Reviews

The Sigma sd Quattro

The Sigma sd Quattro is the camera that helped me understand and come to terms with Sigma’s mission as a camera manufacturer. I’ve railed against what I perceived as the faults of Sigma’s cameras in the past (see here and here) and now I have come full circle in my stance on their cameras. It is time for me to apologize for my criticisms. Sigma, please accept my apologies. I didn’t fully understand your mission and your cameras. I now have a better understanding of the situation.

I always thought the Foveon sensor was unique and that it brought a set of features that made it stand out. Where I didn’t “get it” in the past, was in trying to compare Sigma cameras, apples to apples, with other cameras on the market. You can’t do that, because Sigma’s cameras are specialized. When you consider them, the questions you have to ask yourself as a photographer are (1) how important is image quality to you and (2) what are you willing to give up in other areas in order to get that image quality? Once you have that mindset, you can begin to consider the benefits of their cameras.

It must be acknowledged here that the path Sigma has chosen to take is quite different from market trends and consumer expectations. In a world obsessed with resolution and the do-it-all camera that takes photographs and also shoots video, Sigma has chosen to focus most of their attention on the quality of the photographs produced by their cameras, to the detriment of other characteristics that are appealing to consumers. They can afford to do that because they have a thriving lens business, and that’s a beautiful luxury. They don’t have to deal with the pressure of selling as many units of their cameras as possible and they can take their time with their sensor R&D.

It is my belief that with the sd Quattro, Sigma has reached that point where their message is getting across and more people are starting to take notice. I certainly took notice. Just because I criticized them in the past doesn’t mean I didn’t follow their developments. What they have now with the sd Quattro, particularly with the sd Quattro H, is plenty of resolution, an interesting and appealing design and an irresistible price point. Also worthy of mention is the design of the power grip, which makes the camera look even better and extends the battery life by a much-needed 300%.

I invite you to have a look at their website. Also look at their sample photographs and download them so you can appreciate them at full resolution. There are five separate sections with sample photos: for the sd Quattro you have parts one, two and three, for the sd Quattro H you have part one and then there are the general sample photos.

You should know that this camera almost requires a tripod. There will be situations when you won’t need one, but given that the sensor gives you the best quality at low ISO, it’s best to have one with you. I would reiterate what I said above about Sigma cameras being specialized. This is a camera best used in the studio or for landscape photography. You’ll also need plenty of batteries. I understand you get about 100-150 shots per battery. The AF system is fairly slow, so you’ll need to plan each shot carefully and check the focus. The camera also does not shoot video. If you’re thinking about getting it, I highly encourage you to check the specs, read and watch various reviews, and generally speaking, make sure you know what you’re getting into. If you care about accurate (I would even say amazing) color reproduction and you’re willing to sacrifice a lot of the other amenities we’ve come to expect from modern photographic equipment, then you’ll love this camera.

I’ll leave you with several images of the camera itself.

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Reviews

The best full-frame camera available in 2018

I have been doing research lately, because I want to purchase a new camera (maybe a couple of them, not sure yet), so I thought I’d put together my thoughts on full-frame cameras available these days. Before we get started, I need to make it clear from the get-go that there is no absolute best camera out there anywhere. There are however, best cameras for various needs. What I’m going to be talking about in this article is full frame cameras available right now (in 2018), best suited for my needs as a professional photographer and videographer, and I will detail those needs below. Should you not have the patience or the time to read through this entire review, skip to the end for my recommendation.

What I can tell you about me is that I’ve been keenly interested in photography since college (that’s more than 20 years ago). I’ve shot on 35mm film and APS film and when digital cameras arrived on the market, I started buying them and shooting with them, even back when they only offered 3 megapixels and an ISO range of 100-400. If I look in my Lightroom catalogs under the camera metadata, I see over 70 of them listed there. Also, my photographs have been published in 10 printed books (recipe books, health books and other literature) and have also been purchased as prints and licensed for commercial use. I am known commercially as a food photographer 😯. Yeah, go figure! Do you see any food photography in my photo streams or on my social media? Nope. It’s in the printed books though.

If this preface makes what I’m about to write here relevant to you, good, read on. If not, by all means, look elsewhere, there are a ton of websites that review cameras out there, and the market for this kind of subject has grown tremendously in the last several years. As a matter of fact, I feel that there are a little too many websites and people giving their mostly unqualified opinions on cameras these days and they’re muddying the waters.

From 2008 onward, I have used (mostly) Canon cameras. I have three Canon DSLRs (a 5D, a 7D and a 60D) plus a PowerShot G10. I have other cameras (Olympus, Minolta, Kodak), but so far, I’ve shot most of my photographs with Canon. In 2007, I fell in love with the original 5D. It may sound strange to fall in love with a camera, but the 5D was (and still is) a combination of beautiful design and features that made it irresistible to me. I thought this camera was the cream of the crop and it truly was back then.

I wasn’t the only one to think so, seeing as how Canon has not changed the exterior design of the camera through 4 subsequent generations (Mark II, Mark III, 5DS/5DSr and Mark IV). Why mess with a good thing, right? The design is gorgeous, even after all these years. Have a look at a few photos of my 5D taken last night. Isn’t it a beauty?

My 5D after 10 years of use. I still love it!
My 5D after 10 years of use. I still love it!
My 5D after 10 years of use. I still love it!

I still actively use my 5D. I take it out of my equipment cabinet every once in a while to take photos with it, and then I don’t want to put it back. I want to keep it on my desk so I can look at it as I work. It has performed just as I expected it to perform all these years: superbly. I had to send it in for service twice: once to replace the shutter (I had taken somewhere between 75,000 – 100,000 photographs with it at the time) and on another occasion, to fix the hotshoe, because the rails had become loose and my speedlites weren’t making proper contact.

Here’s a photo I took yesterday. I love this camera!

Indeed
Stefanel asleep on an armchair

While I’m talking about my love for the 5D, I was once invited to the launch party for the Olympus E-3 flagship DSLR and I brought my 5D along to take photos of the event. The 5D was my best camera at the time and I wanted to make sure I could take quality photographs of the event.

