Three Wishes

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Sometimes wishes do come true … but not in the ways you expect.

In the Noughties, I had three three wishes: I wanted to go back to full-time education, I wanted to experience working and living abroad, and I wanted to get more involved with the Church.

Wish No. 1

I’m not quite sure why I wanted to be a student again. Perhaps I had missed attending lectures and campus life in general. Or perhaps I thought I was getting old and being a student represented being young. Whatever the reasons, going back to full-time education was not an option. Financially, it was not possible. The only way I could have afforded the tuition fees was to have had a job, and I couldn’t have a job if I wanted to go back to education full time. I had to content myself with part-time courses. I lost count of the many evening and weekend courses I enrolled on (many of which I did not finish because I lost interest after a while). I did complete a master’s degree in digital media, however, which I did part time over two years with the support of my employer at the time.

Wish No. 2

Working abroad attracted me because I liked the challenge. I fantasised about moving somewhere unusual: somewhere I had never been before and where I did not have any friends or relatives. I saw it as a grand adventure. At one point, I came close to getting an interview for a web editor job in Qatar. I got very excited about the prospect of working in the Middle East but it never happened.

Wish No. 3

Wanting to get involved with the Church was nothing new but in the Noughties I wanted greater involvement. I think it was because I had fond memories of when I worked for Caritas Manila in the mid-90s. Those years were among the happiest in my life and I guess I wanted to bring them back. I remember applying for jobs with Church-related organisations such as CAFOD but my efforts did not bear fruit.

Good things come to those who wait, so they say. In 2009, I had the big idea of applying for priestly formation and when I was accepted in 2011, all three dreams came true all at once. Being a seminarian meant being a full-time Philosophy and Theology student, living in Rome for seven years, and – most importantly – offering my whole life to the Church.

So pray, wish and dream. To do so costs nothing but the rewards could be great.

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Let’s Go Book Hunting!

Boys lying and reading.

Very few things in life give me as much pleasure as books, and for me the buying is as pleasurable as the reading.

Like most people, I seldom go to brick-and-mortar bookshops now as in most cases it is cheaper to buy online. Most people have heard of Amazon but it’s not the only online bookseller. Whenever I need/want to buy a book, I enjoy the challenge of finding the best price.

Amazon clearly has the biggest range – if they don’t have what you’re looking for, it’s unlikely that their online competitors will. Thanks to third party sellers on Amazon (called market sellers), it is also easy to buy second hand or out of print books. Also, I consider Amazon to have the best customer service. Should something go wrong with your order, they will sort it out in not time at all.

However, Amazon is not always the cheapest especially when you factor in the postage. Until earlier this year, Amazon offered free postage on most items (regardless of price) in the UK but now only orders worth over £10 qualify for free postage. Unfortunately for me, Amazon has also stopped offering free delivery to Europe. Previously, my orders to Italy qualified for free delivery if the total was £25 or over.

I know of at least three Amazon competitors that offer free postage worldwide: Book Depository, Wordery, and Kennys. As you would expect, delivery is not as fast as with Amazon but it is nice to know that the price you see when browsing is the price that you will pay. Out of the three alternatives, Wordery is probably the most competitive.

Here are a few more tips:

  • Book Depository is also a market seller on Amazon. Often, it’s cheaper to buy books from Book Depository through Amazon rather than direct via the Book Depository website.
  • It is worth comparing prices even between the different Amazon sites. Only last week, I wanted the US edition of The Sword of Shannara Trilogy and they were cheaper on the German site than on the American site (crazy!).
  • Despite what I said about having to pay postage on Amazon, sometimes it still works out cheaper with them than with the other three even when postage is taken into account.

So the moral of the story is: shop around!

The Birthday Paradox

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While procrastinating this morning (I was putting off studying New Testament Greek), I started thinking about people with the same birthday as me. I realised that there are quite a few: at least two of my relatives share my birthday, a neighbour when I was a child, my manager from my last job, and one of my fellow seminarians here in Rome. I even know someone (a very good friend, in fact!) who was not only born on the same day but also in the same year.

