Sunday, January 29, 2012

Moving along

After much consideration, I've decided to formally move into the world of freelance work. I've been getting "ithcy feet" for a while, actually--it's what happens when your job can be done by a few trained monkeys, until something goes disastrously wrong (which happens more often than my boss would think, apparently). And also, the financial situtation in the sciences has only gotten worse, and as of March I will be officially unemployed again.

However, until that happens, I will be using the time to set up my own company, and Karel will be delighting in that holy-of-all-holies, the pass to the Makro (Dutch equivalent of a Costco) which I would receive automatically as a small business owner. And of course, drumming up business, post-business. There's a vet visit somewhere in there, too--blood panels and yearly checkups.

So basically, this is a shameless plug for photography gigs. If you or someone you know of is hosting a gathering where they want pics; or if you want photos of something or somewhere or someone, shoot me an email. My sample pics are all over the blog, so if you like the work that I've done and would like me to do it for you, let me know.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Friday Night Light

I'm not an especially literary person. My favorite books tend to be nonfiction, and I'm having a helluva time slogging through Murakami's 1Q84. The fault might be mine--I tend not to like overly "literary" literature, preferring books that just tell a story and tell it well (Justin Cronin's The Passage is a great one). I am therefore, despite my prolific blogging habits, less than inclined to try my hand at poetry.

Doesn't mean I don't enjoy poetry, though. The rhythm and flow of words lulls you into a trance and you connect with the material on an emotional level that poets spend years trying to capture, and English teachers spend years trying to teach. So when our dichter friend invited us to come see him perform his poetry at Nijmegen's Dichternacht, I couldn't wait to go. Plus, my Dutch has finally gotten to the point where I could probably understand most of the poets, provided that nobody mumbled. And as a bonus, I could try my hand at shooting people. With my camera, that is.

It was an interesting night, full of explosive, amusing, interesting readings. I did not understand most of it--too full of Dutch-isms, I guess--but you could get the gist of the poems from the tone: meditations on the seasons, life, love, and medications, and wordplay. Something I never could understand about poetry readings, though, is the need to perform the piece. There were a few poems that needed it, but by and large I've always felt that a poem should speak for itself--if you need to gussy it up with shouting or whispers, to sing a part of it, or to read it the way Kenneth Brannagh reads Shakespeare, in order to get your point across, mayhaps you ought to choose better words, or use better punctuation. That being said, there were a few poems that were improved by foot-stomping and added rhythms, but it should be noted that the guy was a musician before he became a poet, and therefore knew what he was doing.

The Dutch are keen to preserve their language and enjoy being artsy, so the Cafe Otis was packed with people. True to the Dutch fashion, there weren't enough seats for everyone--oh hell, there were pratcially no seats for anyone--and the bar consisted of a single long shelf of multi-colored bottles. Never mind that the Dutch language isn't really suited for poetry--the hard "g" breaks up the ebbs that the rest of the words have lulled you into. It's like having a random cymbal crashes during Smetana's Die Moldau. Working that particular phoneme into a poem so that it sounds organic is, I would imagine, the challenge of Dutch poetry.

The other aspect about poetry nights that I find particularly irksome, as a photographer, is the god-awful lighting. I knew, going in, that it would be low lighting--these sorts of things always take place in the gloom of semi-darkness. I hadn't expected it to take place with red lights, though (reddish, not pure red, but still annoying as bugger-all). Which is why today's posts are black-and-white--I didn't think human-shaped tomatoes would be much appreciated.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Pot and Kettle

Visitors to our humble abode will notice two things: 1) that we have a lot of candles and things that operate with an open flame, and 2) that our cats are allowed to do just about anything, under the theory that, were we not home, they'd do it anyway. How the two have managed to coexist without creating a towering inferno is one of those little miracles of life.