Olympus E-3 DSLR
The Olympus E-3 was dustproof and splashproof

As I was talking with some of the Olympus folks, they asked me what I thought of the E-3. My answer was: “It looked great so far and that I looked forward to reviewing it in the field, given that it was up against some tough competition from my 5D, which I loved.” Yeah, that was a smart thing to say… 😬 To my credit, I had just bought the 5D a few months back and I really did love it. Guess how many more invites to Olympus launch parties I got afterwards? ⛔ When I requested the E-3 for my hands-on review, repeatedly, after I’d already published a preview post, their polite answer was that “there were a limited number of review units and they were all out on loan”. Ouch! 🚪 As the Soup Nazi would say, “No camera for you!” 🙅🏻‍♂️

However… and I think you expected this “however” after the long setup… after 10 years with my 5D and several years with my other DSLRs, I am now at an impass. I need a new professional digital camera that meets the following two criteria:

  1. Takes high-quality, high-resolution images and
  2. Shoots 4K video (proper, high-quality 4K video)

I’m looking at cameras with sensor sizes up to full frame. I don’t want to move to a medium format sensor just yet, for reasons I can perhaps detail in another post. So I have some tough choices to make. If you’re in the same boat, maybe this post can help you decide.

This impass is also partly caused by Canon. Just this past week, I tried sending my 5D in for a professional sensor cleaning, because it’s got some dust spots that I just can’t clean off with sensor swabs, only to be told that the 5D is no longer being serviced as of September 2015. Canon has stopped providing parts for it and has apparently instructed Canon-authorized service centers not to service it, not even to clean the sensors 😡. I’m willing to pay to service my camera but Canon doesn’t want to service it! The camera still works great, but according to Canon, I can just chuck it away. Should something go wrong with it, it becomes e-waste. Thanks a bunch, Canon! 😠

Given that I love my Canon 5D and I like (not love) my 7D and 60D, which are my workhorses these days, and that I’m heavily invested in Canon gear (EF and EF-S lenses, speedlites and transmitters, extra batteries, extra chargers, cable releases, etc.), I naturally would like to get a Canon camera. The more research I do though, the more I realize that it would not be the best option for me right now.

I want a full frame camera. I love the dimensionality and quality of the photos that I get with it. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that I love about the photographs from a full-frame camera, but they’re good. I know, I’d probably love a medium-frame sensor even more… Maybe at some point in the future…

Let me offer a quick explanation of resolution and sensor size, because it’ll set the stage for some of the choices I have to make. A camera with a full frame sensor can offer more resolution because there’s more surface on the sensor for the pixels. It can also offer a higher ISO range, but there is a trade-off between higher ISO and higher resolution. At the current time, there are limits to both values and it has to do with the surface area of the sensor. If you take a 35mm (full frame) sensor, you can get more resolution from it, but you’ll have to squeeze more pixels in there (hence the term “mega-pixels”). The smaller the area for each pixel, the less light it can see, so that means that you’ll run into limits on the ISO range, because collectively, all those tiny pixels won’t be able to see very well in the dark. You can push the ISO up, but you’ll only get more noise. The algorithms baked into camera processors get better every year and consequently, they can better interpret the signal received from the sensor and you can thus push the ISO range higher, but only so far before you get digital garble. That’s why the Canon 5DS has a 50 megapixel resolution and an ISO limit of 6400, while the Sony a7S II has a 12 megapixel resolution and an ISO limit of 102400.

Canon 5DS Front
The Canon 5DS
Sony a7S II Front
The Sony a7S II

The Sony can literally see in the dark, that’s how good it is. You can sit out in pitch darkness, put it on manual focus, hold it in your hand, take a photo, and the camera will actually see what’s around you (providing you’re using fast glass)! Both are full frame cameras, but since the Sony a7S gives me the same resolution as my current Canon 5D, it’s not my optimal choice. Now, the frame rate also plays into why the a7S and some other cameras offer lower resolution (and higher frame rates), but let’s not complicate matters. I don’t need a camera with an incredibly fast frame rate, because I have no interest in sports photography.

When the Canon 5DS came out, I was speechless. Here was a camera that offered 50 megapixels from a full frame sensor and the quality of the photographs was not questionable. 50 megapixels is medium-frame territory! But did it shoot 4K video? No. It did not meet my second criteria. So if I got it, I would also have to get a separate camera (or cameras) in order to shoot 4K video for our web shows. I don’t know about you, but not only do I not want to have a large inventory of equipment that needs to be mastered, operated and maintained, I also don’t want to spend a small fortune equipping my studio, given how ephemeral digital equipment can be (see what Canon did to my 5D above, it discontinued support even though a LOT of original 5D cameras are still working). Also, different brands require different lenses (this is an aspect that I’ll address a bit further down the page), so not only would I have to get more cameras, but more lenses and accessories for them, and that means an even greater budget.

Then the 5D Mark IV came out. Here was the answer to my dilemma, or so I thought… But Canon decided to give it 30 megapixels (after they had successfully shown that they could offer 50 megapixels two years prior). I am fully aware that 30 megapixels is quite a lot in and of itself, but there are other full-frame cameras on the market which offer significantly more resolution at the same price and the same (some would say better) image quality. And while the camera offers 4K video, it is encoded in Motion JPEG, which is not an ideal video codec. There’s been a lot of discussion online about this (here’s one example). Remember when Nikon first started to offer HD video on their DSLRs, what seems like ages ago? It was also Motion JPEG and people were groaning and complaining about that to no end, while others were saying we should be happy they’re offering it at all. Well, now it’s my turn to groan and complain about this thing, while others are just happy it’s UHD (4K) video instead of FHD (1080p)…

Canon 5D Mark IV Front
The Canon 5D Mark IV DSLR

Also, if someone wants a professional flat color option in video (for proper color grading in post), it is a paid extra. Adding the Canon Log gamma is $100 and if you didn’t buy your camera with it, you have to send it to an authorized Canon service center to get it upgraded. Most camera stores offer you the option of buying it either with Canon Log or without Canon Log. Granted the $100 video upgrade is pocket change when we’re talking about a camera that costs $3,300, but why is it an add-on when other camera manufacturers offer different gamma logs built right into the camera?

And that my dear reader, the price, is the final rub. I get that the DSLR market is shrinking and companies making sophisticated, higher-end cameras end up selling less of them and making less money. It’s logical, isn’t it? Most people now rely on their phones to take photos; they’re sufficient, and in the case of some phones like the iPhone 8, iPhone X, Google Pixel 2 and Samsung S8, the cameras are more than sufficient, they’re outstanding given their tiny sensors and lenses. Most people don’t need a complicated DSLR or mirrorless camera because they don’t need all those myriad options, they’re intimidated by them, they don’t appreciate the quality of a large-surface sensor and they think they’re heavy and expensive. If you’ve just shelled out $700-800 for a new phone, it’d better take good photos, right?

Well… those of us who take photos professionally need more than a mobile phone when we take photos (although I’ll tell you a secret, I managed to sneak in a photo taken with my iPhone 4 into a book 😏) and we also need decent pricing, durability, reliability and top-notch features on the expensive equipment that we we purchase.

