Thoughts Amid 2020

Well, here we are, midway through 2020 – a year I did not expect to be writing about, but 2020 has turned out to be the year that keeps on giving – but in a bad way.

I used to think the Internet was the greatest invention of mankind – that it would erase barriers to communication, bring people together, and spread knowledge to all.

I was wrong.

What I’ve seen instead is that new barriers to communication have been erected, people have been driven apart (or brought together, but only in hate), and instead of knowledge, propaganda, messages of hate, and outright lies have been spread instead. Even the very idea of “truth” has become questioned, as we doubt (or are told to doubt) the sources of information.

Technology was supposed to be the triumph of mankind – something that would eliminate barriers and advance us all towards a better future, a tool we could use against the forces of death, disease, and disaster to protect ourselves, extend our lives, and make us all happier. But instead we have turned that tool against ourselves, selfishly withholding it from some under a misguided thought that sharing it would somehow diminish our own share.

Sometimes I wonder if we invented the Internet too soon – that we, both as individuals and as a society, were not ready, not advanced enough, grown enough, wise enough to handle the power that it gave us.

Pandora’s box is open though, and there’s no way to undo what has been released into the world. All we can do is either fight one another to hide under the lid, or use what remains – hope – and go fight the demons of our own doing.

What’s been done cannot be undone, but we can stop it from going further. And unless we want to spend the rest of our lives cowering in fear of the monsters we created and released, we must stop it.

So I bought a $5 flash

My experience with buying an old external flash (speedlight) meant for Pentax film cameras and mounting it on my digital Lumix GX7.

Recently I found myself at a shop with some old, used camera gear – and one of the items on display was an external flash (or speedlight). I had no idea if it worked or not, but the price was just $5 so I figured… why not? I’d always wanted to try out using an external flash, and I figured this might not be a bad way to get into it.

Sunpak MZ440AF-PT on a Panasonic Lumix GX7
The flash mounted to my Lumix GX7… I think the flash is actually bigger than the camera!
Rear controls of a Sunpak MZ440AF-PT
These controls on the flash/speedlight suggested to me that this was an older flash… maybe a very old flash… from the days of film cameras.

From the controls on the back I could tell that this was an older flash – probably meant to go on an older film camera. So, I didn’t have high hopes that it would work perfectly with my camera – or even that it would work at all! But once I got it home (and got the batteries put in the right way – the markings on the inside for battery orientation were not easy to see) I attached it to my camera, turned it on and… it worked!

exuberant keith holding his camera and flash

Well, sort of.

It turned on – which was the first good sign – and the flash fired when I pressed the shutter on my camera. My camera knew that a flash was attached… but it didn’t know anything about it, nor could it control it in any way.

At this point I decided I should probably look up some instructions or better information. The model of speedlight I had was a “Sunpak MZ440AF-PT,” which I learned was an old flash for Pentax cameras. A bit more research on the connectors for various flashes and camera models revealed that, basically, only the connector for “fire the flash now” was compatible – everything else is manufacturer specific (even if the pins line up – which is annoying). So I would be using this flash in full manual mode.

camera hotshoe connectors
The flash I had matched the “Pentax” hotshoe connector pattern.

Unfortunately, this particular model of flash doesn’t seem to actually have manual controls – even though it looks like it on the back. There are sliders for ISO and for focal length, but I think these are more of a guide than actual controls – as the flash output does not seem to change no matter what I select.

I did some test shots (in manual mode on the flash as well as on my camera), trying out different combinations of settings on the flash while keeping my camera settings the same, and I found that the flash never seemed to vary its output in any way – the photos were identical.

Now, I may just be using this flash wrong – I was not ever able to find the manual for it – but it seemed to me that it would only be able to vary its light output if controlled by a camera – a Pentax camera, not my Panasonic Lumix GX7.

So, at the end of the day I’m probably just going to donate this flash back to the same store I got it from (or to another used camera store) since it’s basically of no use to me. But still, it was an interesting learning experience… and who knows? Maybe in the future I’ll find a flash that actually works with my camera and can learn some more. But for now, it’s back to nothing but natural light for me!

