Saint Nicholas Parade 2014

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On 15 November Saint Nicholas arrived in the Netherlands with his Black Peters having traveled here on his steam boat all the way from his palace in Spain.

The day after, he participated in parades all over the country. I went and took pictures of his parade in Amsterdam.

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The past two years there has been an intense debate, if you even want to call it that, about Saint Nicholas’ famous helper, Black Peter. There are people who figure if they cannot destroy racism, they could at least have a go at what they perceive to be a symbol of racism. Racists have come crawling out of the woodwork by the hundreds of thousands to ‘defend’ Black Peter, by which they mean that they claim the right to call every person of colour ‘black peter’ any time they want (reducing said person to a cartoon character).

And everybody else (the majority) is closing their eyes, hoping this will all go away.

The anti-Petes started a lawsuit last year, claiming that the city of Amsterdam should not have issued a permit for the Saint Nicholas parade in Amsterdam considering that Black Peter represents a negative stereo type of black people (bright red lips, golden earrings, curly hair and so on). The court agreed with them (Dutch) and came to the curious conclusion that the city should reconsider the permit for an event that had already taken place.

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Lacking a time machine, the Netherlands did not go back to November 2013 to cancel the parade.

One of the reasons Black Peter is black, legend has it, is because he has to clamber down and up chimneys to deliver presents. The soot is so persistent that it no longer comes off. That is why the city of Amsterdam decided that this year some of the Petes would appear in a semi-sooted state. To be honest, I did not notice many Roetpieten (Soot Petes), as they were soon dubbed. Most of the Black Peters in the parade looked the same as they did last year.

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You have to wonder if this was a serious attempt of the city to find a middle ground, or if the people that govern us belong to the group who want all this to just blow over.

Interestingly the Head Pete (Saint Nicholas’ right hand, bearer of the book of names of all children and the most authoritative figure in the parade after Saint Nicholas himself) did show up as a Soot Pete this year.

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Shown throughout this posting are a couple of photos I took this year.

In 2013 I posted the photos I took of the parade that year as an album on the Flickr account of 24 Oranges. My co-blogger asked me not to do that this year. That is why I posted them to my own Flickr account. See for yourselves if you think Amsterdam has done enough to kill of any racist stereotypes. You can find my 2013 album here, and my 2014 album here.

Note that the 2013 parade was already supposed to be toned down in that Black Peters had shed their golden earrings.

You would probably like to know what my opinion is of all this. The thing is I do have a position and I would love to share it, but my position is based on a lot of anecdotal evidence and I am not sure it would hold up to even the lightest scrutiny. As a result I don’t think sharing what I feel about this sordid affair would, at this point, add anything meaningful to the debate.

A thing I like about photo workflow tools

The past few years I’ve started to take my amateur photography more serious, even though you cannot always tell from the quality of my output.

As a result I also spend more time behind my computer editing photos. It is still completely true that it is better to get a photo right in the camera than to have to salvage it in post-processing, but there are things you can do in post that you cannot do in the camera. This helps to give you an edge and to express yourself even better through photography.

Having been a contributor for the GIMP—an open source, so-called bitmap editor for photos—I am convinced of the program’s qualities (even though it doesn’t do 16 bits per colour), but recently I have started working a lot with workflow-based editors.

Bitmap editors work by giving you a virtual easel or canvas (neither metaphor is perfect) upon which you can do anything you like. Typically you use them to:

  1. Work on a photo.
  2. Save the final product.
  3. Move on to the next photo in the set.

Photoshop is another example of this category of editor.

Workflow-based tools let you swap steps 2 and 3. They also let you perform edits on a whole series of photos at once. Examples of this category are Raw Therapee, Lightroom and Aperture.

The workflow-based editors have several features that come in handy:

  • Non-destructive editing.
  • Image organization.
  • Profiles/recipes.

Non-destructive editing means that the software stores a list of edits alongside your original photo. If you want to undo some of these edits, you can. With a bitmap editor you have to make a copy of the photo and some mistakes cannot be undone. (Bitmap editors have features like multiple undo, layers and adjustment layers that help ease some of this pain.) Once you are happy with the edits of all your photos, you run a batch job to produce a final album.

Image organization helps with this because it lets you preview several images at once. You can even compare images in a half finished state. Again, the workflow-based tool does not destroy the underlying image when you save the image, but only stores a list of changes.