We’re also affected by this market crunch, aren’t we? I’ll give you just one example: Adobe Stock. Adobe has been marketing their new stock image service heavily in recent months. I submitted several photos to it last year and sold a few. Do you know how much I made per photo? Around 40-60 cents! Those are microstock profits and they mandate a ridiculously high volume of sales. You can only submit RF (royalty free) and at those payouts it’s not worth my time. I’ve been with Alamy for years and their payouts are much better, plus they offer the option of RM (rights managed) licensing, but they’re killing me with their keywording requirements (¡Ay, caramba!), so I haven’t submitted a lot of photos to them.

I wonder how many of you have sat down to do the math and get a grand total for what it takes to be able to take high-quality photographs. It’s not just the initial costs, it’s the upkeep: the ever-increasing storage needs, the backups, the software, the work involved in managing, editing and keywording the photos and videos, the upgrades to the computers, the displays, the cameras, etc. By the way, if you want to put me in hell, make me keyword photos for a stock photography website. Or make me take wedding and birthday party photos. That’s true torture for me! I’d rather be horse whipped. But the dirty truth is that wedding photography is how the majority of photographers make their money and buy their gear… I digress…

If I’m going to plunk down $3,400 for a brand new camera and maybe $5,000-6,000 more for lenses and speedlites and such, that camera had better be amazing. It had better give me what I need. Actually, since I live in Romania (which is in Eastern Europe), I’m going to pay much more for the camera. Instead of $3,400, I get to pay $4,460 (16.999 lei). Yeah, that’s how things work when you’re not in the US…

That’s what Canon and the other camera manufacturers out there need to understand. Now that the market for their mid to high-end products is shrinking, they need to offer more value to their customers.

You know who’s innovating and who’s trying their hardest? It’s the companies with smaller market shares: Sony, Olympus, Panasonic and Fujifilm. Canon’s sitting on top of the heap with the largest market share and it doesn’t have a fire burning under its derrière, so to speak. It can afford to slow down the whole production cycle. Nikon was in the same situation and it chose to turn things around. People are very excited about the D850 right now, but they were angry with Nikon for some time because it wasn’t innovating.

Nikon D850 Front
The Nikon D850 DSLR

While I’m on the subject of the Nikon D850, wouldn’t it be the best option for me right now? After all, it’s got a high-resolution sensor that offers 45 megapixels and wonderful 4K video encoded in H.264. I love its design. I have to say, I’ve been tempted to switch to Nikon every now and then, but that lull in their product development cycle that lasted years, while other companies like Sony and Olympus and Panasonic were busy creating amazing cameras, dissuaded me from it. There’s also the not-insurmountable but large obstacle of having to buy all-new glass, speedlites and other such accessories. There are no adapters on the market for Canon EF lenses to Nikon FX lens mounts. Metabones makes the best full-featured adapters for this sort of application (using different brands of lenses on different brands of camera bodies) and if they don’t make one, it’s not available and not worth getting (no, they’re not paying me to say that).

We’re coming to the reveal now, aren’t we? What camera is best for my stated needs right now and whyIt’s the Sony a7R III.

Sony a7R III Front
The Sony a7R III

It’s got a full-frame sensor that offers a resolution of 42 megapixels and beautiful 4K video encoded in one of two formats, XAVC S or AVCHD, with a choice of two professional ready-to-use gamma profiles, S-Log3 and HLG (at no extra cost) and best of all, Super 35mm 4K oversampled from 5K, which means it’s higher quality video than regular 4K video. It’s also got pixel shift multi shooting, an interesting technique that offers much higher detail at 1:1 view (see this video).

An important feature that sets it apart is its 5-axis optical in-body image stabilization. The Canon 5D Mark IV and the Nikon D850 don’t have it; they rely instead of the optical IS (or in the case of Nikon, optical VR) built into the lenses themselves. In-body IS doesn’t preclude optical IS built into the lenses either, so that’s another plus.

In-body 5-axis image stabilization
In-body 5-axis image stabilization

This is important because you have to remember this is a full frame sensor. There’s a lot of data that gets captured with it, every single second, and that data needs to be processed. Camera sensors suffered from something called rolling shutter not so long ago when they recorded video. When Canon first offered 1080p video on its 5D (it was the Mark II), there was pronounced rolling shutter. People called it jellocam and was a lot of discussion online about how to minimize it if you wanted to shoot professional video. You see, the larger the sensor, the more data that needs to be processed when the camera is moving and the more prone the camera is to show the rolling shutter effect. When you stabilize the sensor optically, in-camera, you provide a tremendous amount of help in reducing video shake and rolling shutter from the get-go. You don’t have to fix it so much in post-production.

And there’s another feature that sets it apart: 399 phase-detection AF points covering approx. 68% of image area width and height plus 425 densely positioned contrast-detection AF points, plus something that Sony calls 4D Focus. Compare the sheer number of AF points with the cameras from Nikon and Canon and once again the a7R III stands out.

Another good little thing the Sony a7R III offers (that may be important to some) is a USB 3.1 Gen 1 compatible USB Type-C port. This is good for charging or various accessories that need that sort of connection.

Finally, here’s the deal clincher: I can use my Canon glass on the a7R III! Remember Metabones, the company I mentioned above? They make an adapter that will let me use most of Canon’s EF and EF-S lenses on the Sony camera. It’s called the Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T Smart Adapter (Mark V). It supports all of the functions of Canon’s lenses, such as full aperture control, full AF, and IS for both photos and videos (see this for the details).

Metabones Canon EF and EF-S Lens to Sony E Mount T Smart Adapter
The Metabones Canon EF and EF-S Lens to Sony E Mount T Smart Adapter (Mark V)

And if that’s not enough, they also have something called the Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T Speed Booster ULTRA 0.71x II (Mark V), which does all of the above, increases the aperture by 1 stop and makes the lens 0.71x wider (see this for the details).

Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T Speed Booster ULTRA 0.71x II
Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T Speed Booster ULTRA 0.71x II (Mark V)

I can buy the Sony a7R III and the Metabones adapter and get right to work using my Canon lenses. I can always buy Sony lenses later.

best-sony-a7r-iii-lenses.jpg
A lens line-up for the Sony a7R III

There are things that the a7R III could do better:

  • There is no built-in GPS. This is a pet peeve of mine. Tons of cheaper cameras have built-in GPS. Most cameras made nowadays offer it standard, as a matter of fact. It’s an amazingly useful feature. Canon offers it on the 5D Mark IV. Nikon offers it on the D850.
  • Another useful feature that’s missing is the built-in intervalometer which lets you shoot timelapses. The 5D Mark IV has it and so does the D850. On the a7R III, you’ll need to purchase an external intervalometer.
  • Also, it seems that its video quality could improve (see this post) although from what I’ve seen so far online and I’ve looked plenty, the a7R III video is pretty great, with sharp focus, definition and color, even at long focal lengths. Ideally, it could offer interlaced 10-bit 4:2:2 4K video at 60 fps, although I haven’t seen that feature on the other full frame contenders.

