Friday, March 31, 2006

Small, manageable chunks

If you've seen the movie About a Boy, with Hugh Grant, you'll remember him speaking of managing one's time. Break it up into units of no more than 30 minutes, fill up those units one at a time, and you'll get by.

Unfortunately I haven't achieved the prerequisites of the protagonist's lifestyle quite yet, but the principle is solid. Everyday life is boring, or at least mine is; I've gone to a lot of effort to get to a point where I'm not constantly stressed, where I can make a living out of something that comes naturally to me, where I'm not anxious about what tomorrow might bring.

The problem with such a setup is that increasingly often, you find yourself bored out of your skull. There's only so much websurfing one can do; hobbies are of no interest, at least ones I can afford; freelance work doesn't come along that often.

The solution is to find joy in things to come. You can't make your life exciting all the time (and maintain the state of comfort which I'm not prepared to give up). What you can do is plan events, and revel in the the anticipation. I've found travel to be a good choice of event, but then I love travel in itself - possibly more than the destination; I've enjoyed visiting lots of places where I wouldn't want to live. Major purchases are another such event. Hell, an upcoming job review will do, if you're expecting a raise.

You can't space these out too thinly though - you won't get much use out of something that's more than two, maybe three weeks away. So you need to learn to recognize such events, or invent them.

Just a small tip to make your life subtly better.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

So, how was your weekend?

Minor disasters bring out the best in people.

Not the major, life-or-death ones, where everyone predictably and understandably becomes a bastard. Can't blame them; hell, I can be as much of a bastard as anyone and a bigger one than most when I'm properly motivated.

And not the insignificant discomforts, where equally predictably and understandably, nobody gives a shit.

But in a minor disaster, such as a blizzard, you get to feel like a hero; you're doing something tangibly important for another human being, and putting yourself in the path of improbable, but feasible trouble.

Estonia had its annual monster blizzard this Sunday night, and naturally I had to drive back to Tartu in the worst of it. My Honda was already feeling less than 100% from getting stuck in the snow on a country lane on Saturday (two hours, four grown men and a Mazda 323 was all it took to get it out). But on Sunday, the weather was really going to hell. I took off from Maardu, a satellite town near Tallinn, and took the city bypass to get to the Tartu freeway. Even there, on a largely empty road, I felt spooked. Remembering the death of my old Mazda, and myself escaping with life and limb by sheer blind luck, I kept it down to 80km/h (in dry weather this four-lane separated stretch is perfectly safe at 120). The Honda's wearing Nokian NRW winter tyres, which are semi-decent, but not studded. Not sure how much that contributed, but at one point, with absolutely no input from me, the Accord just jumped off the road, shifting at a sharp angle to the asphalt and slamming into the snowbank on the separating strip. I didn't move the wheel or change throttle position at all. A gust of wind? An ice patch? I'll never know, but one moment I was driving along, and the next, I was facing the traffic behind me. Shaken and stirred.

The luckiest bit of this endeavor was that I went left, and not right. Looking around, I saw a Ford Focus parked on the hard shoulder, attending to a Daewoo Lanos down in the ditch. It looked in one piece, probably had a soft landing, but smashing into the back of it would not have been pleasant.

Now, drivers of old cars tend to form a sort of brotherhood; if you see a man down, you stop and help. People in new cars get too comfortable with their manufacturer warranties and 24-hour roadside assistance. But the driver of this Focus behaved most admirably. Within minutes me, him, and the kid from the Lanos were figuring out how to screw in the tow eye and/or assemble the removable trailer hook. With not much luck, he told the Lanos kid to just tie the rope around the back axle. Not something I would have dared to do on a new, FWD car. On my old Volvo? Of course, no problem. On a Focus? Hmm.

Nevertheless, after the first rope broke and we got one out of the Lanos, my Honda was back on solid (but slippery) ground, and I was on my way. With packed snow in my rims and fear in my heart, I didn't dare go faster than 60km/h all the way to Tartu, a 110-mile trip that took me some three and a half hours. In my defence, I was far from the only one playing it safe. Also, on that trip I saw the best fucking mileage this Prelude-engined bastard ever produced.

I still need to do some minor repairs to the Honda, but allow me to reiterate my admiration for Japanese engineers, whose 19-year-old rusty machine smashed into packed snow at freeway speeds and had nothing to show for it except a dislocated front valance and what has been preliminarily diagnosed as a broken exhaust pipe seal; and especially, the nameless Focus driver, who declined so much as an offer to buy him a beer some time, telling me instead to stop and help next time I see a car in trouble.

