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 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 as a web developer

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

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

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

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.

Can you hire intelligent people from among the religious?

A Facebook friend regularly points out the evils of religion, although strangely enough only brown religions seem to deserve her scorn. (She vehemently denies that there are any racist motives behind her selection.)

Islam-baiting is of course a fireproof way of working the more enlightened members of your scene into a rage, so when she recently announced that she would never hire a religious person for her company because she only wants smart employees (a type of discrimination that leads to prison sentences in the Netherlands, or would if the Justice Department weren’t such a hive of bigotry itself) the expected debate ensued.

One person flippantly noted that the OP was right to use her syllogism because ‘the religious are rarely intelligent‘. I figured he was bluffing and did some research myself.

Is intelligence rare among the religious?

A lot of recent articles on the internet point to a paper called “Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations” by Richard Lynn et al. It is a bit of dubious paper because it lives behind an Elsevier pay-wall, meaning it gets less public scrutiny than an accessible paper would. Many people appear to have looked at it though, so I decided to take the risk (motivated especially by a free copy floating around on the web).

First we must determine what is meant by religion and intelligence. The study above looks at a great number of other studies into the subject, and many of those determine religiosity by asking people how religious they consider themselves to be.

In the same studies intelligence is often defined by looking at the IQ of subjects. I take it that you are aware of the downsides of using IQ to measure intelligence (if not, look at the wiki). The thing is of course that you need to have some sort of unit of measurement and in many cases IQ will just have to do. The racist bias of IQ was acknowledged in a sideways fashion in the study when it pointed out that religious identification is going to be stronger in countries where the church plays a large social and cultural role. In other words, your numbers are going to be skewed no matter what and ‘needs further study’.

The commenter on Facebook used the word intelligence as a binary word; one is either intelligent or not. I had to guess what he meant, and I went with Lynn et al’s definition of ‘intelligence elites’, which they defined as ‘scientists’. In other words, an intelligent person is somebody above a certain level of intelligence.

So here is what I replied on Facebook:

A negative correlation exists between religiosity and intelligence. […] Lynn et al […] quote a number of US studies from which it appears that almost 40% of all American scientists believe in Jehova. Is that rare?

The negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence is on average 6 IQ points. There are also strong differences between the intelligences of peoples. The Dutch have an average IQ of 100 and 40% of the population is not religious. In Singapore the average IQ is 106 and 13% of the population is not religious. Next time the OP has to hire someone, I suggest—assuming she cares about her company—she hire from among the religious people of Singapore.

As I was writing this blog entry, I had to go back and forth between my translation and the article I’ve been referencing and noticed that the 40% number was from a study from 1921. Later studies had much lower rates of religiosity among scientists, although you could still argue that these didn’t make a religious scientist a rare creature. Also, those studies looked at “eminent scientists” which, assuming there is some objective manner to determine eminence, is yet a higher bar to cross. Even then in 2006 31% of the Fellows of the Royal Society identified themselves as either religious or uncertain.

On the liberation of the postal market

Until 2009 a single company (formerly state owned) had a monopoly on the Dutch snail mail market, to be precise on the delivery of letters and packages lighter than 50 grams. This was widely considered a bad idea and in that year the liberal party managed to get a new postal law passed that made it possible for other companies to deliver mail.

I was one of the fans of the law for all the obvious reasons. Monopolies are a bad thing that damage markets. As it turns out I should have paid more attention to my own blog; when I wrote in 2006 about “the most costly factor: personnel”. Liberating the postal market has led to price competition, which is good, but it has also led to many more companies trying to get a piece of the ever shrinking pie of snail mail. Where there used to be one postman per neighbourhood (usually somebody who had walked that beat for years and was both trustworthy and knowledgeable), now there are many more (often part-timers plucked from a pool where the most important skill is being cheap).

The decreased turnover as a result of a lower mail volume combined and of the higher cost of delivering that same volume had to be compensated somehow, and it would seem that the mail companies simply slashed the salaries of the delivery personnel. Since then the press is rife with stories about postage workers dumping mail in canals, stealing packages, going on strikes and so on.

My suggestion to remedy this situation would be one of two. Either nationalize the expensive part, the delivery (and let the companies buy delivery at a fixed price), or grant the mail companies unique access to neighbourhoods (say: at most three companies operating a neighbourhood). The latter would be not dissimilar to what the government of Iceland did to prevent overfishing. Iceland introduced quotas, making it so that fishing boats would no longer all compete for the same fish.

Newspapers like trolls

OK, so this is not a well thought-out hypothesis and if you prodded a little I’d probably admit that I do not believe in this, but still: newspapers adore trolls.

Here’s what I observed. In the early days of letting people comment online underneath newspaper articles (was this when the papers feared they had to compete with blogs?), a lot of the time you could respond pseudonymously. Then after some time the papers would force you to register and log in. They said this was to stem the tide of trolls. Except this can hardly be true; trolls play a bigger part in online newspaper comment sections than ever before.

Maybe, you’ll say, this is just human nature. Maybe everybody acts like a pig when they can hide behind a mask. The thing is, I know enough blogs that run a tight ship in their comments sections, making sure discussions stay on topic and insult-free. Unlike the aforementioned newspapers these blogs are run by amateurs with much less disposable time.

Your second argument could be that just because newspapers haven’t figured out how to stop trolls, doesn’t mean they like them. So I need a second hypothesis to answer this: newspapers benefit from trolls (and that is why they like them). If you have trolls, it means you are going to get angry retorts. Trolls are very effective in letting people stay longer at a newspaper’s website which in turn means that people are exposed for a longer time to newspapers’ advertisements.

Cory Doctorow says: no more inCaps!

Cory Doctorow wants to stop using weirdly spelled brand names:

This year, I resolve to minimize my use of incaps when writing about commercial products and companies. An incap changes a word into a logo, and has no place in journalism or commentary — it’s branding activity that colonizes everyday communications. It’s free advertising.

So: “Iphone,” not “iPhone” and “Paypal,” not “PayPal.”

When I was blogging for Teleread (or is it: TeleRead?) I did the same. In fact, I may have even normalized my spelling of brand names back in the 1990s when I was an editor for c’t (marvel at the irony).

At some point I gave up the practice for reasons I cannot quite remember, but it may simply have been because iPhone is actually easier to read than Iphone, and once you give up the latter it becomes increasingly difficult to defend other instances of normalized capitalization.

Doctorow has got a list of exceptions that weaken the effect he’s after, but at least it will be him who determines which companies will get freebies and which won’t.

Do we prefer our biomass as gorgeous reef or as Australians?

A footnote from Maciej Ceglowski’s post on the Australian rain forrest:

Farmers and fishermen in Australia test the limits of human empathy. While I was in Cairns, for example, controversy ranged around the recent extension of the Great Barrier Reef marine park, opponents arguing that the expanded ban on fishing would harm the Cairns fishing industry, and proponents arguing that that was the whole goddamn point. If it were up to Australian farmers and fishermen, the Great Barrier Reef would be processed into bags of fish meal, the fish meal spread as fertilizer on land obtained by clearing the remaining rainforest, the fertilized land used to grow sugar, and the sugar used as raw material for some of the least appetizing desserts in the world. The fundamental question is this: do we prefer our biomass in the form of gorgeous reef and rain forest ecosystems, or Australians?