There is no particular reason why the makers of bitmap editors could not add this functionality to their tools. In fact I know the makers of the GIMP have discussed non-destructive editing in the past. In the end other features received a higher priority, which is understandable.

The reason I use the Canon tool instead of the potentially superior Raw Therapee is hidden in the word ‘potentially’. Raw Therapee does not fulfil the two minimum requirements for a usable workflow-based tool because its photo organiser does not let you preview edited photos correctly. (This may be a problem with the Windows version only, I haven’t tried the Linux version.)

Profiles/recipes, by the way, are sets of edits that you re-use across multiple photos. I find that I have little use for these. I started editing albums of photos because I still shoot roller derby and the lighting conditions of roller derby bouts tend to be such that every photo is its own set of problems. I can imagine though that if you have the same light in all or most of your photos, such recipes could prove useful.

Similarly, if you only have the odd photo to edit and don’t care as much about putting a little extra work in getting a consistent look with the tools you know, you might as well stick with the bitmap editor of your choice.

[Screenshot of a workflow editor.]

The changes I make in the toolbox to the right will show up in the preview to the left, but will not affect the underlying image file. If you need a file with these settings, you need to select File / Convert and Save in this editor (DPP).

Long and rambling review of the Ducky DK2108 computer keyboard

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Ducky Zero DK2108

Abstract: buy it if you want to try it, or not, it’s all good.

I wanted to own a real keyboard.

The currents of modernity sweep into curious directions. For instance there is a strong tendency among manufacturers to make things that break easily. This forces consumers into buying the same thing—or a slight up- or downgrade of that thing—over and over again. (See: planned obsolescence.)

Also the desktop PC seems to be on its way out. Plumbers and archdukes alike seem to perform the majority of their computing tasks on ever shrinking devices. I’ve even seen programmers switch to tablets. I do not belong to that group of people. Big and fast devices make my job (I am a web developer) significantly easier.

These days if you want to buy a keyboard, you buy a plastic affair for 10 bucks that starts to disintegrate almost the moment you join the queue at the computer store’s check-out.

I moved the other way and went for a 100 euro mechanical keyboard, the Ducky DK2108.

This is a review of that keyboard. It is unnecessarily long and rambling, because I wrote it twice and then haphazardly merged the two reviews, and then I failed to reach a solid conclusion. Go figure. I post this because I think it can still be useful, but you may have to bear with me a bit.

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Photographing running events, what I learned

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I should probably make this a series of notes-to-self whenever I try a new category of photography.

Anyway, I went to the Amsterdam marathon last October, which is held conveniently close to my house (or inconveniently—I had to cancel a photo walk because I was in the middle of an artificial island bordered by blocked roads).

You can find my photos of this event at Wikimedia Commons.

Usually I check Google before I engage a new photographic subject, but since I am decent at indoor sports, and indoor sports typically is a bit harder than outdoor sports, I figured: meh, I’ve got this.

Turned out I did not.

So, back to basics:

  • When shooting sports, familiarize yourself with the sport at hand. Figure out what makes this sport interesting, what its rules are, who is playing which role, what emotions you can expect from which players and so on.

Furthermore:

  • If in the Netherlands: bring an umbrella (or at least check the forecast).
  • Don’t photograph black athletes under a leafy canopy on a clouded day (or use flash?). The moment I moved away from under the leaves I no longer needed post-processing to make facial features visible.
  • Having audience members in the background can add to the photo, but with athletes running at their side of the road, the audience can get in close focus and become part of the foreground. That can work in some circumstances, but preferably needs to be a conscious choice of the photographer.
  • Look otherwise for clear backgrounds.
  • You don’t get a second chance after all (unless the athletes are running in circles), so determining the background for each athlete (or the choice to just wing it) should be a conscious decision taken beforehand.
  • The long end of my sports zoom (Sigma 50-150mm f2.8, 3rd generation) is the weakest. So far I’ve mostly been shooting athletes indoors, where the softness of the lens at the long end is only a part of the mix of things that also influences the wide end. Outdoors the softness of fully zoomed in was too much of an annoyance, but I was struggling to figure out if perhaps I should shoot at 100mm and crop later.
  • Photographing runners near the start: everybody still looks fresh; everybody’s still running in a group. Everybody’s still running. You may get the occasional lone runner.
  • Photographing runners near the finish: solitary heroes who look tired. You miss out on runners who left the race earlier on. Figure out which you want by asking yourself the question: why am I shooting this event?

