A Guide To A Good Life

How are you spending this time?

I thought I’d make a video about this historically significant period in our lives, one which deals with how I’m spending my time, with the importance of appreciating and enjoying one’s time alone and at home, and with using this free time productively, in ways which will enrich your lives now and later. (Sorry about the audio, my external microphone malfunctioned and I had to rely on what my phone’s microphone captured.)

Part of the discussion in the video comments centered around a reading list that would be well-suited to this time, so I put one together here. I hope it proves useful to you!

Released 21-04-2020
Thanks for watching!

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My Watch Collection

My 1899 Elgin Pocket Watch

I wonder how many of you know that I love old watches, not just new ones? I thought I’d put together a video and photo gallery for one of my pocket watches, my biggest one in terms of size and weight: an 1899 Elgin pocket watch.

Here’s the video:

This particular watch was bought in the United States at the turn of the 20th century by an Englishman who then returned to England, where the watch remained in the family until earlier this year, when the nephew of that gentleman, who has relocated to Romania to spend his retirement years here, sold it to me. The man is Laurie Webb, a fine fellow who now runs a pension house in the village of Roandola near Sighisoara, and whom I interviewed for an episode of “Romania Through Their Eyes“.

And here are the photos. Enjoy!

1899 Elgin Pocket Watch 1899 Elgin Pocket Watch 1899 Elgin Pocket Watch 1899 Elgin Pocket Watch 1899 Elgin Pocket Watch

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Places

The winter of 1998 in Romania

It’s snowing outside as I write this. It’s been a wacky winter season so far. One day it feels like spring, the next it’s winter, the next is autumn and it’s raining and then it all freezes and winter moves back in.

I’ve been going through some old photos, taken back in 1998, when I made a trip to Romania in December, to spend the winter holidays with my grandparents. I’d graduated from college that May and I hadn’t visited Romania in eight years. It had changed a lot since 1991. It’s still changing, with each year.

The photos were taken with an APS film camera, the first generation Canon Elph, which I still have. If you remember APS film cameras, you’ll know they had an on-camera switch that would modify the FOV (Field of View), letting you take landscapes (like the photograph you see below) or regular photographs (like the second photograph you see below) or portraits — which was a setting I seldom used. When you developed the photos, the store would automatically crop your photos based on the setting you chose. The landscape-format photos would be printed on wider paper. It was a nice system, for its time.

That winter was a real winter: cold, lots of snow, ice on the roads, winds that chilled you to the bone — fun stuff! I drove my grandparents’ Dacia 1310 to see the country, and it was an adventure to get it started every morning. Sometimes you had to pour boiling water over the engine. Sometimes you had to push it. Sometimes you had to get a mechanic to open up the carburetor and clean it, because the fuel quality was so bad that it would constantly get dirty.

There’s the Dacia, parked on the side of the road in this photograph.

I remember almost getting stuck in a field in the middle of nowhere that year. I took a country road after topping up the tank, because I wanted to help a couple of people get home to their village. Unbeknownst to me, the gas station had added water to their gasoline. A few kilometers into an open field, with no settlements in sight, the engine started to choke. It was freezing cold outside, so cold that my nostrils would clog up with icicles when I breathed. We started to panic. At the time, cellphones hadn’t yet reached Romania. There was no one we could call.

We pushed on, hoping we’d make it. Unfortunately, the engine couldn’t handle the crappy fuel. The prospect of walking 5 or so kilometers through deep snow, in the freezing cold, was beginning to weigh heavily on our minds. I kept revving up the engine, keeping the rpms high, hoping I could keep the engine turning. If I let my foot off the accelerator even for a bit, the needle would immediately drop and the engine wanted to stop completely. Then it stopped. I got it going again. It stopped once more. I got it going again. It stopped once more, and it didn’t want to turn any more. There we were, peace and quiet all around, our breaths fogging up the car windows, unsure what came next.

Then one of the folks got a bright idea. They’d bought a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Why not put it in the tank, maybe it would mix with the water and help it burn? We poured a bit in, and after 5 minutes of alternately trying to start the car via ignition or pushing, the engine started puttering away. We reached the village shortly after that, and my first stop was at the village store, where I bought three bottles of rubbing alcohol. That winter holiday, whenever I drove anywhere in Romania, the car was stocked with rubbing alcohol, and it saved me time and time again. There was no point relying on the quality of the fuel, because all gas stations would “multiply” their fuel reserves with water. Some added more, some added less, but you could count on it being in the gasoline, wherever you bought it.

