Procrastination is my posse

July 28th, 2014

Seventeen years ago I flunked university by working up a good speed for six years and then sliding out right at the other end. My funds had dried up and I decided it was time to go and do something else.

As it turned out my invisible diploma had a negative value on the job market. Even though there were plenty of jobs around, employers either thought I was over-qualified for having been to university or under-qualified for not having the piece of paper to prove it.

But I was lucky, because my experience working for the local student magazine was good enough to get me a job as a magazine editor and when I had had enough of that (for reasons that had little to do with this story and everything with the company I worked for) I slid out again, straight into a freelance career as a web developer.

And I discovered I was good at it.

Which was odd because I had never studied web development. To the contrary, putzing around on the web was something I did in my student years as a form of procrastination.

This brings me around to a great insight I gained after well over forty years, which is that I don’t learn well through rote learning, but the better through osmosis. Not that great an insight perhaps, but useful.

Another insight is that if it takes you forty years to realize you learn better through osmosis than through rote learning, maybe osmosis isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

When Windows refuses to let you rename folders

July 21st, 2014

The past few months I’ve had it happen more and more that Microsoft Windows refused to eject a thumb drive or refused to let me rename folders.

Windows will helpfully tell you that this is likely because another program is still working with the file/folder/drive, but doesn’t tell you the name of the offending program.

Since this sort of thing generally happens two minutes before I pack up and leave for home, I’ve thus far simply ignored the problem. Today, however, Windows once again refused to let me rename a folder and I had the time to play the detective.

Today I found out that the program that has been hijacking my OS was a program called TGitCache.exe, which is a helper tool for Tortoise Git, which in turn is a version control package. A lot of my customers have started using version control recently and it makes sense therefore that I’ve only started to experience this in the last six months or so.

The Tortoise folks have said in response to a bug report about this issue that they’ve released a new version of the program in which they changed so much, they’re now closing the bug report.

Note that in your case it’s probably a different program. It’s probably a program you can see in your task bar. I singled out TGitCache.exe in this post because it runs in the background. This post is mostly useful for people who have noticed similar behaviour since they started working with Tortoise Git.

Luis Suarez and the right to work

July 1st, 2014

Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez was punished by FIFA for biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup. FIFA has banned the player from participating in any football related activities for four months, including going to practice and watching games at the stadium.

Team mate Diego Lugano called the ban barbaric and a violation of Suarez’ human rights.

Now there’s something to consider. The right to work as enshrined in the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights reads as follows: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

Surely this was written with people in mind who would otherwise be condemned to poverty, starvation and a life of no hope? With an estimated nett worth of 34 million USD, only two things have been taken away from Suarez, namely the possibility to indulge in his life’s passion for a while and the possibility to get even richer—the Uruguayan striker was hoping for a transfer from his current employer Liverpool FC to FC Barcelona.

We need to make sure we safe guard the human rights of the people whose clinging to these right is tenuous, but that hardly stops the privileged from having human rights at all. It is not FIFA’s task to tell Suarez what jobs he must and must not take—especially considering the association’s human rights record regarding the under-privileged, which is dismal.

FIFA are in a tough spot, though. Giorgio Chiellini also has the right to “just and favourable conditions of work” and surely that includes the right not to be bitten by his opponents. Chiellini has the rightful expectation of some protection against such practices.

How much protection? That’s hard to say. FIFA will give a player a four month ban for causing a small bite mark on a shoulder, but closes its eyes to career ending tackles. In fact they have a history of handing out bans for offenses that them makes them look bad. In 2006 Zinadine Zidane was banned three matches for a light headbutt in the shoulder of Italian defender Marco Materazzi that did not influence play and that did not injure Materazzi (although you get to see some lovely acting from the Italian player if you look up the incident on YouTube).

Here’s my conclusion. I think FIFA should be able to show some respect for the human rights of Chiellini and his colleagues by offering him a reasonably safe working environment. Using a ban as a negative stimulus would be a reasonable choice to help ensure this right even if it directly infringes upon the same human right of the player that causes the workplace to be unsafe. The association should weigh both rights fairly though and come up with a punishment that does not infringe upon both rights more than it has to.

In that respect I think a four month ban is way over the top, especially considering that FIFA had other options. My choice would have been to ask Suarez to come with a comprehensive plan to stop his undeniable passion and drive from spilling over into uncontrolled aggression. He should then defend this plan in person.

