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…

How Fritz earned his ‘Wonder Bunny’ moniker

As mentioned previously, Fritz’ full name is Fritz the Wonder Bunny from Brazil. We named him that on a whim, because it sounded cute, but he proved it true. So how did he earn it? I’ll tell you how.

Fritz, being a curious bunny and also a silly one, as young bunnies tend to be, found a spot inside the engine of our car where he liked to sleep undisturbed. He’d disappear for hours on end and we figured he’d made a burrow somewhere in the garden or he found a comfy and shady spot under one of our rhubarb bushes.

During one such afternoon when Fritz was nowhere to be found, I needed to run an errand that involved using the car. I looked under to make sure no one was sleeping there, opened the gate, got in and left. I drove for a couple of kilometers, parked the car on a street, then came back to it after a half hour or so, got in and drove back home. So far, so good.

Instead of parking the car inside our courtyard, as I usually do, I left it outside, on the street, because I knew I’d use it again later that same day.

Back inside our yard, Ligia and I started looking for Fritz. He was still nowhere to be found. He’d been gone for a few hours and we started to get worried. Where could he be, the silly bunny?

After we looked everywhere, we gave up. We figured he either found a great hiding spot or he decided to up and go. After all, our pets are all free to go if they so desire. They’re free and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Our cats can climb over the fences any time they wish, and we also have a cat-sized hole in our gate, if they want to explore our street and socialize with other cats.

A few more hours passed by, and we started to get really worried. We’d only had the little guy for a few weeks, but we’d gotten attached to him. The thought of losing him saddened us deeply. We started thinking about scenarios.

What if Fritz had been eaten by a hawk? But we saw no hawks hanging about that day. What if Fritz might have climbed into the engine? That happened to us before, when two of our cats had kittens — but we thought the possibility so remote and the chance of his survival so slim if he did so, especially after I drove the car through town, that we put it out of our minds. We also didn’t have the heart to look inside the engine and see Fritz splattered all over, in case that was what had happened.

The time came for me to run out for another errand, and I left with a heavy heart, by this time realizing that we’d probably lost Fritz for good. I walked out of the house, opened the gate and to my astonishment, who do you think I found nibbling the grass next to my car but Fritz himself!

The little fur ball was covered in oil and dust and was quite scared. I called Ligia to my side and we caught him and put him back in the yard, where, in spite of his clearly harrowing experience, he dug right into a fresh red beet root while glancing about with his big eyes and twitching his soft bunny nose.

So what had happened? Short story, he climbed into the engine bay. That much we know for sure. I still don’t know what spot he chose, but it’s obviously a very good one, and that was his saving grace. He was inside the engine when I started the car and he stayed inside the engine the whole time, while I drove through the town and while the car stayed parked on a public street, kilometers away from our home. Did I mention the day was particularly hot, with temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius?

He continued to stay inside the engine as I drove the car back home and he stayed either inside the engine or under the car as the car stood parked on the street outside our home for more than four hours. We assume he continued to stay with the car all that time because it was the only familiar thing in unfamiliar surroundings.

I don’t know what went through his tiny little bunny mind during all that time. It must have been a terrible experience, being caught up in a big metal monster that made a lot of noise and a lot of heat, moving about with all sorts of unfamiliar smells and somehow avoiding being crushed by all the belts and fans in the engine bay. Then, when the car stopped for good, he climbed out of the engine, his fur full of oil and dust from the car’s innards and he found himself in yet another strange place with all sorts of unfamiliar smells. He must have figured that if he waited there long enough, something would happen that would make things right again and sure enough, it did!

Now do you see why he is rightfully called Fritz the Wonder Bunny? It’s a wonder he’s still around! As far as we’re concerned, he’s a Super Bunny!

We’re hoping he won’t have to take a trip to Brazil in order to prove the last part of his name, but you never know. The future will reveal all! 🙂

A lot of teachers in Romania shouldn’t be teaching

It’s been a couple of weeks or so since high school students in Romania had to take their graduation exams — the Bac, as it’s known over here. The whole thing was a huge controversy this year, because for the first time ever, there were strict rules in place to ensure no cheating occurred on the exams.

Not sure if you knew this, but there’s a lot of cheating in Romanian schools. It occurs on a massive scale. 

It got this way in the past twenty years, as the school system got worse. Teachers were paid less, working hours got longer, the classrooms got bigger, and a lot of teachers stopped caring. That’s not to say they were paragons of teaching before that. I met my fair share of horrible persons in the teaching ranks before I left the country to live in the States. Now that I’m back, it seems they’ve multiplied.

Abroad, Romanian students are known as hard-working and studious — downright nerdy, brilliant at the sciences, etc. That (small) group is still around, but it’s gotten smaller. Many of the students with great grades get them because they cheat these days. They have it down to a science. Forget the little pieces of paper we might use to scribble down a few formulas when we were in school. These kids have cellphones with apps that store textbooks. Or they take photos of hard-to-remember pages with their cellphones, and zoom into those photos during tests. Or they text their buddies, naturally. In some classrooms where the teachers have stopped caring altogether, the students simply open their textbooks, lay them on the desks and copy away. In the vocational high schools, they don’t even bother with cheating anymore. They simply write the answers on the blackboard, to make sure they pass everyone.

Is it any wonder that the younger generations in Romania are so easy to manipulate, when they remain uneducated as they go through schools? A dumb population is what every despot wants, because they’re easiest to control. You just have to give them a cheap bread with one hand and point them to a scapegoat with the other, and they’ll obey. Is it any wonder then, that we have such a corrupt political class in charge of the country?

So for this round of graduation exams, the minister of education set a goal: no more cheating. They had proctors in every classroom, and they had video cameras. Anyone caught cheating would be disqualified and would be kicked out.

I think you can guess what the results were: deplorable. A LOT of kids didn’t pass, because they couldn’t cheat. A LOT were caught cheating, and were disqualified. The pass rate in Bucharest (the capital) was under 50% (somewhere around 43-44%). In some school districts, the pass rate was under 30%, and in some really problematic districts, no one passed. Now can you begin to realize the scale of the cheating that took place in previous years?

Naturally, there’s blame to be thrown on someone, and right now, parents and students and teachers and politicians are busy trying to see who’s to blame. I think the teachers are to blame.

Before I tell you why, let me just point out that I interview students from Romania for admission to Middlebury College (my alma mater back in the States). I’ve been an interviewer for years. When I lived in the States, I interviewed American kids. Now that I live in Romania, I’ve offered to interview Romanian kids. How do you think this cheating scandal has affected the reputation of Romanian kids abroad?

How can the folks back at Midd or Yale or Stanford know which Romanian kids applying to their schools cheated to get those grades, and which ones didn’t? I’m not clairvoyant, so I have no way of knowing myself. I’d love to be able to look at the face of a kid I’m interviewing, like Cal Lightman in Lie to Me, and know that they’re lying about not cheating, but I don’t have those abilities (yet?). So this is why I’m very glad to see a general crackdown on cheating in Romania, and I hope this crackdown translates into long-term changes in the education system to ensure no more cheating. That’s because when I look at a kid’s grades, I want to know they’re honest grades, not inflated through deception and through the theft of other kids’ hard work.

The teachers set the tone in their classrooms. They knew when cheating took place. No one can tell me teachers don’t know when you’re cheating. If they’re good teachers and they care about their students, they know. They can see it on your face right away.

But the teachers stopped caring, so the cheating got endemic. More students saw that it was easier to cheat than learn, and that high grades were within easy reach, so they started doing it too. And it’s the teachers’ fault. Instead of doing their jobs properly, and instilling a love of learning in their students, instead of encouraging them to learn and showing them how interesting the subject matter can be, they resorted to cheap tactics (tactics which should be made illegal) of forcing students to memorize paragraphs and pages from the textbooks and repeating them outloud (or writing them) during exams. What kind of a lazy, pompous bum do you have to be in order to force kids to do that instead of explaining the concepts to them?

As a child, I was beaten (slapped hard, my hands beaten with a ruler) by our grade school math teacher, who was having an affair with one of the other teachers. When rebuffed by his lover, would come to class piss-drunk and would beat the kids. He’d beat me, along with other kids, because we couldn’t remember math formulas when he screamed at us, or that we couldn’t do calculations fast enough.