Let’s get back to the photographs. They have a yellow color cast. It’s not a film effect. It’s simply a matter of the photo paper yellowing with time. I scanned the printed photos instead of scanning the film negatives, so the “vintage” effect is physical, not digital. I hope to scan the negatives at some point, so I can archive and edit these memories properly.

That winter, I visited my paternal grandparents in Maramures (my father’s parents). I visited them with my maternal grandfather (my mother’s father). He took this photograph of the three of us.

Here’s my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandparents (or “tataia” as I liked to call him).

Both my grandfathers are gone now. My maternal grandmother is also gone. Only my father’s mother is still alive. Some day, I too will be but a memory, a face in old photographs. Memento mori.

My grandparents had a wonderful dog named Rex, a very smart German Shepherd. You can see how intelligent he is right away when you see him in old photographs like this one. It’s amazing how some dogs shine brighter than others, right away.

Rex is gone as well, and we have yet to find a dog as smart as he was. Our new dog, a Romanian sheep dog (“Ciobanesc Mioritic”) is still a baby, but she’s showing signs of being fairly smart. We’ll see how she develops with time.

So there you have it, dear reader: a glimpse into my past, into a beautiful, almost magical winter, a time I remember with joy to this day, because it was spent with family, with people I loved and who loved me back.

I’m always more aware of the importance of loving relationships during winter. When you’re out there in the cold, traveling, the prospect of being welcomed into a warm home where you know you’ll find love makes that time magical. It makes every second worthwhile, it imbues the very cold air you breath with the hope that there’s something even better right around the corner, that life is worth living.

It’s one of the reasons why I love winter. I love to curl up on the couch with a fire in the stove, a book in my hand, a cup of tea in the other, and look out the window, taking comfort the fact that while it’s cold outside, I’m warm and my life is made wonderful by that simple realization.

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Thoughts

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

RSA Animate – The Secret Powers of Time

The Secret Powers of Time by Philip Zimbardo

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Thoughts

Anger is just not worth the trouble

clenched-fist

I’ve recently written about how to respond effectively to stressful situations, and now it’s time to write about how to respond effectively to anger.

One thing most of us do battle with each and every day is our temper. We encounter a situation that pushes our buttons just the right way, and wouldn’t you know it, we’re angry again, in spite of our best intentions!

In recent weeks, a number of realizations dawned on me, all of which have been leading me to this conclusion: the easiest way to deal with anger is to let go of it. Regardless what some may say, there are no constructive ways to handle anger; there is no healthy way to channel it, or to use it as a motivator for something else.

Anger toward someone or something hurts you more than it could ever hurt that person or thing or situation, or whatever the case may be. If your body is a living vessel, then anger is a poison that fills it up and slowly eats up its walls. It weakens you, it makes everything taste bad, look bad and feel bad. It not only makes your life miserable, it also shortens it.

Life is already too short as it is. Why waste even a single minute on anger? It doesn’t solve problems. Many times, it compounds them. When the situation could be solved much better by cooler heads, getting angry only makes things worse and eliminates a quick, efficient solution.

One of my defenses has been that my anger is oftentimes righteous. Why I mean by that is I believe I’m justified in getting angry with someone because he or she wronged me, or because the situation warranted it (perhaps it was idiotic or illogical). Unfortunately, life is full of such people or situations, so my days are often punctuated by episodes of anger. When there’s always a fire inside, one that usually smolders, but often burns, it ends up taking precious energy away from useful pursuits and leaves me spent at the end of the day.

What’s more, even in cases where the other person fully provokes me and I’m entitled to get good and angry, what I’ve discovered is that it’s not worth it. The desire for retaliation, or revenge, or for making things right, or for punishing the other person in some way, is more damaging to me than their crime, whether it be theft, or lies, or who knows what. Another thing that I’ve discovered is that life will deal with them in good time, and they’ll get a far more painful and fitting punishment than anything I could have done to them.

