Sunday, 6 April 2014

Time Vs Money

Something that I spend a lot of time thinking about these days is the intertwined relationship between time, money and quality of life. 

Our employers pay us 'money' in return for the 'time' we invest, and that payment is both for the time we have invested now ('in real time') and in gaining unique skills (i.e. education). We then use this payment to buy things for ourselves, giving other people the value of our time in return for the products of theirs. It's enough to make your head spin.

Here's an interesting new twist that occurred to me: if you divided your salary by your time worked, you could put an equivalent price in minutes (for example) for the total cost of any item you'd like to buy. For example ... a coffee, that will be 11 minutes of your life, sir. That dress? Why, that will be five hours ma'am. A house? Just sign on the dotted line, and hand over the keys to your soul.

The 'interesting' (or sad) part of course is that because we all earn different salaries, the very same items cost relatively less of richer people's lives than they do for poorer people. What's a year for a poor person might be worth two weeks of a rich person's life, given the salary differential.

I know I've dedicated 2014 to good financial sense ... I've ticked all the big items off the list that I need, so now I'm just left with the never-ending list of things I want. I don't think anybody EVER gets to the end of that second list because the goal-posts keep shifting; and if we're honest about it, the first list is extremely small and measured more in emotions than money.

No matter how careful a financial planner you are, however, you'll never budget for all of life's little hiccups, and we always rely on that one line item which can never reflect on any spreadsheet: hope. If it wasn't for that, you could be handed a financial statement when you turn 16, reflecting your likely expenses and value at retirement for every variable. As such, I'm STILL betting on winning the lottery at some point.

Because retirement is where the link between time and money becomes painfully evident, isn't it? When you're right at the end of your life with money left-over, or at the end of your money with life left-over. *sighs* I really think that schools should be teaching kids retirement planning as a mandatory course - at least if you know the financial impact of all your decisions, you'll have a feeling of ownership over every regret.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Future Shock and beaches

In that wonderful spirit of honesty one can only attain online with total strangers, I'll admit to having recently been struggling with a rising sense of transience and anonymous pressure.

Admittedly this has a lot to do with my recent trip to Romania, and the triple-whammy of changing jobs, cities and carreers, but it also goes beyond that. A really amazing book I've only just started reading (although I have a suspicion I had a glancing contact with it during University) is 'Future Shock' by Alvin Toffler, and it has been a real eye-opener in the way it confirms what have up to now only been some unverbalised thoughts.

Should you google the book and then wonder what we can learn about the future from a book which was first published in 1970, I'd just counter by saying that in the scale of human evolution all of its ideas are as fresh and relevant as they ever were. Something the book actually deals with head-on is that old adage about humanity these days having collectively forgotten more than we ever knew up to only just recently.

To quote just one thought from the book which sums it up for me, and which is so truly scary if you dare to think about the ramifications for a bit:
What such numbers imply is nothing less revolutionary than a doubling of the total output of goods and services in the advanced societies about every fifteen years - and the doubling times are shrinking. This means, generally speaking, that the child reaching teen age in any of these societies is literally surrounded by twice as much of everything newly man-made as his parents were at the time when he was an infant. It means that by the time today's teenager reaches age thirty, perhaps earlier, a second doubling will have occurred. Within a seventy-year lifetime, perhaps five such doublings will take place - meaning, since the increases are compounded, that by the time the individual reaches old age the society around him will be producing thirty-two times as much as when he was born. Such changes in the ratio between old and new have, as we shall show, an electric impact on the habits, beliefs, and self-image of millions. Never in previous history has this ratio been transformed so radically in so brief a flick of time.
 To link back to my opening paragraph here, that particular chapter closes like this:
To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. He must search out totally new ways to anchor himself, for all the old roots - religion, nation, community, family or profession - are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust. Before he can do so, however, he must understand in greater detail how the effects of acceleration penetrate his personal life, creep into his behaviour and alter the quality of existence. He must, in other words, understand transcience.
Mind. Blown. This is going to be a good book.