So there you have it, the Sony a7R III may not be the best camera out there, but it’s the best full-frame camera for my stated needs, right now.

There are also some additional things I’d like to submit for your consideration. One is the aesthetic of the mirrorless camera sporting a long, bulky lens. It looks something like this.

This is the Canon EF 70-300 mm lens mounted to the body of an Olympus E-PL1 mirrorless camera
This is the Canon EF 70-300 mm lens mounted to the body of an Olympus E-PL1 mirrorless camera

Mirrorless cameras have their own aesthetic, which has evolved for particular reasons: they’re smaller, lighter, easier to carry, but those very advantages that make them great for travel or simply great for lugging around also make them look prety funny when they’ve got a big lens attached. Imagine a large, full frame, 400mm or 600mm lens attached to a small mirrorless camera and things get even funnier.

While it was Epson who invented mirrorless cameras when they introduced the RD1 (see this post), it was Olympus who made us go, “Oh yeah, I get it now!” when they started making them. A mirrorless camera with a micro four-thirds (MFT) sensor is a tiny thing that takes tiny lenses: they’re smaller in diameter and thus much lighter and they look in proportion when mounted to those cameras.

Years ago, when I heard that Sony had introduced a mirrorless camera with a full frame sensor, my first reaction was, “Huh?” In my mind, it defeated the purpose of a small, easy to carry camera and lens kit. A full frame sensor requires larger diameter glass and even though the camera is small, the lenses are going to be big. In that sense, the a7R III is a strange animal, sort of like a giraffe with a normal head and neck, but a tiny little body. You’re not really holding onto the camera when you use a bigger lens, you’re holding onto the lens and the camera is just sort of there like a lens attachment. Now, be that as it may, I’m not going to argue with results.

I’d also like to take a step back, put the budgetary concerns aside and talk hypothetically about the ideal equipment for those two stated needs of mine (high resolution and great 4K video), because it’s worth talking about. Clearly, it’d be better to separate the two tasks and then focus on the equipment that does each of those two things best. If I were to have a much larger budget to play with, what would I do?

For photography, I’d separate the cameras even further into studio photography (or let’s call it local photography) and travel photography, particularly hikes through nature, for sheer weight considerations.

For studio or local photography, I’d probably go with the Canon EOS 5DSr or the Nikon D850. The 5DSr offers 50 megapixels of resolution while the D850 offers 46 megapixels. It’s the same ballpark and it is medium-format territory (in terms of resolution). Under controlled lighting situations or on a tripod, where I don’t have to push the ISO range to its limits, I would get crisp and clear high-resolution images (the highest resolutions available from full frame sensors today).

Canon EOS 5DS R
The Canon EOS 5DS R

If I did a lot of hiking and travel photography, I’d probably go with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II or the OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Even though the E-M1’s regular resolution is 20 megapixels, it has a high resolution shot mode where it takes eight consecutive photos while shifting the sensor and stitches them together in camera to give you a 50 megapixel photograph. You’ll have to use a tripod, but this is great for studio, architectural or landscape photography. It’s the same with the E-M5: it offers 16 megapixels but using the same high res shot mode, it can give you a 40 megapixel photograph.

An even lighter alternative is the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III. It offers 16 megapixel photos, it has no high res shot mode but instead gives us the unexpected gift of 4K video at 30p. And it is adorably small. You can’t realize how cute and lovable that little camera is until you see it in person! 😍 Put it together with a few light MFT lenses and you’re good to go just about anywhere! ✈

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III
The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

Now let’s talk about video. I’ll point out a couple of cameras that offer amazing 4K video, and they are (no surprise here) the Panasonic Lumix GH5 and its newer brother the Lumix GH5s, which is better suited for recording video in low light situations.

Panasonic Lumix GH5
The Panasonic Lumix GH5

The differences between the two cameras are eloquently explained in this video put together by the staff at B&H Photo.

Of course, the best video you can get comes from professional video equipment and one company whose products I like is Blackmagic Design. Check them out, you might be pleasantly surprised by their product offering and their prices.

Well, there you have it! I hope this post of mine has been enlightening 😇, I hope I’ve explained my thought process in a way that helped you understand the challenges involved in choosing the best camera suited for the two needs stated at the start and if you liked this, please share it with your friends who are trying to decide what camera to get. Cheers! 👋

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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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-17 at 13.17.02.png

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

Screen Shot 2017-12-17 at 13.17.33.png

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.

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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?

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Solid advice on back pain

I recently finished reading a book called “Ending back pain: 5 powerful steps to diagnose, understand and treat your ailing back“, written by Dr. Jack Stern, a back surgeon. Here’s the English cover:

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And for those of you who are in Romania, here’s the Romanian cover:

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Some of you may remember that I dealt with a bout of debilitating back pain in 2015-2016. As a matter of fact, as I write this short book review, I get to celebrate a year of living a fairly normal life again — as opposed to crawling on all fours and unable to walk, hopped up on pain killers and yet still in excruciating pain.

So it is with the authority given to me by first-hand experience that I recommend this book to you. Back pain has become an epidemic nowadays, because of the way most of us live and think, and there’s a very good chance that if you’re reading this and are over the age of 30, you’ve had some back pain. I know 25-year olds who are struggling with back pain. This was unheard of just a few decades ago. Back pain used to be a thing old people complained about. Not anymore.

This book truly does what it promises to do in its title. It walks you through its five steps that help you self-diagnose your back pain, guides you in the process of selecting a specialist to assist with your recovery and gives you solid advice about how to stop the pain from reoccurring.

What I liked about it (and there are many things to like) was its holistic approach. The author doesn’t stress surgery, even though he’s a successful and experienced surgeon. Like me, he thinks surgery is the absolute last resort. Even more so, he talks a great deal about natural ways to treat the back pain. He’s not entrenched in the allopathic approach which, let’s be honest, has failed quite miserably in the treatment of back in recent decades.

What you’ll take away from the book depends on your particular situation, but what I want you to understand going in, is that back pain is a complicated beast that can have many causes: physical, psychological, genetic, postural, mechanical, food, lack of exercise and so on. Your particular back pain, even though it may have the same symptoms as that of someone else, may have entirely different causes. That’s where this book shines: it talks about those causes and helps you to identify what’s really ailing you, what’s at the root of your back pain.

