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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permanent data storage

We need to focus our efforts on finding more permanent ways to store data. What we have now is inadequate. Hard drives are susceptible to failure, data corruption and data erasure (see effects of EM pulses for example). CDs and DVDs become unreadable after several years and archival-quality optical media also stops working after 10-15 years, not to mention that the hardware itself that reads and writes to media changes so fast that media written in the past may become unreadable in the future simply because there’s nothing to read it anymore. I don’t think digital bits and codecs are a future-proof solution, but I do think imagery (stills or sequences of stills) and text are the way to go. It’s the way past cultures and civilizations have passed on their knowledge. However, we need to move past pictographs on cave walls and cuneiform writing on stone tablets. Our data storage needs are quite large and we need systems that can accommodate these requirements.

We need to be able to read/write data to permanent media that stores it for hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of years, so that we don’t lose our collective knowledge, so that future generations can benefit from all our discoveries, study us, find out what worked and what didn’t.

We need to find ways to store our knowledge permanently in ways that can be easily accessed and read in the future. We need to start thinking long-term when it comes to inventing and marketing data storage devices. I hope this post spurs you on to do some thinking of your own about this topic. Who knows what you might invent?

A brief history of clothes

17th-century-clothes

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” ― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Clothing may have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, with some scientists proposing that it may have been in use even more than 650,000 years ago, though most agree that the first fabric uses occurred about 100,000 years ago.

These theories are based on studies of the human body louse, which according to genetic studies, diverged from its ancestor, the head louse, about 107,000 years ago. I hope you weren’t eating your lunch when you read that…

Flax fibers seem to have been the first used for textiles and fabrics, around 8,000 BC, with cotton following around 5,000 – 4,000 BC and wool around 3,000 BC. Starting around 6,000 BC, other fibers such as rush, reed, palm and papyrus were used together with flax (linen) to make ropes and other textiles. Silk also saw its introduction as a fabric around 4,000 BC, in China. Bark and hemp fibers were discovered to have been used in Japan around 5,500 BC.

The Silk Route, which began in 114 BC during the Han Dynasty, is credited in large part with the development of the great civilizations of China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Indian subcontinent and Rome, and thus helped to lay the foundations for the modern world. You wouldn’t normally think cloth can have such an incredible impact, but it did.

Dress in classical antiquity favored wide, unsewn lengths of fabric, pinned and draped to the body in various ways. When I look at depictions of clothing from the civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome, there are common traits: it was made to suit the weather, covering more of the body where it was colder and less of the body where it was warmer, becoming more ornate for the aristocratic classes or for those where certain articles of clothing were symbolic of power, such as those in certain government or religious functions. The fabrics commonly used for these clothes were linen, wool and cotton. The Egyptians used flax (linen) almost exclusively, while the Greeks favored linen and wool and the Romans used mostly wool, though they also used other fibers, such as hemp, linen and small amounts of silk or cotton (which were imported and more expensive). For more info on clothing in the ancient world, you may consult this page.

Clothing in antiquity

We owe the development of richly dyed, woven, patterned and embroidered fabrics to Byzantium and early medieval Europe. During the high middle ages, the development and dyeing of wool was developed more and more, and we began to see a clear differentiation between wool as outerwear and linen as innerwear. We all know that wool cannot be washed and dried without shrinking, which makes it unsuitable for garments that are washed often, like innerwear. That’s where linen works very well, as it also breathes quite easily. Cotton and silk were still being imported and therefore reserved for ornamentation, not as the main materials.

Byzantine clothes

We have the Crusades to thank for the diversification of textiles in Europe and soon afterward, for the emergence of fashion, which historians agree occurred in the mid 14th century. You wouldn’t normally think of the Crusades as a tool for the development of fashion, but there it is, war has a way of opening up new trade routes and new ways of life. I think of these unexpected developments as turdflowers springing up from… well, you know what…

From that time onward, clothes began to change in Europe at a pace unheard of in other places in the world, where styles remained the same for centuries while the Europeans began changing them every year. This is also the period when straight seams and draped garments began to be replaced with what were the beginnings of tailoring, such as curved seams, lacing and buttons.

Medieval clothing

We began to see national variations in clothing during the 15th century. This is also when silk and velvet began to be used more prominently. During the 17th century, we find the origins of the three-piece suit — as the coat, waistcoat and breeches (pants, trousers) began to be made of the same cloth. The fellow in this illustration is not wearing a new-fangled three-piece suit, he prefers the foppish look.