The thing is, everyone pays for what they’ve done, in one way or another, and they pay for it in this life, sooner or later. The more I live, the more I realize how true that is, because I’ve felt it on my own skin. I’ve paid plenty for some mistakes I made in the past, I’ll be paying for others in the future, and so will those people that have wronged me. I don’t need to do anything. They’ll all get what’s coming to them. We’ll all get what’s coming to each of us, and you can take that to the bank.

So, the best way to deal with anger is to simply let go of it. It’s a conscious decision that takes only a little willpower. Just take a deep breath, then as you breathe out, imagine that anger exiting your body. Let go of it. Let it evaporate away, and focus on the good things in life.

Each day is so short, and our time with our loved ones is so brief, that we must do all we can to use our time wisely. If we don’t, then we’re wronging them, and we’re wronging ourselves, and yes, we’ll pay for that, too.

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Thoughts

Gotta give them something to do

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

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

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

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

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Thoughts

Meet Buttons, the cutest kitteh ever

The one with the tiny nose

Sorry for the baited title. This post is really about how web users interact with written content on the Internet, and how people in general interact with the news these days. But read on anyway, you might find this useful, and there’s even another cute kitty photo at the end.

I’ve been sitting on the sidelines lately, looking at the way people interact with items on FriendFeed, and I realized it’s all part of how people in general interact with the world these days. In a word, it’s superficial. On the web, there’s barely any interaction with items that have no thumbnails. If there’s no image to be digested quickly with a news item, then it gets buried, fast. That particular news item might be truly meaningful, it could have real value, it could be worth at least a few minutes of someone’s time, but users just don’t take the time to click through and find out what’s going on if there isn’t an image to go along with it. It’s like they’re little kids and they gotta have pictures in their story books. Whatever happened to being adults?

I’m not talking about my own articles, and I’m not talking about FriendFeed per se. I’m talking about the bigger picture. You can see this on TV as well. In the US nowadays, instead of showing the person who is talking, whether that be a news presenter or a person being interviewed, the stations overlay the audio on top of looping footage of the things the person is talking about, or they run the audio on top of marginally related video, ostensibly to keep a spastic audience glued to the set. In Romania, where I’ve been staying these past few months, they divide the TV screen in half. They show the commentator in one half, and they show video footage in the other. Your eyes keep jumping from one spot on the screen to the other, to make sure they catch all the action. And they also scroll text and stock and weather alerts on the bottom of the screen. It’s nuts. You just don’t get the chance to digest what the person is saying, because your attention is continually grabbed and pulled in many different directions.

If you are reading this on FriendFeed or in a RSS reader that shows media content thumbnails, do you know why you clicked on it? Likely because I had a photo of a cute kitten to draw your attention, not because you wanted to do some actual reading. It would have been much better if I showed some woman in a bikini — many more people would be reading this article right now, or at least skimming it, hoping for more photos.

Isn’t it sad though? For a person who likes to write, and wants to communicate through writing, it’s so disappointing to see the audience drifting from adult food to baby bites, to cute or sexy photos with (preferably) one or two sentence captions, instead of real articles. Whatever happened to sitting down and reading something?

Don’t tell me it’s because you’re busy. I don’t buy it. You’re lying to yourself and you’re lying to me. People have always had lots of work to do. Sure, it wasn’t computer work a few decades ago, but it was chores or factory work, and it took just as much time and much more effort. But they knew how to relax. They could sit down with a magazine or newspaper in hand, tune out everything else, and read something they found interesting.

You still have that ability. Stop being immature and clicking on everything, and pick the stuff you want to spend your time on carefully. There’s only so much time in one day, and you can’t keep up with a thousand RSS subscriptions and still do other things. Thin out the stuff you want to see on the web every day. On a larger scale, thin out the stuff you want to do every day, because you can’t do it all. Decide on what’s important to you, and stick with that. Maybe if more people took this advice, the world would be a saner place for those who write on the web, like me. We wouldn’t have to go nuts trying to get the word out about our content, because people would take the time to find interesting stuff and stick with it.

If you’re a FriendFeed user, let me tell you it’s not cool to subscribe to tons of people just so you can watch news items stream by you in real time and feel good about keeping up with everything that’s going on in the world, because that’s not the case. In the end, you’re just as superficial as the guy who looks at a magazine cover and thinks he knows everything inside it. Instead of wasting your time doing that stuff, pick the people you find interesting, weed out the rest, and really sit down to see what they have to say.