I’ve gained valuable insights through the reading of this book. It confirmed things I intuited when I was sinking deeper and deeper into a spiral of pain and despair and revealed new things to me about the nature of my particular back pain. It’ll do the same for you if you read it in earnest, studiously and with the intent of getting to the bottom of things.

Good luck and good health!

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A comparison of CrashPlan and Backblaze

I’ve been a paying CrashPlan customer since 2012 and my initial backup still hasn’t finished. I’ve been a paying Backblaze customer for less than a month and my initial backup is already complete. 

I’m not a typical customer for backup companies. Most people back up about 1 TB of data or less. The size of my minimum backup set is about 9 TB. If I count all the stuff I want to back up, it’s about 12 TB. And that’s a problem with most backup services.

First, let me say this: I didn’t write this post to trash CrashPlan. Their backup service works and it’s worked well for other members of my family. It just hasn’t worked for me. This is because they only offer a certain amount of bandwidth to each user. It’s called bandwidth throttling and it saves them money in two ways: (1) they end up paying less for their monthly bandwidth (which adds up to a lot for a company offering backup services) and (2) they filter out heavy users like me, who tend to fill up a lot of their drives with unprofitable data. My guess (from my experience with them) is that they throttle heavy users with large backup sets much more than they throttle regular users. The end result of this bandwidth throttling is that, even though I’ve been a customer since 2012 — at first, I was on the individual backup plan, then I switched to the family plan — my initial backup never completed and I was well on track to never completing it.

When I stopped using CrashPlan’s backup services, out of the almost 9 TB of data that I need to back up constantly, I had only managed to upload 0.9 TB in FOUR YEARS. Take a moment and think about that, and then you’ll realize how much bandwidth throttling CrashPlan does on heavy users like me.

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After four years of continuous use, I backed up a grand total of 905.7 GB to CrashPlan

To be exact, counting the various versions of my data that had accummulated on the CrashPlan servers in these four years, I had a total of 2.8 TB stored on their servers, but even if you count that as the total, 2.8 TB in FOUR YEARS is still an awfully small amount.

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Space used on CrashPlan’s servers: 2.8 TB

Tell me honestly, which one of you wants this kind of service from a backup company? You pay them for years in a row and your initial backup never finishes? If a data loss event occurs and your local backup is gone (say a fire, flood or burglary), you’re pretty much screwed and you’ll only be able to recover a small portion of your data from their servers, even though you’ve been a faithful, paying customer for years… That just isn’t right.

I talked with CrashPlan techs twice in these fours years about this very problematic data throttling. Given that they advertise their service as “unlimited backup”, this is also an ethical issue. The backup isn’t truly unlimited if it’s heavily throttled and you can never back up all of your data. The answer was the same both times, even the wording was the same, making me think it was scripted: they said that in an effort to keep costs affordable, they have to limit the upload speeds of every user. The first time I asked them, they suggested their Business plan has higher upload speeds, so in other words, they tried to upsell me. During both times, they advertised their “seed drive service”, which was a paid product (they stopped offering it this summer). The gist of their paid service was that they shipped asking customers a 1 TB drive so you could back up to it locally, then send it to them to jumpstart the backup. Again, given my needs of backing up at least 9 TB of data, this wasn’t a userful option.

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This is false advertising

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This is also false advertising

Some of you might perhaps suggest that I didn’t optimize my CrashPlan settings so that I could get the most out of it. I did. I tried everything they suggested in their online support notes. In addition to tricking out my Crashplan install, my computer has been on for virtually all of the last four years, in an effort to help the Crashplan app finish the initial backup, to no avail.

Another thing that bothered me about CrashPlan is that it would go into “maintenance mode” very often, and given the size of my backup set, this would take days, sometimes weeks, during which it wouldn’t back up. It would endlessly churn through its backup versions and compare them to my data, pruning out stuff, doing its own thing and eating up processor cycles with those activities instead of backing up my data.

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Synchronizing block information…

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Compacting data… for 22.8 days…

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Maintaining backup files…

I understand why maintenance of the backups is important. But what I don’t understand is why it took so long. I can’t help thinking that maybe the cause is the Java-based backup engine that CrashPlan uses. It’s not a Mac-native app or a Windows-native app. It’s a Java app wrapped in Mac and Windows app versions. And most Java apps aren’t known for their speed. It’s true, Java apps could be fast, but the developers often get lazy and don’t optimize the code — or that’s the claim made by some experts in online forums.

Another way to look at this situation is that CrashPlan has a “freemium” business model. In other words, their app is free to use for local (DAS or NAS) backup or offsite backup (such as to a friend’s computer). And one thing I know is that you can’t complain about something that’s given freely to you. If it’s free, you either offer constructive criticism or you shut up about it. It’s free and the developers are under no obligation to heed your feedback or to make changes because you say so. As a matter of fact, I used CrashPlan as a free service for local backup for a couple of years before I started paying for their cloud backup service. But it was only after I started paying that I had certain expectations of performance. And in spite of those unmet expectations, I stuck with them for four years, patiently waiting for them to deliver on their promise of “no storage limits, bandwidth throttling or well-engineered excuses”… and they didn’t deliver.

Here I should also say that CrashPlan support is responsive. Even when I was using their free backup service, I could file support tickets and get answers. They always tried to resolve my issues. That’s a good thing. It’s important to point this out, because customer service is an important aspect of a business in the services industry — and online backups are a service.

About three weeks ago, I was talking with Mark Fuccio from Drobo about my issues with CrashPlan and he suggested I try Backblaze, because they truly have no throttling. So I downloaded the Backblaze app (which is a native Mac app, not a Java app), created an account and started to use their service. Lo and behold, the 15-day trial period wasn’t yet over and my backup to their servers was almost complete! I couldn’t believe it! Thank you Mark! 🙂

I optimized the Backblaze settings by allowing it to use as much of my ISP bandwidth as it needed (I have a 100 Mbps connection), and I also bumped the number of backup threads to 10, meaning the Backblaze app could initiate 10 separate instances of itself and upload all 10 instances simultaneously to their servers. I did have to put up with a slightly sluggish computer during the initial backup, but for the first time in many years, I was able to back up all of my critical data to the cloud. I find that truly amazing in and of itself.

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This is what I did to optimize my Backblaze installation

As you can see from the image above, I got upload speeds over 100 Mbps when I optimized the backup settings. During most of the days of the initial upload, I actually got speeds in excess of 130 Mbps, which I think is pretty amazing given my situation: I live in Romania and the Backblaze servers are in California, so my data had to go through a lot of internet backbones and through the trans-Atlantic cables.