Or what about the many vindictive teachers I’ve had, who if they had it in for you, for whatever reason, would use every opportunity to belittle me or the other students, and give us all low grades? I met just such a teacher recently and I was blown away by how much anger she had for people who didn’t share her view of things, and how far she’d go to blackball them. Can you imagine these people teaching children? What kind of an example are they for our kids? What do you think those kids will learn from them? Hate, anger, vindictiveness and methods of punishment? Or what about unquestioning submission to the classroom despot? Are those the things we want them to learn?

Have you heard of the teachers (and professors) that will give you low grades if you don’t quote their books when you write your papers? They’re such egotists that if you don’t pay homage to their books, you won’t pass their course. Never mind that many of them copy their books outright from foreign textbooks, stealing the intellectual property of others so they can embellish their own curriculum vitae and hang on to their posts or get promoted.

What about the filthy perverts who ask for sex in order to let you pass their courses? Yes, that happens as well. They caught one such pervert recently in a girl’s dorm room, partially undressed and ready to seal the deal — thankfully, the girl managed to get away, but how many girls to do you think submit to this sort of thing just so they can get their diploma?

All I have to do to get more horror stories like this is to go out and ask any grade school, high school or college student to share their own experience. I for one am amazed that we still have so many qualified students graduating from Romania’s schools — these are cogent, thoughtful people, who’ve managed to rise above all the crap that goes on in those places and decide to do something good with their lives. Kudos to them for sticking it out, because it was a tough journey!

My suggestion to the Romanian government is to get to work right now on reforming education in Romania and to eliminate all the bad teachers right away. The more they leave the inadequate specimens in the classrooms, the more they’ll infect the young generations’ minds.

Audit Defense may not be worth the price

Just a quick note to let you know the Audit Defense service offered by TurboTax in recent years is probably not worth the price. It’s run by a company called TaxResources, Inc., and they say they’ll represent you to the IRS in case you should have any problems with your return, for the low price of only $39.95.

Someone close to me got to find out exactly what they give you in return for that $39.95 “peace-of mind” fee, when an irregularity popped up on their tax return. They’d made an accounting error, found it out, wanted to report it to the IRS on their own, but contacted these folks because, after all, they did pay for the service.

In the meantime, the IRS also found out about the error and contacted them. This is where the Audit Defense service should have shined. Instead, my contact got the run-around. The Audit Defense team weren’t willing to help them in a timely fashion, didn’t want to contact the IRS on their behalf like they should have done, and only ended up helping them — if you might call what they got help — after several written requests. In the end, my contact lost out on precious time, got extra stress they didn’t need, and will need to pay the IRS additional penalties.

It looks to me like the Audit Defense people failed on three of their basic promises: they didn’t step in right away to deal with the IRS, they didn’t handle the entire tax audit, and they didn’t keep IRS penalties as low as possible.

The name of the employee who “helped” my contact with their IRS audit was Joe Schricker, and the company’s name again is TaxResources, Inc. The service is advertised as Audit Defense on TurboTax, and my advice to you is not to get it.

It’s no surprise broadband internet sucks in the US

A recent Akamai survey, which I shared here and here, ranked US in the 33rd spot (globally) when it came to broadband internet connections above 2 Mbps. Sure, it moved up two spots compared to last year, but it’s still lagging behind countries such as Monaco, Slovakia, South Korea, and believe it or not, Romania — which is where I’m living these days.

That’s sad. It’s very sad because a country such as Romania, with fewer resources than the US, and with a LOT more corruption at every level, has managed to provide better Internet services than the US. It just goes to show you how much pork barrel legislation and ridiculous lobbying can slow down an entire country’s Internet access. Why, every time a company tried to improve the way broadband worked in the US, it was eventually bought out or dragged down and kept down for the count.

Remember Telocity? It was one of the first companies to offer DSL service in the US, ahead of Ma Bell. Even though it was paying hefty amounts of money for the right to transport Internet traffic on Ma Bell’s lines, they had enormous problems with the same Ma Bell, due to problems that would somehow just happen to crop up on the same wires or the switching equipment. Then they’d have to pay more money so Ma Bell could fix their own equipment, which they’d say Telocity broke, etc., ad nauseam, and so on and so forth.

That’s just one example. Another was the more recent push to restructure the way cable services are provided (both TV and internet). One of the efforts was the a-la-carte programming initiative, and another was the push for faster and more reliable cable Internet services. You wouldn’t believe the advertising, PR and lobbying blitz the cable industry started and kept up for several months — actually, I’m fairly sure you saw their ads on TVs and buses everywhere, particularly in the Washington, DC area.

Or what about when they got together in late 2007 and 2008 to ask for an Internet tax? Remember the tiers of traffic they wanted to create? They wanted all the big websites to pay them for the traffic, as if they weren’t already getting enough money from the customers for their slow and unreliable services. They also wanted large chunks of money from the federal government in order to upgrade their infrastructure. No matter how much money they make, they’re so greedy they always want more, more, more.

What I’d like to know is how all these other countries, including Romania, can manage to offer faster and more reliable Internet services without asking for money from their countries’ government, without charging big websites for their traffic, and also by charging less per month for better broadband? How is that possible? Could it be that these companies actually know how to run their businesses while their counterparts in the US are filled with lazy, greedy idiots?

I still vividly remember an incident which happened while I was a director of IT at a Florida hospital, several years ago. A BellSouth technician had been called in to check the phone boards, and my network and servers kept going down and coming back up. The Medical Records system kept giving errors when employees wanted to access forms to fill in patient data, not to mention that other network services, like file sharing and printing, kept going on the fritz. I checked every one of the servers and they were fine. I finally walked into the switch room, at my wits’ end, only to find the moronic BellSouth employee with his fat, lazy butt on our UPS, jiggling it back and forth as he chatted with someone back at BellSouth HQ, plugging and unplugging the power supply that fed one of the main network switches. I went ballistic, grabbed him by the collar and threw him out of my switch room. Was he that stupid that he didn’t know where he was sitting? Was he such a pig that he couldn’t feel the plugs underneath him as he sat on them? He didn’t even want to apologize for taking out an entire hospital’s network during daytime hours. That’s BellSouth for you.

I don’t know how the US can get better broadband, unless it’s legislated. An ultimatum must be given by the government, one that can’t be overridden by any lobbyists or CEOs shedding crocodile tears in front of Congress. These companies simply will not get their act together until they, too, are grabbed by their collars and shaken about. They’ve gotten used to the status quo, they like it, and they’re clinging to it with all their might.

Meanwhile, here’s a sample of the Internet plans you can get in Romania right now. For comparison purposes, 1 Euro is worth about $1.4 these days.

Romtelecom (the main phone carrier, provides ADSL services):

  • 2 Mbps, 2084 kbps/512 kbps, 4.88 Euro/month
  • 4 Mbps, 4096 kbps/512 kbps, 7.02 Euro/month
  • 6 Mbps, 6144 kbps/512 kbps, 9.40 Euro/month
  • 8 Mbps, 8192 kbps/768 kbps, 14.16 Euro/month
  • 20 Mbps, 20480 kbps/1024 kbps, 24.87 Euro/month

[source]

Birotec (provides fiber optic services, all plans include phone line with varying amount of minutes based on plan price):

  • 3 Mbps up/down, 10 Euro/month
  • 4 Mbps up/down, 15 Euro/month
  • 6 Mbps up/down, 20 Euro/month
  • 8 Mbps up/down, 29 Euro/month
  • 10 Mbps up/down, 49 Euro/month

[source]

RDS (provides fiber optic, cable, cellular modem and dial-up access — prices not readily available on website):

  • Fiber optic access up to 2.5 Gbps
  • Cable access up to 30 Mbps

[source]

The lowest internet access plan in Romania is 2 Mbps. Cellular modems are advertised at speeds up to 3 Mbps. Meanwhile, in the US, you can still find 512 Kbps plans at prices twice or three times as much as the 2 Mbps plans in Romania. That’s the price of complacency and excessive lobbyism.

