Intro

  A month ago I was lamenting the state of social media (as well as the normal news media and the state of web blogs) and looking to transition to a system of information that would be best for me. It would have to be effective (giving me interesting information) it would have to be efficient (giving me information that is mostly useful for me and not wasting my time) and it would have to be tailored to my own style (should fit in my normal schedule, not be forced in). And I found it, relatively easy, because it was not a new system, but a very old one: RSS feeds!

History

  For people who don't know what Really Simple Syndication (or RDF Site Summary) means, it is a standardized way of publishing just the information of a web site and any updates, for various use: aggregators, readers, automatic processes, even reuse in the website itself as a data source. It was most popular in the time of blogs (remember Web 2.0?) where people would just get a list of all the blogs they enjoyed and then read all of them in some software that would allow them to see them in one place. That software is called an RSS reader.

  Imagine for a moment the grandiose design of RSS. Someone would spend considerable effort to design an attractive web site that would contain useful or entertaining information, then spend even more effort for creating content regularly, so that people would visit and get them ad revenue or make them well known in a community or hire them. Then they would allow you, the reader, to bypass all the design, the ads and what made that blog unique, for your own benefit, in order to get that information. And only if you are interested in what the post has to say, then you click on it and visit their website. Do you see the design flaw here? Of course someone would pervert it into a wall of images and videos followed by a little text, arranged and controlled by them, not by you, filled with ads and other nasty things. Because that's minimum effort for maximum gain, instead of the original purpose of Web 2.0: community effort for the gain of all.

  Slowly, RSS feeds were pushed away from the people's consciousness, became obsolete. Free blogging platforms became bloated, then more and more irrelevant as no one spent any effort updating them with the times. Sites like Twitter started with having RSS feeds for any page, then just removed it later. People stopped blogging. RSS was dead... or was it?

Solution

  Remember that RSS is a standard, so as long as you have a web site with periodical updates, implementing it is simple and often comes out of the box. For websites that refuse to implement RSS, someone else might come and parse their content and publish it as RSS. RSS feed reader software might also implement custom features for specific sources that are not, strictly speaking, RSS. And then what do you get? Exactly what I was looking for:

  • a single source of information
  • aggregating most of what I am interested in
  • in the order, organization and format I want and control

  And it doesn't even need to be an application you install on your computer, as there are free web sites that function as RSS feed readers. I know, it's the same old trap all over again, where you trust a "free" site and then it starts feeding (pardon the pun) on you, but this time it's quite hard to force people into anything. As quick as it becomes annoying, you just switch to another reader, because the reader does not hoard or control the source of information, it is just a tool.

  So I use Feedly, which I think it's very nice. There are a lot of alternatives, though, with various features, some paid, some free. Feedly comes as a free RSS reader, it allows you to also add web sites as sources directly (so they would parse the web site for you and serve it as RSS) and has other gathering methods that are paid, but as I will show you, can be replaced by free options. You can mark items for reading later or use some other system, like opening them in the browser and then reading and closing tabs.

  Here is what you do:

  1. go to Feedly and create a free account
  2. add sources from the web sites you are interested in
  3. read the things you want, how you want them, when you want them
    • use the browser to read them on the Feedly web site
    • use the Feedly app to read it on your phone or tablet
  4. Usually it is a two step process:
    • you scan the list of items and select only the ones that are interesting to you (not unlike a social media wall)
    • you read the things you selected on their original web sites

Q&A

  Now, there are some things that you might want to consider before you embark on trying this method. I will organize this section as an FAQ. Feel free to propose other questions and I will update the post.

Q: I am trying to read the articles I am interested in, but web sites are filled with ads! What to do?
A: for desktop browsers Chrome and Edge install an extension to block ads. I use uBlock Origin and I am very satisfied with it. When you get to a web site that is not covered or that has some non-advertising related page elements that annoy you, the extension has an option to let you choose the things you want to block.
A: for phone/tablet browsers, download and use Brave, which is a fork of Chrome with ad blocking included.

Q: I am getting stuff that I am interested in, then go to web sites and they have paywalls! What to do?
A: Yes, sites like NewScientist, TheEconomist, NewYorkTimes, even Medium, etc. love to ask you for money to read their stuff. There are methods to bypass those paywalls, but not always and not always reliable. For example Readium, or there is a web site that is called 12ft.io, which works as a proxy to remove paywalls, but it doesn't always work. I am sure there must be alternatives out there, too. Share them with me if you find them and I will update this answer.

Q: I love my RSS reader, but it always annoys me with requests to upgrade to a paid version or buy other things! What to do?
A: see the answer above, you can use uBlock Origin to block individual web page elements, assuming you use a web based RSS reader

Q: I am going through my list of items and then I am interrupted by some RL bullshit, I come back and I forgot where I was! What to do?
A: for Feedly, at least, there is an option to mark items as read as you scroll along, which I think it's very nice. Also, for the mobile app, the default way of reading things is to give you a list of up to 30 items, after which you have the option of marking them all as read and continue to the next batch of items

Q: But I liked to see what people say on Twitter! What to do?
A: Some RSS readers have the option to read items from Twitter directly. Feedly has it, too, but it's a paid option. So instead, use Nitter, which is a web site that give you an RSS feed for any Twitter URL, for free.

Q: But I liked to see what people say on Facebook! What to do?
A: Due to the assholiness of that platform, it is next to impossible to get a feed of items compatible with an RSS feed, but there are some options. Some are little more than hacks, using not the Facebook API, but asking you to give them the browser cookies you have (for a few months) when you connect to your Facebook account. First of all, I don't recommend this at all, since it is a horrible security breach. Second of all, it would only give you the items in the Facebook feed you would normally get when using the web site, probably with ads included, and the normal crappy item order, duplicates and having a different list of items every time you refresh the page. The optimal way of using this would be something that could safely get the list of your friends, read the list of the posts of each of them, then return an actual list of posts in chronological order as an RSS feed. Alas, I couldn't find a free version of a software to do that and I fear the Facebook API would intentionally prevent you from doing this anyway. However, who knows, maybe I will attempt to build such a tool myself in the future. Interested?

Q: But I liked to see what videos appeared on YouTube! What to do?
A: actually, YouTube channels have their own RSS feed you can use. The problem is that YouTube videos are not really... web pages. I usually follow and watch those as a separate process, using the YouTube web site. But that's my own choice.

Q: I got the reader, but where do I get the blogs that hold the information I want?
A: Feedly has a very nice feature to add items. You can add a web site, you can search for keywords, etc. It's not perfect, though, and perhaps you don't want to trust their list of information sources. There is of course Google, but what I found is that most "Top X blogs in field Y" pages are woefully incomplete or outright misleading. I guess this part is always the hardest: find sources of information that can be trusted and provide accurate information in the fields you are interested in.

Q: I want to get suggestions for interesting web sites or share my own choices with others! How?
A: RSS feeds are usually shared or backed up as OPML content, which is a standard XML file containing the list of RSS feeds, organized in the categories you have chosen for them. I recommend you periodically export your OPML file to your computer, so you can always switch from a reader to another or make sure you don't lose the hard sought sources of information you found. Any RSS reader worth the name has an import/export feature for OPML files.

Q: What are your sources?
A: That could be a blog post in itself. I start with the web sites that I am usually following, like BBC News, for example. But I am saving the feeds for the categories I am interested in: Science, Medicine, Entertainment, etc. This way I get around all the stupid politics. Then there are web sites like Phys.org, Hacker News, Space News, Medical Xpress, Ars Technica, etc. Of course, every time I find an interesting person, book author, good programmer and so on, I try to find their blog and add it to the list, or at least their Twitter feed (see above). And then there are some web sites that pride themselves in serving "long content": well thought out articles, researched and crafted over time. Alas, most of them tend to be political, but still very informative occasionally. Mentioning just a few: Longform, Longreads, The Conversation, The American Scholar.

Further steps

This is by no means the end all solution. In fact, as in the title, it is a (permanently?) transitional one. A complete solution would include reading a lot of books, making more personal connections and meeting new people, experimenting with everything I read, since experience only comes through trial, not information absorption. This is not just a need for hobbies and social interaction brought on by the pandemic, but a necessary step towards establishing a network of reliable sources of experience. While I would prefer I do everything passively, online and automated, alas, I have reached the conclusion it's not feasible at the moment.

First of all, the state of the blogosphere, as far as I see, is not good. Influenced by pressure from various (some even well intentioned) directions, people have stopped investing in regularly updated personal content sites. Facebook pushed people towards sharing rather than digesting information, meaning the Internet is flooded with shares, but not with actual original content. Twitter pushed people towards microblogging, which is basically limiting what you have to say about things and then sharing something. Dev.to is a blogging platform for developers, anyone can blog there. Great source for information, one might think, but it quickly turned into a place where people recycle short content in order to be rewarded with "hearts", which most people do not award to articles that are informative, complex and take a long time to read and process. They don't even read those. This of course if they do not blatantly advertise something or push some agenda. So many people have moved their tutorials, experiments and knowledge sharing to video, as this is the way children and young people absorb information nowadays. It is slow and not something that can be browsed easily or split into useful bits that can be reused. All of these are making people write less, in smaller bits and with reduced complexity or publish it as video. Basically the ordinary TV news item that I am trying to avoid.

Second of all, most content that requires effort also often requires financial or political capital. Meaning even long form content on the Internet is corrupted by market forces, with truth and innovation secondary to whatever purpose the author is pursuing. Without personal effort to detect early and filter out this kind of stuff, the method I outlined above will not work. The list of information sources you consume must be constantly curated. Forever.

