My bullies are not your bullies

When I was much younger and in elementary school, I got beaten up daily—or so it feels 40 years later. In reality it was probably regularly but not every day.

Having largely outgrown being bullied in my teens (which is a thing that ran parallel to the other kids outgrowing bullying, I have no illusions in that respect), I accepted an elementary school reunion invite when I was 18.

The reunion was a congenial affair with everybody getting along just fine, but I was struck by the absence of a group of people. So I asked the organiser, a woman who as a child seemed to have gotten along with pretty much everybody in school, why certain former class mates weren’t there. Hadn’t they been interested? “But they were bullies!” came the shocked reply. Why would they invite bullies? Why indeed? Several of the people that were present at the reunion had been my bullies.

The uninvited kids shared another distinction, in that they had appeared to come from poor and dysfunctional backgrounds. My ex-bullies at the party, on the other hand, came from better strata.

I am not saying the organiser discriminated consciously against class. Quite the contrary. The uninvited kids had done the unthinkable, they had bullied everybody. Which, and you may find this interesting, immediately turned them into better people in my eyes, because they had not just picked on me. It hadn’t been personal. Bullying had been just their thing.

This memory popped into my head when the whole Zwarte Piet debate first got underway, before it got hijacked by racists and Zwarte Piet haters alike.

List of possible disadvantages of a NAS

I have two work computers in my home office—one a desktop PC and one laptop—and I thought it would be nice if both had access to the same set of files.

Late 2016 I looked a little into setting up my own file server, but in the end I went to a store and bought a NAS, a network drive. Just like a printer you connect to the drive through the network, but unlike a printer it doesn’t have it’s own port. Ideally your OS pretends the NAS is just a drive hanging off the computer and ideally the OS deals with the nitty gritty of actually making the drive behave like that.

In the end I bought the Synology DS215j and two hard disks. Installation was straight-forward enough that I don’t remember anything about it. I had found the Synology by looking on at what appeared to be well-regarded brands and models.

A year later I had removed the NAS from my company’s books because things were just not working out.

So what are, from my perspective, the disadvantages of a NAS (specifically the Synology DS-xx) for the use of an office file server?

TL/DR: network abstraction only partially achieved, data loss may occur.

– The NAS tries to connect to the internet by itself and without my permission to do god knows what. I realise this is par for the course in our VC fueled, neo-liberal paradise, but I am an old geezer who remembers the day in which devices worked for him instead of the other way around.

– When you haven’t used the NAS for a while and need data, it takes a few seconds to start up. It is not instantaneous, like a hard disk is.

– On the other hand, sometimes you are not using the NAS but it nevertheless fires up all by itself (maybe the OS needs it for something).

– When you wake the OS, you have lost your connection to the NAS.

– You can easily reconnect, but not all application software remembers these lost connections. For example, if you had a certain folder open on the NAS in Windows Explorer, the latter will not always return there, but instead show the My Computer folder.

This is not a review, nor a critique of Synology, nor is it complete. I jotted down the above notes because I was evaluating the NAS. Specifically I wanted to know if it could be properly used in my business, and what I was particularly interested in were its failure modes.

I have ‘sold’ the NAS to myself (strictly a matter of bookkeeping). As a personal, non-business device it seems to work quite well. I use it to keep photos, movies and TV series on. I stream these to my private laptop when I want to watch something in bed.

Maybe I could have set the NAS up to be always on and maybe I could have convinced Windows to keep the network connection up, but in the end it was too much bother. I simply do not need to transfer files between systems often enough to justify all this bother. YMMV.

Facebook Location Spam


If you check in at a location on Facebook or enter the location for a photo, there is a chance that you will end up linking to spam.

The main reason for this is that Facebook is crap and the people who make Facebook are idiots, but I say this in anger after hacking spam out of my photo albums for 2 hours straight, so I will acknowledge that this is perhaps not the most constructive of explanations. Let me elucidate.

When you try and enter a location in Facebook, the site helpfully offers you a number of suggestions based on the part of the location name you have entered so far. This is not an exhaustive list, i.e. Facebook makes a selection of locations it is going to suggest. If the name of the location is not in the list, you get the option to ‘Just use’ the name you just entered.

In some of Facebooks forms, you get the option to Add Place. This takes you to a new form in which you can enter some information about the place you just added, including its address. Facebook does not remember what you added last time, so if you have to fix hundreds of photos, you have to fill out thousands of fields (hence me just wasting two hours).

But suppose you are a spamming low-life piece of scum (watch your contaminations, Branko!) and you have somehow managed to automate part of this process, you now have found yourself a way to storm the top of the list of location suggestions. At least, that is how I assume this works. It would make little sense for Facebook to suggest obscure locations, so I assume they automatically suggest popular locations, opening them up to attacks by spammers who have the time, the energy and the tools to game this system.