This led me to do research on “same birthdays” online and I came across a probability theory called the birthday paradox. According to this phenomenon, if there are 20 people in a room, there’s a 50/50 chance that the two of them will have the same birthday. In a room of 75, there’s a 99.9 chance of people matching. I was surprised by this: there are 365 days in a year (ignoring leap years) so surely the probability of finding someone with the same birthday is much lower?

A confession: I hated Mathematics at school (still do!) and it was the reason why I focused on English instead. Hence, I am not the right person to explain the birthday paradox and so I turn to the website howstuffworks which explains it very well:

The reason this [the birthday paradox] is so surprising is because we are used to comparing our particular birthdays with others. For example, if you meet someone randomly and ask him what his birthday is, the chance of the two of you having the same birthday is only 1/365 (0.27%). In other words, the probability of any two individuals having the same birthday is extremely low. Even if you ask 20 people, the probability is still low — less than 5%. So we feel like it is very rare to meet anyone with the same birthday as our own.

When you put 20 people in a room, however, the thing that changes is the fact that each of the 20 people is now asking each of the other 19 people about their birthdays. Each individual person only has a small (less than 5%) chance of success, but each person is trying it 19 times. That increases the probability dramatically.

So the next time you’re in a room of 20 people, test it!

Halo-halo

halohaloI think it would be fair to say that halo-halo is to the Philippines what gelato is to Italy. Halo-halo (mix-mix or mixed in English) is a refreshing dessert which is a blend of shaved ice and evaporated milk topped with various sweet beans, jelly and fruits, and served in a tall glass or bowl.

I remember that as a child, I would save my pocket money so that I could go to one of our many neighbours who made and sold halo-halo. It was just the thing for a hot and humid day.

halo2Halo-halo is a popular treat served at parties in Filipino homes, both in the Philippines and abroad. Until recently, it was one of the things I missed most here in Rome. There are a few Filipino restaurants here which serve halo-halo but only occasionally, and even when they do it can be expensive.

But now I can make my own halo-halo when I want! Last Easter a friend from Manila visited me and brought me an electric ice shaver. I was delighted for it was the missing ingredient that I needed to make my own halo-halo. Even though the toppings and evaporated milk were widely available in Rome, I could not find any shop that sold an ice shaver so you can imagine my delight when my friend asked if there was anything I wanted from Manila.

Since then, I have been making halo-halo not just for me but also for my friends in seminary. Today, I even made some for my Italian tutor who loved it, though I have to say I struggled just a bit to describe in Italian what halo-halo was made of. I think I may have started a craze in Rome!

Now, fingers crossed all that halo-halo won’t make me fat(ter).

Renting software? No thanks!

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A few weeks ago, someone about to make his first foray into photo editing asked if I would recommend Photoshop. Money was no object and the enquirer was technical enough to have found Photoshop intuitive to use, but in all conscience I could not recommend Photoshop.

Don’t get me wrong: in the past, I have been a big fan of Photoshop and I still think it is the best image editor available (capable of doing anything you could possibly want to do with a photo) but I stopped endorsing the de facto standard of image editors when Adobe introduced Creative Cloud and stopped issuing perpetual licences for all their products.

This means that if you want to use Photoshop and all other Adobe products, you will have to pay a monthly subscription (currently $19 for a single application or $49.99 for the complete suite). For as long you subscribe, you can install and use the application(s) on two computers and avail of any updates. The sting in the tail is that if you cancel your subscription, you will no longer be able to use the programs no matter how long you have subscribed.

Compare this to the old licensing system: you paid the full retail prices for the programs (which were admittedly hefty) but you got to keep them forever.

As a student, I can subscribe to Creative Cloud for a reduced rate (currently $29.99) but I refuse to do so. I refuse to “rent” applications on principle. When I cease to be a student, I would either have to pay the full rate or lose access to the programs. I think that this is extremely unfair. It’s almost like being held hostage by Adobe.

I am thankful that Adobe do not have the monopoly on photo editing software. There are numerous alternatives out there that are much cheaper and you can actually own. My top recommendation is Serif PhotoPlus X7. It looks, feels, and works like Photoshop and costs just £79.99. PhotoPlus does not pretend to have all the high-end features of its Adobe equivalent but it has all the power that most users would need from a photo editor.