In other news, to continue my earlier post on things you will not see in Johannesburg, I present the following additions from this morning's trip out. An attempt to just switch off from future shock, if you will: my first visit to Blaauwbergstrand with my wife.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The day I became a Capetonian

Not My Plate, apart from those first two glorious letters
You may dream of moving to Cape Town. You may even one day get to do that. You do not BECOME a Capetonian, however, until your car has a CA numberplate ... and you actually start to navigate your way around Canal Walk with some degree of certainty.

I'm happy to say that I have finally joined this exclusive club TODAY (for the first half anyway - Canal Walk is still a maze), recorded for posterity as 01 March 2014.

I stood in a queue to register for my new licence disc, with a spiffy CA regstration number. I went across the road and a man made the plates and installed them for me - and my wife photographed me smiling like a goon while the plates were exchanged. I drank a takeaway chocolate milkshake to celebrate. A fellow Cape Town driver let me into the traffic ahead of them, duly impressed with my shiny new number plates. All was (and still is) good with the world.

I've lived in Cape Town for a month already, but now I finally feel part of the city. I went so far as to take a sharp knife and pry the now-useless e-Tag off the windshield, risking life, limb and costly damage. Gauteng? I know you no longer.

PS: I just have to note that the guy who assisted me at the licencing department just shook his head when he discovered I'd moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town, asking me 'Why?' as if I'd drowned 1 000 kittens. It's all yours mate - that specific rainbow leads only to a cracked pot.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Review: TomTom Go 5000 satnav

I'm not somebody who usually writes enthusiastically glowing reviews online of every toaster or toothbrush he buys, but the two newest devices in my life have completely changed that. The first was my first plunge into an 'adult' wristwatch - previously I'll admit I'd always just been a fan of Casio digital watches, so there was definitely a precedent for me buying this watch: the Casio Edifice EFR-529D-1A2 (I was so happy with it I wrote my first review on the site!).

The device which has really stolen my heart, however, has been my TomTom Go 5000 satnav. My previous satnav had been a Garmin, was definitely 'old tech' (I had it for an uneventful two years), it had no live traffic function and I was moderately satisfied with it in that it mostly found the places where I needed to go.

So why the expensive upgrade - which I'll be the first to admit I could not really afford? Because upon moving from Johannesburg to Cape Town I discovered two things immediately: 1: Cape Town traffic along some routes is easily on a par with Johannesburg's worst, if not even worse; and 2: I simply wouldn't be able to find my way through the maze of new roads quickly enough to prevent me from becoming very very late for my brand new job. A pretty common experience then.

Luckily I'd already been toying around with the idea of buying an HD-traffic enabled TomTom satnav for a few months, and when the all-new TomTom range of satnavs landed I'd been gazing longingly at the satnav shelves.

I do NOT want this to come across as an advert for TomTom, which I will wholeheartedly promise it isn't: this wasn't some test unit, and my decision to purchase it with my own money at the full retail price from my nearest Dion Wired (interestingly selling for a still eye-watering R4 000 - R400 cheaper than the recommended price on TomTom's site weirdly enough).

Ok, enough words ... show me a picture! Here's Exhibit A:

Peak morning traffic in Cape Town? What peak morning traffic?
The top reasons I bought this satnav specifically:
  1. The 5000 model doesn't have to be paired with a smartphone (like the Go 500 has to be), meaning that it draws down live traffic information immediately after you turn it on from its dedicated built-in cellular modem.
  2. Having read up on this a bit, it definitely appears that TomTom's HD traffic is better than Garmin's LiveTraffic, with the primary difference being that in addition to the various top-down data sources both use (traffic reports, vehicle tracking), TomTom units transmit information back to some processing centre live where it is captured and then sent out again to the whole network.
  3. I'd had a TomTom before that I had fond memories of, and quite apart from the HD traffic I felt confident that the rest of the package being brand-new would be reliable - and all the glowing reviews online echo that.
And what has it been like in practise?