What I already knew:

  • Use a fast shutter speed to freeze a moving subject or combine a slow shutter speed with following the athlete with your lens to create a nice stripey effect.
  • Get low so that your subject appears more heroic. Outdoors this means you maybe you shooting against the sky, so adjust your exposure accordingly, that is: underexpose.

I realise this list could be much longer.

One thing I noticed when looking at Google Images for photos others took of marathons is that some photographers prefer artistic race photos, which could be interesting to experiment with.

If you want to use this photo, head over to its Wikimedia Commons page and read the terms and conditions of the license.

Frogger

I have finally figured out what it is that makes Frogger so difficult. It offers you a ‘weapon’ that is one of the most difficult to control of all, namely choice.

There are few games I know of, retro or modern, that have so perfected the sense of “I’ve got this.” You think, “I can make that jump,” or “I can get that bonus fly”, and before you know it the croc is dining on your frog’s legs. It is difficult because it is easy. You underestimate everything about it, the timing, the distances, the enemies. And every time bitter experience has taught you to be extra careful, the bonuses and the wide gaps and the forgiving collision masks give you a false sense of security and lure you right back into offering one of your few frogs onto the altar of your inflated ego.

I’m pretty sure early reviews mentioned this aspect of the game, but I am nothing if not stubborn, although a good second would be easily distracted and a third would be forgetful.

Frogger is one of the first video games I encountered in my life (the very first must have been Pong) and yet after forty years it still stumps me. That is quite an achievement.

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ISDS is coming this way and it is disastrous

A disease going by the name of ISDS is threatening the citizens of Europe.

Its symptoms are a very strong pain in the wallet, a pain of the sort you’ve probably never felt before.

ISDS is a court of law in which companies (and only companies) can sue countries for large sums of money, even though the countries broke no law. We are talking billions here. Small countries can easily be bankrupted by ISDS. All that is required for a country to be found guilty is that some measure taken by the country is affecting the company’s bottom line.

The abbreviation ISDS stands for Investor-State Dispute Settlement. Feudal courts for robber barons, that is what ISDS really means. Courts that are an instrument for companies rather than an arbiter between two parties.

Imagine that you go to school and every day a much older bully beats you up and takes your lunch money. Sometimes you get lucky and the head master catches the bully. In this analogy, ISDS is when the head master hates you and the head master is actually the parent of the bully and only believes their story.

Here is a real life example. The sovereign and presumably democratic country of Australia recently committed to ISDS. In 2011 Australia proposed to implement its Tobacco Plain Packaging bill. This bill makes it obligatory to sell cigarettes in packages from which almost all brand information has been stripped. This is I guess because tobacco kills people and Australia wants to make smoking seem less attractive.

In April 2011 tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris started an ISDS procedure against Australia. The company argued that since it no longer could brand its cigarette packages clearly, the law would cost them money. They told the Australian government to kill or amend its law. Their extortion letter (if anyone has a better word, please let me know) claimed that they would lose billions of dollars if the law were to pass. (At the time of writing one Australian dollar is worth slightly less than an American one.)

That year Australia passed its Tobacco Plain Packaging law which went into effect on January 2012. In November 2011 Philip Morris started the second phase of its procedure, telling Australia one last time to revoke its law or suffer the consequences. Again the ‘damage’ to Philip Morris was claimed to be ‘an amount to be qualified but of the order of billions of Australian dollars’.

In 2012, 2013 and 2014 the ISDS court has been setting up and outlining the way the proceedings would go. As is the case when you let multi-nationals write your laws for you, vast parts of the proceedings are off limits to the public. The document for instance in which Philip Morris tells the court how much money it wants (the so-called Statement of Claim) is a secret.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that Australia now wants to get rid of its ISDS agreements.

It’s clear why multi-nationals want ISDS. It’s not at all clear why politicians want ISDS, but they do ever so much. When politicians aren’t wringing their hands while whining about how little voters understand them, they’re walking around with rock hard erections (men and women alike) while thinking of ISDS.

ISDS is a fairly new phenomenon. In a 2013 overview published by UNCTAD (PDF) you can see how the world has gone from 0 cases in 1992 to dozens per year now. In 2012 alone there were nine wins for the multi-nationals who managed to steal over 2 billion dollars from the public. These are the damages awarded, the number excludes compound interest and I cannot be bothered to figure out who payed for the proceedings, although that doesn’t seem hard to guess.