The iMac: not so great long, long after

I received an email from Apple a couple of days ago, advertising the new iMac. The title of the ad was: “Amazing right out of the box. And long, long after.”

imac-ad

I disagree with that characterization. Perhaps it’s true of the new iMac, but it’s not true of our iMac. First, let me get something out of the way. I’m a Mac guy. I love Macs, I use a Mac all day long, I love their design and performance, and I love OS X. Unfortunately, my long-term experience with the Mac hardware, particularly when it comes to our iMac, isn’t so positive.

You see, we purchased an iMac G5 in late 2006, with an Apple Care plan. Thank goodness we did that, because we had problems with it from the get-go. A year after owning it, I wrote a post where I detailed the problems I’d been having. At the advice of some of the readers, I took it into an Apple Store to have it checked out. They replaced the motherboard and did a couple of other things. The repair experience was problematic in itself. Then, a short while afterward, the computer died again. This time we took it into a different store, where they replaced the motherboard again and did some other repairs.

Although that second repair experience was more positive, I had to take it into the store once more in 2008, for related issues. I can’t find the repair receipt at the moment, so I don’t know the date and I don’t know what they fixed, but yeah, that was the third time I had related repairs done to it, very likely for the same problems.

Then, inconveniently, about two months after the Apple Care plan expired in September 2009, our iMac died, just as it had died a couple of times before. It refused to boot up altogether. When I’d plug it in and press the power button on the back, nothing would happen. But, if I was extremely lucky, every once in a while, some noises would be heard in the back of the machine, as the cooling fans and hard drive started rotating, only to die a second or so later.

When this last hardware failure occurred, we were packing for an extended stay in Romania. I took the iMac along, since we had data on its hard drive that we needed. Once here, I was able to open it and retrieve the data from the hard disk. Unfortunately, the computer itself is still dead. What’s worse, I’m nowhere near an Apple Store. There are no official Apple stores in Romania. None at all. Where do I take it for service? And will I have to pay for the repair? A logic board replacement on an iMac G5 is somewhere around $900, and that’s only for the parts. It hardly seems fair to pay for a lemon repair, because that’s basically what I have — a lemon. Our iMac G5 has had repeated hardware failures of the same parts (at least three failures) while the Apple Care contract was still valid. The right thing for Apple to do would have been to replace it with an equivalent model, or to offer me a significant rebate on a newer model, allowing me to upgrade as painlessly as possible to more stable hardware. But none of that happened, and now I’m stuck with dead hardware.

So yeah, I don’t think the iMac is so great, long, long after. I’m sorry I spent our money on it, actually, and sorry it never worked as it should have, from the get-go.

Don’t play with Tussionex

Late last night, I kept coughing due to a passing cold. After taking several doses of other cough syrups during the evening, which had obviously not done their job, I decided to take some Tussionex — my ultimate weapon against coughing. I try to use it only when I absolutely need it, because it’s fairly expensive and it’s also hard to get (it can only be prescribed by a doctor). But after three days of coughing through the night and keeping my wife and myself awake, I figured the time had come. I took a teaspoon, waited a half hour, and nothing happened. I took another, waited another half hour, and still the coughing continued. I began to worry: had the syrup expired? Was my coughing so bad that I needed to take more? I took another teaspoon. Bad idea!

Tussionex

Soon after that, I started to feel the effects. Tussionex contains a codeine derivative, which means that, along with stopping my cough, it usually gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling that wears off in a couple of hours or so. This time, because I’d unwittingly (and stupidly) overdosed, the effect was very pronounced, and it was mixed with a sensation of nausea. I found it hard to sit up or stand up and went to bed, where I fell asleep immediately.

Here’s the full list of side effects for Tussionex, from the PDR (Physician’s Desk Reference):

“Anxiety, constipation, decreased mental and physical performance, difficulty breathing, difficulty urinating, dizziness, drowsiness, dry throat, emotional dependence, exaggerated feeling of depression, extreme calm (sedation), exaggerated sense of well-being, fear, itching, mental clouding, mood changes, nausea, rash, restlessness, sluggishness, tightness in chest, vomiting.”

I guess I should be thankful the only side effect I’d experienced before this was the “exaggerated sense of well-being”, along with a slight headache which occurred a few hours after taking the medication. Things were going to be very different now.

I woke up early in the morning, around 6 am, feeling rested and alert. I figured the effects of the overdose had worn off. They hadn’t. I got up to go about my business, and shortly after that, a general, overpowering feeling of nausea swept over me. I could not stand up. I couldn’t keep my balance at all. I felt sick, wasn’t seeing straight, I couldn’t control my movements and had trouble putting words together. It didn’t take long after that for me to experience a fuller spectrum of the side effects: decreased mental and physical performance, dizziness, drowsiness, mental clouding, nausea and finally, vomiting. That’s right, I did it again… I vomited more often in these past few months than in the past several years, and I don’t like it.

I’m still in bed as I write this. The moment I stand or sit upright, the nausea comes back, my face turns white, etc. I’ll be in bed for a while, hopefully not the whole day. All this fun gave me a chance to think about the situation. It’s clear that this wouldn’t have occurred if I hadn’t overdosed. The recommended dosage is one teaspoon every 12 hours. The PDR says: “The usual dose is 1 teaspoonful (5 milliliters) every 12 hours. Do not take more than 2 teaspoonfuls in 24 hours.”

I took three teaspoons within 1 ½ hours. That was incredibly stupid and irresponsible of me, and truthfully, I should be thankful I’m still alive. Here’s what one should expect from a Tussionex overdose:

“Blue skin color due to lack of oxygen, cardiac arrest, cold and clammy skin, decreased or difficult breathing, extreme sleepiness leading to stupor or coma, low blood pressure, muscle flabbiness, slow heartbeat, temporary cessation of breathing”

There it is, in black and white: cardiac arrest, stupor or coma. Instead of getting up from my bed last night and doing a quick search for this info last night, I overdosed like a dummy. My wife could have woken up next to my corpse. Thank God that didn’t happen!

I found out this morning that the FDA, since 2008, is also cautioning healthcare providers, pharmacists and patients, to guard against Tussionex overdose. After my own accidental brush with death, I agree with them.

Recommended Site: Many have become so addicted to certain cough medicine brands that prescription drug abuse treatment has become necessary for them. 

Still, I’m not sorry I took Tussionex. I’m definitely sorry I overdosed though. I’ve used many cough syrups over the years, and none stops my coughing like Tussionex. Here’s a sample of the stuff I tried in only the past few months:

Ketof

Coughend Sirop

Stodal

Ketof is the only other cough syrup that helps me marginally. The rest are garbage, particularly that Coughend Sirop. I also used a syrup called Prospan (not pictured here) in the last few days, which I found did a good job at clearing my throat. It tastes great, but still, it doesn’t stop my coughing. And of course I tried plenty of American cough syrups over the years, none of which helped.

Don’t think I cough all the time, either. But I’m stubborn like a mule, and will often go outside when it’s cold and I’m not dressed adequately. So naturally, I catch colds, and when I do, I cough a lot.

This experience also got me thinking about drugs and their effects on the body. Our bodies, you see, are endowed with the capability to heal themselves. That capability works better or worse in people, depending on how well they take care of themselves (diet, exercise, regular sleep, etc.) Drugs will usually only mask the symptoms of a disease, not cure it. Even though I’m not coughing now, that doesn’t mean Tussionex cured my cough and sore throat. It only stopped my coughing. Here’s what the PDR says about it:

“Tussionex Extended-Release Suspension is a cough-suppressant/antihistamine combination used to relieve coughs and the upper respiratory symptoms of colds and allergies. Hydrocodone, a mild narcotic similar to codeine, is believed to work directly on the cough center. Chlorpheniramine, an antihistamine, reduces itching and swelling and dries up secretions from the eyes, nose, and throat.”