In a nut-shell, I'm very happy. This satnav has become my constant companion and guide in Cape Town's traffic, and I'm still really enjoying delegating the responsibility of trying to keep trying a different shortcut based on a memorised route (which I'd do all the time in Johannesburg) to my new little 'box of tricks' which responds proactively rather than reactively.

Things that you'll be wondering about:

  1. TomTom HD Traffic really works as advertised, after two weeks' thorough test drive of it. No, it doesn't avoid every single traffic jam - in fact it deliberately guides you into some queueing traffic if it calculates that the minutes you're going to lose sitting in it is going to still be shorter than a lengthy detour - but the enjoyment you constantly get from driving the opposite way to looooong queues of traffic and darting through back routes when sections of the main roads are particularly slow never gets old.
  2. In practice, HD Traffic's biggest shortcomings result from a lack of data points - not enough units on the ground in Cape Town. As an interesting function, the satnav not only indicates the exact positions of slow traffic or traffic accidents or construction work and estimates the number of minutes you'll still spend sitting in it; it also indicates the number of cars' satnavs which have confirmed this report. In most cases you'll find the number of confirmations only around two or three, and I think the most I've ever seen is five.
  3. The 5000's new capacitive touch screen really works a treat, compared to my previous old-gen satnav's resistive touch screen. As the difference has already been described in other reviews, it feels a lot like a modern tablet PC (complete with multi-touch pinch-to-zoom functionality) compared to the 'prod and hope' functionality of yore.
  4. The 5000's user interface takes some getting used to - I'd already been warned by the other reviews that TomTom had streamlined it a lot, but once you get used to it it's a snap. Instead of the usual 'Select City', 'Select Number', 'Select Street' triple combo, on the TomTom's new interface you just start typing in a single search box, and after only four letters it tries to guess where you mean and keeps refining the list (ending with drop-down lists of addresses on the left and POIs on the right to select from).
  5. Another neat feature is the ability to report a speed camera's location with a single click from the main screen while you drive past it - to a pity little 'Thank you for reporting!' message as your report is transmitted - and the next two times you drive past the same spot you're asked to confirm whether the camera is still there (no longer a need to connect your satnav to your computer to update the cameras).
  6. All the rest of the basics just work beautifully: it has a solid feel, the magnetic click-in charging bracket works well, the computer voice handles some difficult pronunciations surprisingly well (and just takes a hopeful stab at many others), and the processor is fast enough to allow you to scroll around the map with a finger without any real lag (compared to my Garmin's drag-and-hope-for-a-refresh interface). I also REALLY like the wonderfully playful 'Let's Go' invitation you click on each time you drive anywhere.
Just because I have to be unbiased, however, the things I don't like about this satnav are:
  1. If anybody at TomTom HQ has bothered to geo-fence any dangerous suburbs and exclude these from route planning, I haven't noticed any real evidence of this yet. Although the satnav does start to favour certain routes and alternate between these depending on the local traffic conditions, on those occasions where it tries out something completely new it seems to have no qualms driving me back through some decidedly dodgy areas (where the old 'look ahead and think happy thoughts' tactic is all you're left to). That's South Africa for you ... we need 'fastest route', 'shortest route', and 'even my mom will feel safe' for our route calculation options.
  2. The 5000 is so self-confident in its abilities that its new user interface simply has no 'detour' button. You read that right: there is NO way to manually force the satnav to find a different route. It will give you an alert if traffic conditions change and it identifies a faster route (or you can set it to recalculate the route automatically like I prefer), but once it settles on a route that's it - if you drive off it it will most likely re-calculate to bring you back onto the same route. Is it right? Not knowing all the traffic conditions and what it's basing its decision for the on-the-fly route corrections, you just don't know. So there you sometimes sit in a traffic jam the TomTom either isn't displaying yet (or displays only when you're at the end of it - presumably you were the sacrificial lamb who alerted everybody else coming after you), or the TomTom displays it and just happily informs you that you've got a 06:00 minute traffic delay and yet doesn't try to take you off the route. Turn up the radio and enjoy again!
So there you have it, my most detailed device review yet. It's hard to find a REAL review of satnavs - most are just re-jigged press releases - so it's time somebody did something about it. I have no doubt that the TomTom Go 5000 IS saving me at least half an hour in traffic every single day, and for me that was worth the R2000 difference between a non-HD traffic and HD-traffic enabled GPS. That was the deal-breaker for me: there's no reason to spend R2000 and be unhappy if you can spend R4 000 and be happy.