The short of it is that I signed up for a paid plan with Backblaze and my initial backup completed in about 20 days. Let me state that again: I backed up about 9 TB of data to Backblaze in about 20 days, and I managed to back up only about 1 TB of data to CrashPlan in about 4 years (1420 days). The difference is striking and speaks volumes about the ridiculous amount of throttling that CrashPlan puts in place for heavy users like me.

I also use CrashPlan for local network backup to my Drobo 5N, but I may switch to another app for this as well, for two reasons: it’s slow and it does a lot of maintenance on the backup set and because it doesn’t let me use Drobo shares mapped through the Drobo Dashboard app, which is a more stable way of mapping a Drobo’s network shares. CrashPlan refuses to see those shares and requires me to manually map network shares, which isn’t as stable a connection and leads to share disconnects and multiple mounts, which is something that screws up CrashPlan. I’m trying out Mac Backup Guru, which is a Mac-native app, is pretty fast and does allow me to back up to Drobo Dashboard-mapped shares. If this paragraph doesn’t make sense to you, it’s okay. You probably haven’t run into this issue. If you have, you know what I’m talking about.

Now, none of this stuff matters if you’re a typical user of cloud backup services. If you only have about 1 TB of data or less, any cloud backup service will likely work for you. You’ll be happy with CrashPlan and you’ll be happy with their customer service. But if you’re like me and you have a lot of data to back up, then a service like Backblaze that is truly throttle-free is exactly what you’ll need.

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The Pullman Hotel in Bucharest

This is probably the first hotel review I’ve ever published on my site, but I feel strongly about this and wanted to share my thoughts with you.

It’s not often I have high praise for a hotel. I do for this one. My wife and I are repeat customers here and we’ve always had positive experiences. We’ve stayed here multiple times during the past few years and we can both say that it’s the one thing we look forward to our trips to Bucharest. We like to travel, but we hate spending long times on the road, dealing with traffic, bad drivers, hot, sweaty weather and being cooped up in a car for long periods of time. So after all that unpleasantness, being able to unwind in a pleasant hotel room with a wonderful view is decompression heaven. To me, there are certain things which are important in a hotel: 

  • Location: how central is it, based on the business we need to conduct in that town, or the sightseeing we want to do, if we’re there for pleasure. For us, a hotel in Sector 1 (the northern part of Bucharest) is exactly what we need, because we conduct most of our business here and it’s easy for us to head to the highway and get back home. 
  • Parking: I want proper, spacious parking, right next to the hotel, free of charge if possible, guarded and well-lit, to minimize the potential for criminal activities and to make it easy for us to load and unload our car (we tend to travel with lots of luggage); 
  • Comfortable rooms and comfortable beds: yes on both counts. I can’t properly express in words how good it feels to step into a hotel room here after a long, hot day in the car, take a shower and unwind. I know I can get a good night’s sleep, wake up refreshed and go about my day with confidence. 
  • Price: it needs to be affordable for our budget, yet not too low, so as to discourage the unpleasant types (rude, loud idiots who think hotels are places where you party and make noise). Here the Pullman tends to be on the high side, which sometimes makes it difficult for us to stay here, but it’s still the first place we check when we plan on staying in Bucharest, because it often offers deals and special pricing for repeat customers. 
  • Friendly, helpful staff that resolves our issues promptly: not that we’ve had many issues while staying here, only minor ones, but it’s nice to know they’re always on it when we ask them. 
  • Great architectural design, both inside and outside: while the outside of this hotel is fairly streamlined and modern, the inside is great; it has lots of classical design cues, the hallways and the rooms are carpeted so as to reduce noise, the floors and walls are soundproofed, and best of all, each room has double doors. Let me explain that last part: there’s the entrance to the room, which leads into a hallway, with access to the closet and the bathroom. Then there’s another door that leads into the room itself. What this means is that there are two doors and two walls between your bed and the hallway (which is the main sound source at night) and this ensures you’re isolated from all the hallway traffic and can actually get a good night’s sleep. 
  • Large windows with great views: it delivers perfectly here. Pretty much every room gets a beautiful, panoramic view of Bucharest (see the featured image posted here). 
  • Good closet space and luggage stands: self-explanatory. It’s surprising how many other hotels have terrible closet space and no luggage stands. These two things are staples in a hotel room. They simply must be there. 
  • Armchairs and a work desk: for unwinding and getting some work done. 
  • Key cards that work: in many other hotels, the cards keep going inactive, requiring guests to go back to the front desk and get them reprogrammed. Not so at the Pullman. You can keep them in your wallet, next to your credit cards, you can keep them next to your cellphone or other RFID cards, and they’ll always work. 
  • A great breakfast: while the menu stays the same here, it’s a good menu and the food is very good. They also serve good pot-brewed coffee, which is my favorite, because I’m fed up with bad espresso. 
  • Good WiFi: the WiFi is free here and it works reliably. It’s not the fastest, but it works and you can actually get stuff done on it. I’m writing this post on the hotel’s WiFi. I’ve been to so many hotels where they charge you for WiFi, or it’s free but it’s crappy and peters out, leaving you frustrated and having to resort to 3G on your cellphone or tablet. 
  • Workout and exercise facilities: while the workout equipment selection is limited, it’s enough for maintenance workouts and as an added bonus, there are two saunas (a traditional sauna and a turkish sauna). They’re a godsend after a long of day of work and standing on our feet. 

Here’s hoping things stay the same here, and we can keep relying on this hotel for our stays in Bucharest! 

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The Romanian beach-going experience

In a sentence: expensive, crowded, terrible accommodations and lots of rude people. I expressed my initial thoughts in a Facebook post embedded below. Read on for the details.

We thought we’d go to the beach for a few days. We hadn’t taken a vacation in years, and since we had to attend a wedding that was taking place in Constanta, we thought, why not combine the wedding with a few days of vacation? In theory, that sounds like a good thing, a practical thing. But this is Romania, so when you want to do good and practical things, you usually have to pair them with nasty things of some sort.

That is the ever-present curse of life in Romania. It’s a gorgeous country, but you can’t always look up at the mountains, the flowers, the rolling hills, the forests (which are disappearing) and so on. Sooner or later, you have to look at the people (many of which have little or no concern for the environment or public order), at the ground with garbage strewn everywhere, you have to open your wallet and pay ridiculous prices for stuff that costs less in most other places, you have to spend time cueing up in long lines with smelly people to deal with lazy (but too-well-paid) government bureaucrats, et caetera. Sadly, the heart wins this little game of positives and negatives and in the end, you’re still in the country, fuming over the crap you have to swallow but somehow happy with your choice.