One big peril of this method is having so many sources that to keep up with the news (RSS feeds are read only from a few days ago, so if you completely miss a week of RSS, you will lose those articles) you need to devote a lot of time to reading them. In the end, you get an even more addictive social media feed, that gives you more interesting things with less annoyance. The solution for this, I believe, is to dedicate a maximum time for news reading. This way, when the number of sources becomes untenable, you are forced to remove the less relevant ones.

I hope you find this guide useful for your own purposes and it helps you expand and enrich your experience. Please do share any questions, ideas or anything relevant to improving the method and this post. Be Web2.0 again!

Intro

Four years ago I was writing about being on social media for a year, as a follow up for another post about being on social media for four months. I do promise not to make this into a series. Probably it will be the last post on the subject anyway. Hopefully.

So five years ago I was saying: "I had high hopes that once I connect with all my friends I would share of their interesting experiences and projects, we would communicate and collaborate better, we would organize more parties or gettogethers, meet up more frequently if we are in the same area. Be interesting, passionate; you know... social. Instead I got cute animal videos, big pointless images with texts plastered all over them". That has not changed at all. My hopes waned, but never completely vanished, as I was trying and tweaking various methods of controlling content, but the quality of things has never actually improved. My desire to share in the actual life important events of others is still there, only it's clear I won't get that from social media. Long story short, I intend to stop reading social media, instead trying to find an effective method of getting the connection I need.

Facebook

I have to admit I've had some success in "taming" the platform to provide some interesting content. I've unfollowed every source that didn't give me relevant information, I've followed science, technology and medicine accounts, I've actively used the "Hide posts like this" option until my "wall" became less annoying. I even tried "Liking" stuff that I wanted more of, although that actually seemed to be the least consequential action I was making (maybe because of the algorithm's superficial understanding of what I am actually looking for). However, it was always a tiring activity, having to aggressively fight the system instead of being served by it. Like riding a raging bull to work every day. Inevitably, some click bait or ad post would arouse my curiosity and, after clicking on it, I would be presented with more of that crap, even if I didn't like it. Meanwhile, my "friends" were posting photos of themselves, political rants and useful announcements like when they had their latest baby. I mean, even programmers that I know are active were never posting anything remotely technical or at least news worthy. That, frankly, I don't understand.

At the same time I tried as best I could to post science and software links and relevant content about interesting books and whatever caught my fancy that was NOT funny animals or sarcastic humor (although some of that might have slipped in) in the hope of improving the walls of all my friends. Some seemed to like it. I guess some of you are my *real* Facebook friends and most of you are not! 

But the app itself figured out I was less engaged (or just spammed everybody because why not) and started showing me alerts for absolutely everything. People are live streaming, people are going to events, people are having a shit. And with the new normal for everything to be fighting for your attention, it got annoying. I had to navigate the large (and increasing) number of possible alerts and choose what I wanted because the default is that you want everything all the time to snap you from whatever you are doing. Like that makes sense.

Twitter

There are some things that I want to document, but I don't want to blog about anymore. They are not appropriate on Facebook either, as I believe the audience is wrong. One such example is TV (if one can still call them that) series, where I can throw a small rant, complete with hashtags, for everyone who would be interested in opinions about the show, not my own personal stuff. I guess it might work on Facebook, but I haven't tried. The hashtaggy thing should remain on Twitter, it feels only right. Also, it has this system where you are not friends with anybody, you just follow what they are saying. That's good.

Like with Facebook, I've curated the sources of my tweets and the content is mostly... really really informative. I want to say that I will devote no more time reading Twitter, but it's a lot harder to do than with Facebook. Twitter has a very simple, but somewhat effective filtering system based on keywords. Once I removed political keywords, US president names, everything -ist, -phobe, woke and the like, the bullshit I normally have on Facebook largely disappeared. Actually, I haven't done that on Facebook because on Twitter I mostly follow international accounts (in English) and filtering posts on exact words in Romanian, with all of its conjugations and possible forms and lettering would be a nightmare.

BTW, I've set up Twitter to give me tweets in English, Romanian, Dutch, Bulgarian, Italian, German and some other languages. I think the only tweet I got in another language than English was this year, and only because I has followed the guy myself.

There are issues on Twitter as well. One of things that I had to struggle with constantly is telling the app to show me tweets in chronological order. Instead, it wanted to decide FOR ME what I should be looking at. And, when it finally got it straight that I want all my Tweets as they come, they added a feature to restrict the number of tweets that are loaded. The button to "Show more Tweets" looks exactly like any other link and I may just miss it entirely. I can't mark tweets as read, specify a lower time bound for tweets or disable that stupid button. And even if I use the button, I can only do it a few times until it won't load more things because software developers on mobiles never used WPF and then made fun of it for being slow and working only on Windows. (look up Virtualization in WPF, guys!)

And the same issue I had on Facebook I had here: most developers or movie people or science people share all kind of personal opinions and rarely what they are working on, links on the things that inspire them or anything actually connecting anyone with anything. Meanwhile the platform is going further towards blinky images and large texts and video previews and longer text. Having Dorsey step down from Twitter doesn't help either, as corporate assholes will make the decisions now.

Anything else

I have not been active and I don't intend to become on any of the Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, etc. platforms, because they are visual in nature. I am more textual.

But I did start to watch more stuff on YouTube and I've got the feeling that many people have started to express themselves more there, as it feels more digestible for younger people. The new "streamer" fad has become very influential. I've found development, science, movie, chess, nature, medicine, humor channels that entertain me an inordinate amount of time while also being very informative. To me watching somebody speak at normal speed about something until they get to the part that actually interests me is torture. Luckily, YouTube has the option to choose a speed of play. It's not exactly a complete solution, but it does help. However watching, let's say, software development videos at 2.5 speed is tiring and you get no inkling on where to skip to get to the good part without missing out.

Of course, having an ad blocker makes this a lot more fun that it would have been without it. I doubt I could stand YouTube otherwise.

But even YouTube has this system in which it tries to control what you are watching, even if it's your Subscription list. If there are too many videos, I feel like it applies a little filtering or ordering. And the list of items in your subscription is generated occasionally, not whenever you open the page.

The video watching stuff will probably continue to take a lot of my time. It's a passive activity, though, so I will have to limit it in some way. More in the conclusion of the post. 

My blog

As you may know, I've moved the blog to my own domain because Google Blogger just decided to automatically, unilaterally and permanently block my blog account. No appeal request was ever answered. I've only had my blog on their platform for 12 years, so who cares? That liberated me, though, to control the full content and functionality of the blog, but it probably lost me a lot of ranking. The result is that very rarely someone comes on the blog for help or interaction. Sites like Stack Overflow solve the issue of finding answers to small problems and people seem to care less about long form content.

Having lately worked in highly paid yet technically dead jobs and a general feeling of "been there, done that" also made me post less and less on the blog. If you look in the last few years, most of the stuff I write about are the books that I read, and lately I haven't been reading that much (except Twitter and Facebook) either. Surely that didn't help people wanting to connect with me. Yet at the same time, I don't want to pretend I have something to teach when myself have not been learning anything new in ages.

If (I am giving myself an out here) I stop wasting so much time parsing walls of stuff trying to occasionally get to something good (BTW, that sounds like gambling, Belgium lawyers! People are performing the same actions but get content they want randomly), watching videos I don't need to watch (because some of them are quite pointless, even if occasionally entertaining) and not watch news anymore (everybody has some agenda behind their news items, but lately it's been so damn obvious that you can't even call it "hidden agenda" and feel smug about yourself), then I should have at least enough time to read more books. I don't know if I will have the material, inspiration and time to research new software technologies in my spare time to start writing meaningful technical content, though. One can only hope. And I mean me.

Conclusion

Lately I've spent my last hour or more before I go to sleep skimming through Twitter and Facebook items, looking for a good reason to continue doing so. I couldn't find it. If I find something interesting (usually on Twitter, but sometimes on Facebook) I share it with my friends on Facebook. It is a rather significant account of my state of mind, since my personal life is hardly something to publish, and these are the things I am interested in.

Before that, I go through my YouTube videos. Some of the things there are what could be considered high level content: documentaries, expert opinions, etc., but most of the ones I find time to consistently watch are short funny animations, short angry rants and short... you get the pattern already.

Therefore my New Year's Resolution (I know they are considered toxic now, but it comes from a good place I think) is to stop reading social media and instead find a more focused solution on getting only exactly the content I need. That requires defining what precisely is the content I need, but at least vaguely I know:

  • I want to find again (if it exists anymore) the software development community that was so active fifteen years ago: blogs, people that share their work and are proud of their accomplishments rather than their opinions on everybody else's, aggregators of actual work, not sharing obvious derivative content or tutorial achievements.
  • I need to restrict myself to the channels where people choose to share educational content. So even if I know someone is a hot shot in software development, I won't just add him as a friend or follow him and hope some day he will stop talking about systemic racism and instead focus on computer systems.
  • Some things will catch my interest for a limited time, like standup comedy for the last year, but I will feel when it starts to get repetitive or slide into something else and cut them off
  • The method of finding relevant content has to be less manual. Instead of trying to find the gem in the mud, just avoid mud in a sea of gems.

Failing at that, I will have to get my content from the original long form content: books. It will be an activity that sounds passive, but it won't be. Books require effort reading them, a focus of attention and so on. More than skimming two page long Internet content, that's for sure. That, if I don't listen to the books instead of reading them, falling asleep and then pretending to have read the thing. No, I won't do that.