Behind the Wheel: 2019 Mercedes-Benz GLC 300

Finally, a car I can relate to!

When I take my car into the dealer to be serviced and get a loaner, most of the time it’s just a boring, regular base model sedan – but not this time! This time I got an SUV that is basically the modern replacement for the SUV that I normally drive. So, this is more of a vehicle that I can relate to.

First though, some statistics: the 2019 GLC 300 is a simple 4 door SUV – I’d call it mid-size, but these days it’s classified as “small.” It’s powered by a turbocharged 2.0L 4-cyliner engine making a very respectable 241 HP and 273 pound-feet of torque. All that power gets to the ground via a 9-speed automatic transmission and of course all-wheel drive.

The particular GLC 300 that I was driving was more or less a base model – but with an upgraded appearance package.

Being an SUV the driving characteristics of the GLC 300 were much more familar to me. However, one thing I did notice is that the seating position in this is a bit lower and more car-like.

Visibility was good, all things considered, although the shape of the front hood made it hard to gauge the position of the front of the car. Sadly, this particular model has no front cameras or sensors to help with that.

Performance was very impressive – when you first get on the throttle from a standstill you are definitely reminded that there is a very small engine under the hood, but once the turbo kicks in all that goes out the window. At one point, while going up a hill, I put the car in “Sport+” mode and mashed the throttle – and was promptly thrown back in my seat, at which point I uttered out loud, “shit, this thing can really MOVE!”

As far as driving dynamics go, given the slightly lower center of gravity, it handles quite well – not nearly as top-heavy as my own GLK, and in fact actually quite stable in the corners (though not flat or sports-car-like by any means). It’s also about 300 pounds lighter than my GLK (despite being a couple inches longer and wider), which helps with the handling. Overall, it’s a fun car to drive which is also quite practical – the back seats are roomy enough, and the cargo area is fairly deep (though again, not as tall).

Mercedes Dial & Touchpad

When it comes to technology, however, this GLC kind of falls flat – at least, this particular model does. The infotainment system still relies on the same knob + touch pad combo that Mercedes has been using for the past few years – no touch screen here. The gauge cluster is also the standard 2 analog gauges for speed & tachometer, with a screen between them. Maybe there’s option packages that give you this, but the base GLC doesn’t have them.

The controls for media & climate are the same “row of silver switches” that have been in just about every Mercedes recently – it’s not a bad arrangement, per se, but it’s not the greatest. Sure, those silver switches look nice, but some things would work better as dials. (And I still think it’s weird and bad design to have the volume be a roller type control located not in the center stack, but on the center console, to the side of that control wheel thing.)

Fuel economy for the GLC 300 isn’t great given the engine size, but then again it’s also not bad considering that the small engine has to move roughly 4,000 pounds of SUV around. At just 24 MPG combined, my GLK is laughing all the way to the fuel pump. And to make matters worse, the GLC requires premium fuel.

Overall though, the GLC 300 is a competent small/mid-size luxury SUV, and if that’s what you’re after, you could do far worse than to pick it. (And if you need more “oomph,” there’s also the GLC 350 and the GLC 43 AMG and GLC 63 AMG, all with progressively bigger and more powerful engines.) Honestly, despite the shortcomings, if I was forced to give up my beloved GLK tomorrow, I would seriously consider the GLC (all the while lamenting the lack of a diesel option – curse you, Volkswagen for ruining diesel here in the US!). But at the same time, I have absolutely no plans to give up my GLK, and if you gave me a choice between the two, I’d keep my GLK any day.

Glamping, Take Two

Trying this whole “glamping” thing again – in the summer this time!

Last year, for my 40th birthday, my wife organized a camping trip for the two of us down in Tennessee, just outside the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Specifically, this was a “glamping” trip, where we’d have a big canvas safari-style tent with a king-size bed, a toilet, running water, a shower, and a fireplace. Camping, but with style!