This is a hard-won lesson I have learned again and again, whether it was buying another favourite gadget I use almost all the time, my Olympus DM-650 dictaphone (I can't tell you how crystal-clear this is compared to my older cheaper recorder's scratchy recordings) ... or a string of hopelessly expensive but amazingly rewarding electronic gadgets.

Because that's the main rule with electronics, isn't it? The more money you try to save, the unhappier you will be. It really is directly proportional.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

An Idiot's Guide (That's Me) to Online Dating

You could say that for a Romanian and a South African to meet online and now be living together in South Africa, looking forward to celebrating our fourth wedding anniversary, is a special occurrence.

I know I would have, if I haven't recently been contacted by my second couple of exactly the same nationalities looking for tips on how to get together ... ok, two is hardly a flood, but it's plenty if I recall the fact that I had to open an atlas to figure out where 'Romania' was when my then 'friend who was a girl' online told me she came from wherever that was.

Now these intrepid couples reached me simply by e-mailing me, and while I don't have a massive amount of personal time - Cape Town isn't as sleepy as it's made out to be - I do have the world of time to helping people down this specific path because it's one I've been on for the past six years (counting time separated) and which I'm still on.

Dating online... I'll let you know that it never gets easier, even after four years, when somebody asks you 'So how did you and your wife meet' and you have to launch into a long and infinitely more complicated story than 'I knew her in High School'.

That said, I wouldn't be afraid of dating online, and would never criticise somebody for it ... not least because that'd make me the world's biggest hypocrite. Even back before I'd actually *met* my then-friend/now-wife for the first time in person, I knew that what we had was potentially a good thing for all its frustrations: the hours we spent talking online and on the phone and every kind of messaging program known to man and even a few that aren't (weird tip: multi-player internet chess is an interesting diversion from the pain) definitely ensured that we at least had a good connection.

I'd go so far to say that every couple should try it, even if they're in the same town or city. Try a month without seeing each other in person, and just see if you still have something to talk about by the end of the month. Considering this is a person you're potentially hoping to spend the rest of your life with, I wouldn't worry about missing out on a month of kissy-face time if it meant knowing that that isn't all I'd have to look forward to in the long run.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend proactively trying to find a partner online through a dating website, but that's mostly because it'll make the explanations later to friends and family even harder, and it could prove to be a lot more challenging to find somebody in an environment like that. I mean, you don't walk down the street asking random strangers if they want to date you, and then start the relationship with the first person who says yes. *shrugs* Or maybe you do, and it's all perfectly fine - your mileage may vary.

In my case I ended up experimenting online on the wonderful world of Internet Relay Chat, which if you ever enter it you'll find is dominated by people over the age of 40 who first got onto it when the Internet was invented back in the 1990s and a bunch of people who go online because they've got nothing better to do or because they're bored at work.

My wife and I met on a trivia channel on IRC, which is about the sanest way to meet anybody online in my horribly biased opinion. At least the people you're speaking to are vaguely interested in something pseudo-intellectual, while the rest of IRC consists of random strangers from across the world logging onto new channels and posting an endless stream of 'lol' (laugh out loud) and 'hi' and 'wb' (welcome back) and bye and ... that's it. Sounds a lot like real life then: people communicating right past each other, and not actually a great way to meet somebody special.