Presumably, the more people like and check in at these scam locations, the more popular these false locations get.

The screenshot illustrates how I have started typing ‘Sporthal’ – Dutch for sports venue – and as you see, Facebook suggests 8 locations. Of those, 3 have been hijacked by spammers, all of which show up in the top 4 (you can tell by the fact they share the same logo).

I have no idea how these scammers manage to hijack locations so completely. They take over both the profile photo and the cover photo and manage to be the only ones to have posting rights. The cover photo seems to be something that a person can suggest for a location, but the other two items aren’t.

I know of at least one location (Sporthal Oranjeplein in The Hague) where there was a somewhat well used, somewhat maintained real location page that was then ‘merged’ with the spam location. Meaning, if you somehow managed to find a link to the original location page and clicked it, Facebook would automatically redirect you to the spam page. In those cases Facebook will helpfully tell you it has merged pages and offer you a way to report an incorrect merge.

This is also useful in cases where locations have been merged with automatically created pages – case in point, links in photo albums leading to Utrecht Disaster (a roller skating hall) now all lead to an auto-generated page about the Heysel Stadium disaster. You can report the mismerge – as useful as pressing a pedestrian crossing call button I imagine.

So what is the problem? Is there a problem? I mean, I hate spammers and all that, but in the end it is my choice to add a location to my photos, and it is my fault if I don’t properly look at the location I add.

The mismerges are problematic in this respect, because I could link to a proper location only to find out years later that the link is now redirecting to spam.

I also imagine that if locations can be hijacked by spammers, they can be hijacked by phishers and other criminals with more insidious designs.

I don’t know of a way to fix this. Facebook does not want to hire people to add and manage locations, so this is always going to be a problem. It could disable locations altogether, but having people share where they have been and what they have done together, happens to be one of its most attractive qualities. Adding the ability to report spam, assuming Facebook would actually follow up on such reports, might help, but I can think of several drawbacks. For one, Facebook (and similar social media services) is known for selectively listening to its users. Why would I report something if I believe they wont listen anyway. The other problem is that this turns the whole battle over locations in one between two powerful factions (Facebook on the one hand, spammers on the other) in which the regular user is less and less likely to be heard.

Facebook’s problem is a conceptual one. It wants locations to be somewhat community managed, but ignores the fact that the community contains many bad actors.

There is a very simple thing they could have done for my specific problem, though. As I am typing the name of the venue where I have taken my photos, progressively less and less suggestions appear. This makes sense in a world where there is only one location called Sporthal Oranjeplein (staying with my previous example), but Facebook knows of several. Would it be too confusing to show more than one?

Romerhuis, Venlo

I was born in one of the oldest surviving houses in Venlo, the Romerhuis, which also happens to be the first house in the oldest street of the city, the Jodenstraat.

The Romerhuis was built around 1490 in late Gothic style. By the 20th century the building had lost lots of its charm. The step gable had been removed, white gunk had been smeared on the front and the sides, and windows and doors had been changed.


In 1939 city architect Jules Kayser started the two-year restoration of the building, and then the war happened. Allied troops kept trying to bomb the bridges over the river Meuse, but missed time and again. All the buildings around Romer House were flattened and the building itself took severe damage.

The allied managed to destroy most of Venlo, including many historical buildings, but they had to leave the destruction of the bridges to retreating Nazis.


In 1950 the house was restored again, and this time the restoration took.


More photos, see here.

(Photos: Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, CC-BY-SA; Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, CC-BY-SA; Branko Collin, CC-BY-SA; respectively.)

Retro computing scene alive and kicking

It started with this 2014 Commodore 64 demo music by Pex “Mahoney” Tufvesson. If you were to follow that link (please come back!), you would hear an indiscriminate collection of bleeps and grunts. You will have to take my word for it that these bleeps and grunts are in some ways better than any assortment of bleeps and grunts that came before on this machine.

It was a bit like coming across a band that you had thought had split up in the nineties, but not only were they still together, they were producing some of their best music ever. Stumbling upon the retro computing scene was a very pleasant surprise.

And it turned out there was a lot more to it than late advances in SID programming technology (SID is the name of the sound chip in the Commodore 64).

Until then—then being a few weeks back—I had thought the retro scene was mostly about looking back – like in 2008 when Martijn Koch built this interpretation of the 1971 arcade game Computer Space – or about carefully preserving a couple of machines while spare parts were slowly dying out.

Turns out there is quite a bit more to it.

