Here’s to the simple solutions

For the past couple of days, Mail had stopped working. It couldn’t connect to the email servers for some reasons and kept taking my accounts offline. I knew I hadn’t changed any of its settings. In all my years of using a Mac (since 1994), I’d never run into a situation where Mail settings had gotten corrupted, but I was now willing to look into it. I kept looking at all sorts of scenarios and guides online — things such as these (1, 2, 3, 4) — but nothing helped.

Then it occurred to me that three days ago, as I worked late, past midnight, I got the bright idea to switch the firewall level to High from Medium. “Oh, let’s get some extra protection, shall we?” My router is one of these gizmos handed to me by my ISP, it’s a ZTE that came with no printed documentation and barely any online documentation beyond “this is ON button, this is internet port”. So how was I to know that switching it to High would mean all traffic other than port 25 and 80 would be closed off? But that’s what happened. I did it, forgot about it, and when my email stopped working, it took me a couple of days to connect the dots.

I’m writing this down for you because it’s a great reminder that sometimes the simple solutions are the best (and possibly the only) ones. That, plus writing down changes to the internet configs, especially when I’m working late… Sure, I could have taken a dive into deep-level Mail documentation and email servers and the intricacies of setting up IMAP and opened up ports on my firewall and deleted my Mail settings and set up everything again, but all it took was me logging onto the ISP router and switching the firewall back down to Medium. Less than a minute vs. hours and hours of needless work.

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Good to know, right?

A case study of Romania’s healthcare system

Question: what do you do if your child gets sick on a weekend in Romania?
Answer: nothing; not an effing thing, not unless you want to deal with Romania’s state health system.

Sophie got sick over the weekend. We initially thought it was a mild case of heat stroke. Now we think it’s enterocolitis.

We don’t frequent state-run hospitals in Romania, because the doctors and nurses are more often than not undertrained and uncaring unless you bribe them, and the facilities are incredibly dirty and overrun with filthy, smelly “citizens” — you know, the kind of “citizens” who don’t contribute a cent toward the very services they overrun.

When she started to complain of a headache and tummy ache and started to go limp in Ligia’s arms, we panicked. We thought, okay, let’s hop in the car and drive to the private Polisano hospital in Sibiu, which is where we typically go on the rare occasions when we need medical care.

An aside: we don’t go to the state-run hospital in Medias, which is where we live, because it’s packed full of the same medical staff I mentioned above and is also full of the same “citizens” in its waiting rooms. The last and only time we tried using the emergency room at the hospital in Medias, Sophie could have literally died for lack of care and concern on the part of the staff, who were more concerned with the “citizens” than with tax-paying, hard-working people like us. But hey, the SMURD helicopters can fly low right over our houses to ferry the dirty dipshits to the emergency rooms, waking us up and scaring our children at night, because why not, dirty dipshits are more important than tax-paying, law-abiding, decent people.

Back to Polisano. Turned out they were closed on weekends. What kind of a hospital is closed on weekends?! So there were no private, paying alternatives for people like us on a weekend. We were pointed in the direction of the state-run emergency room.

We walked in. It was chock full of dirty, smelly “citizens”, some of them yelling at the nurses. Some dipshit was yelling about suing the hospital, so everyone could hear him. The door to the treatment room got slammed into his face by one of the nurses (good on her). There was grime everywhere in the public areas, even on the walls. There weren’t enough chairs. “People” were standing up, emanating the unmistakable stenches of unwashed sweat, layers of it, that had been alternately drying up and getting wet again on them for days on end. NO way we were staying there. We walked out with nowhere to go.

Thankfully, Sophie started feeling better. We took a walk through Sibiu’s historic district with her. We held her in our arms. When we got back to the car, she started complaining again about aches. We were at a loss, with nowhere to go.

Sophie’s usual pediatrician doesn’t answer her phone on weekends. Most of the doctors in Romania don’t answer their phone on weekends, as if diseases and accidents take a break on the weekends as well. A pediatrician in Medias even yelled at me when I called her on a Saturday, told me not to bother her and go to the emergency room.

I got in touch with my dad, who is a doctor — albeit not a pediatrician, but a psychiatrist and a damn good one if I might add. He lives in another part of the country, so he couldn’t see Sophie personally, but judging from her symptoms, he eliminated heat stroke and pointed us toward the likely possibility of enterocolitis, probably contracted at the kindergarten. We picked up some furazolidone for her from the only pharmacy in town open 24 hours and drove home.

