampant piracy in Romania“. The end of 2017 is practically here, I’ve been in the country for nine years and I can now say that my view on the subject has gotten more nuanced. I’ll explain.

Yes, computer piracy is rampant in Romania. When most Romanians think of “getting” a movie, TV show or a popular album, they don’t mean “buy it” online, they mean “get the torrent” for it. Judging by this, the situation isn’t good. And yet it’s not as simple as that.

It’s easy for an expat from the US to look at this in a binary way, but as I’ve lived in the country all these years and have had to conduct business here, I’ve encountered all sorts of barriers that are still in place and do not make it easy for Romanians to go the legal route when acquiring media.

Did you know that when you switch your credit card in iTunes from an American credit card to a Romanian bank card, there are no more movies and TV shows for you to purchase or rent? That’s right, those sections of the iTunes store disappear altogether. You still have music, so I suppose that’s something, but to think that Apple still hasn’t worked out the logistics of providing movies and TV shows to their Romanian customers after all these years is ridiculous.

Even more ridiculous, did you know that already purchased TV shows and movies, ones purchased in the US, also disappear from iTunes when you switch to Romania? So if you haven’t downloaded them to your computer, they’re gone.

Oh, but you have downloaded them? Good, then even though you can’t access them from your Apple TV anymore, you can still open them in Quicktime and Airplay them to your Apple TV, right? Wrong. Can’t do that anymore. The Airplay button doesn’t show up anymore. You can still copy them back into iTunes and from there (and only from there) Airplay them to your Apple TV.

Also bonkers is the fact that the software purchased from the App Store with a US credit card can no longer be upgraded or downloaded once you’ve switched to a Romanian bank card. First you’ll get a message saying that you’ll be switched to the Romanian Store.

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Then you’ll get a message saying the software isn’t available for download anymore.

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You can go through the song and dance of signing out, signing back in, deauthorizing and reauthorizing your devices, but you still won’t be able to download your software until you switch back to a US credit card.

At this point you’re probably saying, “This is all fine and good Raoul, but these last few things you’re talking about seem to apply only to expats. Boo-hoo for you, but what about the general Romanian population?” Well, they still can’t buy movies and TV shows from the iTunes Store, remember?

Now, some of you may know that three online streaming services have launched in Romania in 2017: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Go. This is a great step in the right direction, but it comes with its own set of problems.

The Romanian versions of these services have nowhere near the number of titles available in the US. You get somewhere around 50% of the titles (maybe 60-70%), for about the same price that you pay in the US. You have to keep in mind the average monthly wage in Romania is about $485 (see this), while in the US the average monthly wage is $3396 (see this). That’s a huge difference, and yet Romanians are expected to pay the same prices as the Americans. That sort of ridiculous expectation is found across the board in Romania, for all sorts of products that people need and use.

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Netflix Romania costs me 9.99 Euros a month for HD streaming. There’s also another plan that costs 11.99 Euros a month if you want Ultra HD. And yet the amount of titles available to me are roughly half of those available in the US. I know, because I was able to enjoy the US titles for a number of years after moving to Romania, before Netflix decided to close that access. Now it won’t even work via VPN and I’m stuck having to use their Romanian offering. So in essence, I’m paying double what I’d be paying in the US and most of the stuff I want to watch isn’t available to me. What a great deal they’ve worked out for Romanians, right?

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HBO Go Romania costs half of what Netflix charges, 19,99 lei a month (that’s 4.29 Euros) but once again, they don’t list all of the titles available in the US. I was able to browse through only a few hundred on their site, while the US site says they have more than 4000 titles. Plus, their service doesn’t work on my Apple TV. It also doesn’t work on my iMac. I get a strange error message when I attempt to play most titles on their website: “failed to load license”. When I contacted their tech support, they told me HBO Go Romania isn’t supported on Apple TVs. It also does not work on my iPad or my iPhone, so I can’t connect them directly to my TV either. (It works just fine on these devices in the US, but when you open these apps in Romania, you get an error saying the service is unavailable.) I was advised to use a browser other than Safari, which once again means I can’t Airplay titles to my Apple TV and am stuck watching them at my desk, which I’m not interested in doing. They suggested I try to Chromecast to my Apple TV. Sure… I’m going to fiddle with workarounds because you couldn’t be bothered to do a proper product launch in Romania…

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Amazon Prime Video costs 2.99 Euros a month for the first six months and 5.99 Euros a month after that. It’s the most affordable streaming service and it’s got several shows I like to watch. But once again, they don’t list all of the titles available in the US. However, it works perfectly on my Apple TV and on my computer, so out of the three, I’m happiest with it.

One way both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video (but mostly Netflix) thought they’d make up for the scarcity of titles in their Romanian offering was to scatter their catalogs with Bollywood movies. Because obviously Romanians like watching Bollywood movies. We’re right next to India and historically speaking, our cultures are pretty much identical… WTH, Netflix and Amazon? We’re in Europe! There are a ton of English, French, Italian and German titles you could have added to your services but you give us Bollywood? And oh, let’s not forget Turkish shows… Because there aren’t enough of them on Romanian TV, and because Romanians just love to watch TV programming from a nation that has invaded them over and over and over, has abducted their children to be used as indentured servants and soldiers, raped their women, pillaged their towns and villages, and installed their own puppet regimes to suck most of the wealth out of the country. This wasn’t too long ago, mind you. Romania gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the war of 1877-78 (see this) after hundreds of years of occupation, and they also had to fight them again in WWI.

