The Butterflies of Penang Were Terrific; Was I?

In my last post, “Aligning Toward a Better You,” I wrote that significant personal change occurs only when we have a clear target and make consistent efforts in that direction over an extended period of time. To be a better cook, you need to cook several times a week, regularly challenging yourself with new recipes and techniques. Whipping up the same three favorites when you get tired of takeout isn’t going to help. And neither is an expanding library of cookbooks.

One of my own ongoing goals is to keep improving my photography. While traveling in Penang, Malaysia, earlier this month I realized that a fun test of my progress would be to compare the photos I took at a butterfly conservatory there to those I took at one in Goa, India, about two years ago. This post appealed to me for another reason: everyone loves butterflies, and in this post I share two different sets of photos from two different countries, taken two years apart, so readers can judge for themselves.

My favorite post from my trip to India two years ago was “Waiting for Butterflies,” about my visit to the Butterfly Conservatory of Goa. It included an essay about how the day started badly but ended well, and what I learned about how to make the most of challenging circumstances. The essay was followed by a set of photos from the Conservatory.

After the trip to India I had additional opportunities to photograph butterflies at the Bronx Zoo in New York; the Medellin Botanical Garden in Colombia; a butterfly farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand; and the Buddhist Museum in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I’ve shared photos from all but the final location. Then, earlier this month, almost two years after the Goa trip, I traveled to Penang, Malaysia, for a week. The high point of that trip was a visit to Entopia, the island’s large butterfly conservatory.

Early in the Goa butterfly post I noted that butterflies are really difficult to photograph well:

To start, they’re small and flutter around from flower to leaf to branch, without staying in one place for very long. (In Thailand, a man who hops from woman to woman without settling down is known as a “butterfly man.”)

And, for a good photograph, you need to have the camera focus on the tiny subject and blur what’s in front and back of it. Finally, you need to be close enough to capture the butterfly’s intricate beauty without scaring it away.

Shortly after visiting Penang Entopia earlier this month it occurred to me that one really good way to measure my progress with photography would be to assess how much progress I’ve made with this particularly difficult subject in the two years between Goa and Penang.

In comparing the photos from these two conservatories, it’s important to note the vast difference in quality of the facilities—Goa’s Conservatory was like a bumbling junior high soccer player who shows up to matches stoned and never washes his uniform, and Penang’s Entopia was like a confident World Cup MVP who dates super models and stars in Italian underwear ads in the off season. As I wrote in the Goa post, I’m glad I made the trip because I like butterflies, and more importantly that excursion taught me a lot about how to make the best of difficult circumstances, but turning that day into a 3,000-word essay and a set of butterfly photos is one of my own odd quirks as a human being. If you find yourself in Goa, I can’t recommend a visit. Truth be told, the Goa conservatory was small, poorly maintained, and had a relatively small number of butterflies.

Penang’s Entopia, on the other hand, is a world-class facility and is regularly featured on lists of the world’s best nature conservatories. Over 15,000 butterflies from 60 different species flutter inside a huge diaphanous dome, which lets in just the right amount of soft sunlight, flattering both the butterflies and the immaculately maintained flower gardens.

Given that Penang Entopia is vastly superior in size and quality to the Goa Conservatory, it’s natural that my collection of photos from that visit is much larger, and of course I don’t get any credit for that. I’ve included 24 photos in the Penang set below, and I probably could have included double that without watering down the quality. (I took about 1,200 photos that day, so the photos below are roughly the top 2%. There were of course lots of bad photos from both Goa and Penang—as I noted above, taking good butterfly photos is really, really hard.)

While it’s meaningless to compare the number of photos or diversity of butterflies, it’s entirely fair to consider the average quality of each image and assess whether or not I’ve made significant progress with my photography in the two years between the trips. As I’ve noted in other posts, I think we improve mainly by practicing the skill we want to improve. According to my photo management and editing application (Photos for Mac), I took about 70,000 photos between Goa and Penang. Beyond taking lots and lots of photos, I often critique my shots soon after taking them: What’s good about this image? How could it be better?

I think readers are the best judge of quality, so here are the two sets of photos. The first is the starting point in my saga of photographing these lovely but challenging subjects, while the second from just two weeks ago represents my current level. Am I getting better? It’s a question I’m constantly asking myself.

The Penang Photos (at Entopia by Penang Butterfly Farm), January 2019

The Goa Photos (from Butterfly Conservatory Of Goa), February 2017




We Are All Migrants

As I followed the recent news of the large group of Central American migrants making their way toward the US border I’ve felt a sense of identity and affinity with them. Like them, I’ve crossed borders and changed countries to improve my life. If you’ve ever packed up everything and changed cities or countries in pursuit of educational, work or personal opportunities perhaps you’re a migrant as well? In an age in which information and ideas move at the speed of light and in which we can become aware and take advantage of opportunities almost anywhere on the planet, perhaps we are all migrants. Far from being something to fear, I think the migrants possess qualities we should embrace. To start, I think that their desire to improve their lives, their openness to change and to thoughtful risk-taking are among the qualities critical to thriving in the 21st century world.