Back to the beach-going experience… You should know that going to the beach in Romania is much more expensive than going to the beach in many neighboring countries. I would even venture to say that if you were to take the money you’d pay for a stay at a 5-star hotel on the Black Sea here, you could probably have a pretty nice stay at a 4-star resort in or around Monaco (where higher prices are justified), and just about everything about the trip would be better. You’d end up happier, better fed, more rested and more entertained. But for some damn reason I can’t fathom, some foreigners still choose to come to Romanian beaches and pay ridiculous prices. I understand why Romanians do it (see the paragraph above), but why do these foreigners put up with the crap? Low self-esteem, maybe? Perhaps they like being treated like crap by hospitality employees? Perhaps they like paying good money for sub-par accommodations? Maybe they love getting honked at and cussed out by Romanian drivers? Don’t know. Might be worth exploring (by someone else, not me).

We had to book our stay in Constanta when it was still winter in order to find a decent place. After much online research, we settled on renting a furnished apartment. It was more reasonable than paying for a hotel and also more convenient, because we had a kitchen, but I wasn’t thrilled by our stay. There were small things that bothered me, such as creaking, noisy doors that rubbed against their frames and were hard to open and close, uneven floors, tiny bathrooms with showers that weren’t in good order, no P-traps on the drains, which meant weird smells coming up from the pipes, lots of road noise from outside, A/C units that didn’t cool all the rooms, the lack of a dining room table, which meant we had to eat off a coffee table, and last but not least, having to find our own parking (that’s a feat unto itself in the middle of summer in Constanta).

At any rate, we had it good compared to what you’d get in a 3-star or a 4-star hotel, where you’ll encounter much higher prices, grimy rooms, ill-equipped bathrooms, stuff that’s not working, expensive parking, crappy breakfasts and the list can go on and on. Fact is, star ratings on the hotels and pensions in Romanian beach towns differ greatly from those in the rest of the country or elsewhere in the world, for that matter. I’m not sure if this is because of bribery, but you can safely assume that a 3-star hotel will actually have 2-star accommodations and likewise, a 4-star hotel will have 3-star accommodations, a 5-star hotel will have 4-star… you get the point. And I’m being kind here when I drop the ratings by only one star. The difference is more like 1.5 stars and the prices are insanely high at 4 and 5-star hotels. You know, I wouldn’t mind paying those prices if I actually got the level of service one gets in other luxury hotels in other countries, and if the experience as a whole merited the expense. But it doesn’t. The decor inside these places is garish, in bad taste, and you get treated as if you should be thankful they took you in. Why pay good money for crappy service and ambiance? Makes no sense to me.

Just about now, any rational human being reading this will ask why Romanians put up with this crap. You have to understand, Romanians had to put up with a lot of crap during a half-century of communism and some of that fear of making waves is still going around. Plus, it’s the Romanian Black Sea. It’s all the seaside we’ve got. There’s the damned nostalgia of trips to the beach during our childhood and it clouds our minds. The hotel and pension owners know this (at least on some intuitive level, because they see the demand) and so they have this attitude that says “You get to go to the beach, this is a prime location, shut up and put up with what I give you, because there’s always someone else that pays these prices”. It’s a truly shitty attitude and these are truly shitty people and I for one refuse to put up with shitty people.

As long as I’m talking about people, let me address the people of Constanta. I realize the picture I present here isn’t representative of the city as a whole, but hey, tourists don’t get to see the city as a whole, they interact mainly with drivers on the streets and with hospitality employees and those two groups are exactly the ones that are bothersome. I can’t believe all the honking and the rudeness on Constanta’s streets. I know there are a lot of tourists in town during the summer, but my bad experiences were with cars bearing the county of Constanta license plates. They either drove too slow or too fast. They honked incessantly. They blocked our exit from parking lots so often I finally lost my temper and had a shouting match with a few “cocalari” in a Porsche Cayenne (isn’t it amazing how many assholes own Porsche Cayennes?) I can be intimidating when I’m angry so on the bright side, it was funny to see the fear in their eyes when I confronted them. I wanted to break into laughter but I kept up my angry mask and got them to back off. On the not so bright side, anger has a price, as you know, which in my case was a beauty of a headache that lasted the night.

I also couldn’t believe how many people were revving up their engines to show off during all times of the day, and the police was nowhere to be found when these things happened. Noise violations are punishable with hefty fines in Romania. It’s too bad the police can’t be bothered to enforce the laws. I mean, it’s not like that’s their job or anything…

As for hospitality employees, let me just give you one example: many of the beaches here are private, which means some bar or restaurant or hotel owns them (not the entire thing, but a strip that extends almost to the breakers). On these strips of beach, they typically offer some version of lounge chair that you can rent. Until recently, you could rent them by the half day or the full day. Now they only offer full day rents, even if you’re only planning to spend 1-2 hours there. We wanted to get one of these chairs for a short stay at the beach, so we were willing to pay the silly-money sum they were asking just so we could sit down for an hour or so as my daughter played in the sand. We paid it, headed to one of the chairs, only to be stopped by an employee who told us we couldn’t sit there. Why? Because we needed to pick a chair toward the back of the strip. Excuse me?! I’m paying the same price as everyone else, why should I sit at the back when there are plenty of available chairs right by the waves? The owner, a bald, rotund man with a tight jacket, came over to see what was happening. I reiterated my stance and they weren’t having it, but neither was I. I asked for my money back, we got it and we walked away. I think what those dummies were trying to do was to discriminate and stick the “uncool” people at the back (parents with kids, older people, etc.) so they could stick the “cool” people at the front and by association seem cooler themselves, but I’m not going to put with up with this sort of crap from anyone. I’m not a second-class citizen anywhere and I won’t accept second-class treatment. And neither should any of you, if you’re reading this.

We could’ve played the celebrity card. My wife is a well-known author in Romania, she’s been on TV hundreds of times, so we could’ve acted important and “cool”, but why spend our time and money with shitty people who discriminate against decent people? Don’t think this is an isolated incident. This sort of crap happens everywhere: bars, restaurants, night clubs (particularly at night clubs). If you don’t look “cool”, you get treated like crap. Instead of trying to fit in and putting up with this bullshit, choose not to spend your money where they do this. Vote with your wallet, it’s the best vote you can cast for just about any important issue.

The second day we came to the beach, we wanted to spend the whole day, so we had to find a place where we could rent some lounge chairs and an umbrella. We found one where we could sit right next to the shoreline and we could watch our daughter closely as she played in the sand, then we settled in. Well, the umbrella was a flimsy thing that barely covered one chair, which meant we had to be constantly aware of the movement of the sun and move our chairs and the umbrella around accordingly. So not only did we pay what we think was a ridiculous amount for crappy chairs and a crappy umbrella, but we briefly fell asleep and as the sun moved, it gave me a nasty sunburn on half my back and my legs. Damn these pricks who don’t take the time to think about what they’re buying for their customers!