You see, it’s used to “relieve” coughs and other symptoms, not “cure” them. They’re not even sure how it works. They “believe” the codeine derivative in it works directly on the cough center. The human body’s internal chemistry is so complex that I don’t know if we’ll ever figure it out properly. Right now, we’re still just stabbing in the dark when it comes to medicating people. We give them a drug and then, oops, we realize the effect isn’t the desired one, or that it interacts with other drugs and causes undesirable side effects. The PDR says about Tussionex that its “side effects cannot be anticipated”. And there’s also a section dedicated to its possible food and drug interactions. Here’s what that says:

“Tussionex may increase the effects of alcohol. Do not drink alcohol while taking this medication. If Tussionex is taken with certain other drugs, the effects of either could be increased, decreased, or altered. It is especially important to check with your doctor before combining Tussionex with the following:

  • Antispasmodic medications such as Bentyl and Cogentin
  • Major tranquilizers such as Thorazine and Compazine
  • MAO inhibitor drugs (antidepressant drugs such as Nardil and Parnate)
  • Medications for anxiety such as Xanax and Valium
  • Medications for depression such as Elavil and Prozac
  • Other antihistamines such as Benadryl
  • Other narcotics such as Percocet and Demerol”

You see, this is what medicine has become these days: the chemistry of drug interactions. Every physician that works in a field where they prescribe lots of medications has to know drug interactions perfectly, or they will put their patients’ lives at risk. Sadly, most do not know all they need to know, because the interactions are so complex.

My dad is a psychiatrist. He made it a point to know all the psychiatric drug interactions and those of common drugs administered by other doctors, such as primary care providers or internal medicine specialists. He studies them all the time and keeps up to date with all the latest medications. He meets plenty of other doctors who aren’t as well prepared as he is, and he’s told me often how shocked he is to find these people are prescribing drugs that readily conflict with others, creating undesired and potentially lethal side effects. The sad part is that when he tries to let them know about it, they usually brush him off. And then we wonder why so many patients do poorly in hospitals… Isn’t it to be expected when most doctors are ill-prepared to prescribe medications for their patients?

I think the takeaway lesson from all this is that prescription drugs can be very dangerous. They are not to be treated lightly, like I treated Tussionex — even though its nature is supposedly benign — it is, after all, “only” a cough syrup, right? A drug’s side effects and its interactions with other drugs need to be known not only by the doctor but also by the patient, so that each of us is aware of what we are putting inside our bodies. The consequences — if we don’t do this — can be fatal at times. I may not realize it fully right now, but I might not have been around today, and it was all because I self-medicated carelessly.

Updated 1/11/10: I’ve gotten a number of rude comments since I wrote this article, none of which were published, where dorm room heroes and couch potato experts called me all sorts of names, all because the dosage that I took was too low by their standards. They’d have been satisfied if I drank a whole bottle of Tussionex and woken up a month later out of a coma, or if I hadn’t woken up at all. What can I say, other than your mileage may vary. People react differently to different dosages. I suppose if my body had been addled by years of alcohol and prescription drug abuse, my tolerance level for the drug would have been higher, and three teaspoons wouldn’t have done much for me. However, when you lead a clean life and are in full possession of your senses, you tend to be much more sensitive to these situations. So please stop criticizing the article. I wrote it not to draw attention to myself, but to put up a warning sign about prescription drug abuse.

Checking in with Energizer's Advanced Lithium Batteries

I can finally report on the battery life of the Energizer Advanced Lithium Batteries given to me in late January. I wrote about them on February 4th, and put them in my Canon EOS 5D’s battery grip a week or so after that. They worked until this past Saturday evening, April 25th. When I did the tally, I saw that I’d taken 1,872 photos with them. That’s not a typo. The vertical grip stayed on my 5D all the time, from the time I put the batteries inside it to the time I took them out, and that’s how many photos I got with the batteries.

While that battery life is very impressive, given the 5D’s 500-600 shot battery life with one of its single rechargeable batteries, or 1,000-1,200 shots or so with two rechargeable batteries in its vertical grip, it doesn’t tell the whole story. There are a few things I need to clear up first:

  • During these past few months, I’ve been shooting mostly landscapes. That means I didn’t take lots of photos in one sitting, which would have drained the batteries faster. I would expect that if I shot events, the battery life would have been significantly less.
  • For some reason, and I’m still not sure whether my vertical grip is to blame or the batteries, the battery life sensor kept giving a low battery notice the whole time the batteries stayed on the camera, from the time I put them in to the time I took them out. Sometimes the battery life sensor would even flash the really low battery signal, indicating the batteries only had a few shots left in them. Regardless, they kept on working until Saturday evening. Not sure whether this was because the camera expected 1.5V out of each battery, not 1.2V, or whether my battery grip, which had been sitting in a box, unused, for several months before this, is at fault, but that was my experience.
  • Related to the two bullet points above, the batteries gave out while I was shooting an event. It’s possible that they would have lasted even longer if they hadn’t been put through prolonged, continuous use. It’s also possible that if I stick them back in the camera, they might have enough life in them to let me squeeze off another several shots, but that would go against the conditions of my test, where I wanted to see how long they lasted without taking them out of the camera.

Whatever your mileage may be (and I encourage you to do your own testing), I’m very impressed with the battery life. While it was a hassle to keep the vertical grip on my camera the whole time (I prefer to shoot without it unless I’m doing events), it was an interesting experiment. I would recommend keeping a set of these batteries in your bag as a backup, just in case your regular batteries run out of juice. They have a long shelf life, and they won’t self-discharge like rechargeable batteries.

I also promised in my initial post that I would use them in my 580EX II speedlite. I’m keeping that promise. I’ve been using them in it since February, and they’re still doing fine. Again, I haven’t used the speedlite very much, because I’ve been shooting mostly nature stuff, but I did shoot a wedding recently and it worked flawlessly the whole time. I’ll let you know when those run out and I’ll tally up their shot life, too.

Wish I could do something about those dogs

There are two problems with dogs in Romania, as I see it:

  1. There are entirely too many stray dogs
  2. Most dog owners care little about their dogs’ behavior

Let me say first that I’m a dog lover, though my recent experiences here in Romania have cooled my enthusiasm for dogs significantly. Overall, it’s been one negative experience after another, and right now, it’s gotten to the point where I will not hesitate to kick a dog who lunges at me or my wife, as has happened repeatedly.

Stray Dogs

Everywhere you look in Romania, there are stray dogs. It could be the middle of the city, or the middle of the countryside — you are guaranteed to find a stray dog. They usually converge where people are, but you’ll see them crossing open fields or walking alongside roads in the middle of nowhere, looking for scraps of food.

The look

You’d think a breed of animals that depends on people for their food supply, especially dogs, who are supposed to be “man’s best friend”, would be more grateful to people. You’d be dead wrong to assume that, and I don’t exaggerate. Sure, they’re nice when you have food and you want to give them some. They’ll line up and beg, putting on a show. Some packs of these stray dogs specialize in begging, and will stick around car stops and fast food kiosks. They do alright, because they look well-fed. Even I feed them sometimes. After all, I still love dogs, and I don’t mind sharing my food with a hungry and friendly animal.

But may God protect you from meeting a pack of stray dogs at night, or when they’re hungry, because they’ll tear you to pieces. They’re dangerous even during the daytime, sleeping in the sun, curled up next to buildings or on the sidewalk. Those same sleepy dogs can turn vicious and attack at any second.

The dangerous thing about stray dogs is their pack behavior. They’re not disciplined and they are dumb animals. When one begins to bark at you, they’ll all join in. When one of them lunges at you, they’ll all start lunging at you. When of them bites and draws blood, the others become enraged and will all start biting you. As the taste of blood enters their mouths, they’ll soon begin to bite you in order to get pieces of meat. You will no longer be seen as a human being, someone to be feared and respected, but as food — a hunk of meat to be eaten.

I’ve seen stray dogs lunge at street cleaners working nearby. I’ve seen them lunge at elderly people. I’ve heard of them killing adults and children or leaving them scarred for life. A relative of ours from Constanta was jogging on the beach one morning, and was attacked by a pack of dogs who chased him for over a kilometer. He literally ran for his life while they lunged at him one after the other, biting, scratching, digging their teeth deep into his body. He fought them off and barely escaped alive. Now he’s scarred for life on his arms, legs and face, from something that could have been avoided if the city of Constanta did its job in cleaning the city of strays.

I was running one evening in a village in the province of Dobrogea, and a stray dog lunged at me, barking and snarling viciously, ready to bite. I stood my ground, ready to fight, and he retreated. If there had been more of them around, they wouldn’t have retreated, and I might have ended up in the hospital. I have not been able to do any regular running during my stay in Romania. You can’t do it in the city, and you can’t do it in the countryside. When you run, it’s basically an open invitation for stray dogs to attack you. To be able to do any sort of outdoor sport, I’ve had to find remote places away from people, but even there, I have to watch out for sheep dogs, who will attack you on sight if they see you running. It’s insane. This brings me to the second part of this article, where I talk about dog owners and their dogs’ behavior. Before I do that, let me mention one more incident.