I'll do that.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The trials of gaming... and, pigs.

There is a special place, on the border of heaven and hell, where martyred gamers can use sharp, hot and otherwise unpleasant objects on the people who put all those flying missions in GTA: San Andreas.


In other news, a bit of googling shows that Battlefront II on the PC does seem to have a history of freezing and/or crashing when confronted by something so rare as an nVidia GeForce 6000-series videocard. It's not that Lucas Arts isn't aware of the problem, or that they're denying it exists, but apparently they simply don't give a flying fuck.

On an entirely unrelated matter, AnTyx is now host to a gallery of pig drawings by members of CoT. Leading the way is our very own Master of Pigs, the honourable Geert-Jan Thomas.

The piggies are available at Enjoy!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Current events

Earlier this week, the Israeli army special forces stormed the Jericho prison (quite a ways into the West Bank, if you look at a map), suppressing the guards and capturing a bad guy who was held there. Apparently the Palestinian government was getting ready to release him.

This has stunned the Palestinian people so much that they have called a general strike, with shops and services closing all over the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has in protest cut short his official visit to several European states that was slated to end with an address to the European Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg.

On which my boss commented rather insightfully that most Western nations tend to attempt to settle their differences with diplomacy, and if that doesn't work, turn to violence. Whereas the Palestinians have tried violence first, and that having singularly failed to achieve desired results, now have no other choice but to resort to diplomacy.

In Other News

Lennart Meri, the first president of newly independent Estonia, has died. Now, I have nothing bad at all to say about the man or his handling of the post. And it is certainly a great loss for the nation (Meri was a prominent cultural personality before becoming President in '92). But yesterday, fully half of Estonia's foremost daily broadsheet consisted of articles about Lennart Meri, and the government TV channel ran an entire day's worth of programming about him.

Slow news day, or what?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

How low can you go?

A friend of mine was doing a seminar at the interior design fair here in Tartu, and invited me to hang out.

Lots of cool-looking furniture, surprisingly useable (if you've read the previous post you will understand that such things are relevant to me at this point). One point though:

Why does the furniture today have to be so low? In the entire trade show there was not a single couch you could just sit on. All of them are barely off the ground, thus creating a nearly unreachable crevice for dust to gather as well as requiring a calculated trajectory to land on (and a minor excavation job to get up from).


Friday, March 10, 2006

Enjoy yourself!

Back in October, I wrote an article asking why one would want to retire if they love their job. In it, I mentioned that software developers are probably not within the demographic of people that could, as their business moves too fast and there is a point at which experience simply does not compensate for the inability to learn new technologies quickly.

But reading about programmers' dreams of retiring in ten years does bring up an interesting point. All of these plans focus on cutting down your expenses, living at the bare minimum level, and saving money so at some point you could actually go on with the bare minimum level indefinitely without having to work for it.

Is this an existence people really dream about?

Youth is wasted on the young, and I can say that because I'm 21. In the time of your life when you are most capable of enjoying yourself, you do not have the resources to do so. I'm oversimplifying, of course, but one's ability to do new and exciting things is inversely proportional to one's age; there are things you can do at 20 that you can't at 40, and there are things you can do at 35 that you can't at 70, even if you've got plenty of disposable income by that time.

Now, if you're young and fairly successful - meaning that you have a steady job, income that covers your living expenses and leaves a bit of a "fun" budget - you have choices to make regarding things you can do now versus things you can do in the future.

Here is an example, and in best MarkTAW tradition it is one from my real life (although unlike pan Wieczorek I have no numbers to bedazzle you with). My family currently has a piece of property that we have no use for, so we are going to sell it and split the money three ways (me, my dad and my sister). My share will hopefully be enough to put a down payment on an apartment. I don't have any doubts about using it for that, as opposed to spending it on entertaining myself, for two reasons. The first: property is something you accumulate over your lifetime, this large amount of money is something I might not ever get at any single point in my lifetime, so in the spirit of not eating away your primary capital, I am only willing to spend the cash on more property, something that will not lose much value if any; I might not get much profit on this investment, but I won't lose it either. The second: I am currently renting an apartment, so if I buy one on credit, my expenses will not actually increase; but the money I spend will go into equity that I own as opposed to just giving it away to some random dude.

Now here are my choices.

  1. I can buy a cheap apartment outside town, meaning I'd have to commute, but I'd only have to take out a minor loan on it (if my dad helps out, hell, maybe even buy it outright.) The upside is more disposable income, but the downside is a worse living environment.