18th century fashion

In the 18th century, fabric production began to be mechanized, but clothing was still being made by hand, as the complicated machines that cut and sew suits and dresses nowadays didn’t exist yet. In the 19th century, sewing machines were invented. We saw the introduction of synthetic fibers during the 20th century, and from the start of the 20th century going forward, we have seen the gradual decline of bespoke tailoring in favor of mass-produced clothes, most of them from synthetic fibers.

suit-factory

Good things have also occurred during this last century. As a result of mechanization and automation, fabrics have become much more affordable and there’s an incredible variety now, as manufacturers constantly experiment with threads, textures, colors and treatments. Clothes have also become much more affordable, and even though they’re made by machines, advancements in computer modeling and the collective data on human measurements gathered over the centuries make it much more likely for you to find an off-the-rack outfit that fits your body nicely now, rather than a few decades ago.

An off-the-rack suit

One of the goals of my project, “The Elegant Gentleman“, is to show the benefits of natural fibers and of custom-made clothes to those who are willing to listen. Natural fibers are simply better for the body and are renewable, as the sheep will grow wool every year and the cotton and flax will spring up as long as they’re well-tended, while clothes made to your measurements, to your body, will always fit, wear and look better than something you pick off the rack at the store. These two things are immutable.

For more information on the history of clothing, I invite you to check out these pages:

Make sure to also read my article on the various types of fibers that go into the making of textiles, fabrics and cloth.

Rampant piracy in Romania

Not sure if you know this, but Romania is a virtual no man’s land when it comes to movies, books and music. Romanians often get to watch movies before they’re in theaters in the US, and there’s a large loophole in Romanian copyright law that makes it nearly impossible to prosecute those who break the law and share digital copies of movies, books or music online.

I consulted with our IP lawyer, and the gist of it is that in Romania, you’re allowed to make a copy of a “book” for “private, home use”. But since there’s no reference to movies or music or anything else in the law, courts extend that same privilege to them. And by “copy”, the courts have come to understand digital copies as well. As long as you don’t charge for them, the courts consider them “private” copies. So that leaves the door wide open for all uninformed (and informed) people to share “private copies” of movies, music and books all over the net.

Back in 2009, I wrote an article about software piracy in Romania, explaining that when software costs $300 to buy (i.e. Windows), a typical Romanian won’t be able to afford it, because that’s their monthly salary. My advice back then, to those who wanted to do the right thing, was to look at Ubuntu, which is free, friendly and completely legal. Now I can add OS X to the list. At $29, it’s certainly affordable for a Romanian, and for the tech savvy people, it shouldn’t be too hard to put together their own Hackintosh. Although not entirely legal, as pointed out in this comment, it’s still a better alternative to running a pirated copy of Windows.

Something I cannot condone though is the piracy of books, movies and music. Their price is affordable to the typical Romanian. A book costs somewhere between $10-30, often even less than that. A movie can cost anywhere from $1-5 to rent and $5-20 to buy — or you can subscribe to Netflix and watch all the movies and TV shows you want for $7.99/month. Music costs $0.99-1.99 per song. There is no excuse for stealing these. Most anyone can save 20-50 RON in order to buy a book or a movie, if they really want it, and anyone can most definitely spare 3 RON to buy a song. And yet, most Romanians don’t. They willfully elect to download pirated movies, music and books whenever they can.

When did it become acceptable to steal something just because you can’t afford it? If you can’t afford it, then you can’t have it. Save up for it and get it later, you’ll appreciate it a lot more than if you steal it.

Want to hear the sad part? It’s not the poor Romanians who are stealing books, movies and music. No, it’s people who have the means to buy these things in the first place, who could afford to part with a few RON in order to get the latest song from their favorite artist, or to see the latest movie. Their lame and legally/morally invalid excuse is that the artist/movie studio/writer is already rich or that everybody’s doing it, because society’s progressing and the old ways no longer work. Which old ways would that be? The need to pay for a service or a good? Well, when I can pay for my utility bills or my mortgage with a movie I downloaded from a torrent website, that’s when we’ll talk about the old ways no longer cutting it.

Since when did someone who has no idea about the hard work that goes behind making a song or a movie or writing a book and getting it published, get to make a judgment about the artist’s financial health or about whether or not it’s okay to steal their work? When did it become okay to steal? This is tantamount to stealing a piece of clothing from a store, or a chocolate from a supermarket.

These same people who complain they have no money then go out and eat at restaurants, they have vacations at sea side resorts, they spend their weekends in the mountains. That is hypocrisy. Ever since my wife and I came to Romania, I keep hearing there’s a financial crisis going on, and everyone’s complaining about how little money they’re making, but whenever I travel the country, mountain resorts are full, seaside resorts are booked up, restaurants are full, coffee shops are full, marketplaces, supermarkets, stores and malls are full of people, everyone’s barbecuing, there are tons of cars on the streets, and money’s flying left and right. Where’s the financial crisis? 