Is there anything we can do about ISDS? It seems very unlikely. If the state wants complete sovereignty except where multi-nationals are concerned, something is very rotten with the way the state works. Puttering around the edges isn’t going to help much.

Meanwhile I’m not too bad. It is the people that always say politics don’t interest them that will get hit the worst. Cynical this may be, but I will allow myself a little wry smile when ISDS comes to these shores wrapped in secret trade agreements such as TTIP, CETA or TiSA.

Default browser cookie settings in 2014

(TL/DR? Skip to results.)

Yesterday I wrote that even though social networks currently combine targeted advertising and private user data collection, doing them both is not a requirement for running a profitable social network. The networks can just focus on the former, that is focus on the harvesting and selling of user data, and dispose of the advertising part altogether.

Having the social network and the ad network on the same domain (for example facebook.com) does make things slightly easier for the social network operator, because users may have switched off so-called third party cookies which are stored and read from a different domain (for example doubleclick.com).

The reason why the average user would block third-party cookies is because these cookies are almost exclusively abused for tracking users behind their backs.

How much of a problem is it to advertisers that users block third-party cookies? Not much. Users are typically reluctant to tinker with browser settings, therefore it depends on the web browser makers and the sensible defaults they choose whether an aspiring social network can plant cookies that another domain may read.

I decided to look into the defaults of modern web browsers, but could not find much information.

Here are some data points:

That leaves some browsers unexplored. Since checking the browsers on my computer was probably going to be easier than Googling anyway, I decided to take that route.

Table: default cookie settings for some web browsers in 2014.
Browser + version Operating system Default cookie setting
Google Chrome 37 Microsoft Windows Allow (all?) cookies
Microsoft Internet Explorer 11 Microsoft Windows Allow some third-party cookies
Mozilla Firefox 32 Microsoft Windows Allow third-party cookies
Apple Safari Apple iOS 7 Allow local cookies?
Android browser Google Android 4.0 Allow (all?) cookies?

As you can see the answers are ambiguous at times and don’t square with the results I linked to, but it would appear that currently most web browser will let sites track you across domains using third-party cookies.

A note about methodology. This was a quick study to find out what the default cookie settings are. For that, I needed to restore browser defaults and that was not always possible. The mobile devices (iOS and Android) had no way to restore settings to a default so I had to assume that these were the default settings.

I do tinker with my desktop browsers but I rarely do so with my mobile devices, so it’s a reasonable guess that the aforementioned settings are the default ones, I just cannot be absolutely sure.

Another problem was that browser manufacturers use different settings, different terminology and sometimes translations which can make it hard to find out which is which.

Most browsers speak of ‘allowing’ cookies, iOS Safari speaks of blocking them.

The reason I report Chrome’s default as “allow (all?) cookies” rather than “allow all cookies” is because I don’t know if “indirecte cookies” is their Dutch translation of “third-party cookies”. If it is, you can remove the question mark and conclude that Chrome allows all cookies by default.

Internet Explorer has a return-to-default button just for privacy settings, which is much appreciated, and a number of sensible settings collections. Unfortunately the explanation of what these settings mean is rather opaque. For instance I don’t know what are “cookies that can be used to contact you”.

Firefox’ default is also a ‘sensible’ setting which tells you only in the most general terms what it does, namely that the browser “will remember your browsing, download, form and search history, and keep cookies from websites you visit”.

You can choose to use custom settings and if the defaults for these settings can be assumed to be the same as the ‘sensible’ settings, then their third-party policy is clear if perhaps not sensible: “Accept third-party cookies? Always.”

Safari lets you choose to block cookies: “Always”, “From third parties and advertisers” and “Never”. I assume “and advertisers” is not a separate category from “third parties” and was just inserted to make it clear that these are tracking cookies, but again, that’s just an assumption.

The Android Browser’s setting is the least complicated of all, you can choose Cookies or No cookies, and if you choose the latter I assume most of the useful services on the web become off limits to you. But are there really people who bank online using their smart phone and an operating system made by Google?

If browsers all blocked third-party cookies, you still wouldn’t be safe though. For one thing, what we generally understand as cookies, small bits of data that are written and read using two standard Javascript functions, only make up a small part of all the different types of tracking technologies there are.

Ello doesn’t need to sell ads and here’s why

The latest Facebook-killer in a long line of Facebook-killers has arrived and its name is Ello.