I will also continue to share what I find interesting on Facebook. Sharing is caring after all. I just won't read what everybody else is sharing. I know that sounds more self absorbed than useful, but that's the best I can do. The alternative would be to post everything to my blog and repost the links to social media automatically. I just don't feel sharing a link is actually blog post material, which is traditional long form (like this shitty thing no one will read). I mean, how ridiculous it would be to get a link to my blog in Twitter, than you then follow to get to the link I liked while looking at Twitter?

However, it is clear that, as a principle, what I need to remove from my life is as much passivity as possible. I need to involve myself more, pay more attention, focus, make personal connections. That's also something I will attempt to do, though I will likely not share that on social media, except as occasional blog posts on how great my life is and how yours sucks balls.

At this point I only hope you had the attention span to read this to the end, the emotional involvement required for you to care and that you will understand why I don't Like anything you post. I didn't do that even when I was active on social media, I will certainly not do it now.

One possibility is that I will fail at this resolution completely. I gauge this as very remote a possibility, but it exists nonetheless. I really hope someone will smack over the head if I get to that point. I would certainly deserve it. Not you, wife! (she likes smacking me)

I know it's premature, but I wish you a Happy New Year, as I do indeed intend to have one myself.

  I've accepted the old man should teach me as the only solution to becoming a champion, but it is hard to swallow it. He is very old, but mischievous, so whenever I try to learn something from him, he kicks me to the ground. He tricks me again and again and again. I am frustrated, but I am trying to keep my cool. I am strong. If I were to really fight him, he might be smart, but every attack would break bone and then what good would he be? Just a bag of meat and broken shards. I close my eyes, I breath, I tell myself it is worth it.

  The old man apologizes and offers me a hand, I take it, only to be kicked in the ass and thrown into a jumble of debris. I lose my temper and stomp away. He doesn't understand. Getting angry at him is pointless, hurting him futile. I have nothing to learn from him. I walk through the old grounds of my conquests, now just the walled in and decrepit underground of the large arena above. I feel a presence behind me and I see the old man is following me, eyes to the ground. Contrition? Surely another of his tricks. "Begone!" I roar at him, but he goes to his knees and kowtows in front of me, his hands touching my feet. I feel tears swelling up in my eyes. He might as well be a little boy asking for forgiveness. Just who is the teacher and who is the student? Who is the adult here?

  "How did you get to a hundred years or whatever behaving like a little kid?! You are a child!" I shout at him in admonishment. I look around and ghosts of my past awaken my anguish. I feel my face contort into a painful grin as my tears flow freely. "Every week I was coming here to murder people!", I rage, my voice barely my own, a booming, low, animal growl, my expression that of an enraptured madman, for sure. "I would stake my life every time and I would leave, alive, every time!". The images of old fights flash before my wet blurred vision and I imagine that some of the painted white walls might contain some of the scrolls of the ancient arts, built over by a world that doesn't get it anymore. "I loved it!", I say, walking in the dead halls, every step a pulse of power overlaying glorious past over grey reality. My body is shaking with now uncontrollable weeping. "I killed so many people and I miss it... so.... very... MUCH!".

  Does he get it now, I ask myself? Has he even an inkling of the power he needs to teach me to control? I burst through the door to the surface and climb the stairs that get me to the arena above. The seats are packed with oblivious spectators, all watching some performance I don't even care to notice. I breathe in the fresh air and feel better. Ready to come to a final understanding with the old man, if he is capable of it ,I turn around. There is little time and we should not fight each other. But the old man is gone.

   I strain my eyes into the darkness of the stairs and I feel it, The Beast, the adversary I need to fight is there. He's got the old man and, even if I cannot see it, I know it is there, all cunning, fury and power. My body roars by itself, a predator sound, strong and fearless, no sound a man should ever be able to make. The arena spectators panic in surprised horror, but I ignore them. I jump into the darkness with animal strength. I will fight this beast, I will meet it head on, I will be the most savage, alone I will remain alive.

Just has a revelation. There are studies that show the moment you introduce currency in a social transaction, the dynamics change dramatically, leading to conflict, selfishness and the dissolution of societal and even emotional bonds. For a random reference check this article: Why Good Deeds and Money Don’t Mix.

I've been struggling with this new political correctness movement because 1) I didn't get it 2) almost every one of the people actively acting offended in this context appears to be... not nice and 3) it doesn't seem to be helping any. So, am I the bad guy? I started to ask myself. Am I a racist homophobic sexist misogynistic normie white male working in the tech field or is there something else going on? Judging by how far from normie people who actually know me think I am, I started to think about it more.

And it came to me! Political correctness is a form of currency forcefully introduced into our social transactions. Not only is it causing trouble for people who are assholes, but also for normal people who suddenly feel they have to pay something. And, as currency does, it breaks society, not strengthens it.

That is why so many people caught in this are so violent and partisan about it. That is why when you are nice towards a - I don't even know how to call them these days - not white person it feels good, as it would being nice towards anybody else, but when you are forced to do it, it well... feels forced. It feels like duty, like work, like paying a tax. The concept of balance slowly creeps in and makes one push back. Maybe with a joke, maybe with an angry tweet, maybe with something worse like actually picking on someone for their skin color, sex, age, religion or anything else. And they do it because picking on someone for being... I don't know... Romanian, doesn't feel like restoring anything. And now Romanians are pretty angry, because offending Jewish people or of recent African descent is somehow "wronger", so they get offended and feel left out. It's wrong to pick on anyone either way, deal with it!

In the end, introducing currency just pushes people into two diametrical opposed groups: the payers and the people who are owed. And of course, the people who ride the wave and get their little percentage to convert it to any other currency: money, hate, power, etc. We become slaves to the middlemen even when we interact with other people! Hell, they want to introduce ethics for computers now. Where does it end?!

So, as I am an egalitarian in my misanthropy, I submit that you should get offended by people just like any other person would. Leave currency to bankers. Or pick on them! No one ever got into a twist for calling bankers names.

Recently I've started seeing a lot of opinions about what is called "fat shaming", the practice of making fun of someone or being offensive towards them because they are overweight. Some say that being morbidly obese should feel shameful, others that shaming people for their weight is cruel and doesn't help in any way, as stress and low self esteem lead to even more weight gain. There are even scientific reports in mainstream media about this.

I am here to tell you that, as someone who has always been heavier than desired, that probably shame doesn't help, but having a clear idea of your normal weight does. When I has about 115kg I felt fine, I felt normal, I had to have friends tell me that I gained too much weight. So I went to a nutritionist, lost weight, it wasn't even very difficult. I went to 102kg and stabilized around 105. I felt absolutely thin and sexy! I gained weight again after, but my image of myself had changed. I didn't feel normal at 115, so I started taking care of what I was eating. I am still orbiting 105kg now and probably it will be very hard for me to go under that limit, however what I am trying to tell you is that if I feel fat at one level, I will make at least a modicum of effort to not gain more weight. If my image of myself, both conscious and unconscious, is that normal is somewhere, I will go towards that limit.

Picking on someone or intentionally offending them is an asshole move, obviously, but changing the level of "normal" to suite the current average or culturally accepted weight in the name of niceness and political correctness is absolutely wrong. Just my two cents.

Intro


Istanbul is a beautiful lie. You are being served, begged of, you can haggle any price and no one will get upset, you are a king among serfs, everything is ancient, colorful and traditional. But as you walk around in the high but pleasant sea-side heat you can't help but wonder: how high was that initial price if you can lower it again and again and again? How are you a king while walking in the most populous city of one of the most powerful countries in the region? Why are there armored cars here and there, watching you while you unsuccessfully try to reach Wikipedia on your cell phone in Democracy Park? How can all these traditional shops sell the exact same thing all over the city? Why are there so many types of tea in the bazaar, but when you go to a cafe they only serve one?

Now, I enjoyed my visit to Istanbul. My hotel was sub par, but I didn't care about it too much because the staff was doing their best to be accommodating. Yet there are some things I would have liked to know before going there. Here are my thoughts.

Prerequisites


The first thing to consider when going to Istanbul is if you want to rent a car. The answer to this is "I do not want to rent a car, because I want to survive this vacation". The driving is chaotic and the roads are steep and crowded. Most of the time you don't even want to take cabs. People cross the street randomly and there are scooters that speed onto any temporarily free surface. Yet, except a motorcycle guy that probably died on the freeway, I have not seen even a car bump in this mess. To be a driver in Istanbul is both a badge of honor and skill and a psychiatric condition. You've been warned!

The second thing you need is select the part of Istanbul you want to be based in, because the city is vast and split by the sea into three parts: two in Europe and one in Asia. If you are a touristy kind of person, go to the Sultanahmet, Eminonu side. If you want more authenticity, real people living their lives, go to the Asian side, while the other European side is more for the city lifestyle and shopping, like in Taksim square. I haven't been to the modern part of the city, but from afar the buildings there look tall and beautiful and I am told it's great, too.

You've got to be careful choosing your hotel. Istanbul is so chocked with them that when you look at the map you feel that you have not zoomed in enough. In fact every building in some areas is a hotel and all that separates them are small windy one car streets: no side walk, no parking spaces, no green space. You have to pay attention to the pictures of the hotel, to how may rows of windows they have, for example. It will tell you how tall they really are and how many windows your room will have. A lot of these places have large lobbies and terraces, but it's where you enter the hotel and where you get breakfast in the morning, while your room might have just a window overlooking a fence. I've seen rooms that had no windows. So it is vital you speak directly to the hotel and discuss the conditions of your rooms (do not trust they will get the information from Booking or act on it). It's not that they want to cheat you, but everything in Istanbul is negotiable. You need to speak to an actual person. The city abhors algorithms.