The one point I really want to stress here is that online you need to be yourself, while realising that everybody else online is likely to be withholding some negative elements of their personality, and exaggerating their best parts (to the point of sending you photos of people they're not and claiming they are - this had actually happened to me).

I get that online dating or at the very least looking for love online is the last resort of people who're very desperate, and I think we've all been there: well, everybody except for women, even though they seem to be luckier than guys at scoring dates if not actually converting those into long-lasting relationships. Despite this: don't act desperate! Even if you're looking for love in real life, just go online to enjoy yourself and make friends ... nothing chases anybody away online faster than the smell of desperation. And if they do NOT run away if you're desperate, you definitely should, because then you KNOW there's something wrong with them.

Ok ok, none of this makes sense if you haven't actually entered this dark world with its twisted logic, but the bottom line is this: there is no difference between online and reality, because online is just a different mode of reality, but many people continue trying to pretend there are no rules online. Some of those people will break your heart if you're not careful, and others will 'only' empty your bank account.

The worst fate, however, is exactly like it is in 'regular' relationships, except with the stakes turned way up: you meet somebody you kinda like, are forced to marry them before you should (to benefit from the favourable immigration implications), are left pretty much financially destitute by the costs of relocation one partner to join the other and supporting each other (at least initially) on only one partner's salary; and that's before you start dealing with things like culture shock and actually living together with a stranger.


Maybe it's because it worked out for me despite all the odds and I'm insanely grateful about that that I'm so worried that somebody else - somebody young and innocent and hopeful and willing to risk everything - will actually take that plunge and one of the swinging hammers I missed will catch them. If you're contemplating this seriously, it could happen to you.

My best advice is to first at least meet up with your partner if you can, before trying to marry them. Yes, living apart is horrible - and will become intolerable if you do meet in person and then have to separate again - but it is the only way you can satisfy your conscience that at least you did the very least available to you to ensure that your partner wasn't an axe murderer. As the lyrics of that song go, 'It's in his kiss', and I think on a biological level you can sense a lot more about your partner in person than you ever can if you're online (and goodness knows women have a REALLY freaky radar that way).

Are there still conventional ways of meeting people in real life? Sure thing: you can try join a club, join a gym, take dancing classes and hit on the instructors, chat up that guy or girl at the corner table in the restaurant ... in fact, if you still can I highly suggest you turn off your computer and try that first. Then try it again. Because really, the other way is MUCH harder.

I think for most people who get into a serious relationship online and who really pursue it to the end, you're way past the point of still making a decision. Just like in life you fall for something about that other person, the screen becomes electrically charged whenever they log online, and if you've done some of the due diligence I've indicated here you'll have at least the same chances of success as you will meeting any regular stranger (as a fringe benefit you know your intended partner will know their way around the pointy end of a computer keyboard).

If you get into this situation, start saving as soon as you know the bug has bitten you. Cancel any big holidays or massive expenditures, because you'll REALLY need that money, and sooner than you know. With money, persistence and a bit of luck, I firmly believe you can do everything you want to: with or without the support of your family ('with' is definitely preferable) and definitely without the need for any expensive immigration consultant (despite what they'll tell you the average form you'll be required to fill in was designed with Homer Simpson in mind).

Yet again, that's like everything in life: it will work if you and your partner are both really invested in it and want it to work. If your partner isn't really invested in it, however, or if you have second thoughts, stop and address that issue first: divorcing a foreign partner who is now completely out of their depth in a foreign environment and reeling from a failed marriage is a responsibility you don't want to have.

Too negative? I don't think so: I'd rather tell you everything I know now so that you can make an informed decision in a rare moment when those rose-tinted glasses you're viewing your partner through online come off. The decision can still be yes, and in many ways I think if it works you'll be a lot happier having really overcome huge challenges and having the world at your feet than you would have if you'd just given in and gotten hitched to that guy or girl around the corner.