In which the author toys with his conscience (but not really)

June 7th, 2014

dilbert-future

The Dilbert Future

Here’s the obligatory blurb that can be misquoted by publisher and author alike: The Dilbert Future is worth every penny I paid for it.

As far as I remember, I did not pay any pennies for this third instalment of Scott Adam’s comic ‘business books’ because I paid in Euro cents and not even that many. I bought the book second hand at a flea market and I probably did not pay more than 50 cents for it.

Can an author be separated from his work? No really, could somebody separate this author from his work? That is like the second lame joke I made in this review and yet I stay ahead of the work under review. Unfortunately my opinion is informed by what I’ve learned by the author.

In 1996 Adams published the rather brilliant The Dilbert Principle, a satirical work about the workplace in which he presented a twist on the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle humorously states that good workers will be promoted into roles they cannot handle until they reach their ‘level of incompetence’. The Dilbert Principle states that bad workers will be promoted to get them out of the way.

Only one year later Adams published The Dilbert Future, but I did not read it until the past weeks. In the meantime I had learned that he is a bit of a tosser and a moron and a misogynist—the red pill brigade call him “one of us”.

So here’s my take on if, why and how to appreciate a work even if you dislike the person behind that work. Usually these questions are discussed from a moral perspective—we don’t like to be in the closet about the works we admire even if their authors are personae non gratae. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is possible to will yourself to not like a work just because of its author.

Complicating matters is that good and better works often work because the author shows real and continuous insight. Go ahead, hate Wagner because he was a Nazi, but that doesn’t make his music less intrinsically good.

But there is a third issue and that is that insight is often based on context. A joke works because it makes use of a lot of shorthand; the concepts that underlie the joke are shared by the person telling the joke and their audience.

This is where The Dilbert Future comes crashing down.

The very first lines of the book are: “There are two types of people in the world: the bright and attractive people like yourself who read Dilbert books, and the 6 billion idiots who get in our way. [...] A devious reader suggested calling them In-duh-viduals.” See? That’s funny. It’s a classic joke that works on the understanding that both Adams and his readers don’t really believe in a world divided into a small elite of brilliant people and a large mass of complete idiots. After all, each of us knows quite a few people who may not have read Dilbert but are still definitely not idiots. There is a contrast between reality and what Adams jokingly says reality is and that is what makes us laugh.

Unfortunately the corner that Adams has painted himself into, in blog posts, books and by writing sock-puppet reviews of his own works, is that he believes exactly that. Adams belongs to a group of people who believe there are wolves and sheep, and they are the wolves, that there are hunters and prey, and they are the hunters. As far as I can tell, Scott Adams believes his own nonsense. And that makes it quite a struggle to get through The Dilbert Future. Every time you see Adams joke about these In-duh-viduals you know he doesn’t mean it as a joke. Which is a bit of a problem for a book that is meant to be funny.

I’ll skip discussing the bit at the end where Adams gets all serious and starts professing his belief in NLP-like mumbo jumbo.

All this just to say that you may not be able to force yourself to dislike the things you like, but an author is also unable to divorce their work from what the reader knows about the author.

I skipped the rating on this book because even though I didn’t like the book, I don’t think I could recommend you either to read it or to leave it. If you’re a sad-sack red-piller, you might even consider it a work of literature (or worse, a manual).

It rains, you need to go out, what do you do?

May 9th, 2014

The question of whether you should either walk or run in the rain if your goal is to stay as dry as possible, has fascinated people ever since they realized they had more time to spend on the internet than cat videos could provide.

That is a rather convoluted sentence but if you try and attack it a couple of times, you should be able to decipher its meaning. If not, just read ‘has fascinated people a lot recently’.

In 1992 The Straight Dope claimed that running through the rain keeps you considerably drier than walking through it. Sounds plausible. There are variants out there that I am not going to link to that talk about the wind coming from the front (run) or behind (walk) and about the type of rain (big drops v. small).

My problems are different though and as I stare out the window, knowing I should leave the house any minute now, more than four decades of Dutch experience with rain tell me what to do.

Last Friday I was at the worst conference I ever attended. The conference was held in a quaint and utterly charming village just outside Utrecht, 25 kilometres from my home as the crow flies, and it was organized on the same principle as all other conferences before it, i.e. people that matter own a car. I don’t own a car because living in a largish city I don’t typically need one. Long story short, it took me 3 hours and 10 minutes to get there by public transport. There were public-transport-using people that came in after me.

(Just as a public service announcement, the conference was held in an otherwise perfectly charming small convention center called Inn Style in Maarssen. Do not ever go there!)