One more important thing is your infrastructure. You need information and transportation. In Istanbul a lot of transportation works with an IstanbulKart, an electronic card you can put money on and then pay for trams, buses, ferries, etc. Cabs, of course, are different. Careful with the cabs: you might get a perfectly good one from the airport, with a meter and a credit card reader, then get another that only accepts cash and you must negotiate the price. Now, it might feel like a waste, but I recommend you get one kart for each person. While you can very well use only one for an entire group, I got into the situation where my wife passed and I didn't, so she had to wait until I found a recharging station and had to negotiate with the Turkish only interface.

That gets me to the information portion: Turkey is not in the EU. That means that calls and SMS messages are very expensive and probably mobile Internet as well. While most shops have WiFi, when you are on the road you need Internet. If you have a dual SIM phone (and even if you don't) I recommend you buy a prepaid Turkish card for your Internet and local calls. I didn't do that, so I got stuck a lot of times. As so many translation systems work online, too, I think it's a good idea. Everything in Istanbul is in Turkish, with occasional afterthoughts about other languages. People there know very little English and when they do, you are not sure if they understood what you told them or they simply don't want to appear stupid.

The fun


The fun is all on you! I won't tell you what is good and what is not, because not one of the people that prepared me for my trip had an experience even close to mine. It's not that I am special, but people really are different and Istanbul provides differently depending on your style. What I can tell you is that it is a city worth visiting, but perhaps not for the usual reasons. It feels different. It's not a clone of all the other cities I've been to. It really has its own culture, it's not overwhelmed with the same multinational corporations, it doesn't have banks and pharmacies everywhere, and the lack of rules (or the difference in them) opens the mind to possibilities.

For me the mosques were all the same, the palaces were just buildings with old furniture in them, the museums collections of objects with little life to them. For example I went to the Royal Kitchens in Topkapi; there was nothing to reflect the life that went on there. Just random kitchen implements nicely ordered inside transparent cages. I didn't find the haggling with shop owners pleasant or the ice cream seller antics entertaining. The food was nice, but not extraordinary. The bazaars were full of shops that sold the exact same things. I couldn't get close to a shop without someone harassing me about buying or entering. These are not the reasons why I enjoyed Istanbul.

Instead, it was the weird combination of new and old, of people living their lives differently, the all present sea breeze which made the heat bearable. It was the way people did all of these annoying things and yet I felt no malice from or toward them. It all felt viscerally eternal, like this city had the power to survive the world encroaching on it.

I don't know, maybe you just need to have played Quest for Glory II to feel this way. Or maybe it's just me. I don't think I would want to return soon, but it's an experience I recommend. And now, try to get this out of your head:

I am going to try something new with this blog post. Usually, when I go somewhere on vacation, the things that capture my attention are not what interest about anybody else in my entourage. I am also not a very lyrical writer, so what's the point of enumerating the places I've been from the perspective (oh, so much used!) of the casual tourist. I imagine myself writing one of those horrid "10 things to do in..." articles, promptly vomit and desist from thinking about it.

With this post, though, I am going to tell you of the wild (but accessible) area that I've explored and where to find it, how I felt and, if I can find the references, what plants and animals live there. You see, when I go somewhere, I avoid people and take really bad pictures of flowers and plants, butterflies, weird things and sometimes landscapes.

The place


I've been to Cheile Bistritei Valcene (the canyon of the river Bistritza from Valcea - there is another one in the north of the country) and in the valley of the Luncavatz river. The vegetation and insects are very similar, so I am going to treat this as a single area, even if their locations are 20 KMs apart:
  • Cheile Bistritei: from 45.189828, 24.039859 to 45.197871, 24.030284
  • Raul Luncavat: from 45.186682, 23.917856 to 45.190084, 23.914488

The area is very nice, easy to get to by car, but not very touristic yet, so not a lot of people having picnics and listening loudly to music. Leave your car and walk on the sides of the river(s) and the scenery is verdant and quiet. I have to warn you that even if in Romanian they are called rivers, they are more like creeks, especially at this time of the year. You can even find some caves in the area and if you are the long walk type of person, some 4-5 hour hike routes to more remote areas. Some flowers are white, but the vast majority of them are either yellow-orange or violet in color and probably are much more interesting in ultraviolet than human vision.

Animal life


I haven't seen any animals other than birds, a running lizard and a lot of insects.

I saw several species of butterflies, the most common by far being a medium sized orange with black spots, a fritillary, probably the Silver-washed fritillary (Argynnis Paphia) or mantia imparatului in Romanian. They were frolicking on these tall yellow flowers with large leaves: the yellow oxeye (Telekia speciosa) or brusture and ochiul-boului in Romanian. The next most common was a shy dark butterfly with a crimson edge on its wings. Probably the Woodland ringlet (Erebia Medusa), I have no idea what the Romanian popular name for it is.


Argynnis Paphia on a Telekia speciosa




Erebia Medusa



Some other butterflies: the cabbage white (Pieris rapae) or fluturele de varza in Romania, the peacock (Aglais io) or ochi de paun de zi in Romanian, the swallowtail (Papilio machaon) or coada de rindunica in Romanian and even one glimpse of what I think was a marbled white (Melanargia galathea) or tabla de sah in Romanian.


Pieris Rapae




Aglais Io (during my youth Innachis Io)




Papilio Machaon




Melanargia Galathea



One fascinating specimen looked similar to a peacock butterfly from afar only for it to settle in a triangular black and white shape when it stopped. It must have been a moth! I've identified it as a Jersey tiger moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria) or fluturele urs dungat in Romanian.


Euplagia Quadripunctaria



What I also found fascinating is a tree that had apparently been colonized by ants. A lot of wood dust was on the ground and a lot of activity was inside the trunk. Still, there was another hole in the trunk that was filled with wood dust, but no ant activity. Could it have been some sort of other factor, termites or perhaps a disease, that destroyed the tree trunk's interior and the ants were just opportunists?


Ants or termites? New behavior or opportunism?



Plants


Now, plants are easier to photograph, but harder to identify. I've mentioned the oxeye. Then there was the touch-me-not (Impatiens noli-tangere) or slabanog and bradulet in Romanian, which appears to have been used traditionally for its medicinal properties, mostly related to kidney or gynecological issues. The Spreading bellflower (Campanula patula) was there, together with its close relative, the Creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides) - both are called clopotei in Romanian. There was the mountain geranium (Geranium robertianum) or napraznic and priboi and iarba sfintului Robert in Romanian, which appears to have anti-stress, anti-cancer and fertility related purposed in traditional medicine.


Impatiens Noli-tangere




Campanula Patula




Campanula Rapunculoides




Geranium Robertianum



Field mustard was present as well (Brassica rapa). This plant was and is used for a variety of reasons in many cultures. The leaves and roots are rich in oil. In Puglia they use the buds as cimedirape in the making of orecchiette pasta. It is a plant from the cabbage family of plants, probably explaining the presence of the cabbage butterflies.


Brassica Rapa



A very interesting flower has a very weird name: the Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) or iarba sarpelui in Romanian. It has blue flowers but the filaments of the stamens are red, contrasting with the petals and giving it a violet color per whole. It has medicinal uses as well, as an antidote for snake bites and for its antibiotic and astringent properties.


Echium Vulgare



Another violet flower, with uses in homeopathic medicine but also in poisonings, is aconite or wolfsbane (Aconitum napellus) or omag in Romanian. It contains powerful alkaloids and at one time it was forbidden to grow this plant anywhere in the Roman Empire on penalty of death. Death from intoxication with the plant can occur in as little as half an hour!


Aconitum Napellus



And since we are talking about a violet flower with medicinal properties, how can we ignore the heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) or busuioc salbatic in Romania. The young leaves and stems can be eaten raw in salads; the plant in whole can be boiled and eaten as a potherb; and the aerial parts of the plant can be powdered and brewed in a cold infusion to make a beverage and it is used as an astringent in folk medicine.


Prunella Vulgaris



Not often, but when it happened it was a whole field of them, I found the Orange mullein (Verbascum phlomoides) or luminarica in Romanian. It is also a medicinal plant, used for the calming, sweat inducing and expectorant effects.


Verbascum Phlomoides



I've seen some daisies in the area and also another flower from the same family: the fleabane (Erigeron annuus) or bunghisor in Romanian. Used in salads as well as against the common cold or stomach aches in folk medicine.


Erigeron Annuus



Last, but not least, the evening-primrose or sundrop (Oenothera biennis) or luminita noptii in Romanian. It started as an American plant, much like the fleabane, but it was brought and naturalized in Europe. It has been used medicinally by the native Americans for all kinds of ailments, as it is an edible plant containing an oil with anti inflammatory properties.


Oenothera Biennis



There were a lot of plants without flowers, but I haven't had the time or patience for them. There was one with huge leaves and I photographed it for identification purposes. It turns out it was either the butterbur (Petasites hybridus) or the burdock (Arctium lappa) both called brusture in Romanian, but different species altogether. It's probably the Arctium, but I can't be sure!


Petasites hybridus or Arctium lappa? A lot of stuff called brusture in Romanian!