  • New Amigas are being made, specifically the X1000 and the X5000.
  • You can now buy generic computers (so-called FPGAs) which can then become whichever machine you like.
  • And of course there are software emulators.
  • The Commodore 64 demo scene still turns out dozens of demos a year.
  • Fresh games are being made.
  • 8-bit hackers give hour long talks on the Commodore 64’s hardware to packed rooms.
  • There are several retrogamers vodcasting on YouTube.
  • Last year the party for the Commodore Amiga’s 30th birthday in Amsterdam drew 400 people.
  • People still use their 8-bit and 16-bit computers for proper gaming.
  • Some musicians use double, triple or even more SIDS to make their chiptunes with the original hardware. (Bonus link uses one SID.)
  • A variant of the CPU of the C64 is still being made by one of its original creators.

You could consider the FPGAs as blank silicon upon which you imprint the hardware from a long ‘dead’ 8-bit or 16-bit computer by loading that design from an SD card. The Mist FPGA even has two Atari joystick ports, as were used on Atari and Commodore computers in the 1980s, and a MIDI interface. Quite frankly at about 250 euro (300+ if you want your computer preloaded), that’s a sexy bit of kit if you don’t mind me saying so.

Sometimes games programmers use their skills (and our modern knowledge of old computers) to right old wrongs. The 1984 port of the Ghosts ‘n Goblins arcade game did not contain all the elements of the original, so last year somebody turned that old port into a version that appears to have everything from the arcade game (see screenshot).


The Amiga’s birthday party wasn’t just held in Amsterdam, there were parties in Germany, the UK, Australia and USA (and more?).

So why are people still using these old machines and in some cases even returning to them? The reason is no doubt nostalgia. Computers back then were manageable. A single person could know what was going on in a MOS 6502 and share that information with others.

And also we now have the internet and we have development tools that we can use outside the target machine. I started coding a little in my Commodore 64 emulator, first using the slow BASIC language, then after I got frustrated switching to assembler (using JASM). If I were to do this programming on my old 64 (which is stashed away somewhere in the attic), that would be quite cumbersome. I’d have to save and load intermediate versions of my program from and to tape and that would take quite a while.

But I can now use my much faster Windows machine and the superior developer tools I have on it to do my coding; testing is just a matter of loading the result into my emulator.

What is more, groups of developers can use git repositories to share their code and chat rooms to talk to each other. Information not only gets stored inside programs, but gets shared between developers. (To be honest, both the 8-bit and the 16-bit computers had wonderful, dedicated magazines which also contained a lot of knowledge about how to develop for these devices, including the Dutch Amiga Magazine for which I wrote as a freelancer.)

Finally, knowledge gets added to. If you check the “8-bit hackers” link above, you can see at the start of the talk the difference between how well the Commodore 64 was understood at the beginning and at the end of its 10-year life (which, by the way, is an insanely long time for a single model to be produced).

Procrastination is my posse

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.

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

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

Last Saturday was the first time ever King’s Day was celebrated in the Netherlands, but nobody had to teach us anything because the festivities were 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.


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:


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.

A quick iPad review

Apple iPad (iPad 2)

As it happens all the four things I don’t like about my Apple iPad manifested themselves within a few minutes of each other today and they also helped to highlight what a cool little device it is, so I figured it was time for a quick review.

The Apple iPad has replaced a great many items in my house, or it would have if I owned them. It has replaced the TV guide, a number of cookbooks, the weather report on TV, the laptop on the couch for looking up stuff on Wikipedia and so on. It has not replaced the laptop for viewing movies, simply because at 16 GB it has too little storage. (Maybe if I could stream stuff off a wireless media server, but I’ve too little need for such a beast.)

Maybe it would or would not replace a smart phone, but a smart phone only really comes into place when you have a need for an expensive subscription, which I don’t. I don’t even have a mobile phone subscription, and my land line subscription is increasingly becoming an artifact from olden times, like those 19th century irons people used to collect in the 1970s—I never call anybody and I use Skype when I do.

So there you have a limited lay-out of my private electronics needs.

The actual reason I own an iPad is for my business. I use it as device to test websites on and I use it as a note taking tool. I still use a paper notebook for important and private notes (less easy to hack and doesn’t break down as easily), but everything else goes onto the iPad and then Dropbox. I also use the iPad to carry my portfolio around. If I were a graphics artist it would probably be too small for this (although it might be a good back-up?).

If I didn’t already own one for my business, I’d get one (or something like it) for private use.

Which brings me to the irritants, one plus three.

The big downside of the Apple iPad (and presumably unique to this brand) is that it is very much what people call a ‘walled garden’. The device is a gateway to a store for software and media. It comes with a couple of relatively useful applications, but if you want anything more you have to head to the iTunes store. Apple makes very much sure that all software must be offered via their store. You may offer software for free, but as a developer you still have to jump through all of Apple’s hoops. One thing that makes it so your application won’t get through Apple’s vetting process is if your application allows other applications to bypass Apple’s vetting process. The result is that the free (as in free of cost) software ecosystem on the iPad isn’t nearly as rich as it could be. (For comparison, most of the software I use on my business PC is FOSS.)