Now, just because you read/skimmed this far, here’s another photo of kittens, this time two of them, playing together. See, I’m not such a bad person.

Games kittens play

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Reviews

I like "The Saint"

It got panned by the critics. Val Kilmer’s acting was indulgent at times. It was somewhat cliché. What was up with those knee-high socks that Elizabeth Shue’s character wore throughout the movie? Those are some of the things that come to mind when I think of “The Saint” (1997). But it struck a chord with me, from the first time I saw it, and I like it even after all these years.

I think it evokes the feel of that time in Eastern Europe very well. I visited Romania in December 1998, for the first time since I’d left in 1991. The movie and the impressions from my trip match. It was cold, snowy, in many ways dreary, there was poverty all around, but still somehow enchanting, inspiring, in a way that made you feel you could do almost anything, as if the slate had been wiped clean and people were free to start things over.

moscow-scene-1

moscow-scene-2

moscow-scene-3

Simon Templar, the character played by Val Kilmer in the movie, has a long heritage that started in books in 1928. The character itself has been played in movies and on TV by several other actors, Roger Moore being one of the more notable ones. I remember watching Moore in the Saint series as a child growing up in Romania. The films were gripping and I loved seeing a modern-day Robin Hood escape from dangerous situations, just as I enjoyed seeing Kilmer’s character escape from similar situations in this latest installment.

Given the character’s long history, Kilmer had some big shoes to fill in this movie. For example, I thought there were too many close-ups of him. Perhaps the director was trying to establish character, and the close-ups were meant to give us an insight into what S.T. was thinking, but at times, I could see the actor hamming it up behind a thinner-than-usual mask. Still, I always thought Kilmer was charismatic and I don’t begrudge him the less than stellar acting here. Every actor goes through a ham stage in his or her career — most notably of all, the famous John Barrymore, who quite possibly illustrated the very phrase in some of his later film roles.

The film’s tech was amazing for its time. Simon Templar’s phone in the movie — that Nokia phone was something else. It blew me away. I think it could do everything modern phones could do — at slower speeds, naturally — except play movies. I learned it was a Nokia 9000 Communicator, thanks to the Saint.org website. And to think, all of that technology was available in 1997! Nokia was very happy about the phone’s appearance in the movie and even issued a press release about it that same year.

nokia-9000-communicator

nokia-9000-communicator-in-movie

All in all, “The Saint” is one of a handful of movies in my library that I’ve watched multiple times, and will probably watch again. I like it.

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Reviews

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.

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Events

Congratulations, President Obama!

We have seen democracy in action, and we have achieved something amazing, as a country: we have elected the first African-American president. That’s something that goes a long way to wipe the wrongs of the past, and is something that would have probably made some of our country’s founders proud, had they been able to witness it.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7811491813839468741

There’s a long road ahead, and it’s paved with incredible challenges. I believe our new president is equipped to deal with them, and that’s why he got my vote and my wife’s vote. I hope he does what he promised to do, and that he brings positive change to this country. We’re in a huge mess, and we need someone to clean house.

Our federal government will now be a Democrat government, from top to bottom, which is something I’ve not seen yet. I hope they use their collective legislative power to do good things, and they don’t get caught up in bureaucracy or infighting. I think the next four or even eight years could be used to build our country up in an historic way, not unlike the period after WWII. The opportunity is there, but the right people need to do the right things, and they need to support our new president as he charts our country’s course.

One thing I also hope is that they’ve beefed up the security around him. I don’t want to see anything tragic happen. It would be disastrous. It is very unfortunate that there are still people in the US who can’t get over someone’s skin color even when that person is rational, intelligent, respectful and kind. But those people are around, and I’m fairly sure that they’re not dealing with this Obama win in any sensible manner. Let us hope the Secret Service does their job and neutralizes any threats before they arise.

I want to end on a positive note and wish Barack Obama and Joe Biden all the best in the years that lie ahead. I hope and pray they will meet every challenge rationally, calmly, and decisively, and that they’ll hold true to the promises they made during their campaign.

Image used courtesy of Barack Obama.

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