But despite our propensity for fire, we do have an electric kettle. An electric kettle is basically a kettle whose sole function is to boil water. You fill it up to whatever amount you need (usually around 1 L for us), push a button, and about 2 minutes later, you have boiling hot water you can use for tea, ramen noodles, cooking, etc. It takes about 5 minutes to boil a full kettle (1.7 L), but ours is one of the lower-end models. The kettle turns itself off when it's finished. It's been such an integral part of my life that, like my sneakers, I've simply not thought to blog about them. But as I do follow a few American blogs, it struck me that these must not be espeically popular in the US, whereas they are incredibly popular in the Netherlands. I don't know of a single Dutch home without one, and I'd even go so far as to say that, across the entirety of Europe, every home has at least one electric kettle. Even in my student house in Maastricht, my suitemates kept an electric kettle in the kitchen, free for anybody to use.

I'm guessing that there are some not-entirely-unjustified concerns about safety. Water and electricity have always been an uncomfortable mix for most people. However, I would say without hesitation that, given the placement of our microwave, and the fiddliness of our gas stove, that the electric kettle is one of our safer appliances. Right next to the coffee machine, literally, where ours sits. To be quite honest, it does make some pretty scary sounds while it's bringing water to the boil, but I've never seen one, no matter how old, go on the fritz.

Or maybe it's that there's no way to sexy-up an electric kettle. You can give it whatever shape you want, make it out of titanium, add a filter, brag about how compact it is, but at the end of the day, you have to make it so that you push a button and water is boiled. It's so simple, compared to a space-age microwave or a state-of-the-art dishwasher, that I could imagine that it'd be hard to market: "It boils water! Really fast!" "So?"

Hm. That is kind of hard to sell. I guess it's one of those things you have to experience first, before you realize what an awesome thing it is.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Test Tube Tomatoes

Those of you who read science journals on a regular basis have probably seen this study, which demonstrates that microRNAs from your food can end up in your bloodstream, and that miRNAs from your food can affect the way you process fats (and presumably other things, but LDLs were what the paper looked at). It's a long, highly technical paper (even for me) and like any good science paper, it raises more questions than it answers: can miRNAs from animals do the same thing? How much plant material does one have to ingest before miRNAs show up in your blood? I don't work with miRNA, so I don't have the expertise to say whether their conclusions were justified. But it is, literally, food for thought.

One thing the paper did not mention was genetically modified organisms. Yet, somehow, a writer decided the two must be linked, and consequently wrote up this non sequitur. Now, obviously, GMOs have miRNAs that can affect your body. SO DOES EVERY OTHER KIND OF FOOD. But apparently the threat of GMOs is so great that this bit of science, as new as it is, should be considered as proof that GMOs are dangerous.

Now, I maintain that GMOs are no different from your average, run-of-the-mill end result of selective breeding, and that given all of the weird things we do with food, a couple of new proteins is the least of our worries. It's strange, isn't it, that foodies worship Ferrian Adria and the things he does with food--vaporizing a tomato, things like that. Yet the moment someone says they modified something--genetically or otherwise (as if nature gives a sh*t where the gene comes from)--everybody freaks out about how dangerous it is and that this is "unknown territory".

But anyway, that's just me. The fact is that it doesn't really matter what I think--the EU forbids the sale of GMOs to consumers, and the use of such products in our consumer goods. And while I'm not entirely pro-GMO (I think the technology could use a lot more oversight in how it's implemented), I'm not rabidly against it. Like I said, we do weird things to food, and treat it as a gourmet item. Foie gras is the end result of a disease we induce in geese--and yet it's only available at the most upscale restaurants.