  2. I can buy a very cheap apartment outside town and renovate it. I could get one for my cash in hand, take out a relatively small loan and have it redone as I like it. The upside is that the economy in Small Country is booming, and this market is only starting to become popular; my property is likely to rise in value a lot over the next ten years or so. The downside is that I don't really want to commute that far, and I lose my backup plan (Tartu is full of students and short of dorm space, so if I ever move away, I can rent out the apartment and use the money to pay off the loan).

  3. I can buy a fairly decent apartment in town. This would require a long-term loan. At the rate I'm paying now, and what I'd need to borrow to get the sort of apartment I'm willing to occupy, it would have to be a 15-20 year loan. Or, and here is where the choices I mentioned come into play, I could get a 30-year loan and decrease my monthly payments a lot.

  4. I can buy a very good apartment in a brand new building, and take out a 30-year loan on it, paying what I pay in rent now.

And here is the big problem. I can invest in my future, spending much of my income today so that I would have more equity and less of a burden in fifteen years. Or I can rely on the fact that my income will keep rising (and since I'm less than a year out of college, it's reasonable to expect that it will) to shift much of the spending to later times.

The choice is whether to spend now, or spend later. And I am not entirely convinced by the MarkTAW concept of working hard now to not work in the future. I can enjoy myself a lot more today; and for the same result, I would have to struggle a lot less then.

Minimizing my investment today to have more cash for entertainment means I won't be able to retire by the time I'm 40. But that doesn't seem like such a daunting prospect, to be entirely honest.

Where do I want to be in the year 2046? On the beach in Aruba, stumbling from my hotel room to the wading pool, wondering if this is what I worked my ass of for all my life? Or at my desk in an office, smiling as I reminisce about all the great things I did in the beginning of the century?

Is youth wasted on old age?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Fruitless search for excellence

The last good book I read was William Gibson's Pattern Recognition; or re-read it, rather, as I was sufficiently impressed with the first chapter to custom-order the hardback at great expense.

There are things to criticize about the book, objectively - foremost the fact that it's a rehash of an old Gibson idea, the specialist woman hired by a rich man to find the source of mysterious works - but then I do not find much usefulness in applying objective measurement to art.

The book is centered around the precursor to viral marketing (which, to the best of my recollection, was not big in 2001 when Pattern Recognition was written, and has reliably failed to become as major a force in advertising as many, including Gibson, hoped). The protagonist is sent on her journey by one Hubertus Bigend, whose one redeeming quality is that he is completely unaware of how funny his name is, and who sees fit to explain why he wants to get to the bottom of the mystery. He is not, you see, searching for the next big thing, he is not after more money; he is after excellence.

I can relate. As a professional, creating something approaching art, I am astounded by the amount of crap produced by my colleagues (whether journalists, translators, or on occasion technical writers). As a consumer, I am no less flabbergasted by the deficit of good literature.

If you go into a bookshop today - and there are some fairly comprehensive in Tallinn, though not as gravitational as Waterstone's - you will see rack upon rack of two things: formulaic thrillers and tedious novels. Both of these can be made very well, in fact one of the films I really enjoyed in recent times was Wonderboys with Michael Douglas and Robert Downey, Jr; it is a movie about writers and their novels, and yet it is spectacular.

But look at a bookshelf and you will see nothing outstanding. I would not be so bold as to demand originality; I am, after all, a linguist, at least vaguely familiar with postmodernism despite my disdain for it, and I know that there are no more original plots to be had. If you can't be entirely original, then at least be fresh. (This applies to all art forms, in fact all creations where something besides pure function is relevant.)

There are, in my mind, two components to a writer's production: idea and craft. The reason why I have not written a book is that I do not have the patience, nor the experience, nor the skill to actually write out an entire story; but ideas, I have. And certainly there are writers out there whose main talent is the writing, who can compensate for the lack of plot or original details with their sheer skill.

And then there are people who go to book school and learn how to write standard fiction. So that's what they do. Write standard crime fiction. Or write standard relationship fiction.

I used to know a man who only ever read non-fiction. He refused to read anything else on principle. I didn't understand it then, but I'm beginning to now. I go to the bookstore today and I hope for the new Bill Bryson, who is hilarious and never has the problem of not being able to invent a funny story. Or I get the Ewan McGregor bike book. Or I get something that won a prize from the Guardian, and it did turn out to be a marvelous novel, but easy reading it was not.

All I want is pulp fiction that doesn't make me cringe. Is that so much to ask?


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