I don’t know if folks in the US have had the chance to witness dogs running alongside cars, or behind them lately. The US does a good job of taking strays off the streets. In classic cartoons, this is sometimes depicted as dogs running to latch onto the bumpers of the cars. That’s inaccurate. Dogs will run alongside the cars, barking at them, and some might even try to lunge at the tires, in order to bite them, clearly with sad consequences. When you see stray dogs with bad scars on their faces, you can assume they probably succeeded in latching onto a moving tire.

When you’ve got so many strays, you can get anywhere from only one or up to ten or more running after your car, and accidents will happen. Before I spent any significant time driving in Romania, I couldn’t understand why, and thought the drivers were just being vicious and ran them over on purpose. That’s not the case. I, too, ran over a stray dog recently. It couldn’t be helped. It was raining, so the road was somewhat slippery. This particular dog came out from the side of the road and started running alongside the car in front of me, on the driver’s side, then decided to switch sides and darted right in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and swerved left, but couldn’t avoid him and ran over his hind legs. Needless to say, that was not a good day, and I’d still rather not think of it — but that’s what will happen when the stray population isn’t controlled.

Domesticated dogs

Few dog owners in Romania care enough for their dogs to teach them how to behave properly. Of the majority, there are two classes: those who do little more for their dogs but provide them with a dog house and food, and those who pamper them for the very purpose of showing them off on the street.

This latter class of people is more rare now, but used to be quite common during Romania’s communist regime. They’d have these big, ferocious dogs, such as German shepherds, dobermans, or bulldogs, and they’d walk them in public with a muzzle, smiling secretly (or openly) every time their dog growled at someone and that person shied away.

The other class of dog owners — by and large the overwhelming majority — is quite content to tie up their dogs in the yard, next to a dog house, and to feed and (maybe) clean up after them, but do little else for them, like teach them when to bark and when not to bark. The end result of their treatment (or lack of it) is that you have these frustrated dogs who are tied up behind wooden fences where they can’t see what’s going on outside, but can hear and smell a ton of foreign scents, and who are going nuts, barking at everything, all the time. For all intents and purposes, they’re not really domesticated, because they’re not potty trained, house trained, or taught how to respond to signals and when to be silent. They might as well be strays, because they’re just as dumb as the strays. They cannot communicate. They only bark and snarl, and collectively, they create this cacophony of barks and yelps and snarls that can’t be ignored and drives me crazy.

I’m told I’m supposed to get used to it. I cannot. I can only bear it, and that only for short amounts of time. After that, I get pounding headaches, and the only thing I want to do (and imagine doing) is to squash those idiotic, furry, barking noise boxes. If you’re reading this and you’re shocked, I tell you, you cannot understand it unless you get to spend a few weeks in Romania and are treated to incessant barking at all hours of the day and night, from all directions. You try sleeping when every damn dog in the neighborhood has joined in the barking started by the neighbor’s idiotic mutt. You try concentrating on your work when some moronic, flea-bitten fartbrain a couple of houses away chooses to mark the passing of every 10 seconds with a bark. You try going on about your business, accompanied by that sort of a noise parade, and you let me know how it feels after a couple of weeks (or months) of it.

The other issue I encounter is that of violent behavior in dogs that are supposed to be domesticated. I guess this sort of ties in with what I said a few paragraphs above, but this sort of violence isn’t necessarily encouraged by the dog owners. It results more from a lack of care. I’ve seen it on two occasions.

While in Predeal — a popular mountain resort — I hiked to one of the peaks nearby, a place miles away from civilization, called Clabucetul Taurului. The only settlement nearby was a tourist cabin set in the valley between two peaks, about a mile away, called Cabana Garbova. As I stood there on the peak, taking in the beauty of the place, a stray dog wandered up the slope of this peak, and greeted me in a friendly fashion. I warmed up to him quickly. After all, I still love dogs, in spite of my recent experiences. This dog was nice and clean, which isn’t something you see often in stray dogs. It’s likely that he belonged or had recently belonged to a farmer down in the valley, and he liked to wander around all day long. I took several photos of him while up on the peak. Here’s one of them.

Friendly company

When I headed down the mountain to re-join my wife, who was waiting for me near Cabana Garbova, he followed me. As we all approached the cabin, it became evident to us that we had a problem. The dogs at the cabin, a pack of about 8 big monsters accustomed to fighting wolves and bears, sniffed him and started barking wildly. We tried to shoo him away, to make him go back up the mountain, but he didn’t want to leave us. Then the dogs down below started running toward us. We started getting really worried. Here were some seriously large dogs who gave all the signs of intending to do us harm. I started yelling down at the cabin, hoping its owner would come out and call them back. No such thing. Our companion stray got really worried, and stood close to me, behind my legs. He was hoping the other dogs would see he was with me and wouldn’t attack.

I called out to them, telling them to stop, but they kept coming. I could see their teeth, bared, ready to bite. They ran and lunged right at me. I braced for the impact. They brushed right by and latched onto the stray. The poor thing was mauled, right there, in front of me, and I was helpless to stop them. I had nothing but my camera in hand, so I took photos. I may at some point publish them, but right now it’s really hard for me to even look at them, because I got attached to that stray. He did nothing to us, even helped us by hanging around as we walked through wild territory where we could have been attacked by wild animals, and yet these vicious dogs were trying to tear him apart. He was, after all, one of them — not a wolf, not a bear, not a fox — not a danger to anyone.

My wife found a stick and started hitting them, trying to make them let go of the dog. They wouldn’t, but growled at her and started dragging him away, wanting to kill him and likely eat him. I woke up from my shock, grabbed the stick from my wife, and started hitting the ground next to them, yelling loudly. Finally, they let go. By this time, some people down in the valley below came out and started calling them back. They spread apart and left us alone. The poor dog was still alive, but badly hurt. He was bleeding in several places. Thankfully, there were no open wounds. His thick fur protected him. He followed us down to the cabin and laid down by the door. Others nearby kept the dogs away. I was livid with anger. I went inside and asked to speak to the owner, who was in the kitchen, not outside tending to his vicious dogs. I asked him why he hadn’t done something to stop them. Did he think it was okay to let them kill an innocent dog? He called me stupid to my face and told me he couldn’t care less about someone else’s dog. I couldn’t believe it! What if the dogs had attacked us, I asked. He didn’t answer that question. I wanted to punch him right in the face, but chose to walk away.

Just imagine for a second how much more traumatic this whole experience would have been if that had been my dog, not a stray. If it were your dog, and you were standing there helpless, fearing for your life, watching it being mauled to death by a pack of large mountain dogs, how would you have reacted? It’s likely that a smaller dog would have died right away. Thank goodness our stray was hardier and more resistant. Still, only the adrenaline kept him on his feet long enough to walk down to the cabin. When we came out, he was lying by the door, in pain. He didn’t, or couldn’t get up. I bought some meat and bread and put them in front of him. He started eating, slowly, afraid for his life, flinching every time he saw the cabin dogs in the distance.

We had to leave, and he wasn’t going anywhere, so we left him. I only hope the cabin owner had some heart left in him, and didn’t let his dogs finish him off. I think I saw his wife chiding him in the kitchen as we were leaving. Perhaps she knocked some sense into him, because he sure needed it.

The other incident I wanted to mention happened as I was walking through the hills outside a village near Bacau, in the province of Moldova. I was taking photos, and I had my tripod with me. It was a viciously cold day, and a snowstorm was brewing in the air above. The calendar might have said it was March, but no one had told Jack Frost. Billy, a lovable mutt belonging to family of ours, accompanied me.