For a cheapskate like me who doesn’t mind wasting hours of his time looking for free offerings this is still a problem but can be a minor one. For all normal people though, if you want the iPad for your home, consider getting a credit card first so that you can give Apple more money (they take a percentage off the top for apps sold through their store).

The three minor irritants:

  • The (rather expensive) power cable breaks down in no time (and the non-replaceable battery deteriorates pretty quickly, so you need that cable).
  • Apple backs up the contents of your iPad to one (and only one!) computer and if the hard disk of your computer crashes (as happened to me the other day) it will delete everything on your iPad the next time you try and synchronize it with that one PC!
  • The (also rather expensive and optional) cover develops a looseness over time. Since the cover doubles as an off-switch, this means you can drain your battery without noticing it (you’ll believe the iPad is sleeping when it’s not).

I won’t say the iPad (or tablets like it) are indispensable, but they are pretty nifty. They are as light and easy to handle as a not-too-heavy magazine and are exactly for that reason a drop-in replacement mostly for magazines (assuming you have Wifi and can get the content online).

I find note-taking to work very well once you’ve installed the right applications. I use MoApp’s myTexts Lite for texts and neuNotes for anything involving drawing. There are undoubtedly better note-taking apps, but the Lite version of myTexts already comes pretty close and in fact has some pretty nifty features which you would hope all note app producers would copy, such as a much improved keyboard.

Apple’s model is one of razors and blades, except that they charge a premium for both (because they can). One would hope they’d fix the minor irritants in later versions of the iPad, though from what I’ve seen so far they haven’t bothered.

This of course brings us to the following question. If you are not a web developer who simply needs the Apple iPad, would you buy something else?

(This is still a draft because I need to get back to work. I’ll iron out the typos later.)

Rating by brankl: 4 stars

On photography how-tos

Photography, simply the technical side of it, is still a bit of a struggle to me.

There are too many settings to keep track of. For instance, aperture (the size of the lens opening), shutter speed and sensor sensitivity determine exposure; exposure, sensor resolution, lens resolution, focus, camera movement and subject movement determine sharpness; and so on.

By the time I have figured out what I need, my subject will have left. Even in landscape photography you often don’t have much time because the sun keeps moving (and clouds before it).

Then there is the fact that for a lot of types of photography you should expect to only get a couple of ‘keepers’, photos good enough to publish as a ratio of all the pictures you took.

That one took a while to wrap my brain around, too. It’s one of the blessings of the digital era that we can take as many photos as we want, that we are no longer bound by the physical limitations of film, which takes up space. I mean, I get the immediate, rational, in-your-face idea behind it, but when I have a camera in my hand I still feel that every shutter button press should count, and feel a sense of failure when it doesn’t.

Modern sports photography (spray and pray) is a clear example of this type, however I have also found that when photographing bees and bumblebees that setting my expectation of the amount of keepers low (1 in 20) helps to ward off frustration.

(Number of keepers refers to successful exposures, not to good pictures. That number is much, much lower. Well, it is in my case.)

But to me the most important discovery was that if you can categorise the sort of photography you are going to do (street, sports, nature, cars, bugs, what have you), there are often dozens of tutorials on the web that will tell you how to approach the subject. What settings you need to get which photo. I guess a good photographer would find it easy to work these out by herself, but I find it easier to ask the internet for help and try and get on with taking (hopefully) interesting pictures myself.

  • Derby photography, freezing the subject:
    • Expect 2 in 5 keepers.
    • 1/250 or faster (you’ll still get motion blur).
    • With modern camera technology you’re going to use F2.8 or ‘faster’ apertures, and high ISOs.
    • If shooting with a DSLR (and for this type of photography you should), set to continuous shooting and subject tracking (AI-Servo on Canon cameras).
    • ‘Freezing’ the subject doesn’t work well for high octane sports such as derby. You’ll get a lot of in-between-the-action shots. Consider ditching photography altogether and switching to video.
  • Motion (that stripey effect):
    • Expect 1 in 10 keepers (practice helps)?
    • Set shutter speed to 1/60 or 1/125, and track the subject with your camera.
  • Photographing bridges:
  • Rain:

And so on.

Not every tutorial is of the same quality, but approach like you would any web page. If it looks the page is there more to generate eyeballs for advertisements than to enlighten you, move to the next search engine hit.

Settings, at least those for exposure, can also be gleaned from a photo’s EXIF data. Flickr has a menu to show you these, although many photographers blank them before uploading. Still, you only need EXIF data of a couple of good photos to be on your way.