There is one thing worse than not enough funding for the sciences, and that is scaremongering by uneducated journalists with respect to the conclusions that can be drawn by the research they are writing about. It would have been fair to say that the findings of the paper mean that we will have to evaluate our relationship with food more carefully. It would even have been fair to speculate that Monsanto and other Big Agriculture corporations might have to re-evaluate their claims of total safety for GMOs. But to conclude that the research means that miRNAs in GMOs are different from that of regular food (which would not be the case--if they are different it is because they are introduced, and as far as I know nobody has done this with plants) and are therefore somehow more dangerous is extrapolating a step too far. Scaring people with the idea that Big Agriculture is somehow going to kill you with their mutant tomatoes is just plain irresponsible.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

More than Herring

Those of you who are thinking of visiting and/or living in the Netherlands have probably gotten the idea that it's a drug- and prostitution-paradise. I hope that this blog has dispelled at least some of that image, although even I must grudgingly concede that the Damrak will win the battle for the Netherlands' projected image, simply because it is so popular.

And how could it not be? The Velorama in Nijmegen, while fun and fascinating and undervisited, can't possibly hold a torch to the promise of kinkiness-to-come in Amsterdam's Sex Museum. And who doesn't want to be photographed next to Samuel L. Jackson, Madonna, President Obama, and other interesting (or not-so) of our time? Amsterdam sports team Ajax, a Waterstone's for English-speakers, and didn't get the living sh*t bombed out of it in the 40's. And whatever charms Nijmegen and it's surrounding areas might have, the spelling and pronunciation are probably a put-off to would-be visitors.

At the very least, then, I hope to have shown that the Netherlands is, believe-it-or-not, bigger than Amsterdam, and that there's a whole slew of funny and interesting things about the Dutch that you might not get if you've just been accosted by a pimp. And those of you who are looking for something less R-rated to do in Amsterdam might just consider the theater.

Dutch theater is surprsingly vibrant, which in itself is interesting considering how few people understand Dutch (relative to, say, Chinese or English). You could be forgiven for wondering whether people who speak other languages might be feeling left out while the actors on stage gesticulate and, well, act. To that end, the Toneelgroep Amsterdam has started projecting English subtitles (well, considering that the screen is above the stage, I suppose they're more accurately called "supertitles") above their Thursday-evening shows. The boventiteling is still in it's initial stages, to see if they can't get generate more interest and support in the arts. I met with their publicity coordinator when she asked me to write something about their group--and yes, they are indeed that big that they need a publicity coordinator. It's a core group of 20 actors (some of whom are also famous for being on TV--Barry Atsma, for instance), with some guest actors and some understudies. They play 350 nights of the year in Amsterdam and other cities around the Netherlands and the world, performing plays by international as well as Dutch playrights.

A resurgent interest in the arts couldn't come at a better time: over the past few years, the Dutch in general and Amsterdam in particular have gotten tired of the "hash and whores" image of the Netherlands, and are trying to rein it in. I honestly think they'd rather stamp it out altogether, but as in all things typically Dutch, the need for consensus as to how to go about it outweighs any sense of urgency to do anything about it. A revival of the arts and theatrical night life can only help.

*Disclaimer: I did not receive any payment, in kind or otherwise, for writing this. This was written purely as a favor for a cause I support. Say what you will about the NEA and the uselessness of art--that we humans have a concept of beauty needs to be celebrated, otherwise we're just another animal.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


This fascinating article in Slate disucsses two factors of public transit: "system", defined as the physical and operational infrastructure; and "empathy", meaning cultural "texture", although I tend to think of it as anything about public transit that doesn't refer to the infrastructure. It's safe to say that Dutch public transit is a high system and high empathy system (yes, I know I used "system" twice in one sentence): you have a thorough public transit system servicing a great range of neighborhoods, relatively frequent services, and the trains/buses/trams/subways are, for the most part, not terribly uncomfortable, and clean. Dutch readers of OLI who wish to take me to task for the last should go visit Philadelphia's public transit system. Our litter boxes after three days are pristine compared to some of the...ah, stuff, that you can see on the subways.

Why is public transit so wonderful in Europe and yet so...well, shoddy in the States? Even the best public transit systems that I've seen (the Metro systems in DC and New York) are bare-bones compared to the worst of the Dutch NS (the older cars they run between Utrecht and Weesp). The easy answer is that public transit is an afterthought in the minds of most people--they have cars. But most people in the Netherlands have cars, as well--in this respect, Karel and I are in the minority 10% of family units who do not own at least one car. The parking lot of the nearby Albert Heijn is consistently filled to the brim on Saturdays, falsifying the statement "All Dutch people ride bikes".