The first Dutch lesson for avoiding the rain is therefore to neither walk nor run, but take a car.

Since I spend most of my kilometres on a bicycle and since today’s destination is only two kilometres away, today’s dilemma is whether I should walk or ride a bicycle. An added variable is that I will be using an umbrella. Experience tells me that walking with an umbrella will keep me drier than bicycling.

The problem is slightly enhanced by the fact that it rains relatively hard and that it is relatively cold outside. If it would be a little warmer or if it wouldn’t rain so hard, I might as well cycle through the rain without an umbrella because the water would evaporate as fast as it would hit me.

These things you won’t read on your strange blogs from foreign lands where rain is more of a concept than a reality. On the other hand, some people claim it almost never rains in the Netherlands.

Notes on dumpster diving

April 28th, 2014

Last Saturday was the first time ever King’s Day was celebrated in the Netherlands, but nobody had to teach us anything because the feast was built atop a string of a hundred Queen’s Days in as many years.

(And yes, people were heard in the streets saying Queen’s Day, and other people were heard to correct the first people, and then everybody laughed.)

The part of the celebrations that I tend to go for is the country-wide flea market and every year, or almost every year, I tend to post a photo of my loot here. This year will not be an exception.

queens-day-loot-2014-purchases

If you compare my acquisitions to those of 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2008, the harvest seems rather paltry. If you take into consideration that three of those books were the token purchase a retail addict makes in order to get started on a bender, the result seems even measlier.

But that is because this year I took separate photos of the things I bought (above) and the things I did not pay for (below). Here are the results of this year’s dumpster dive:

queens-day-loot-2014-divings

It’s this dumpster diving schtick I want to talk about for a moment.

Despite coming from relative poverty when I was young (or perhaps because of!) I have to overcome a distinct distaste every year for rummaging through the garbage. A few things ease my mind. First of all I am a bit of a pack rat and seeing good things go to waste offends my sensibilities. There is also the idea of getting a good deal, strengthened by the fact that in the earlier hours of King’s Day I payed good money for items of similar value. By the time the vendors start packing up I have developed a fairly keen sense of what everything would have gone for that day. And finally there is also the realization that the treatment of books I find by the side of the road or in actual dumpsters hadn’t been treated much better during the day—many of them were displayed on the ground or on raggedy blankets while passers by dropped hot sauce from sausage buns on them.

Still, when I get home from dumpster diving I feel an itch everywhere (imagined, I presume) and immediately go to work with soap and water to wipe off the books I found.

The friend who accompanies me on these hunts remarked that I probably wouldn’t have bought the books I took home from the dumpster dive and in most cases that seems to be true. There is a classic Dutch dictionary in there, the Dikke van Dale, that I would have presumed to cost more than I would have been willing to pay for. I probably would have bought the Lisa Tetzner because The Black Brothers is one of the few books in a global canon of children’s literature—I’d like to re-read it. I might have left the Adrian Mole unbought for the simple reason that I couldn’t be 100% sure I did not already own it—on the other hand I bought a Raymond Chandler (the only find not pictured in the photos above) figuring I might already own it and it turned out that indeed I did.

But all the books I found while dumpster diving will get read or used eventually, I am pretty sure of that. The older books are the most obvious example of this truth; they are out of copyright and I acquired them so that I could scan them and put them on Project Gutenberg or on the Internet Archive.

I noticed that during the part of the day where I was still willing to pay money for books, I spent most of my time looking for ‘certs’, for books that I knew I would enjoy and for books that have been on my to-buy-if-I-run-across-them list. This year for the first time I have also been looking for photography books—without finding any. The dumpster diving objects are slightly more of a gamble, although my experience the past four years with dumpster diving is that most of these will be read or used otherwise.

Dealing with the Dutch cookie law

April 25th, 2014

This note about how to comply with the Dutch cookie law is mostly a memo to self, but I believe the information past the fold is also useful to anyone who runs their own website and needs to ensure the privacy of their site’s visitors.

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Return to Amsterdamse Bos

April 3rd, 2014

It’s been a while since I posted photos here. I’ve made a ‘one-eighty’ since I wrote in 2011 that I probably won’t be a roller derby photographer. In fact, on Facebook my occupation is now listed as “Photographer at Roller Derby”.

Taking photography more seriously, however little, also makes it more difficult to post images, because I am no longer sharing interesting scenes—instead I am sharing interesting photos. There is a difference and the latter feels harder to live up to.