I don’t care if the law’s not up to snuff, stealing’s never okay. Romanians always brag that they’re good Christians. If they were good Christians, they would know the eighth commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal.”

The boring sameness of Romanian restaurants

Romanian cuisine was (and still can be) wonderfully varied and delicious. Not only are there different dishes in each region of the country, but even the basics, the staple traditional dishes, are prepared differently from region to region. Visiting Romania should be a delectable experience for one’s palate — the potential and the means to bring it about are there.

Sadly, if you should walk into more than one restaurant in Romania these days, your chances are better than 95% that you’ll see the same limited menu — the same soups, the same entrees, the same salads, the same meat dishes, the same desserts, the same drinks etc ad nauseam… It doesn’t matter if the restaurant is part of a two-star, three-star or four-star hotel or pension or if it’s a standalone place in a mountain or seaside resort or just some place alongside the road. Beside a few dishes or drinks that sometimes vary, they share the same boring menu.

They all have vegetable soup (most of them don’t know how to make it). They all have tripe soup (in varying degrees of stomach-turning oiliness). They all have fried trout, most of it bland beyond belief to the taste. They all have, of course, lots of pork, beef and chicken dishes (the same fattening dishes across the board), so it’s no wonder most Romanians are starting to look like potbellied pigs. They all have the same salads, and most seem to compete in using the most withered vegetables, drowned in a sea of oil and topped with nose-turning vinegar.

The question then arises, can you find decent food as you travel through Romania? Sure, if you manage not to get sick of eating the same dishes… We’ve traveled a lot through the country (we’d like to travel some more) and we have come across a few restaurants that do some dishes well. We’ve also seen a few restaurants that have impressed us by straying from the boring sameness with different and delicious dishes. But these places were few and far between, and when you’ve been on the road all day and you walk into a restaurant only to see the same menu, it’s a very disappointing experience.

There’s also another factor that adds a certain degree of difficulty to our search for food. We’re raw vegans, which means we prefer to eat raw, uncooked vegan foods. When we don’t have a choice, we’ll eat cooked vegetarian dishes, such as soups, side dishes or salads. But that doesn’t mean we don’t look at the whole menu, just to see what a particular restaurant is offering to the general public, and that’s when the disappointment sets in.

Having grown up in Southern Transilvania, my palate is naturally accustomed to Southern Transilvanian foods, which include Romanian, Saxon and Hungarian dishes. Those dishes were, surprisingly enough (by today’s standards) mostly vegetarian dishes (ovo-lacto-vegetarian). As I grew up, we ate meat once a week (on Sunday), and it was most likely chicken. We ate beef very seldom (I remember only a few occasions during my childhood), but we did eat pork quite often (to my chagrin) in winter-time. I loathed the stuff, but that’s what we had in the pantry, so that’s what I ate.

If you should go to a restaurant in Southern Transilvania these days, their menu won’t reflect the traditional cuisine of the region at all, even if they say they’re a traditional “Transilvanian” restaurant. (Somehow the stupidity of calling a restaurant “Transilvanian” when it’s located smack-dab in the middle of Transilvania escapes the owners…) They have the same dishes you’ll find everywhere else, prepared in mostly the same ways. And they’ll have mostly meat dishes. Where are the traditional soups, entrees and dishes I grew up with? They’re certainly not on the menu!

My grandmother used to make a delicious sweet potato soup. She also made a sour potato soup with tarragon and milk that makes my mouth water even now. She also made cabbage soup, a nice thick soup with dill and all sorts of condiments, completely unlike the pig food they call cabbage soup in restaurants these days. In the spring, she’d make a wonderful sour salad, watercress or wild garlic leaf soup. Her noodle soup was the best. And she’d also make a dumpling soup that had me licking my fingers and begging for more dumplings.

The meal that had me begging for more was chicken drumstick stew with mashed potatoes. That was the best. But she only made that once a week, on Sunday. She also made a delicious mushroom stew. Oh, and her pea stew was so good! Her fried onion sauce, usually served with mashed beans or whole bean stew, sure made my mouth water. She also made a mean potato stew with sweet sauce. Her fries were amazing, particularly when she sprinkled a little grated cheese on top! I can’t even find proper fries in restaurants these days! Most restaurants decided it’s better (for them, not for the customers) to buy frozen, pre-cut fries and warm them up instead of making them from fresh potatoes, as is the rule.

