Vista is…

Saw this in a comment at Engadget: Vista is Ballmer’s way of throwing chairs at people he can’t reach.

(Explanation: Steve Ballmer is the CEO if Microsoft, who is known for throwing chairs through the room in Gordon Ramsay style hissy-fits. Gordon Ramsay is a bum-kneed football-pro turned cook who is known for his tantrums. Vista is the newest version of Microsoft Windows. Every new iteration of Windows, Microsoft manages to leave all the kinks in, and make it so that you need the heaviest pc money can buy to run it. So a lot of people moan that they’re not going to install this new version, and two years on, when everybody has newer, heavier computers, and Microsoft has patched some of the bugs, all the moaners will be running the new version.)

Knowing things from afar

Here’s a scene from Heijermans’ Diamantstad (Diamond City).

It’s winter and Eli has promised his family food. Having exhausted all possibilities of getting a job for the day, he decides to go and catch fish. On his way to the Amstel river he meets a kid he knows, who asks him what he’s up to.

“I’m looking for a hole in the ice for dead fish.”

“What do you want with dead fish,” the shrill voice of the boy asked.

“Eat!” Eleazar said.

“Damn! What is dead fish good for? I would not eat that…”

“If it is cooked well,” Eleazar said to convince him, “you would fight for a bone!”…

“Dead fish—that stinks.—If you think you can fool me, say, you’d better think again!”

Again Eleazar laughed, shaking the brat that was talking like an old man by his neck.

“Dead fish, stewed with a bit of Vinegar, Jan—you would love that, if it were standing warm in front of you on the table.”

Together they walked on, the man and the limping boy, speaking like friends.

“Have you got a net then?” Jan asked, interested.

“When they come floating to the top you just have to grab them.”

“Float to the top? Float to the top? Damn—they get stuck under the ice!”

“If there’s a hole in the ice they look for air—a fish that cannot breathe will suffocate, just like us…”

“Hee!” the kid screamed, laughing brightly in the morning air. “Hee—a fish suffocating in water, ha ha!”

“You don’t believe it?”

“If you believe it,” the little fellow reasoned, limping heavily in the snow, “they have conned you man—and that’s stupid for such a grown-up guy.”

“Thank you dearly,” Eleazar laughed, brightened by the fresh sounds beside him: “but I think there may be one or two in things in life you and I do not know yet. When a fish does like this”—stopping, he mimicked the movement of gills with his jaws: “when a fish lies flapping on the ground, it tries to breathe—get it?”

Jan thought for a second. Then he orated: “Jeez—they would have a life, out of the water. Do you see they tricked you? When you pull them in on a rod they croak like that—well?—well? How is that possible? The air contains more air than water, right?, in which there is not air at all.”

“In water there’s also air,” Eleazar started to explain, but Jan was instantly on his case.

“…Hee! Hee! Air in water! You’d see bubbles come up all the time. If you blow through an old pipe stem in the water, it almost comes out as quickly as it goes in! You’re just full of it. If I were to shove your head under water, you’d drown. And you wouldn’t drown if there was air down there.”

“Thanks for the lesson,” Eleazar said, cornered, yet trying once again: “and still there’s air in the water, and even if there wasn’t air in it, you find all the same things in water as you find in air—really, Jan…”

“Well I’ll be!” the boy blared out: “if water is air, and air is water, then fish would fly and birds would swim!—Man, they can make you believe anything! You should just let them talk!”

“So why will they float up in the winter?” Eleazar laughed again, though with less vigour this time, because my my, if you knew the world from afar, the first street kid to come along would crush you in debate. “Why do fish die by the thousands when the water is closed?”

“Because,” the kid replied immediately, “because they’re dying from cold, just like the granddad from the bottlemaker from across, whom they found frozen in the cellar.”

“No,” Eleazar said: “down in the water it’s warmer when it’s freezing, just like under the ground.”

“You can say so much!”

“Ask teacher at school.”

“We’re not allowed to ask anything at school, only to put up our hands when you need to piss.”

“Well Jan—it’s true just the way I told you.”