Serif has an alternative for all the major Adobe products including the excellent desktop publisher PagePlus X7 and web designer WebPlux X7. If you’re still not convinced, Serif offers free starter versions of all their programs while the full programs come with money-back 30-day guarantee. Go on, take the plunge and discover a world outside Adobe.

Feel at Home

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Studying in Rome has its many privileges but one of the drawbacks is that it’s not home. I love London – the place and the people – and being so far away from it can sometimes lead to loneliness.

My coping mechanism for this is to create the illusion that I’m still in London. I do this by ensuring that I have easy (and cheap!) ways of communicating with friends and relatives back home, and that I still have access to British TV.

Maintaining contacts with those you love at home is important for me especially at times when I struggle with life in seminary. Facebook has proven itself a godsend in this regard but often there is no substitute to a real telephone conversation. And thanks to today’s technology, calls to the UK (or anywhere else, for that matter) need not cost a fortune.

I have a virtual London telephone number through Skype which means friends and relatives in the UK can call me for the price of a local call. This virtual 020 number goes a long way in making me feel that I am still at home.

Last summer, my mobile network, Three, introduced Feel at Home which means that I can use my mobile phone in 11 countries (including Italy) without roaming charges. Put another way, I can use my call and data allowance in Rome without paying a penny more. I can use my free minutes to call the UK and I can also take advantage of my unlimited internet in Rome. And of course, people in the UK can call my mobile number as though I’m still in London – no roaming charges means I don’t pay extra to receive calls.

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Being able to watch British TV is also a must for me. Nothing reminds me of London more than EastEnders, the BBC’s flagship soap set in the East End of London, and I love being able to keep up with what’s going on in my home country by watching the BBC News Channel.

The internet has made all this possible … but it’s not quite as straightforward as that. The British TV websites that stream live and on-demand programmes including the wonderful BBC iPlayer are all region locked. This means they are intended to be viewed in the UK only and they cannot be accessed from abroad – unless you take certain steps to fool them into thinking that you are browsing from the UK.

There are free and paid-for ways of creating this illusion. The simplest free option is using the Media Hint add-on for your browser (either Firefox or Chrome). This will allow you to watch streams on any official TV website (UK and other countries) but the downside is that it does not let you download programmes from the iPlayer. This is a problem for me because I prefer to download my programmes to watch later (and also because my internet connection is rather erratic which causes a lot of buffering when I try to stream).

To get around this problem, I pay for a British IP address by subscribing to Virtual Private Network service. I use Hotspot Shield Elite (one of the cheapest and most popular VPN providers). With a British IP address, as far as any website is concerned I am still in England and I can watch the antics of the EastEnders as much as I want.

So there you have it: I’m physically in Rome but virtually in London at the same time. Who said you can’t be in two places at once?

First Love

They say your first love is the deepest and the most special, the love that you will never forget. They must be right, for I have decided to go back to my first love.

I’m going to be greedy and say that I have not one but two first loves: reading and writing. When I was a teenager, I devoured books like there was no tomorrow. I spent all my pocket money on books and I spent all my free time reading about little people called hobbits and exploring magical lands like Narnia.

My thirst for writing was equally unquenchable. I wrote whenever I could: I just had to write whatever I was thinking. I religiously kept a journal for almost 20 years and it was no surprise to anyone when eventually I wrote for a living.

There came the time, however, when second, third, fourth and other loves distracted me from reading and writing. In particular, the advent of the internet and the digital age gave me something else to be in love with. I stopped being curious about Frodo’s adventures and imaginary worlds lost their appeal. I became a web designer/editor and developed a passion for social networking.

But now, my first loves are imploring me to go back to them. Over the past month, I have started to replace the books that I loved but which I gave away when I was accepted for priestly formation. It wouldn’t surprise me if Amazon.co.uk is in love with me at the moment because of the number of orders they have been getting from me. To date, I have re-acquired five of my all-time favourite fantasy epics including The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain, The Belgariad and The Sword of Shannara Trilogy. My feet are itching again to explore these magical lands.

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And my hands are fidgeting again to write. This is why I have decided to start this blog, in the hope that it will be my main venue for writing my thoughts and recording my adventures. So please do pop in from time to time, and allow me to share with you all that I love.