Finally, Romanian beaches are over-crowded. They’ve always been over-crowded. Given all I’ve written above, it’s not logical, but there it is. These days the government tests water samples at the most commonly used beaches in order to determine and announce the presence of unwanted organisms or chemicals and while we were in Constanta, they were quite clear that the water was full of unwanted bacteria in Mamaia (the main resort town). They were advising people to go further north and bathe in cleaner waters. Also, we tried taking a leisurely stroll on the boardwalk one evening. You know how in most places in the world, this is possible? In Mamaia, this turned into a game of dodging left and right and craning our necks to spot breaks in the crowd. It was insane. I’ve never seen so many people taking a “leisurely stroll” together anywhere in the world. It was stifling. I don’t do well in large crowds. We ended up turning onto the beach and walking among the breakers so we could get some peace and quiet.

I will say this: they’ve renovated the boardwalk and it looks really good. Lots of restaurants have popped up here and there offering all sorts of cuisines and dishes. There’s also a brand new portion of the boardwalk which is wider and (for now) quieter and easier to navigate. We took a walk there on another evening and it was pleasant. But to our dismay, it seems just about every place on the boardwalk assumes the main way to attract customers is to broadcast loud music at all times of the day. The music is typically some sort of club music with thumping base beats, because of course “research has shown” that crappy loud music with lots of base beats is exactly what people need in order to relax, day or night. Where the f**k are the police when this happens? They’d bring in a fortune in noise violation tickets.

Thanks for reading through this. It wasn’t pleasant to write, because it forced me to re-live those experiences, but we must speak up when we encounter these situations. Perhaps I’m different, because I’m used to the beaches of South Florida, which are very democratic: you drive up, park your car, plop down anywhere you like and enjoy the ocean. It’s clean, it’s peaceful and you’re left alone. When you do pay money to be on the beach, you get treated nicely and if you’re at a resort like the Breakers, you get treated very well. There’s a range of hotels and accommodations available, the prices aren’t insane and the star ratings are actually meaningful. And so is the case pretty much anywhere else in the States. Not so in Romania…

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Reviews

Tablets not quite ready for mainstream computing

The new tablet from Apple, the iPad Pro, which comes in two sizes as of this year, is quite impressive. I’m sure they’re fast, and the addition of a stylus for more precise control is an interesting and fitting choice (which also hearkens back to the first tablets Microsoft made, years and years ago).

Apple’s push to market them as mainstream computing devices, as replacements for laptops and desktops is also interesting and worthwhile (and it also mirrors Microsoft’s past efforts in this area).

Yet I have to say that the time hasn’t yet come for it. Oh, we’re close — we’re very close — but trying to do all of one’s computing on a tablet is still an exercise in frustration, and it will continue to be so until tablets are robust enough to handle serious computing and more importantly, mobile apps evolve to the point where they offer all of the options of desktop apps. That will involve a concerted effort from both hardware and software makers of all shapes and sizes.

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I’m glad that Apple’s picked up the ball on this and is running with it, but in my book, they haven’t won the game yet. Tablets are still a niche market when it comes to laptop and desktop replacement and let’s face it, most people use them to go on Facebook, YouTube or Netflix (hardly something that qualifies as work).

I’ve tried repeatedly to use an iPad as a desktop replacement, and while it works quite well for dawdling on the websites mentioned in the previous paragraph, even there the options offered by the mobile apps are limited.

For example, the Facebook Pages app doesn’t let me manage my pages the way the desktop version of Facebook lets me do it, because it doesn’t give me all of the options available to me there. So I still have to remember what I can’t do on my tablet and go back to my desktop to do those things. The YouTube app won’t let me access all of my comments and block offensive commenters. So when I’m traveling without access to my desktop, that’s a frustration. But some of you will say, “Why don’t you access those websites through the mobile browser and take care of things that way?” Because I’m automatically directed to mobile versions of those sites and I still don’t have access to the options I need.

I tried editing short videos on my iPad, and while the performance of iMovie app was pretty good, my tablet got pretty warm and ran through the battery as I edited simple clips, making me wonder what would happen if I tried to edit multiple camera angles and longer videos on it. Oh, wait, I can’t do that, because in the mobile iMovie app, there are no such options and of course there isn’t a mobile Final Cut Pro app. There’s no sound to video synchronization, the options for cutting soundtracks in and out are very limited, and the list goes on and on.

But surely you can work on a book on an iPad, right? Well, my wife tried to do that on one of her new books and she couldn’t. It’s just a text file at this point, somewhere between 100-200 pages. The iPad should have been able to work on it just fine but nope, it kept choking on it. The cursor would barely chug along as she typed, forcing her to take frequent breaks and allow it to catch up. The diacritics were all screwed up. After about half an hour of this nonsense, she gave up and went back to her laptop, which is an aged, mostly toothless beast, an 8-year old MacBook Pro with all the speed of a constipated sloth, but it still fares better than a tablet when it comes to editing books.

Well, what about the Photos app? Surely you can at least edit photos on it? Well, I downloaded photos from one of my DSLRs on my iPad (with the aid of this little gadget), and it got hot and ran through half the battery just importing them and generating previews. As I started to browse through them, it would take 5-7 seconds just to let me see a crisp version of each photo. Granted, these were raw files and I have an iPad Air, not an iPad Pro, but I can’t imagine things being too different on the newest, shiniest Pro tablet. I’ll give credit to the Photos app when it comes to editing photos taken with the iPad or the iPhone. It’s plenty fast on those. But the idea of replacing the notebook or a desktop means you’ll be editing photos taken with other cameras as well. And it’s just not there yet.

So where are we? Simply put, tablets are great for fiddling around on the internet but they just aren’t up to par when it comes to replacing notebooks and desktops, at least in my own experience.

That’s not to say I don’t yearn for the day when that happens! I’d love to only have to carry a tablet and a portable keyboard with me as I travel. Even at home there’d be huge benefits in terms of energy use (we’re talking tens of times less than notebooks or desktops), carbon footprint and other aspects. I do hope Apple (and others) continue to push the envelope on this. I particularly want to see mobile apps become full-fledged working apps for power users. Once that happens, hardware is bound to catch up with the needs of the software and we’ll be in business.

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Here’s my review of the initial kit sent out by the Wet Shave Club, a wet shaving subscription service that allows you to sample various blades, soaps and after shaves every month.

It’s a rather long video, but it’s not just a review. It’s packed with lots of helpful shaving advice, so it’s more like a detailed tutorial. Enjoy!