One exercise for aspiring amateur photographers is the 365 Days Project in which you try and take at least one picture of presentable quality each day. I don’t think it matters if you actually achieve that goal as long as you try. I started something like that last last year and below are some photos of the nearby Amsterdamse Bos that I took during the last months of 2013.

branko-20131002-01

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Patents held back the Wright brothers

March 22nd, 2014

A while back the threat of software patents hovered over Europe.

Patents are a legal instrument tied to inventions that let others stop you from using those inventions. Software patents let you do the same with bits of computer programs, which a lot of people disagreed with, since there are often just a few very obvious ways to solve programming problems and every computer program consists of thousands of such inventions, so every programmer would have been stopped dead in their tracks if software became patentable.

I was tangentially involved in the successful fight against software patents and one of the things that struck me then, and that strikes me even more now, was the argument that software patents were somehow special because they aren’t designed to protect the lone inventor. What’s remarkable about that argument is not so much the argument itself, but the suggestion that ‘regular’ patents do protect the lone inventor. All evidence suggests they don’t.

A couple of years back Maciej Ceglowsky explored how patents worked out for one of the major inventions of the twentieth century, the aeroplane. The American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright were two bicycle makers who took a scientific approach to inventing an airplane (an idea who’s time had certainly come). They performed “wind-tunnel tests, [corrected] longstanding errors in aeronautical theory, and they systematically applied their experimental results in designing each subsequent version of their gliders and aircraft”. On 17 December 1903 they made the “first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight” (Wikipedia dixit).

Once they did that, Ceglowksi said, they closed up shop, headed for the patent office, and “stopped flying for two and a half years”. But rather than licensing their patents to airplane manufacturers the Wright brothers started to sue others they suspected had implemented their inventions. “[The] Wrights became so consumed with their lawsuits that they had no time or energy left for further work, essentially becoming the SCO of the early aviation age.”

For the Wright brothers, the patent struggle was a series of Pyrrhic victories. They wanted justice and credit, and ideally the freedom to pursue their research further. Instead they found themselves consumed by litigation, and forced to watch others catch up with and overtake their technical lead, particularly in Europe, where aeronautical research had strong state support. The endless legal battle over the airplane patent may even have contributed to Wilbur Wright’s early death – he came down with typhoid at an especially rough patch in the legal proceedings, and died at age 45. His brother Orville lived long enough to see the Wright company taken over by Curtiss in 1929, in the most bitter of ironies. Neither brother made any substantive contribution to aviation after 1908.

Of course, if anti-software patent-campaigners had gone into battle with the correct argument that patents in general are useless to anybody but judges, politicians, patent lawyers and the patent office, they would have lost. Special pleading ironically made sense in their case. By just targeting a new part of patent law that nobody was yet making any money off, they made sure their opposition had less to attack them with.

It makes me wonder though, if important innovation is truly stymied at all times by the patent system, wouldn’t it be time to kill off the patent system?

How the iPod disrupted the way we enjoy music

March 4th, 2014

A couple of weeks ago Roger Cicala of the Lens Rentals photo gear blog talked about technological disruption and how the mobile phone was an example of such disruptive technology in the world of photography. I posted a comment discussing other ways mobile phones are disruptive technology and thought it would perhaps be good to share that comment on my blog also. Here goes.

In the late 1990s I was an editor for a monthly computer magazine. One day a press release landed on my desk describing how IBM had invented the 1-inch hard drive. I remember thinking what a remarkable feat of engineering that was, but also wondering what somebody would use such a small hard drive for. At the time I assumed IBM had some sort of industrial use in mind. A couple of years passed and lo and behold, suddenly everybody in the world was walking around with iPods (using a slightly larger hard drive).

The story of personal audio started with another disruptive innovation about 100 years earlier. The invention of the record player was of a similar magnitude because it separated space and time. Before the invention of the gramophone you had to go to a specific place at a specific time to hear one of your favourite artists perform. With gramophones you could stay in and listen to the artist whenever you wanted.

The personal audio player (of which the iPod was one of the earliest) took this a step further and liberated you from your own house. All of a sudden you could carry almost your entire music collection with you wherever you wanted.

Ironically the personal audio player (PAP) and the miniature hard drive would soon part ways. Having helped take the personal audio revolution to the next level, the miniature hard drive was soon replaced by flash memory. The very first digital PAP, the Diamond Rio, already used flash but at the time you couldn’t store an entire record collection on the device. At some point people also started using their phones to take photos with, making an entire category of cameras obsolete.