“Boy!” the kid mocked: “Boy! They really pulled the wool over your eyes, I am telling you! If it’s not possible, it’s not possible! If I were a fish I would die of cold too, now…”

(This book—in Dutch—is currently being prepared for Project Gutenberg.)

Going for a walk

I haven’t been hiking for ages. Part of that was because I was busy with work; and on top of that, I tore a muscle in my left calf right after the last job. Scary business, because I did not know what was wrong. I wasn’t really feeling pain, I just could not fully develop my leg, and everytime I walked more than fifty meters (for instance if I went shopping), I’d break out in a sweat and start to limp.

The doctor didn’t sound like he was sure either, but he thought I probably had torn torn a muscle, and he said the condition could take up to six weeks to heal. In my case after four weeks everything already felt fine. So this weekend I decided to take a short walk to the nearby Beatrixpark and back.

The people of Amsterdam have locked up their boats for the winter. When it’s warm you can see boats full of bottles of rosé being sailed through the canals by half-drunk locals, but sailing truly is a summer sport here.

[photo of boats covered with tarpaulins]

I am such a slow student of photography. Part of that is undoubtedly because I have no taste. It has taken me a while to realize that unsharp originals are just not acceptable. And part of the reason I have been taking so many unsharp photos is because this camera really needs a lot of light. Next time I am going to experiment some with using (improvised) camera stands and shorter exposure times. Today I used the flash. I hate the flash, but for the next photo I think it worked quite well, because it pulled the subject into the foreground.

[photo of yellow spindly flowers]

Going home I came across this flower stand on the Olympiaplein. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a flower stand with a see-through door before. It looks a bit like somebody left a teenage boy’s bedroom in the street. It reminded me of the large glass display cases a furniture store had out on the pavement in my city of birth. I used to fantasize about living in one of these.

[photo of a flower stand]

A hymen does not a virgin make

Aletta Jacobs (1854 – 1929) was the first Dutch woman to complete a university education. She had to jump through a number of hoops to get where she got. First she had to get permission to attend classes at a polytechnic. Next she had to get the state’s permission to attend med-school lectures at the university of Groningen, and finally she had to get state permission to take her exams.

After she had finished her education, she became an MD in Amsterdam, where she introduced the diaphragm for birth-control. Contrary to doctors of her time who apparently were prescription engines, she believed in informed patients. Part of getting people to know their own bodies was a well illustrated book she wrote, and that Project Gutenberg recently re-published, called De Vrouw, haar bouw en haar inwendige organen (The woman; her construction and her internal organs). She published it in 1999 so that women could get to know their own bodies better. She felt this was necessary; as she wrote in her introduction:

De schromelijke onbekendheid van velen, zelfs van ontwikkelden, met het kunstig samenstel van hun eigen lichaam heeft mij meermalen getroffen.

Vooral van vrouwen was ik dikwerf getuige van de gebrekkige kennis van het lichaam in het algemeen en van den bouw, de ligging en de verrichting harer geslachtsorganen in het bijzonder.

(I have noted on several occasions that even educated people sometimes don’t know how their own bodies work. Especially women know little about their bodies in general, and little about the way their reproductive organs work.)

As I am wont to do with such books I leafed through this one in the expectation that I would find a heavily self-censored work. I have seen sex-ed texts much younger that would basically boil down to “girls can sleep in, boys need to wake up early so that mother can change their sheets,” and illustrated anatomy books in which the areas that house our reproductive organs were pictured just as blank as central Africa on 19th century maps. But Jacobs, albeit sometimes a bit clinical in tone, did not shy away from discussing sex and reproduction candidly. Her style is looser than you might expect from a 19th-centurier, which makes the book readable even now.

These things alone would have been insufficient for me to spend time discussing this work here if it hadn’t been for a news item I caught on the radio a couple of weeks ago. A hospital in Utrecht had started handing out pills to young muslim women that would help them to simulate bleeding of the hymen on their wedding nights. Apparently there are young men that still believe* that a woman is property, and that an undamaged hymen is a fool proof indicator of virginity. Little do these men know that they themselves are the fools.