Ello is—like Facebook—a social network, and the reason why it probably won’t kill Facebook is that it’s got pretty much the same value proposition. If it poses a threat, all Facebook has to do is become a little more Ello-like.

Facebook will die in the end but only because that is how these things go. The current threat to Facebook, as people tell me, is Twitter. Unlike Facebook’s users, Twitter users don’t share a space with their parents. That’s a feature Facebook may be able to tweak on a technological level, but perhaps not on an emotional one.

Ello’s main attraction is that it allows users (for now) to use pseudonyms, allowing people with multiple personae to use the one that fits their role in society best. Facebook on the other hand forces you to use the name on your passport.

Ello is also ad free.

The site claims that it ‘will always remain an “ad-free network.”‘ (Business Insider)

And: “We set out to prove that a social network will survive and thrive that doesn’t have a business model of selling ads to its users,” says CEO and co-founder Paul Budnitz. (IPR)

I want to talk about the no-advertising model for a bit. The articles I’ve read so far seem to suggest that people are tired of being treated like a product and they understand that ads play some sort of key role in this process. The process is understood to work as follows. Facebook sells or gives user data to advertisers who customize their ads to fit Facebook users. The advertisers then sell those advertisements to Facebook to place on the users’ pages.

Since Ello doesn’t do ads, it is assumed that the users are spared from these practices and that users’ privacy is kept intact.

I don’t see how that follows.

In the model above Facebook is both the provider of user data and the manager of the ad network. That is to say, they both own the user data and the advertising space.

There is no reason however why these two should be connected. Ello could easily set itself up as a provider of user data.

How that works is how privacy-busting online advertising has always worked. The owner of the user space places user tracking technology (also called: a cookie) on the computer of the user. It then tells the owner of the advertising space (this could be any website) everything about the user and its cookie. The advertiser reads the cookie and asks Ello or Facebook: “what can you tell me about the person that has this cookie” and adapts its advertisement to the answer.

Whether that is going to happen with Ello remains to be seen. At the moment ello.co places four tracking cookies in my browser even though I am not logged in. That’s three more than say a fresh WordPress install. (WordPress places a cookie called wordpress_test_cookie on login screens in order to check whether it needs to work with Javascript or needs to fall back to another tracking technology. This in turn is so that when you log in, it doesn’t need to keep asking you for your password every time you go to another page. The European anti-cookie directive defines this as a permissible cookie necessary for the proper functioning of the website.)

Food for thought: Ello is currently not making money, that is I doubt it is. The site is probably haemorrhaging money and its backers will soon want to see something more than just losses.

Definition: copygreed

Tonight the stores close at 2200 hrs, it is now 2112 hrs, I am working through a stack of old books to determine their copyright status, and I still have a dozen or so to go.

Suddenly, I am stopped. Quick, I need a word to describe the phenomenon that certain parties want ever longer copyright terms and manage to convince bribeable* parliaments to extend terms before I can scan their works.

Copygreed

And I continue.

*) What other reason would they have to do what they do so badly?

Meet the new look, same as the old look

I’ve changed the look of this blog, but don’t be surprised if you don’t see any difference.

Most of the changes are ‘under the hood’ so to speak and only produce a different visual in certain browsing environments.

In the old theme (the part of the blog that determines the look) all dimensions were fixed. The new theme uses a so-called responsive design where the look of the site is determined by the width of the device you’re using to browse.

You will notice the changes the most on phones and in certain ancient web browsers, where the site will display as a single column. This has the advantage that on thin screens (phones) the browser won’t try to cram everything in, but will instead stack everything vertically.

Two other responsive features that you will see on mobile devices:

  1. Images will now take up the width of the screen regardless of the size in which I’ve uploaded them. (This only goes for recent images.)
  2. Some of the menus are rendered as big buttons so that you can tap them more easily with your finger.

Other changes:

  • The blog now uses HTML5 and CSS3.
  • The new theme is made from the ground up and no longer based on WordPress’ former default theme Kubrick.
  • Some of the background colours are gone.
  • I am using a new font for the headings, namely Permian by Ilya Ruderman (this used to be MS Trebuchet).
  • Kubrick used quote marks as bullets for list items, I’ve returned to a more classic disc.
  • I have cut a lot of code.

The latter combined with the fact that I’ve released this redesign before it was ready means you’re probably going to bump into things that aren’t quite right. Please let me know when that happens.

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