Billy

Suddenly, he became wary of his surroundings and started sniffing the air with a worried look. He kept looking at me, then at something in front of us. I could see nothing. I only heard the distant bleating of sheep. Billy hung around for a couple more minutes, signaling that we should return, then, seeing I had no intention of doing so, turned around and headed back home by himself. I laughed and wondered why he did it, but kept walking my way. I soon discovered the source of his fear. It was the vicious sheep dogs who were guarding the flock of sheep in the distance. As soon as they saw me (I was downwind, so they couldn’t sniff me), they charged right at me, three of them. I was ready. I had my tripod, which is nice and thick and just the right size for bashing in the head of a violent dog. I raised it above my head and waited for the first lunge. It didn’t come. They stopped a few feet away and kept snarling and barking. I advanced toward them. They retreated. The shepherd finally came in sight, saw what was going on, and called them off. They obeyed and left me alone.

I walked off, finished the route I wanted to do that day, and started to walk back home. The flock of sheep were still around. I tried to keep a safe distance and avoid another encounter, but this time they sniffed me and came at me again. I raised my tripod again, ready to put out their lights, and again they retreated, leaving about 10-15 feet between me and them. But they were still barking like crazy. I called over the shepherd and had a talk with him. I told him I’d have no qualms about quieting his dogs if he couldn’t control them. He disagreed, and said they wouldn’t attack if I stood still. I didn’t test his theory, because it might have proven painful and hazardous to my health. I went home instead and warmed up by a nice fire.

So you see, Billy wasn’t the coward I thought he was. He knew what he was doing when he hightailed it out of that area. The scar you see on his muzzle in the photo above is apparently the reminder of a fight with sheep dogs — that’s what our relatives told us.

What’s to be done about those dogs?

The way I see it, two things need to happen in Romania when it comes to dogs. For one thing, the stray population needs to be controlled. To this point, city governments, working with NGOs and veterinary offices, conduct neutering campaigns every once in a while, but it’s not working.

Perhaps euthanasia of unwanted strays is a solution. I know it sounds cruel, but stray dogs are a real danger, and they need to be off the streets. They need to be put up in shelters, where if they’re not adopted within a certain time period, they’re euthanised. Why condemn unwanted strays to a life on the streets, in bitter cold or fierce heat, with little or no food, to the risk of accidents that maim them and leave them in pain for life, when they could rest in peace? If we were to judge the situation coolly, we would realize it’s not feasible to take care of all the strays. Perhaps if the money and the interest were there, we could feed them and neuter them all, but neither the money nor the interest is there. We can’t find adoptive families for all of them, either. Why not put them to rest? At least they won’t suffer anymore.

I look forward to the day when I can run on city streets or on a beach in Romania and not have to worry about being mauled by strays. I’m sure a lot of other people look forward to simply being able to walk the streets without being mauled by strays.

The second thing is that dog owners need to start being more responsible about their dogs. At the very least, they need to teach them when to bark and when to keep quiet. That’ll go a long way toward cutting down on unnecessary noise and headaches. As I write this, some mutt a few houses away is barking like a nutcase at something of no consequence. He’s been driving me up the walls for the past few days. I honestly think the dog’s owner ought to be fined for his lack of concern and for the noise pollution. That should be another measure implemented soon by local governments.

A Canon repair experience

As I mentioned previously, my Canon 580EX II speedlite hadn’t been working properly with my Canon EOS 5D DSLR since March of 2008. I’d set it in the hot shoe on top of the 5D, as usual, but it would cause the camera not to work at all. The 5D would give me a strange error message where it would display some random settings for the aperture and shutter speed, and the shutter button would not fire.

canon-580exii-speedlite

I tried turning the camera and speedlite on and off. I tried disconnecting and reconnecting the battery. I tried resetting the speedlite in the hot shoe, which sometimes did the trick. Finally, I gave in and sent it into Canon for repairs. That repair ended up costing me a little over $100 plus shipping. The Canon technicians wrote back on the receipt that they’d replaced some cracked part inside the speedlite. Since I never dropped the speedlite or banged it against anything, perhaps that part had been cracked from the get-go, who knows…

Once I got the speedlite back and tried it out, I realized the problem not only hadn’t gone away, but had gotten worse. Now my 5D refused to fire with the speedlite in the hot shoe no matter what lens I used. This was not good, but what puzzled me is that the 5D and 580EX II worked just fine when I used them with the Canon STE-2 wireless transmitter, which sits on the hot shoe and sends a radio signal directly to the speedlite. In other words, the speedlite and camera didn’t work when connected directly, but worked if connected through the wireless transmitter.

I contacted Canon a second time, and was transferred through to advanced support on that call. Once the tech asked me a few questions to pinpoint the problem, he told me this was a fairly common occurrence with the 5D and 580EX II. Apparently, the hot shoe insert for the 580EX II was made just a wee bit thinner than normal, and after normal use of the hot shoe on the 5D, the 580EX II will sometimes not make proper contact with the camera, and will cause it not to fire. That’s why the camera worked with the wireless transmitter, which has a thicker hot shoe insert.

He offered to send me a pre-paid shipping label so I could send both the camera and the speedlite in for repairs, which would now be covered under the previous charge for the repair of the speedlite, as a recurring issue. I sent them in, and when they came back, they both worked as they should, thank goodness. My 5D hot shoe wasn’t replaced though — it was likely just taken off the camera and tightened a bit, which means the problem could re-occur at some point in the future.

I have three bones to pick with Canon about this whole thing:

  1. Why didn’t they make the hot shoe insert for the 580EX II speedlite the right size from the get-go? Why do we, as Canon customers, have to go through this whole thing where we send them in for repairs when it’s not really our fault? I don’t think I’m the only one who’s had this problem. Why not issue a recall where either the hot shoe of the 5D is replaced or tightened, or the hot shoe insert of the 580EX II is replaced?
  2. Related to #1 above, why do we have to pay for this? If it’s a known issue, caused by faulty design, and it happens quite often through normal use of the camera and speedlite, why pay at all? I might be willing to put up with a token fee that covers shipping and handling, but I should not have to pay the regular repair fee for something that was designed to go wrong, so to speak.
  3. Why did my 580 EX II come back from the repairs with what looks like Coke stains on the catchlight panel (see photograph below)? I can only assume the tech that worked on it opened his soda can right next to my speedlite, stained it, and didn’t bother to clean it. I thought the conditions were supposed to be kept sterile in the labs. What’s up with that?

580EX II Speedlite with stains on catchlight

Keep this in mind if you have the same issue with your Canon DSLR. It may not be that the speedlite is defective, it could simply be that it’s not making proper contact with the hot shoe, in which case your options are as laid out above.

The Italian road trip

We came back yesterday morning from a wonderful week-long road trip through Italy. We started out in Pisa last Wednesday, February 18th, and returned from that same city yesterday, on February 25th. Before we left, we mapped out a circular route that cut through the following regions: Toscana, Emilia Romagna, Veneto, Marche, Abruzzo, and Lazio.

Italy - Tourist and Road Map

Morning fog over Florence

I traveled to Italy in 1999, 10 years ago, and stayed in Rome for three weeks. I also visited Florence for a day. Lots of things have changed in Italy since then. Here’s what happened this time around.

The route

The towns we visited were, in chronological order: Pisa, Firenze, Venezia, Ravenna, Rimini, Grottammare, Tivoli, Roma, Ladispoli, Capálbio and Rosignano Marittimo. All in all, we drove about 1,300 km. It was a fairly large amount of ground to cover, and I was even told it couldn’t be done in a week, but I knew that if we stuck to the route and were disciplined about the amount of time spent in each city, we could accomplish our goal. We did, and even had time to make unscheduled stops in towns too beautiful to pass by, such as Grottammare, Capálbio and Rosignano Marittimo.

Unbeknown to us, we passed right by the Lamborghini factory in Sant’ Agata, near Modena. It was evening, and we drove through the little village on our way to Ferrara. We wondered what in the world the red Lamborghini brand was doing on a glass-encased rectangular building that lined the road, and about an hour later, the jigsaw puzzles came together and it finally dawned on me what we’d seen. D’oh! We didn’t have time to go back, or else I’d have tried to get a tour. That would have been fun!

My intent is to write individual articles about each city we visited, each illustrated with plenty of photos, so stay tuned for that. I will add links to those articles below as they are published.

The weather

It was February, which is technically winter, but we stuck to the warmer regions of Italy, so we had beautiful, spring-like weather. Temperatures ranged from 1 – 19° C while we were there, and it was mostly sunny, with little rain.