But the buses are simultaneously crowded on Saturdays, and the trains are packed with travelers at all hours of the day. This is, in part, because the files (traffic jams) can be long enough to make a short delay by the NS worthwhile, and parking can be a pain. Briefly, while the door-do-door time of a trip by train versus a trip by car is theoretically the same according to Google, it must be countered by the possibility of a long traffic jam and the cost of parking. Which is also not cheap, and can be quite a walk from where you need to get to.

European cities, in other words, have gamed the system to work against drivers. Timing traffic lights so that cars have to stop at every other block, eliminating streets available for parking, and marginalizing parking structures all serve one thing: to keep cars out of key areas of pedestrian traffic. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Dutch don't have cars, if you looked at Nijmegen's city center on a Saturday. Or Utrecht. Or Amsterdam's tourist hot spots. I don't know if the Dutch have gone out of their way to time traffic lights, but I am fairly certain that the buses that service Nijmegen communicate with some of the traffic lights, so that they don't have to be like all of the other chumps cars and wait their turn.

But more importantly, the public transportation system in Europe tends to make more sense than it does in the US. Trains go to where people are--where there are fewer people, there is less service. This bit of intuition seems to have escaped the powers-that-be at SEPTA, who have plunked train stations at places as odd as Rosslyn, which is literally in the middle of nowhere. The scheduling systems are quick to load and easy to follow--why anybody should even bother loading a timetable to their website these days baffles me (SEPTA)--and all of the information, fares, times, stops, are available at one glance. The Dutch are not exceptional at public transit, although after having suffered SEPTA for three years, it certainly feels that way. They've just done a better job of adapting to how people actually use transit, rather than expecting people to adapt to them.

People in the US, on the other hand, don't use transit. It startled me to learn, for instance, that for the majority of Disneyworld visitors, their encounter with Disney's trams and buses were their first with "public" transit. A public that doesn't use public transportation can't provide information for how to make service better; a service that can't make service better can't attract the public to use it. The public, not having seen any benefits for having a good public transit system in place, therefore refuses to pay taxes to ensure its survival. And things only get worse.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

...and this is why the world thinks Americans are idiots

Being somewhat of a sadist, I've been following the Republican primary pretty closely, moaning and groaning with every idiot (Bachmann) that rose to prominence--and sobbing with every idiot (Perry) that replaced them. There are only three remotely intelligent candidates in the primaries as of this point--one of them is a sleazy politician that will say just about anything to get your vote (Romney), one is a sociopath (Gingrich), and one of them...well, Hunstman actually isn't so bad, but he doesn't have a snowflake's chance in hell. Why not, you may ask?

Because if speaking French bas become a liability for Romney, then Hunstman, who speaks reasonable (albeit very basic) Mandarin, is totally and completely f*cked.

No, I don't pretend to understand why Americans find it so unsettling that someone should be able to speak more than one language. I mean, when signs and official papers are bilingual (English and Spanish) and you can go your entire life without hearing a word of English in some neighborhoods, it kind of implies that learning another language might be a good idea. I attribute this to a perverted kind of patriotism: it's the only way, in a very real sense, to tell friend fom foe. Alas, it also means that you keep yourself an ignorant fool.

Which I don't actually have a problem with: learning a new language is hard, and I can understand why people don't want to learn Tonkinese or Hindi. But what I do have a problem with is when the Gingrich campaign takes a video of Mitt Romney asking the Olympic Committee something on behalf of the volunteers (I can't remember that much French), putting some text underneath it, and expecting people to believe that the text has anything to do with the words coming out of Romney's mouth. I don't know what's more insulting: the fact that Gingrich thinks that people will fall for it just because it's French, or the fact that someone out there will fall for it.