Resources


It would have been a lot more difficult for me to write this post if it weren't for sites like:
Even with these great resources, it was obvious that not many people will publish nature related posts in any systematic manner. Even this post, three hours in the making, is a random mess of blurry pictures and random observations.

Update: Many people have asked me how can the Body Mass Index be right when people who are very muscular are heavier than fat guys their exact volume. The truth is BMI and any other metric is just a tool to measure your own progress. Another one that I found interesting is the waist size around the belly button. Apparently, there is a nice heuristic that tells you how big it should be: half of your weight. Here is a simple calculator to tell you the optimal weight and waist size given the height and sex:


    



How is that right that a male should have the same waist as a woman when they have 2 points of extra BMI? That's the muscles that you should have :) The rest of the article applies just as well. Use whatever metric you feel comfortable with. Now for the meat of it:

Intro


As many other people, I am not satisfied with my weight. Putting aside the medical implications of having a lot of fat around my internal organs, I am mostly motivated by girls looking at me not as a hunk of a man, but as a fat old guy. I've tried various diets, which all worked in some capacity, but in the end I've just gained back the weight, in something called the Yo-Yo effect. So I've decided to approach the problem in a rational manner.

In order to solve the problem, one needs several pieces of information. First, you need to define the problem. Then you have to measure it, see if you have it or not and in what degree. Only then you can think of solutions, having the tools to measure your progress in applying them. Finally, you have to compare the solutions in terms of effort and results, predicted and actual.

Defining and measuring the problem


So yeah, I am overweight, but how is that a problem? Being overweight or obese may increase the risk of many health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. There is a whole damn list. In order to define the term overweight, people have used various metrics, the most common being the Body Mass Index or BMI that takes into account just your height and weight. Recently that metric has been updated to include other factors, like age, race and gender. There are a lot of sites on the Internet that compute this.

I am going to eschew the fancy calculators and instead use the BMI calculator from calculator.net. For my input, the desired weight if I were to be smack in the middle of the normal range is 84 kg. That's surely a bit extreme for a guy who is 197 cm tall, but let's go with it. If I had that weight, I would have a BMI of 21.64. As it was a month ago, it was 31, meaning Obese class 1. Well, I don't want to be obese!

But what does make me fat? I mean, if I could change the gravitational pull, like going to Mars, I would be lighter, right? My BMI will lower considerably. But it wouldn't solve my problem which is actually related to how much extra fat I carry around.

Solutions


There are three ways of losing fat:

  • Using more energy than you put in
  • Tricking the body to not store it and/or eliminate it
  • Mechanical removal


For my intents and purposes, I will not discuss the last two. I don't want to have unnecessary surgery performed on me and if I had some medicine to make me eliminate fat, I wouldn't be able to know enough to judge the side effects. Either way, I wouldn't recommend things like that on my blog without being an expert, due to the inherent risks. The thing is that what I am going to propose at the end of this blog post - that you have to read to the end - is that how you lose fat is irrelevant, as long as you do. But I'll get there.

Now, burning fat requires a negative balance of calories. Stuff you put in has to be less than the stuff you use. If you look up how many calories are stored in a kilogram of fat, you will get a huge value: around 7500. To put that in perspective, running or cycling for 10km at a reasonable pace consumes about 500 calories and a whole Domino's pizza is around 2500. Fortunately, there are inefficiencies in processing, storing and using fat as an energy reserve, but we can use this as a comparison.

While healthy and promoting muscle growth and a sure way towards those girls seeing the hunk beneath all that fat, using sport to lose weight seems terribly inefficient. That being said, the long term effects of sport are that your metabolic rate increases. That means you normally burn more energy, even if you are not constantly exercising. However, understanding how much effort to expend, in what way and what are the long term effects pushes me more toward the unknown territory of "maybe it works". Going there would not be rational. So while I will hold sport as an optional nice to have, it is NOT a solution.

If you are wondering how many calories you are using in a day, there is the Harris-Benedict formula that computes the BMR and then you multiply it with your daily activity level. Just to put more nails into the sports coffin, the daily activity level is a number between 1.2 (sedentary) and 1.9 (extra active). So the best you can achieve through sports is a 50% increase in your energy use if you are "extra active". No, thanks! For me, the calorie burn from a month ago was 2678 in order to maintain my weight.

So if I am not burning more energy, I have to input less. The same useful calorie calculator tells me that in order to lose weight I have to eat 1678 calories, so 1000 calories less than what I am burning. That is why a lot of diets are based on "eat only low calorie food that tastes like crap at fixed hours to the second, while avoiding anything that feels like an actual meal", with painstakingly complicated menus of what you are allowed to eat. Well, those are complications I don't need. And this calorie calculation adds even more complexity. I have actually lost 10 kg in a month, so now the daily calorie use is 2522, a sliding value as I lose weight!

How are all these metrics calculated? They take into account some constants, like my height and age and gender, and then some variables, like my weight. In order to affect any of them I need to simply lose weight. I have a simple way of measuring weight - with a scale, I have a target - 84 kilograms, a starting point - 120 kilograms. I also have a solution for decreasing the weight: eat less. This also leads to muscle loss, which CAN be solved by physical exercise, but that's another story.

Possible hurdles


As I said, there are more ways to lose weight, but there are even more ways of eating less. Less carbs, less fat, eat only certain things, avoid certain things, fasting, eat many small meals, eat one enormous meal very rarely, don't drink sugary drinks and alcohol, drink disgusting vegetable concoctions, etc. While trying other diets I've discovered several impediments to losing weight that are based more on human nature than anything else:

  • it's much easier to start eating than stopping
  • strict schedules constrain my way of life
  • diet food is bland at best
  • the world is constantly bombarding me with offers to eat and drink
  • once I've slipped, it's hard to get back on track
  • eating is social
  • eating is a habit to pass boredom
  • food is a source of comfort
  • complex diet systems are easier to cheat and I always find how
  • dieting goals can be daunting
  • losing weight is slowing down as you go along
  • your body learns that they should burn less when you eat less, decreasing the metabolic rate. Your subconscious learns that if it makes you feel miserable enough you will slip and eat


I would like a diet that takes all that into consideration.

Let's start with ambitious dieting goals. Let's say I wanted to lose weight until I got to 84 kilograms (which I will actually never do, because it's insane) meaning I would have planned to lose a third of my weight. Isn't that a little daunting? You start off fast, because the first thing you lose is a little water and you say "wow! 5 kilos in a week, if I keep it up I will lose 40 kilos in two months!" and then the next week you barely lose one kilo (because it was your birthday and you deserved that cake!). Well, not only it's not because of the cake, it's also because of all the other points on the list above. Your weight loss is slowing down, your body is switching to a slower burn, social events are constantly bombarding you with high caloric foods, your diet is depressing you and your normal solution for depression is to drink booze and eat comfort food, once you started with the slice of pizza you couldn't just stop there, and so on and so on. In the end, after two miserable weeks you have all the reasons to stop dieting and continue with your normal routine. Nothing from a normal diet is pushing you towards keeping with it. It's torture.

Yet it all started with an ambitious goal. What if the goal was closer, as in "baby steps"? If I weigh 120 kilos, I can consider a victory getting to 119. An therefore lies my solution.

My take on the solution


My system is simple. You have three parameters: your weight target, your weight decrement and your grace period. Also, choose a dieting method. Any dieting method, and/or even some other solutions like sport, medication or medical procedures. This is how it works for me: my target is 84 kg, my decrement is 1 kg and my grace period is two days, which I intend to increase progressively as it becomes harder to lose weight. The method I chose (because of the first point) is to not eat or drink anything caloric, therefore fasting. I started at 120 kg and with the decrement of 1 kg, I need to not eat until I get to 119 kg. Once I get to that, I can eat. And I mean eat anything, drink anything, as much as I want. After that first meal, I have the grace period until I apply the decrement again.

Here is an example: I started on the first of May. Just by not eating for a day I lost more than 1 kilogram. On the second of May I had 118.5 on the scale. So I ate normal stuff, which made me get to 119.5 the next day, so I didn't eat that day at all. Next day I had 118.1, so I could eat again. On the fourth of may I had 118 kilograms, but the grace period of two days from the first meal had expired. Now the weight I needed in order to be allowed to eat was 117.

What are the advantages? I need a fancy list to enumerate them all:

  1. the Yo-Yo effect works for you now! You gain weight, then lose just a little more
  2. as long as you get to your target you may continue to keep the diet without the decrement. You can continue your entire life eating whatever you want, as long as you are at your desired weight
  3. you don't need to feel guilty about eating what you like and you don't have to stop once you started eating
  4. there are no schedules or special menus as long as you are on target
  5. you can pause the diet whenever you want. If you go on a vacation and you gain 10 kg, all you need to do is diet until those 10 kilos are gone, and then you are on track again. Same for social occasions, you don't have to be the guy that says no because he's on a diet.
  6. the dieting method is irrelevant, as are the various metrics and computations. It's as easy as getting to the next decrement. There are no complexities and no way to cheat
  7. it's so simple you can automate it in a computer program or smartphone app
  8. you can adapt parameters to your weight loss rate. As long as you plan to lose 10 grams in a billion years, you have a plan and can get on target. Take it as slow as you want, you will get there eventually. In other words, you need to get under a curve on a graph, not feel constantly bad if you have not reached your target yet
  9. and this is the best yet: if you eat a lot when you are allowed to, the later dieting will punish you for it. You get punished for indulging yourself and rewarded for losing weight. You are motivated to eat less, with less calories, but you choose it with your own free will. Your body also learns this and starts burning fat to get to the good part

Results


So, I am writing this article a month after I've decided to try this. I started at about 120 kilograms and now I have 107 kilos. It's not a lot, but I haven't felt I was really dieting. I drink a lot of water and I supplement it with vitamins and mineral pills if I have to not eat for a few days. I have the feeling the water is helping the losing of weight as I was usually getting the water only from the food I was eating or Cola and now I drink at least three liters of water a day. Our office is a "pizza office" so I slip often, but I don't feel bad about eating a slice of pizza, it still way under the calorie limit that leads to weight loss. At first I would eat a whole pizza, then fast longer afterwards, but after a few tries, it's much easier to just taste a slice and stop. My body is not usually craving anything and when it does, I just promise myself I will get that as soon as I get on target. And this has the extra advantage of delaying gratification. Often, when I can eat whatever I want, I remember the list of things that grabbed my attention and most of it is not appealing anymore. I started cooking weird stuff, just because while I am not eating I get ideas of what I would really like to eat when I get the chance.