Late afternoon fields

There was no snowfall, although if we’d ventured further north, I’m sure we’d have gotten some. There were times when we passed through mountains, particularly on our way from Pescaro to Rome, that the weather got downright freezing and snow was clearly visible on the mountain tops.

Mountain village

The prices

We visited during the off-season. Not many people go to Italy in February, so prices are less than in high season.

Expect to pay about €10-20 per plate for lunch and about €15-30 per plate for dinner at restaurants. Even a restaurant located right on the main canal in Venice or near the Basilica di San Pietro in Rome won’t cost you more, for lunch anyway. Of course, you can also go into a buffet and get a slice of pizza or some spaghetti or something, and it’ll be a lot less, but it’s nice to know going to a restaurant won’t break the bank. Make sure to always ask for a menu before being seated if you’re uncomfortable getting up from the table once you find out what things cost.

A restaurant near Basilica din San Pietro

Going to a supermarket and buying bread, fruits, vegetables and various kinds of cheeses and other delicatessen is even less expensive than going to a buffet or cafe. You can eat the food up on a hilltop, or in a forest, or even in your hotel room if you’re rushed for time — just not in public parks, because it’s not allowed there. It’s healthier and a lot lighter on the wallet. But make sure not to litter if you eat out in nature. Bring an empty bag along and take all your trash with you. It’s the civilized thing to do.

The hotels were also not as expensive as we thought — at least the ones we looked at. Rooms ranged in price from €50/night at a two-star hotel to €90/night at a four-star hotel for a double room with the usual amenities, including breakfast.

Fuel prices ranged from €1 to €1.30 per liter for regular diesel, which is what our rental car used.

The people

We had nothing stolen from us this time, unlike what happened to me in 1999, and on the whole, the people were a lot friendlier than I remembered them. Even if I could only speak a little Italian, they were willing to help me and we got along in fragments of mixed English and Italian. I found the people in the smaller cities and villages were a lot nicer than those who lived in the larger cities. It looks like my theory about larger cities being too stressful for healthy living is true — not that I’m the first to think of it.

The transportation

We rented a Ford C-Max 1.6L Diesel. I liked it a lot. It’s the European version of an American station wagon. It can seat five people and their luggage comfortably for long stretches of time. The ride was smooth, the gear shifting was smooth, braking was strong but not crude, and things worked as they should. It had decent acceleration for a 1.6L diesel engine loaded down with five passengers and a full trunk, even going uphill.

Our rental car, a Ford C-Max 1.6L Diesel

I liked its many storage compartments, and the fold-out trays behind the front seats, which can be used for light meals inside the car. I liked the windshield wipers, and here’s why: when you squirted wiper fluid onto the windshield, they did a few passes, then stopped for a few seconds to wait for the last beads of fluid to pour down the glass, and did one last pass to get them. It’s a clever little touch that means a lot to me, because I always found myself having to do that last pass manually on other cars.

I also liked the car’s light fuel consumption. On average, it did 6.1 liters per 100 km, and oftentimes it did even less, even when I drove over 100 km/h, which is pretty good considering the load it carried and the car’s size.

Steering wheel and dashboard, Ford C-Max 1.6L Diesel

One thing that bugged me about the car was the safety belt beeping. If you didn’t put your belt on right away, it started to beep annoyingly every few seconds. That really got on my nerves, and it seems like most newer cars bug you like this. One reason I like my MINI so much is because it doesn’t beep. All I get is a red light on the dashboard. That’s plenty for me.

Another thing was the somewhat soft steering at higher speeds. I didn’t go faster than 130 km/h with it because of that very reason. It just seemed like it wouldn’t do very well if I had to do a quick swerve to avoid something, so I didn’t push my luck.

Would I rent this car again? Definitely. I even took it offroad, and it’s so well-built underneath that you can’t break your exhaust pipe on a rock or crack your oil drum, like you can with other cars. Everything is neatly tucked away above the car’s steel frame. Even though ground clearance isn’t high, you can take it over uneven ground and it’ll do just fine, within reason.

Driving and traffic

The drivers are civilized and slow-paced in the smaller cities or villages, but fairly crazy in the larger cities like Florence and Rome. They’ll make four lanes out of two at stop signs or roundabouts — that’s if they stop at all. You really have to keep on your toes when you drive there, or you might run into another car or a pedestrian, who will step out into the road at a crosswalk and expect you to stop, which is not what happens in the US, but is what you should do in Italy. Honking and cutting in front of other cars without warning is quite common and should be expected there.

While this style of driving was a shock to my system at first, I quickly got used to it and found it quite advantageous in the end. You see, I had to constantly pick my way through the cities by following the maps and street signs, and if I was a little late with a turn, I could cut through the traffic my “elbowing” my way in, so to speak, just like the others did. They might honk at me and shake their hands at me, in typical Italian fashion, but I’d just shrug my shoulders and smile — and they’d let me pass.

I didn’t see a single case of road rage in Italy, unlike in the US, where some doofus is liable to pull out their gun in the middle of the street. The Italians might get angry, but it’s only surface anger — a small reaction to the situation which quickly gets forgotten as the annoyance disappears. If they honk at you, it’s to get your attention, not because they’re truly angry. If they shake their hands at you, they’re not swearing, it’s just the way they react. Really, it’s not as bad as it seems. Just go with the flow.

An Italian highway at night

Roads and street signs

The roads were kept in good shape. There were a few towns (Pisa, for example) where the roads were in construction and full of potholes, and a few sections of the highways where potholes were beginning to emerge through the asphalt, but generally speaking, the roads were smooth, well-built and fairly safe.

I have a bone to pick with Italian speed limit signs. You’re generally expected to do 50 km/h while in the city and 90 km/h outside, but more often than not, they had me going 50 km/h outside the cities, in places where I should have been going 70-90 km/h or more. The Italian drivers themselves didn’t obey the speed limit signs. They usually did 10-20 km/h more than the posted speed limit, or even more, even in the cities. I tried to obey the posted limit but also keep up (more or less) with the general traffic, and I hope I’m not going to be surprised with one or more speeding tickets in the mail.

Street and landmark signs are pretty good. Sometimes, there are too many of them and you can’t figure out which way to turn while the traffic behind you keeps pushing you along. What I did was to put on my emergency blinkers and pull to the right. As long as you don’t do it in the middle of an intersection, people will understand.

Be careful with a new batch of signs called ZLT (Zone a Traffico Limitato). They weren’t in place in 1999. They were introduced recently to curb the traffic through certain areas in popular cities, and to reduce the amount of pollution. You’ll get a hefty fine if you happen to pass through such a zone when you’re not supposed to do it. The signs should say what hours and days the ZLT rules are enforced. Ask a policeman to be sure, or just don’t venture inside the zones. Find a parking spot somewhere near the places you want to see, and go on foot.

Hotel signs are another matter altogether. There are tons of little signs advertising hotels of all kinds along the roads in major cities. They’ll say go left or go right, but unfortunately, those initial signs aren’t followed up by subsequent signs that take you to the hotel. You may find yourself nowhere near the hotel at the end of 5 minutes’ or 10 minutes’ driving, even though you’ve turned like the sign said. That can get pretty frustrating, particularly if it’s getting dark and you need to find a place to stay.

The hotels

In Italy, there’s a huge difference between a two-star or three-star or four-star hotel in a city, particularly in a city’s downtown area, and a two-star or three-star or four-star hotel on the city’s outskirts, or in the countryside. Keep that in mind when you look for hotels in Italy.

We stayed at a two-star hotel on the outskirts of Ferrara one night. A few days later, we looked at two-star and three-star hotels in the middle of Pisa (centro), and they didn’t even compare to the two-star hotel out in the countryside of Ferrara. That hotel was clean, roomy, warm and downright luxurious when compared to the dumps they call two-star hotels in Pisa. Those don’t even have bathrooms in the rooms — they have a single bathroom in each hallway, yet they have a sink, bidet and trash can next to the bed, which is disgusting.

The lesson to be learned is simple: stay at four-star hotels inside the cities, if you find a good price, or find two or three-star hotels, or even bed & breakfast places, outside the cities, in the countryside or in small villages, if you want something clean and comfortable. Of course, that entails having a car so you can get around without having to worry about public transportation routes, which don’t exist (to my knowledge) in the countryside.