I continue to be flabbergasted that ignorance and stupidity are selling points for political candidates in the US, even as President Obama (and just about every other intellectual out there) touts innovation and brains as being the way forward out of the rut that the economy is currently in. I suppose it's a good thing the US has institutions such as Harvard and the Ivies, because the rest of the country isn't giving me much to be proud of.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Koningin Conundrum

Life in the Netherlands is, usually for the better, pretty damn quiet. I say this because on Monday, Queen Beatrix went to Abu Dhabi and got photographed wearing a headscarf...and the flak hasn't stopped since. Immediately after the pictures were posted, Geert Wilders (yes, that Geert, Dutch-directness-become-@$$hole-ishness-personified) begain ripping on Her Majesty for "endorsing a symbol of inequality and oppression." (Approximate translation)

It is times like this that I find myself wishing for a bit of "real" news--y'know, like heads of state conspiring to teach Intelligent Design as science. Something good and proper to get riled up about, rather than this nonsense. The queen rightfully dismissed Wilders's "criticism" as "echte onzin" (nonsense), but strangely enough he has his supporters. Mostly from people who just don't get why their queen would want to visit a mosque. (Because it's a beautiful building with gorgeous artwork and historical books, maybe?)

I also find it amusing that the same people who are getting their panties up in a bunch about the queen adhering to local customs are the same ones who insist that foreigners should become completely integrated, or GTFO: They don't want the queen to adopt to local customs for a visit, but they insist that buitenlanders learn Dutch and jump for joy over Zwarte Piet. It's the kind of hypocrisy that would make for blood-boiling anger-fueled rants, if the Netherlands were just a little bigger.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wind and Water

Quickly, now: what does a strong northwesterly wind have to do with Dutch floods?

The picture taken today was of the Ooijpolder, under at least 1 m of water. The uitwaters have done their assigned tasks and flooded accordingly, but it might not be enough: the Waal flooded its banks and it's gotten to the point where the barges have been using trees and other tall objects to determine where the banks are. The Bisonbaai (alas, no nude beaches this time of year) has all but disappeared, and indeed the only indications that there ever was land in many places is the presence of treetops sticking out of the water. The most remarkable thing about the picture is that just 6 weeks ago, it was dry land--indeed, it was nearly in danger of drought--and covered with konikpaarden and those weird little cows.

The rivers in the Netherlands flow from east to west, culminating in a delta on the west coast around Rotterdam. Most of the time, whatever extra water is brought down the rivers just gets dumped out to sea, but this time, a strong northwesterly wind prevented the emptying of the swollen rivers. Add to this the near-record rainfall in December (well, it certainly seemed like a record rainfall) and you have yourself a flood in the making. The flood of 1953, for instance, was caused in part by wind gusts pushing the ocean against the already-weakened dikes. Happily, this time, there is no storm brewing (yet) and the country, while sodden, isn't in danger of drowning.

When you consider what the Dutch have had to do to the landscape to make it habitable--and that, even with 2000 years of water management behind them, flooding remains a perpetual danger--the only logical conclusion to draw is that these people are bloody crazy. Sure, the cows make great cheese and the asparagus is like none other, but I don't think anybody can say, with a straight face, that these were worth the effort, not to mention the lives of all those who drowned when the dikes didn't hold.

Maybe it's all those potatoes.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Klingon and Elvish

I think I've finally cracked the code to learning stuff--any sort of stuff:

Instant feedback.

Then again, I guess that shouldn't surprise me: it's why I upgraded from film to digital, it's why I love my job (experiments either work or they don't--either way, you have an answer), and it's why I love the Code Academy.

Coding, after all, isn't all that different from learning a language: it's taking the information you want to convey, and turning it into information that someone (or something, as the case may be) else can understand. There are rules, and then there are ways around those rules. The only real difference, in the end, is that unless you're a hard-core coding freak, you get to interact with people with the one, and machines with the other.