In fact, I am starting a diet every two days or so. I lose a kilo, the diet is over, then I start another. In total I am reducing my calorie intake, but only by eating less of what I was already enjoying. I occasionally ride a bike or eat stuff that fires the metabolism up, but those are just extras. Even if I am allowed to, I stopped drinking so much Coca Cola. Strangely, I thought that it would taste better after a long pause, but it's just the normal aromatic sugar water taste.

Now, I doubt that eating once in two or three days works for everyone. Do whatever is easier for you: don't eat sugar, set your decrement to 100 grams, do those only meat things, eat only leafy veggies, whatever! For me, not eating is much easier than eating and stopping or eating bland things. I need my sausages and pizza and food that is so spicy that you need to keep eating it lest your mouth catches fire and alcohol and fizzy drinks and all the unhealthy crap that people usually eat. This doesn't stop me from eating that, but it slowly erodes my need to. It's an interesting side effect that I intend to explore further. Also, while there are reports of apparent health benefits for intermittent fasting, they have no part in my decision to do the diet the way that I am doing it.

So what is my real target? I am still deciding. I started with 97 kg just because I was expecting to give up around 110. Now I am thinking I haven't weighed 97 kg since high school and then I kinda felt I was too fat. Who knows. The beauty of this is that the graph stays there. Even if I stop for a few years, it just patiently waits for me to get under it. I feel no pressure which is more than I can say about any other diet I've tried or heard of.

Other links

I am not the only one saying that fasting is good and apparently the term has been increasing in popularity and study exposure. A web page that seems to list various sources for benefits of fasting is The Benefits Of Fasting

We are changing the furniture and repainting the walls in the apartment, so naturally, the first order of business is to dig into closets, drawers, bags, boxes and various regions under existing furniture and throw away as much as possible. It is a strange feeling, one that makes me remember a past and dead self, one that was hopeful, smart, crazy, in love, using technology and doing stuff that I can't even begin to comprehend nowadays.

I dug into old CD albums, remembering with much nostalgia the movies that I was watching and intending to keep forever. The movies are still around, CD players are almost gone. I had to use my wife's laptop to read the CDs, as mine would only accept a few of them. Well, that's because it's broken, but still. Among the CDs I found old source code and material that I had gathered from friends, jobs, the Internet, hacking. I felt like an archaeologist digging through the remains of old civilizations, ones we hold dear and towards which we feel a strong sense of ownership, but with which we have nothing in common.

Here it is: the Palm VX PDA that was built in 1998 and still works now, with the same battery, if you can just find a way to connect it to a computer so you can upload new stuff to it. Here it is: the Nokia E60 phone that worked flawlessly for more than ten years. I bought a smartphone to replace both of them just five years ago. But also, here it is: an external modem I had forgotten I had; I still wonder where I used it, if ever, and how I got hold of it. Same for the audio/video/infrared wireless transmitters and receivers that allowed me to watch movies from the computer to the TV in the other room. Tens of meters of Ethernet and all kinds of connective cables, forgotten in an age of ubiquitous digital wireless connection just forgotten in the odd corners of the house. Remains of two desktop computers (that I could still make work if I had the inclination) linger like the fossilized bones of extinct creatures.

I feel a mix of gratefulness, nostalgia, loss and that I am fucking old, all at the same time. I wonder where I could find people that still value these things that I dug out from my past and that otherwise will soon become anonymous and amorphous junk. Geez, look at the 6 CDs of utility software, stuff I still remember fondly and stuff I have never used: antivirus, archiving, communication, VoIP, OCR, document processing, all software that is in heavy use today but you would be hard pressed to find people still recognizing these particular incarnations. Music that I still have in my playlist on CDs almost twenty years old. Games that I had worked on that I have forgotten ever doing. Random writing from when I was so young I feel embarrassed just to remember.

And this is just from a 50 square meter apartment that we moved into just ten years ago. I can't even imagine how people do this when they move out from their childhood home, where they and their kids have lived for generations. What do they find? Do they even recognize it? What happened to all the people that I once was?

Occasionally I ask myself if I really am an "ist". You know: misogynist, racist, classist, sexist, bigot, and so on. Or maybe I am "one of the good guys", a progressive feminist antiracist. And the answer is yes. I am both.

I've just read a really long feminist article that - besides naming white bigoted men "the enemy" and showing them the smallest bit of empathy just because "if you mess with them, they mess with us women when they get home" - had the author wonder how come so many of the people who got outed by the latest wave of misconduct allegations were people who declared themselves progressive and even wrote or shared content towards that. And the answer is really simple and really uncomfortable for all purists out there: we are all a bit bigoted. More than that, sometimes were are really leaning towards a side and then we change back, like reeds in the wind. I think that's OK. That's how people are and have been since forever. The answer is not to pretend we are different, but to accept we have that side and to listen to it and converse with it in order to reach some sort of consensus.

The animal brain has one job and one alone. It has to heavily filter all the inputs from the real world and then create a manageable model of it in order to predict what's going to happen next. Shortcuts and pure yes and no answers are heaven to it. If you can look at one person and immediately infer things that will help you predict their behavior from simple things like sex or color of skin or the way they dress, the brain is ecstatic. Try telling it that no, that's not good, and instead of the limited statistical experience model that it uses it should instead rely on the morally curated amalgamation of acceptable experience of other people frustrates it. It's not a human thing, it's not a mammal thing; if you could express this idea to an ant, it would get angry with you. The brain wants - if not even needs - to be racist, sexist and other isms like that. What it wants is to take everything and put as much of it in small boxes so that it can use the limited capacity it has to navigate the things that are not labeled in one way or another.

So yes, physiologically we are too stupid to not be bigots. All bigots are stupid. We are all bigots. In order to not be, or at least not behave like one, you have to be motivated. Messing one's entire life in a matter of days with an onslaught of sympathetic and coordinated allegations would do that quite well. That doesn't mean it's the right thing to do, any more than it would be to "kill off" people who disagree with you. Therefore in matters such as these I cannot help feeling sympathetic towards people who are quite literally dicks. It doesn't mean I agree with what they did, it means I don't agree with what anybody did. And in such moments of sympathy I hear the parts of me that current society wants erased shouting for attention: "See, we were right! We are dicks, but these moralists are überdicks!" I listen to bits of me that want everything wrong with the world to be the fault of poor people, women, people from other nationalities, races or religions, certain jobs or certain types, having certain cars or behaving or dressing in a certain way. It would be so easy to navigate a world like that: just kill off the Jews and black people, put women in their place, write code only in C#, rename the island of Java to DotNet, be happy!

Yet it is obvious it doesn't work that way. Not even white males wouldn't want this to happen, most of them. How do I make the voices shut up? Clearly witch hunting offenders until their lives are more upended than if they stole or ran someone over with their car does not work. And the answer, from my own limited experience, seems to be contact. Whenever I am inclined to say all Chinese or Indians are stupid (which is numerically much worse than being antisemitic and so many people from my background are guilty of it) and I meet a brilliant Asian programmer or entrepreneur or simply an articulated and intelligent human being I am forced to revisit my assertion. Whenever I think women can't code and I meet young girls smarter and more energetic than I am I have to drop that, too. Whenever I want to believe black people smell or are violent or are genetically faulty and I see some Nubian Adonis talking high philosophy way over my head, I just have to stop. If these people would all go hypersensitive, get offended by everything I say or do and gang up on me for being limited in my view, I clearly won't be motivated or even have the opportunity to grow out of it. Of course gay people and Jews are responsible for all evils on Earth if they are the ones making my life hell. And it is also easy to remain bigoted if I surround myself with people just like me. I've read somewhere a statistic that showed racists usually live in areas where they lack contact with people of color.

Basically, what I want to say is that I see no reason why someone would want to be paranoid. Either there is something wrong with them or people are really out to get them. And it is so easy to label someone "the enemy" and just pound on them, so easy to blame anyone else for your troubles, so easy to enter the flight or fight mode that is encoded in our very beings. I see this with my dog: he avoids big dogs since a big dog attacked him. If he continues this trend, he will certainly avoid getting attacked again by a big dog, while trying to get acquainted with them might result in injury or even death. It's so easy to decide to avoid them, however nice they smell and how nice they play. For him it is a very limiting, but rational choice.