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Time > Money (part 4 – recommended readings)

Note: This post is the last in a four part series. Here are links to the previous posts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3


Great news for busy people! Being literate on personal finance and developing good money habits doesn’t require a lot of time. Just one book is more than enough (for example, the two at the top of my list below) and the main principles could easily be summarized in a concise blog post.

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Some Ice Cold Water on my Mind

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Haruki Murakami in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

The high point of my two weeks in Iceland this July was the Laugavegur and Fimmvorduhals Treks, which are connected and done continuously over 4-6 days. Beginning with the raw, desolate beauty of Landmannalaugar in the highlands of western Iceland, traveling through the deep, rugged, verdant canyons of Thorsmork and ending near the southern coast at Skogar, the trek is included in many “best in the world” lists on the internet. It could easily be the most incredible natural beauty I’ve seen in my life, and that’s saying a lot, because I do like to get out and see the world! In addition to the unforgettable scenery, I met a lot of wonderful people on the trail and in the mountain huts we stayed at each night.

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Time > Money (Part 3 – how to easily calculate when you can retire)

This is the third post in a four part series. You can find the first here and the second here.


Are you looking forward to retirement? Would you like to spend all of your time as you like rather than just nights, weekends and holidays? What if you could do that sooner than you previously thought? With this series on personal finance and especially with this post with “math” in the title, some readers may feel that the blog has strayed from its more philosophical orientation (“Life is a journey. What are smart ways to travel?”). In the end though I see this series as fundamentally about how we use our time. Getting our financial house in order is simply a way to spend more of our time in this world on what we care about most. So the personal finance I’m advocating is one with a distinctly spiritual dimension – What makes life most worth living? How can we do more of that?

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Time > Money (Part 2 – How much of your life are you selling off?)

This is the second post in a four part series. You can find the first post here


Near the end of my time in Saigon a friend asked me to visit her English class to talk to her students and give them a chance to practice with a native speaker. When she introduced me to the class she told the students that I wrote a blog “about meditation,”  a comment which left me with a mix of amusement and embarrassment. Is my enthusiasm in recommending meditation really that over the top!?

One of the things I like about this series on time and money is that it’s about something I’m equally evangelical about but which I’ve barely touched in this blog – personal finance and more generally being smart about money. (By the way, the “>” in the title is the math symbol for “greater than”, not an arrow, and the title of this series is my assertion that, in the context of a human life, time and our ability to control how we spend it is vastly more important than money.)

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Time > Money (Part 1 – I retired early and so can you)

Shhhhh. I have a little secret. Can you promise not to tell?

About eight years ago, at around age 40, I cut back on work to under two hours a day. I realize that this may seem radical to many people but for the last 2-3 years I’ve come to feel that in my particular circumstances two hours a day is excessive. Starting from last year I’ve cut back to less than one hour a day. Actually, one hour a day is probably overly cautious and conservative – in all likelihood I would be fine if I completely retired.

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Getting a Good Night Sleep with Kim Jong-un

Lying in bed in my serviced apartment in Saigon, the feeling starts to wash over my brain. It’s not so much a yawn inducing sleepiness as an airy, lightheaded fuzziness in the mind. No one should operate heavy equipment or design rockets while taking Ambien, but in bed it can be a really helpful sensation. I’m fortunate not to have problems with work, money, love, marriage or children (the big things I imagine sometimes keep people up at night). But I think a lot, and there are times when this is really helpful (school, making a living, writing blog posts) and times when it’s not (before sleep). It’s hard to think on Ambien, and in bed that can be a good thing. 

At the outset of this post, let me assure readers that at no point do I sleep with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. No, there’s been no realignment of my romantic interests, from slender, well-dressed Asian women to portly Asian men clad in drab socialist grey. Rather, this post is about the way in which circumstances not to our liking (what we typically call “problems”) are sometimes made worse by the way we think about them and by the “solutions” we pursue. From the tiny and trivial (a few nights of bad sleep) to huge global problems (the tense standoff between the US and North Korea over nuclear weapons) and lots of things in between, humans have a curious tendency to come up with “solutions” that are much worse than the “problems” themselves.

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Love is a Drug; Let’s not be Junkies

Tonyyyyyyyy! Tonyyyyyyyy! Open the door! I need you! A woman cries and screams as she repeatedly kicks the door and beats on it with her fists. It’s 3 am on a school night during my sophomore year of university, and I’m in bed trying to sleep. That’s not going to happen with the ongoing assault on our apartment door. Tony’s out and I’m too scared of this woman to open up the door and talk to her. Either my frat boy roommate has started selling crack from our apartment in the Berkeley Hills or he’s dumped yet another girlfriend.

Plenty of poets and songwriters have noted the similarities between romantic love and the high that comes from recreational drugs. In the last  several decades, a growing body of scientific research has demonstrated that the connection is more than a poetic analogy – there are, in fact, deep similarities at the biochemical level between the highs associated with cocaine and other drugs and the early euphoric stages of romantic love.

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