I also think that this is why my Dutch lessons at the Radboud have been such a miserable and utter fail, and why going to them is such a chore, rather than a great way to get to know people. The lessons that I had in Maastricht, for all of their shortcomings and inability to handle different learning styles, at least had the benefit of not being so structured, and being able to exercise your newly-learned Dutch right away. Or maybe I just lucked out with my teachers there. But regardless: even though we covered less grammar in Maastricht, I still feel as if I left Maastricht able to speak much better Dutch than I currently do. I suppose it also helped that, in Maastricht, the students were better than the ones in my current class.

It's sort of like clicker-training, really, except without the treat. And the feedback doesn't always have to be positive. But it does have to be relatively quick to follow the event, otherwise you lose the limbic connection and the memory you build doesn't last.

Hey, I never said I wasn't a geek...

Monday, January 2, 2012

Flat World, Flat Country

A perfect confluence of events:

A Facebook friend of mine pointed out an article that kind of bludgeons the US over the head with a poleax: the reason why Finnish schools are so great and American schools less great (on average) is simply that Finland believes that every child should have the same opportunity to learn the same things. If they fail to pass the test at the age of 18, then it's trade school, or straight to work, but at least they all had the same chances. It's a wonderfully egalitarian system that really brings out the truth in that favorite-of-favorite catchphrases, "All men are created equal".

Undoubtedly the reality is more complicated than the glossy Atlantic article would have it, and indeed, the article touches on a few more points that I won't get into, here. But there is an ugly truth behind it: the gulf in the types of opportunities that the children of the super-rich have, versus those of the middling-to-lower classes, can't possibly be bigger: children who go to schools armed with iPads and filled with breakfasts designed by nutritionists to maximize mental activity, and then children who count themselves lucky to have school that day because they can get the free lunch. There is something seriously wrong when people can see these two scenarios and say, "Yes, that is capitalism at work--things are as they should be." It's one thing for an adult to screw things up--take to drink, do drugs, etc. But it's another to disadvantage a child from birth, and then expect him to pull himself up by his bootstraps the moment he turns 18. I'm not suggesting that every child gets state-of-the-art technology. But it just seems to be common sense that textbooks should not be written by corporations (as Eric Schlosser points out in Fast Food Nation) and that science should not be infused with God, and in a world where there is so much information to be had, it's a crying shame that more people can't make better use of it.

The educational system in Finland is similar to that of the Netherlands, although the process to weed out the educational misfits begins at the tender age of 12, rather than 18. But in any case, the Netherlands still do bettter than the US in the three metrics of reading, math, and science. You can play with the data at the PISA site: it's quite fascinating (although a bit of a pain to use). Or you can just cheat and look at the Wiki page (2009 data).

I am pointing this out because a comment that someone left on my post "Phat" has been niggling at me for quite a while. In the Netherlands, being a much smaller economy, I have fewer choices (the choices that the commenter suggested were bikes or cars). There are 6 brands of peanut butter on the supermarket shelf, rather than 30. There are 4 brands of milk, rather than 10. And there are certainly not 31 flavors of ice cream. The limitation of choices could be construed as a limitation of the freedoms I have (golly, if I want Skippy peanut butter, I should be able to get it!). Or it could be that I am able to be happier. Barry Schwartz explains it much better than I could:

Dr. Schwartz explains it in matters of consumer goods, mostly, but the same could apply to school choices, as well. In the US, the school district you live in can easily raise housing prices by $10,000 or more (at least that's the figure Elizabeth Warren gave in her speech--personally, I think it's more). But the impact of schools is much bigger than mere dissatisfaction with your choice: social and environmental policies are more often driven by pleasant-sounding ideologies than hard science, and we can't vote smart politicians into office unless we are also capable of making smart choices.

Sure, biology plays an important part, too--half of the people have got to be below average, after all. But Finland, I think, proves that good social policy can at least mitigate the effects of an avearge population.