As a last reminder of how shitty the healthcare system is in Romania, the hallway leading up to the pharmacy stank to high heaven of a filthy mix of old perspiration and urine. I complained to the pharmacist, who apologized and said about half an hour before me, a gypsy woman had come in for something and left the pungent odour behind her. The pharmacist had opened all of the windows to air out the stench, but it was stubbornly clinging to the space.

Conclusion: For f***sake, don’t get sick on weekends in Romania. Better yet, just don’t get sick in Romania, period, end of story.

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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.

apple-ipad-pro

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.

Electricity in Romania

Here’s what I keep saying to every friend and acquaintance who visits my house: you definitely need a voltage stabilizer if you live in Romania.

voltage-stabilizer

Around midnight last night the current started fluctuating wildly. Our UPS units were going crazy, clicking and kicking on and off, trying to contain the power fluctuations and cutoffs. After quickly shutting off all important equipment in the office, I went to see the voltage stabilizer down in the basement. It was going nuts as well trying to keep the current to our house stable, its arms moving quickly back and forth across the copper coils, barely containing the madness. I shut off all current to the house, fearing the stabilizer would burn out.

As I write this, it’s past noon (the following day) and the current still isn’t back on. Oh, it’s been back on and off sporadically, but nothing reliable to speak of. And I found out from one of our neighbors that the scrambling and bungling Electrica (that’s the power company) employees reversed the polarity on one of the phases in the neighborhood, which means they potentially burned out some people’s electrical appliances. As a matter of fact, another neighbor said his heating furnace shorted out and almost caught fire from all the electricity problems during the night.

This is part of the price one pays for living in Romania. It’s a beautiful country, but as they say, caveat emptor.

You may recall unreliable electrical power was partly to blame for a massive data loss that occurred to me a few years ago, before I replaced all wiring and fuses in the house and added the voltage stabilizer. The Drobo units I was using then simply didn’t have the capability to keep the data uncorrupted when experiencing multiple power failures within a short amount of time. They’d simply lose track of some bits, and then the corruption would spread across the drives, eating more and more data, to the point where the Drobo would cease to mount. Nowadays, Drobos come with built-in batteries that allow them to safely complete data operations and shut off in case of a power failure, and they also have some algorithms in place to ensure that data corruption is kept at bay, but it’s hard to trust a device meant to keep your data safe once it’s lost about 20% of your most treasured data, isn’t it?

Video

The case for cursive handwriting

I’ve been meaning to do a video about cursive handwriting for a while, and I’ve also been asked by a few of my viewers on YouTube to do it.

Before you watch the video, I want you to know some of the benefits of handwriting:

  • It works the brain in ways that typing cannot achieve. Every little movement of the fingers and the pen as they form letters on the paper requires many neurons to fire, whereas typing requires much less effort once you learn where the keys are. This article explains it in more detail.
  • You put more emotion, more feeling into handwriting, and this can be seen in the strokes, the thickness of the lines, the size of the letters and so on. When you type, none of that can be seen, unless you say it with words.
  • All of this mental exercise that is required for regular handwriting helps to develop children’s brains and also staves off conditions such as dementia in the elderly.
  • Beautiful handwriting and calligraphy can be admired as art, and they can also be read. A page typed on the computer and printed out is just that: a printed page.
  • Studies suggest that taking notes by hand improves retention of the subject matter.
  • There is a feeling of charm that occurs when one handwrites. I can’t put into words the satisfaction that I get when I put a fountain pen to paper and form beautiful letters. It’s almost hypnotic.

Here’s the video. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope it’ll inspire you to write by hand more often!

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A few of my latest Instagram posts

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The chrysanthemums are still hanging in there in spite of the cold weather. #garden #flowers #winter

A video posted by Raoul Pop (@theraoulpop) on

There's my girl:-) #cat #love #sasha

A video posted by Raoul Pop (@theraoulpop) on

A tiny Sasha #cat #kitten #cute

A photo posted by Raoul Pop (@theraoulpop) on

First snow of the season in my corner of the world.

A video posted by Raoul Pop (@theraoulpop) on

Trixie #pet #cat

A photo posted by Raoul Pop (@theraoulpop) on

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