For dessert, my grandmother also made “gomboti” (a sort of dumpling) filled with plums, apricots or peaches. Or she made “clatite” (a small crepe) filled with fruit jam or honey. She made a lot of desserts as well (layered cakes and more) all of them delicious, unlike the cakes you find in pastry shops these days.

My mother and my wife both cook (my wife is a raw food chef) and they both make their own versions of the vegetarian dishes listed above. They’re all delicious. And as we visited various Romanian friends during my childhood and later life, I got to eat some pretty interesting variations on these same recipes.

When we go to restaurants, I can’t find any of these traditional dishes. Instead, what we’ll find is lots of bland, badly cooked side dishes and lots of meat dishes. And when we go to restaurants in other parts of the country (Moldova, Muntenia, Dobrogea), we can’t find any of the traditional dishes from those regions, either.

When did Romanians start to eat meat every day? That was certainly not the case 15-20 years ago. And look at them now, as a nation… They’re almost as fat as the Americans. Most Romanian men over 30 have pot bellies, which they proudly display and rub as if they’re some treasure. Hey, guys, I got some news for you, big bellies are nothing to brag about. In fact, they’re a sign you’re overeating and they’re also a precursor to erectile dysfunction. Think about that as you gulp down steaks and other fat-laden dishes…

My questions for Romanian restaurant owners are these:

  • Where are the foods that set Romanian cuisine apart?
  • Where are the traditional dishes we know and love?
  • Why do you all have the same menus?
  • Will you serve more vegetarian dishes? 

I’m curious to see what answers I’ll get (if any).

The Secret Powers of Time by Philip Zimbardo

This video is an epiphany. It explains how people’s conceptions of time affect their lives and societies — and vice-versa. My jaw kept dropping as I watched it. If you’re a sentient human being, you will think it’s the best 10 minutes you’ve spent in a long time.

RSA Animate – The Secret Powers of Time

Gotta give them something to do

It’s easy to decry TV, movies and sports as nothing more than a time suck, as a constant push toward looser morals and a consumer culture, but they also provide a benefit that’s not often discussed — that of giving people something acceptable to do with their time. Among other things, they redirect energy that would be spent on real life behaviors into vicarious behaviors, and in some ways, that’s a good thing in today’s world.

You look back through recent history, and you’ll see that as societies became more civilized, people distanced themselves from nature and segmented their existence not only in terms of time but also in terms of space. When economies were based solely (or mostly) on agriculture and crafts, people had plenty to do all day long. Life and work followed a natural cycle, and they intermingled. (You see some of that these days with telecommuting.) People had homes, and they had land, and they worked on that land and around their homes all day long. They put in long hours during the spring, summer and autumn, and relaxed during winter, at home with their families. Nowadays, very few people still live on that cycle. Most people have office jobs and live in apartment buildings, particularly in the larger cities where the costs of owning a home are prohibitive. When they get home at night, what’s there to do? Little, really. When you have an apartment, what are you going to do? Stare at the walls? Vacuum the floors? Re-organize your sock drawers? I suppose that’s how the need for mass entertainment developed, first with sports, then movies, then TV. When you have (roughly) five hours of free time per day, you’ve got to spend it somehow, so why not become a sports fan, or why not watch movies or TV?

As one follows the progress of their favorite sports team or TV show, they live in that world, through those characters or stars, and experience the highs and lows of that microcosm. Some would say that’s a form of population control, of dumbing down the population, of occupying their time with nonsense so they don’t wake up and start something. In some ways, it is, but it’s also needed. What would people do with the energy and time they spend on sports and TV if those outlets didn’t exist? Some would spend it in positive ways — with their families, on books, arts, hobbies, games, newspapers, trips and the like — and yet others (and this is a number that can’t be quantified) would spend it in negative ways — and the variety of those ways is something that would boggle the mind. For that group of people, the fact that they spend their time in front of the TV or in the stands, cheering for their sports teams, is undoubtedly a good thing.

So, beside the fact that there are very real benefits to TV networks and advertisers as more people tune in to see TV shows and sports matches, or to movie studios as more people go to see their latest creation, or to sports teams when fans fill their stadiums, there are arguable benefits to be gained for society in general as more people tune out the outside world and turn on their TVs. The issue is clearly more complicated than that, and I’m oversimplifying things, but I wanted to point out this particular aspect. It’s but one view among many that can be taken when you talk about this subject. The more I think of this, the more I realize its complexity can’t possibly be explained in a single post, so don’t expect an overarching conclusion here — just an observation.