While most gadgets one carries around with them when traveling are made to work on both 120V and 230V current these days, almost all of the electrical outlets in Italian hotels take only the thinner round prongs, not the thicker round prongs used elsewhere in Europe. This means you won’t be able to recharge your laptop or camera batteries or your cellphone if you don’t bring or buy an adapter that has the thinner round prongs.

Two types of plug prongs from Europe

Also related to electrical outlets, make sure to also have an electrical strip or splitter with you. You’ll be lucky to find one spare outlet in most hotel rooms, and if you have multiple gadgets and no splitter, you won’t be able to recharge all of them during the night. I found no spare outlet in a few of the rooms we stayed, and had to unplug the TV in order to plug in my own stuff.

Here’s the list of places we stayed at, in chronological order:

Villa Aurora, Firenze: not open to the public. Family of ours from Florence arranged our stay there, so it doesn’t really count, but it was beautiful. I’ll post photos from there in my Italy album, probably under a new sub-album for Florence. Price is usually €50/night for a double room.

Hotel Daniela, Ferrara: a two-star hotel with bigger, cleaner rooms and newer fixtures and linens than a three-star hotel in downtown Pisa. It had rooms with real bathrooms, proper heating, shiny floors and clean, comfortable beds. Shower water was piping hot, which was nice. Breakfast was included, and it was good. Espresso was good as well. Only problem was a pipe/drain in one of the walls that made a small but annoying dripping noise during the night. Thankfully we were so tired we slept through it. Price was €60/night for a double room with a queen size bed and €80/night for a triple room with a queen size bed and a single bed. The hotel is in the middle of a field. The view isn’t special in any sort of way, but the price is decent and it’s very clean. There’s parking in the back.

Hotel Caldini, Chiaggio: no stars were advertised for this hotel, but the rooms were large, clean, well heated and it had large, proper bathrooms. Breakfast was not included, but we started on the road so early that day that we didn’t need it. The price was definitely worth it: only €50/night for a double room with a queen size bed and €55/night for a triple room with a queen size bed and two single beds. The hotel is inside Chiaggio’s centro, and faces a canal with small boats. Nice view. There’s parking in the front of the hotel.

Bed & Breakfast La Toretta sul Borgo, Grottommare: this was an experience above and beyond everything we’d hoped to find on our road trip. We found the city of Grottommare by happenstance, because we saw its lights from the highway. It looked nice, so we pulled off, and when we entered the old part of the city, our jaws dropped. We just had to find a place to stay right there in the old city, so we kept looking around until we found this B&B, which is set right in a medieval building in an old citadel. They only had one room available, but we didn’t care. We crowded into it, all five of us, and we loved it. I definitely recommend it, and will post photos soon. Breakfast was included and it was delicious. The espresso was great. The view was amazing, and so was the decor. Price was €100/night for a room with a queen size bed and two bunk beds, meant for four people. We squeezed in five of us anyway, and it was worth it for the amazing experience. You can get a double room there for €60/night. Parking is available in the general parking area right outside the castle, but you’re allowed to drive up to a piazza close to the B&B to unload your luggage, if you can squeeze your car through the narrow medieval streets.

Hotel Executive, Roma: four-star hotel near Piazza Fiume. The rooms we got weren’t quite up to four-star standards, as the bed covers, room fixtures and furniture looked like they’d been there for a few decades, but at least the bed linens and the bathrooms were clean. A nice bonus was a large terrace that I used to take photos of Rome at night and in the early morning — we were given rooms on the top floor since that’s all they had available. Price was €100/night for a double room and €130/night for a triple room, breakfast included. The espresso was good. They had valet parking but it cost €35/night, so we used metered parking on the street, which was hard to find but only €4/day.

Hotel Miramare, Ladispoli: a three-star hotel built in the early 1900s, with original marble pebble floors, stairwell and doors. I think the rest of the stuff got renovated sometime during the last 10 years or so. The taste of the recent interior decorator left quite a bit to be desired, but the original architecture and design thankfully still showed through. The rooms were nicely sized and clean. The bathrooms were alright as well, but the shower stall was so tiny I could barely fit in it, and I’m not a large person at 5’11” and 165 pounds. The hotel isn’t soundproofed in any way, shape or form, so you’ll hear your neighbors if they talk somewhat louder or do something else… We got woken up early in the morning by sounds from the bathroom fixtures of our neighbors. Smoking is allowed in the hallways, but the smoke will make its way into your room sooner or later. The breakfast, included in the price, was halfway decent. The espresso was the best I had during this road trip. The price was €60/night for a double room with a queen size bed and €80/night for a triple room with a queen size bed and a single bed. For what it’s worth, the hotel is right on the beach. Parking is €5 per night, or you can find a parking spot on the streets, which is free but hard to find in-season.

Hotel Repubblica Marinara, Pisa: a four-star hotel outside Pisa’s centro. This was the best equipped hotel we stayed at during this trip. I liked everything about it. The rooms were large and clean and had interesting lighting, the bathrooms were large and clean, and they smelled fresh. I think they’d redecorated the hotel recently. Some hallways still smelled of fresh paint. The shower stall was finally properly sized. I could stretch in there and twist around as one normally does when they wash, without hitting my elbows on the walls. Another thing I loved about this hotel was the presence of extra electrical outlets in the room, which is a rarity in Italy, believe me. The had four outlets right above the desk and one outlet next to each side of the bed. Two of those four outlets next to the desk even worked with the thicker prongs of the plugs from other regions in Europe. I was in gadget heaven, as I could finally charge up all my stuff in peace. Price was €90/night for a double room with a queen size bed and €110/night for a triple room with a queen size bed and a single bed. Breakfast was included and they had ample free parking in the back of the hotel.

Electrical outlets in our hotel room

We really enjoyed our trip to Italy. It got a little stressful in the larger cities as we tried to find our way around and a place to stay, but it’s a very freeing experience to go out on your own and plot your own course through a country, then follow up on your plans and bring them to completion. It’s also fun to stray off the course when you discover something you really want to see, as we did, then pick up where you left off. As I promised above, I plan to write up the experiences we had in each city and to publish photos that I took. Stay tuned for that.

Tempered enthusiasm

After getting all excited about my new 24-105mm zoom, I found a strand of thread sticking resolutely to the interior of the front lens. It was definitely inside, and I couldn’t get it to go away. Even if it came loose, it would still be inside, and would probably stick to one of the other interior lenses. It was a factory defect.

I called B&H Photo, who graciously shipped out another lens to me, free of charge, and also paid for the return shipment of my defective lens. While I may be disappointed in Canon’s quality control process, I have only good things to say about B&H. Incidentally, I waited patiently for them to re-open after the Jewish High Holidays (they were closed for over a week) so I could order the lens. It was worth the wait. Things I order from them get here the very next day, because they ship out of New Jersey and I live in Maryland. I pay for Ground and get what is essentially Overnight shipping. It’s an added advantage to their great prices and customer service.

My 580EX II speedlite is another disappointment. It’s been acting strangely since March of this year. Sometimes it refuses to work with the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. The aperture and shutter settings get completely messed up and the shutter won’t fire. Until now, I had to take it off the camera, take the batteries out, let it rest for a bit, then put it back together and on my 5D, and sometimes it still wouldn’t work.

Yesterday, I finally decided I’d had enough and shipped it to Canon for repairs. I hope they’ll choose to treat it as still under warranty, because I filed the original repair request back when it still had a couple of months of warranty left. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, I got my replacement lens from B&H today, and I have reason to be disappointed with Canon once again. Their QC should be better, especially for L series lenses. This new lens has two tiny specks on the inside of the rear lens. You could almost say they’re not there, except that they are, and it’s really bothering me. Maybe I’m overreacting to this, having been sensitized by the previous defect. I don’t think it’s going to affect the quality of the photos (I hope for that at any rate), but for a lens that costs over $1,000, I expect better build quality.

I leave you with a series of short videos that demonstrate how Canon make their lenses. They’re narrated in Japanese. I saw the English version (in a single video) a while back, but I can’t find it now. For those of you that won’t see the embedded video below (like the feed subscribers), here are the links to each video clip: part 1, part 2, part 3. With all of that emphasis on checking the lenses after they get made, you wouldn’t expect to find strands of thread or specks inside the lenses like I did.