Unfortunately, my birthday is on November 17th, which means we made this trip in the later-half of November – just about 2 weeks before the camp site closed for the winter. And we also had the bad luck to arrive just as a cold snap moved through the area, so even though we were a bit further south, it wasn’t far enough south and the temperatures dropped down to just about freezing. (It actually started sleeting as we arrived!)

So we found ourselves in a canvas tent in 33°F (0.5°C) temperatures, with a dinky little wood stove that burned through the 2 or 3 pieces of wood you could fit into it very quickly. Suffice it to say, we did not have the best time at night – having to get up every few hours to stoke the fire and add more wood. (My wife did most of this fire-tending, bless her, which meant she didn’t get much sleep.) Mornings weren’t any better – although there was hot water for the shower, the air inside the tent was still quite cold, as it took a long time to get the fireplace going enough to really warm things up.

Fast-forward to a couple weeks ago, when my wife stumbled across another “glamping” site, this time up in the Hudson Valley of New York. We both agreed it looked like a very nice site, and somewhat on a whim, we decided to make another attempt at this “glamping” thing and booked ourselves in for a weekend. We figured that we’d have a much nicer time camping in the summer than in the late fall!

So we’re heading up to the Hudson Valley soon, to try our luck with this “glamping” thing again and see if we can have a nicer experience – and also to try again at unplugging from the outside world for a few days to relax. During our last glamping trip, my wife was unable to really relax, as circumstances at her job required her to attend to things and even do some work while we were there. Hopefully this time we can both turn off our phones (or at least stop checking our work email) and really enjoy the experience for a while. (Fingers crossed!)

Regardless, I will post an update here once we’re back and let you know how it all went!

A Lonely Social Media Vacation Report

Being off social media for a while was good, but it started to get lonely, so… I’m back!

Over a month ago I decided to take a break from social media for a while – a social media vacation, if you will. Ultimately, I’m glad I took a break – my social media was starting to consume me instead of the other way around – but at the same time, I’m also glad to be back again. This is because, and I know this might sound kind of silly, but being off social media was… lonely?

It’s strange how loneliness is still kind of a shunned topic these days. Although we’ve become much more open to talking about depression, and how it’s not your fault and so forth, when it comes to loneliness, the common perception is still that the root cause of it is something you’ve done to yourself. “Get out more,” “join a club,” or “make some friends” are things that people might say or think.

Easier said than done.

In my case, I work from home full-time, so all my interactions with co-workers are done online. Outside of work, I have no close friends nearby, and so all my social interactions have to be done either online or else very infrequently. Given this, taking a vacation from social media effectively meant taking a vacation from almost everyone I knew.

“But Keith,” I might hear some of you say, “aren’t you an introvert? Don’t you like being alone?” Ah yes, a classic misunderstanding. There is a big difference between “being alone” and “being lonely.” Also, being an introvert doesn’t mean wanting to be alone all the time – instead it means more needing to be alone, sometimes.

As for the “alone” vs “lonely” thing, these are obviously not the same thing. I can be alone (no one around) while not being lonely (because I just spoke to someone, or because I’m interacting with people remotely). Likewise, I can be among a huge group of people (not alone) but be very lonely (not feeling a connection to any of them).

And this circles back to my social media vacation experience: because I am often alone (sometimes weeks go by where the only other human being I see in person is my wife), cutting off my social media experience cut me off from my major way of interacting/connecting with people – which naturally left me feeling a bit lonely after a while. (Luckily I did allow myself other communication methods during my self-imposed social media vacation, such as private chats and email, which helped keep me from feeling totally isolated.)

So while I’m glad I took a break to sort of re-calibrate myself, I’m also glad to be back and using social media again (though I plan to be a bit more strict with it, lest I end up in the same place again). It was good to use this blog as an outlet rather than tweeting everything, and I plan to continue to use it – in case it’s not obvious, I do actually really enjoy writing!

So that’s my report on my experience with a little more than a month away from social media. If you find yourself feeling consumed by social media in a similar way, you might try taking a break from it as well. It’ll be hard at first – goodness knows it was for me as well – but I do think it’s worth doing every now and again.