Let’s look at retail stores now, online or brick and mortar. Say you want to go and buy a movie on Blu-Ray, so you can see it at a proper 1080p resolution. Most of the titles you’ll find in stores are on DVD (that’s 480p resolution) and they cost between 30-50 lei. Who the heck would want to buy DVDs anymore? You can’t even buy a non-HD TV anymore. The cheapest ones you’ll find are at least 720p, so who would buy a 480p movie?

Do you begin to see why piracy is still rampant in Romania? The fastest and easiest way to get an HD movie or TV show in Romania is to download it via a torrent, and not for a lack of trying to get it legally, mind you.

My thoughts on Apple’s iPhone CPU throttling

Updated 12/29/17: Apple has posted an official response to this issue on their website. It’s the right response.

Everyone’s chiming in on this issue so I’m not going to rehash it, but I do have a practical suggestion that addresses it. You know what’s going on: older iPhones with older batteries tend to run slow (see this post). I noticed it as well and thought, like most people, that we (my wife and I) need to replace our iPhones, because they’re getting too old to handle the iOS upgrades and respective upgrades to the mobile apps we use.

As it turns out, Apple has been quietly throttling the CPU speeds of our iPhones in order to compensate for the fact that older Li-Ion batteries can’t sustain the voltages needed for those higher speeds. It was watching out for us, but without explaining it. And as it turns out in life, a lack of communication will cause problems. They only offered the explanation after people got upset — so upset that now several lawsuits have been filed against them (see this post). Only two lawsuits are mentioned in that post, but in another story I read today, the total went up to eight.

I’m not feeling sorry for Apple. They’re big boys, they have plenty of money to handle the lawsuits and their “we know better” attitude toward the customers, as well as their closed system approach to everything they develop, has always engendered a certain amount of anger from its customers. What they can and should do now is to suck it up and offer a good defense in court.

All of this could have been avoided if they’d simply done something similar to the “Low Power Mode” option that’s already offered on iPhones. That is an elegant and caring solution to a problem that users encounter every day.

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Something like this, let’s call it a “Battery Lifespan Advisory”, could be a feature launched with the next incremental upgrade to iOS 11, and it might let us toggle the “Automatic CPU Throttling” on or off when the battery nears the end of its projected lifespan. We could get a message on our screens, just like when Low Battery Mode is recommended, that would take us directly to the screen where we read an explanation and get to manage this option.

And that’s about all I have to say on this.

A review of Google’s Backup and Sync

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Google launched this new service in the second half of 2017. I remember being prompted by the Google Drive app to install an upgrade, and after it completed, I noticed a new app called “Backup and Sync” had been installed, and the Google Drive app had become an alias.

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The new app sat there unused for some time, until I discovered its new capability, namely to back up and sync other folders on my computer, not just the Google Drive folder. This was and is good, new functionality for Google, because it ties in very nicely with its Photos service, which has already been offering the ability to back up all of the photos and videos taken with mobile devices to the cloud through the Google Photos mobile app. I’ve been using Google Photos for several years, going back to when it was called Picasa Web.

I set it to back up all of my photos and videos, allowing Google to compress them so I could back up the whole lot. (It’s the “High quality (free unlimited storage)” option selected in the screenshot posted below.)

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I already back up all of my data with Backblaze, which I love and recommend, but it doesn’t hurt to have a second online backup of my media, even if it gets compressed. Having lost some 30,000 images and videos a few years back, I know full well the sting of losing precious memories and when it comes down to it, I’d rather have a compressed backup of my stuff than none at all.

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The thing is, there are shortcomings and errors with this new service from Google, which I will detail below. The backup itself was fast. Even though I have several terabytes of personal media, they were uploaded within a week. So that’s not the issue. After all, Google has a ton of experience with uploads, given how much video is uploaded to YouTube every single day.

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As you can see from the screenshot posted above, it was unable to upload quite a few files. The app offers the option of uploading RAW files in addition to the typical JPG, PNG and videos, but it couldn’t upload RAW files from Olympus (ORF), Adobe (DNG) and Canon (CR2). They were listed among the over 2700 files that couldn’t be backed up.

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I ended up having to add the extensions of RAW, PSD, TIFF and other files to an “ignore” list located within the app preferences. This is the full list I’ve added there so far: DNG, TIFF, RAF, CRW, MOV, PSD, DB, GRAPHDB, PLIST, and LIJ. It seems there’s a file size limit on images and on videos, because most of my large images (stitched panoramas) and videos of several GB or more didn’t get uploaded. That’s a problem for an app that promises to back up all your media.

There were also quite a bit of crashes. The app crashed daily during the upload process and even now, it crashes every once in a while. I set up my computer to send crash reports to Apple and to the app developers, so I assume that Google got them and will at some point issue an upgrade that fixes those bugs.

I also kept running out of space on my Google account. Given that I’d set the app to compress my images so I’d get “free unlimited storage”, and I’d also set it to back up only my images and videos, this didn’t and doesn’t make sense. Add to this the fact that it’s trying to back up unsuccessfully all sorts of other non-image files (see the paragraph above where I had to add all sorts of extensions to the ignore list) and once again, this app seems like it’s not fully baked. I ended up having to upgrade my storage plan with Google to 1 TB, so it’s costing me $9.99/month to back up most (not all) of my images and videos, compressed, to a service that offers “free, unlimited storage”. The app says I’ve now used up 408 GB of my 1 TB plan. Before I started backing up my media, I was using about 64 GB or so, adding together Gmail and Google Drive. So about 340 GB are getting mysteriously used by some invisible files that I can’t see in Google Photos or Google Drive, but they’re obviously stored somewhere by the Backup and Sync app.

Remember, this is Google. They have a ton of experience with apps, with images and with videos, so why did they push this out when it still has all these issues?