Hide your inner bigot, cage him in the darkest depths of your soul, and it will grow stronger, malignant, uncontrolled. This is what civilization, especially the forced kind, does to people. It makes them think they are something else, while inside they are cancerous and vile, just waiting to explode in the worst way. Instead, I propose something else: take your bigot for a walk, talk to it, introduce it to people. Maybe people will start avoiding you like the plague, but that's their own bigotry at work. And soon, you will probably be the progressive one. It's hard to be a racist if you have a black friend and difficult to be a misogynist when you meet wonderful humans that happen to be female. You will make the bad joke, you will expose your limits and the world around you will challenge you on them. But in the end, your limits will expand, people who matter will understand and appreciate your growth, and frigid feminazi Jew lesbos can go to hell.

You know that joke, about the guy who wants to become progressive, so he is searching for a gay friend? Why not try it the other way around? Find a bigot near you and make friends.

You will quickly understand why I felt the need to say I was unbiased, but let me first demonstrate how much unbiased I was: I went into this raw fruits store, with an errand from the wife, and wanted to get something from me. Usually I like the caju and macadamia nuts, but I didn't want to have the conversation about why did I spent so much on something I eat out of boredom, so I looked around to get something else. And here they were, packaged and sold just like any other dried fruits or nuts: bitter apricot kernels. So I bought a 200 g bag.

Back in the office, I opened the bag up and I started eating. They were bitter as hell, but I didn't mind it much. I was eating some of them, then switching to candied ginger (which I'd absolutely love if it weren't so sweet), then back again. After a while, though, I'd had enough. About half of the bag in, I couldn't really find a reason to keep eating them. My colleagues had all refused to eat (and spit) more than half of one. But I was curious what they were actually for. People who love bitter tastes, maybe?

So went on the Internet and KABOOOM! mind blown. Just for scale, try to look for yourself at the dimensions of the can of worms I'd just opened: apricot kernels.

Turns out that the "active ingredient" in the apricot kernels is amygdalin, a substance that turns to cyanide in the gut. Yes, you've heard that right: I had just bitten the tooth, dying for the motherland before I could spill the beans. Google had already failed miserably, by serving first a page that explained how Big Pharma and governments conspired to keep this wonder drug from the public. The second page was Wikipedia, then every single conspiracy nut site, sprinkled with the occasional very dry scientific study that bottom lined at "we don't really know".

But I am getting ahead of myself. At this point I was already severely biased and I first need to describe my earnest experience to you. Short story: accelerated heartbeat, fever, terrible headache and nausea that lasted for half a day. Also, didn't die, which was good.

Back to my rant. So, some guy looked at the chemical structure of amygdalin and thought it looked like a B complex vitamin, so he named it vitamin B17. It was quickly marketed as a cure for cancer, despite numerous trials to show that it wasn't. And no, it's not a vitamin for humans either. It is not made in the human body, but it's not needed, either. The bag was not labeled anything dangerous, because it came from the outside of the European Union, which has a law regarding this. Here is some advice for both the EU and the US. Turkey was OK, though, so it only said "great for cancer, eat 5 to 8 seeds daily, not all at once".

So how fucked was I after eating about one hundred of them? A European Food Safety Authority article said that eating three kernels exceeds the safe level for adults. A toddler could do that from just eating one. An article from Cancer Council Australia detailed the child fatalities due to ingesting apricot seeds. Another article was telling me of an adult who got poisoning, but he was both stupid and extreme (he was taking a concentrated extract) and didn't die anyway. A thousand other sites were telling me how amazing my health will be after I had just eaten ten times the daily dosage they suggested.

Drowned in the sea of controversy regarding apricot kernels I've decided to look for the chemical and medicinal treatment for cyanide poisoning. Step 1: decontamination. It was kind of too late to go to the toilet and do the anorexia thing. Step 2: take some amyl nitrite (and then some intravenous things). Wait, that's a party drug. I could maybe get one in a sex shop. There was no home remedy and most of all, even if the amyl nitrite seems to work, no one seems to know exactly why other than the vasodilating effect it obviously has. Another possible antidote is (ironically) hydroxocobalamin, also called vitamin B12a. In the end some vitamin C and a headache pill did wonders, just in case you eat a bunch of apricot kernels and feel awful. Obviously, if it were a serious condition I would have died at the keyboard, trying to wade through the marketing posts and the uselessly dry official reports. Also, not enough easily available party drugs, I dare say.

So, days later the bout of shaky hands, fever and the horrible headache that only blood oxygen deprivation can bring, I decided to write this post. I doubt people will find it with Google, but maybe just my immediate friends will know not to eat this crap.

So I am having this dream. Or I am so having a dream? Anyway, weird fucking dream, like Coscarelli meets Happy! via those explaining videos where someone talks very fast while drawing what is going on while an obnoxiously and totally unnecessary music plays joyfully in the background. Although that was mostly a way to graphically depict my inner thoughts... in the dream... so that I could understand what I was thinking. The dream concerned altered states of mind, biology, physics, logic, anything really.

Everything was altered, but also very real. It was all real. One moment I am doing something horrible, like killing innocent bystanders by throwing them from a tall place onto other people that were trying to make me stop killing people or pushing terrified (and annoying) kindergarten kids out of my way, my wife in tow, enjoying every second, the other I am home, waiting for the cops to show up, amazed that I got away, only for someone to force very strong psychiatric meds down my throat and make me realize that it was all a fantasy of someone who isn't even who I thought I was. Then I wake up and I am a terrible (and amusing) force of evil trying to understand both who I am and why do the people that force feed me medicine look like my parents, while they clearly are not. I terrify them and so I can tell them what to do, maybe they won't discover I am as terrified of not knowing what the hell is going on. But I will be having fun, as a God given right.

And then it switches again, with a good friend arranging the trip that will take us out of the country, on a touristic toury tour that me and the wife will use to escape the authorities that no doubt are looking for us right now because we killed all those people in probably the very tour we are organizing because they were standing in our way and we were bored. And in the dream I realize that every such permutation of reality is part of the dream, but also very real. I could stop at any moment and that would be reality for a while. So I switch again, I escape, barely conscious of where or who I am, I jump some stairs, a dog is chasing me, but I know he knows me and wants to play, I get out of the building, pretend to be a PTSD affected veteran to get clothes and stuff, including guns, until someone asks me where I served. So I just have to take out the guns and commandeer a vehicle. The fact that the people in the car are sexy women who can't help feeling terrified and also strangely excited by this display of violence is surely coincidence. And then cops show up and the girls run away. I shoot after them until the bullets run out, while the cops are weirdly apathetic, standing next to me on the hood of their car. "Are you done?" they ask, and I sigh and acknowledge and give up, allowing to be handcuffed and thrown into a car that doesn't seem to be a police car. And a woman is there, old, crow feet eyes, one of those people who can laugh at anything, you know, smoking nonchalantly.

I realize it is all part of the great machine that revolves reality, like one of those game machines that gives you a prize on TV when they rotate it, only it seems the real good prizes are never chosen. And I know now what this is and I look into her eyes and I know that she knows I know, but maybe she could stop smoking, since it irritates me, and she laughs. Told you she could laugh at anything. I am proud of not panicking, of taking it all in and being cool with it, I can see the old woman nodding appreciatively, too. "So what now?", I ask, but I already know the answer.

It is clear to me that anything could happen, and it does happen, the whole world dies and I get that fast talking graphic that explains why everything alive is not alive anymore except one thing, me. And it doesn't make any sense at all other than what if it could happen and if it could happen why wouldn't it and I am it, the thing that can breathe what nothing else can and still draw fancy pictures of what happened while explaining itself how it survived. But then surely I could animate one of the dead, just for fun, so it can be irritated (as I was) at how fast I am talking when depicting my inner monologue. And I try variations on the same theme, all wonderful and terrifying and apparently dangerous, only that I can change them even after something bad happened to me, so they're not. I especially enjoy the ones where I am enjoying what I am doing, even if it doesn't seem like something anyone would enjoy. I congratulate myself for choosing a reality I enjoy what I am doing so much that I need to congratulate myself about it.

I am trying to describe the experience as accurately as possible while fully knowing that the memory of it is fading and that even if I would still be part of it I couldn't express it fully. It stank of multidimensionality, it purposely lacked any purpose, anything at all was possible and it was, overlapping and existing at the same time and space. It had a soundtrack, and even if I knew, for example, that Come Together was taken directly from my recent viewing of Justice League, I also knew that it had a completely different meaning in this context, except maybe for the YouTube bots who would flag my whole life as copyrighted. There was no moral to it, no catharsis, no epiphany. It refused definition and I relished it. It was the polar opposite of a spiritual experience: no hope, but infinite potential, no lessons to be learned, but filled to the brim with experience, no gods other than myself.

I could have been anyone, anything, everything, but I chose the reality where I would wake up, recognize the room, the laptop, and blog about it. Maybe only then see life extinguished, just for the kicks of knowing that everything I spent horrible confused lonely moments (while aware of the singleminded and boring nature of this chosen reality) typing was pointless, no one would read it, even attempt to understand it and fail miserably, because the Internet would still work for a bit, but everybody would be dead. Fortunately it was all a dream, and you will read and fail to understand this post, not even the least bit grateful for being all alive and shit and not the punchline to a joke that I alone (pardon the pun) would find funny.

Growing up I always had this fantasy of writing a journal. My sense of privacy - being sure someone would read and judge it - stopped me from pursuing that, as well as the simple fact that I didn't need a journal, I just saw it as a cool thing I should do. Little did I know that in my older years I would want some sort of record of my forgotten youth and find none. Yet the idea persisted.