Life is too short for regrets, so try not have any. If none of this has put you off, I'll be happy to help with specific questions you might have pertaining to South Africa :) I promise I get friendlier from here!

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Horses, penguins, trees ... it's all still new, Cape Town

For anybody who thinks that life in Cape Town is slower than in Johannesburg, I beg to differ. Traffic is the same, if not worse, and the level of job stress is vast (in the jobs my wife and I have anyway). Despite that, there is definitely a better quality of life, I think ... you really cannot put a definitive value on the natural beauty and opportunities to get out into nature you find here (even when sitting in the traffic).

Take, for example, the omni-present Table Mountain. No matter where you are in Cape Town it's always in sight, and the closer you get to it the more stunning it becomes. This is the view I'm lucky enough to have right from my apartment's balcony (a great reason for us to have a lot more meals sitting outside than we used to in Johannesburg).

Even driving around in Cape Town is a different experience to Johannesburg, not least because there are no potholes (ok, so the roads aren't perfect, but it's a massive improvement over Gauteng). Spot the differences:

Then of course you're spoiled for choice in beaches, and all of them are 40km away or closer to *your home*. Some are literally just around the corner for most people. It's pretty impressive, and you see amazing things like this:

My wife took this photo of me enjoying the solitude of Noordhoek beach, which is one you'll seldom see written about as it is notoriously difficult to find. For sheer expanses of pure white sand, however, it's hard to beat.

Today being a Sunday, however, we decided to head out to a new beach, and when I discovered that Boulder's Bay beach has penguins, it was a no-brainer. The only catch is that while there is a Boulder's Bay beach you can access for free, the real penguin action is only to be found in an enclosed space controlled by the South African National Parks, and they charge you R55 for the honour of staring at this view (I kid you not, this is about all there is):

The funny thing is, while trying to locate that exact spot, my wife and I stumbled across a small little group of penguins out on a very serious mission, cutting their way with a nervous determination through groups of people visiting the adjacent beach (did I say how many beaches there are in Cape Town?). What follows is a great little picture story I took ... just another surprising element of life in Cape Town.

My personal favourite, however, was this one. Look for the signboard.

Oh, ok then. Thank goodness for signage.

Just because I'm still keeping track of Romania as well, I had to share this awesome video I stumbled across.

Rather interestingly, there's another video which must be from the same guys, which has some details in the video description and a number of different scenes. Maybe this was the original? 

Regardless, if you still think Romania is a place full of sad people and Dracula, these videos may change that impression.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Romania's Media Landscape

Read their thoughts at
Something I've been dropping hints about on this blog for the past year is the fact that I'd been a recipient for a Romanian cultural journalism grant, which is the whole reason why I went to Romania in December last year.

Now I'm extremely proud to say the fruits of all that time and effort is finally online and approved, and I'd be greatly interested to hear your thoughts on it:

As promised there is also a link to the Hello Romania forums as a social media component, which should really be a major focus and not just an after-thought to the project. While at University I was a regular participant in a similar platform, racking up thousands (you read that right) of posts and getting into countless stimulating discussions.

Here's to hoping that something similar can happen between Romanians and the rest of the world on that platform, in English. I'm definitely keen on it just for my personal interest, and I can think of a good few readers of this blog who've contacted me who'd definitely benefit from it as well.

Which really brings me to the unashamed down-on-my-knees part of this: please share a link to however you can. The insights into the Romanian media landscape will not only be of interest to Romanians themselves but I feel to the broader world as well, and they won't do anybody any good sitting on a dusty internet shelf. The same goes for the Hello Romania forums.

As there are probably going to be some typos and minor functionality issues (I hope I've worked out most of the major kinks) I'll also appreciate your help as beta-testers - there will be a million chocolate chip cookies waiting for you in your after-life of choice if you identify flaws to be corrected.