But the thing is, no matter how ignorant the argument, you start to make room for it in your mind. You figure that if even today young muslims still think the hymen is an indicator of virginity*, then perhaps our enlightened ideas about female sexuality are relatively new, and they just haven’t reached everybody yet.

Except of course that what we know about the hymen is not so new at all. Jacobs wrote in 1899:

Bij geslachtsgemeenschap of anders bij de eerste baring wordt het hymen vernietigd. Doch ook op andere wijze kan het verloren gaan, zoodat het gemis volstrekt niet aan eerstgenoemde oorzaak behoeft te worden toegeschreven, evenmin als de aanwezigheid een volstrekt bewijs is, dat geen geslachtsgemeenschap plaats greep.

(During sex or otherwise during the first time a woman gives birth the hymen is destroyed. It can however also be lost in other ways, so that a lack of hymen need not be attributed to sex, just like the presence of a hymen is not proof that a women has not had sex.)

*) There is a trap I fell into when I first wrote this, which is that I assumed that the need for such a pill indicates that this is how some young Dutch muslims think. Apparently though it is a tradition in some cultures that the man shows the bloody bed sheet of his wedding night to his parents. The bride may merely be thinking of helping her husband; if the sheet is blood stained, he won’t have to lie to his parents.

The office, April 2007

Pictures I took in and around my office last April.




Back then I didn’t think anybody would want to see photos of the remains of fish fingers, but today I saw an arty photo of a blob of ketchup on a sink on a blog that seemed to suggest otherwise.

Opperlandse taal- & letterkunde online, for free

There are three major e-book projects that make electronic books available for free to the general public in accessible formats (usually HTML, sometimes “plain text”). One is Project Gutenberg, an American project that does not limit itself to English. I am a volunteer there. The second is Project Laurens Jz Coster, named after the Dutchman who stole Gutenberg’s ideas for movable type in order to claim he had invented movable type himself. The third is the Digitale Bibliotheek Nederlandse Letteren.

The latter claims a copyright on texts that are clearly in the public domain: a wholly despicable practice that is morally equivalent to fraud. If I could avoid linking to them, I would. Unfortunately they are jealousy inducingly active, and also have managed to convince many authors and estates to let them publish books that are indeed still in copyright.

One of these books is Battus’ Opperlandse taal- & letterkunde, the definitive book for playfully documenting the many quirks of the Dutch language. Battus is the pseudonym for Hugo Brandt Corstius, a computer linguist who knows how to write. The DBNL publishes the 2nd edition of 1981.

I’ll explain the differences between the three projects in greater detail in a future post, because all three projects have their own distinctive strengths, which it helps to know when you are looking for a certain Dutch classic.


Lost Sjors (Perry Winkle) plot: The Rap

In the early nineties I helped write a couple of Sjors & Sjimmie comics. Sjors is a Dutch phonetic way of writing George; but the character is a spin-off from Perry Winkle, the adopted Buster Brown-like little brother of Winnie Winkle the Breadwinner.

I am still going through some of my old stuff to determine what can be thrown out and what needs to stay in this packrattian palace, and yesterday I came across the first page of a plot that never fully developed. I believe my co-conspirator here was Paul Hoogma. The guy with the elbow-action in the picture below (click it for the full page) is Sjors; I cannot tell you who the other guy is, because he is not in the legal public domain yet.

[Sjors plot cut-out]

The strip was going to have Sjors and his homey become rappers, but it wasn’t much developed beyond that. We were just riffing on a theme we felt might go over well with our audience — I know, art can be brutally commercial when you peel away its thin veneer. The full page contains a number of childish jokes, but I like it that way. It’s half the fun of seeing such a work in progress, and you can tell which panels were going to be replaced in the final version. I remember that I was nervous about the quality of the raps, and that may have been the reason why I could not come up with the ideas to finish the story. Although the more likely reason for that is that we did not have a single idea of the overall story line. In hindsight I don’t think the quality of the rap would have mattered much; ultimately it’s the story that counts.

Sputnik design plans

You can download design plans for the Sputnik, the satellite that kick-started the space race fifty years ago today, at the website of the Arizona Model Aircrafters. The plans exclude the instruments; these are perhaps left as an exercise for the reader.