I started an actual journal as soon as I had a computer and I understood the concept of encryption. It didn't really work, either. It was full of self serving bullshit and it described a person that I really wasn't. One could (and should) read between the lines in order to understand the smug and ignorant state of mind of the author. Later still, I started to write a book, something called The Good Programmer or something of that sort. Phaw! Even if I could have gotten past my chronic impostor syndrome, being a good programmer is nice, but not my goal in life. If it were, I would have made other life choices. And again, it was full of self serving bullshit.

You may detect a pattern here and it might inform your reading this blog post. Anyway, its point is to generalize my experience as a programmer, as fast and as clean as possible. Hope it helps.

Every time I write software - that I care about and have influence over its technical quality - I tend to generalize things: reuse components, refactor duplicate code and so on. In other words, find similar problems and solve them with the same tool. It is not Golden Hammering problems away, that's a different thing altogether, since it is I who is shaping the tool. So how about doing that for my life? I should care about it and have influence over its quality.

First time I started writing code I was actually writing it on paper. I didn't have a computer, but I had just read this beginner's book and I was hooked. The code wouldn't have worked in a million years, but it was the thought that counted: I played around with it. Later on I got a computer and I started using the programs, understanding how it works, not different from getting a smartphone and learning how to phone people. Yet, after a while I found issues that I wanted to solve or games that I wanted to play but didn't have, then I made them myself: I found a problem and solved it. But writing code is not just about the end result. As soon as I explored what other people were doing, I started trying to emulate and improve what they did. I played around with compression and artificial intelligence, for example. And I was a teen in a world of no Internet. I went to the British Council and borrowed actual books, then tried the concepts there a lot.

It was years before I would become a professional programmer, and that is mostly because the hiring process (in any country) is plain stupid. The best HR department in the world is just looking for people that have already done what is required, so that they do it at the current company as well. But that's not what a developer wants. Software is both science and art. The science is a bit of knowledge and a lot of discipline, but the rest, a very large chunk, is just intuition and exploration and imagination. People who want to do the same thing over and over again are not good developers; instead they are probably people that just want to make a buck with which to live their "real" life. For me, real life has been writing code - and I still think I am being paid for putting up with the people I work for and work with, rather that for doing what I love.

Professional work is completely different from the learning period. In it you usually don't have a say on what you work on and the problems that software is supposed to solve are at best something you are indifferent to and at worst something you wouldn't understand (as in will not, even if you could). Yet, the same basic principles apply. First, you are required to write good code. By this your employers mean something that works as they intended, but for you it is still something that you feel pride in having written, something that is readable enough so you understand it a few weeks later when you have to add stuff or repair something. You are expected to "keep up to date", by which they understand you would keep studying in your spare time so that you do work that they don't know they need done, but for you it is still playing around with things. Think about it! You are expected to keep playing around! As for the part where you see what other people do and you get to emulate or improve on that... you have a bunch of colleagues working on the same stuff that you can talk to and compare notes and code review with. Add to this the strong community of software developers that are everywhere on the Internet.

Bottom line: Just keep doing three things and you're good. First play around with stuff. Then find a problem to solve (or someone to provide it for you) and write code for it. Finally, check what other people do and gain inspiration to create or improve your or their work. Oh, did I say finally? This is a while loop, for as long as you are having fun. Hey, what do you know? This does scale. Doesn't it sound like a good plan, even if you are not a software dev?

It seems to me that there are more and more crazy people around me. They are relatives, friends, colleagues, random people on the street and I have no idea where they came from. I don't remember as much insanity from when I was a boy, but then again I was even more oblivious then than I am now, and that's saying something. Yet, since then the population of the planet grew from 4.5 billion to 7 billion and, more importantly to me, the population of my home city of Bucharest grew from about 1.5 million to a city where just as many people come from outside the capital to find opportunities. But the percentage of mentally afflicted seems to have more than doubled. But what is crazy?

I mean, I just saw an old lady, looking like she was chronically homeless, shouting obscenities to no one in particular. Who else was she to talk to except herself? She can't even trust another human being enough to talk to them, even if the thought came to her mind. And if she has an audience of one, just as sane as she is, who is to say she's talking crazy? Or when you see some company executive make stupid after stupid decision, then boldly coming on stage and presenting it as the best idea since fire was invented. Do they know they are sociopaths? Does anybody else know? Do they even care? There is a quote in the Mindhunter TV series: "How does a sociopath become the president of the United States?", asks the young FBI agent. "How does one become president if they are not?", responds the psychology professor. And I am reading this book, that I am going to review in a few days, about the counterculture in America, during the 60's. If those people would appear in front of me right now, foraging through mall trash and explaining cosmic truths while loaded with speed and LSD, I would probably catalog them as insane.

Maybe insanity is not a state, but a perception. It's just a socially unacceptable behavior. It does hurt the person using it, but that's mostly because they can't fit (or maybe they fit too well). Have I become more sensitive because of the carefully constructed shell that protects me from hardship? Anything going through it hurts like hell because I am not used for stuff to come through. I have thin skin covered by layers of callousness. Maybe society is more exclusive now? It is easier to become crazy, as you only have to fall a little bit before you get into an unstoppable spiraling decline. Certainly you can't experiment now with personal freedom; it's almost gone, taken away bit by bit, not (only) by repressive governments, but by our willingness to waste time and resources until there are none left. Open relationships? Life on the road? Chemically expanding your mind? Forget about it! You get homeopathy and holotropic breathwork and feel enlightened.

There is another hypothesis worth exploring. Maybe people are not crazy at all. Perhaps I am the mad one. At every stage I expect the full weight of social scorn to come over me and crush me like the bug I am. How dare I? I wouldn't even know what I was guilty of - which, paradoxically, would prove I am even more guilty. They would come at me with carefully crafted smiles and expressions taken from shows or movies they have all seen and burn me alive, giggling all the way, like they are making the greatest joke in the world while providing me with the help they know I desperately need. All these people that apparently speak only to themselves, yet somehow communicate with others by methods unseen, they would suddenly all turn towards me, pointing their fingers and letting out inarticulate cries. Then, of course, I would know that I am insane, because I would never be able to do any of that.

I just don't know. Where does this vomitous mountain of madness come from? Maybe more importantly, where is it going?

So, me and the wife were walking our dog in the park one Saturday evening when we saw this female German Sheppard mutt looking all lost and terrified. The wife, being the heart of us two, points out to me that the dog is probably lost and she looks terrified. Me, not being the heart in the relationship, just hoped her owners would show up. Well, one can't ignore one's heart, as my wife keeps repeating in the hope I am listening, so I end up attaching a leash to the dog's collar and heroically attempting to save the dog.

The plan was as follows. Step 1: take the dog to the vet. Step 2: the vet will know what to do. Additional info: the dog was walking really strange, was terrified of everything, but especially crossing streets and was bleeding from between the legs, occasionally appearing to try to piss and nothing coming out. Suspecting a car hit and maybe internal bleeding, I rushed the dog to the vet I know in the area, who also treats my dog. Imagine doing that with a 20 kilos dog who is afraid of streets, basically.

Step 1 went to shit when I realized the vet was closed at that hour on Saturday. I mean, nothing ever happens to dogs in the weekend, right? I tried calling pet ambulances, they all refused to come, claiming not enough capacity. Finally I called the wife to come with the car and drive us to a nearby non stop veterinarian clinic.

The situation looked like this: female dog in heat (not internal bleeding) which was probably not hit by a car, but walks funny because she is probably not right in the head, first suspected to be 5 to 7 years old, but then age adjusted to over 8, erratically aggressive (although what aggressive meant to the doctor seemed to be a low growl of annoyance). Also, the doctor didn't know any shelters, groups that take care of lost dogs or anything like that. Surely no dogs get lost and found and then brought to vets. He had no idea what to do. So Step 2 went to shit when the vet told us the dog was not microchipped, was probably abandoned and, for all intents and purposes, was now ours, since no one adopts old dogs.

We decided to pay for some tests to figure out what is wrong with the dog and to keep her in the clinic, since she's a big unpredictable female dog in heat and our dog is male. We did that daily, paying a lot of money for it, until around Tuesday, when the doctors decided that the dog problems were probably neurological and that her uterus was malformed and probably would have caused the dog to die in the near future unless operated and removed. I was about to authorize the operation, too, and was thinking of names for the dog. Since our dog is named Tyrion, naturally she would have been Arya, but for the fact the dog was older, so maybe Sansa - she was traumatized and afraid of everything, too. In the end I was going for Lysa - since that was the older crazy aunt in Games of Thrones.

And here comes serendipity. A young woman comes to the clinic and asks if it is possible for dogs to run away from home in order to die. Apparently, her dog, staying with her parents, ran away from home and said parents were too horrified to tell her of that until that day. Stranger still, in the rare occasions that the dog was getting lost, she always returned home, which she now failed to do. No, the girl didn't look for found dog ads (which I posted all over the Internet), she didn't ask around in the park where the dog was lost (where I told just about every dog owner to spread the word), no, she just randomly arrived at the same clinic and asked this question. Of course, it was her dog we were talking about. No, lady, when dogs run away from home they usually go to the vet to get checked out!

So, if and when the dog will get operated or receive specialized treatment for her brain issues - which apparently she had since she was a pup - is the owner's business, and we only offered our financial aid in case it was needed. Happy ending, the dog is back with her owners, with some extra medical tests done and possible solutions for her future well being on the table.