Our new house in The Hague

Earlier I had written about the mortgage for our new home in The Hague, but now I shall write about the house itself. I think we got lucky in our search for a new home. The house had just been placed on Funda (the most popular Dutch website for advertising real estate) for a few days when we visited it. We had to hurry because others were about to visit and place bids as well. Shortly after our inspection we were convinced and placed our bid. After a short negotiation we reached an agreement on the same day. In June we moved in.

Because I consider it important that no one can determine my address from my blog, I won’t be very specific in my description of our home. It’s a single family home from the eighties with two floors. It’s located in the district of Loosduinen, a former village in the southwest of the municipality of The Hague. Dit is the good part of the city, which is further away from the center. It doesn’t feature much dense construction with high-rise buildings. It’s relatively green, opposite our front door there are no other homes but a nice row of tall trees. A great location if you consider that it’s an urban environment.

The house has a very small front garden and back garden which measures 70 square meters. The previous inhabitants filled it with tasteless pavers, except for two borders with plants near the fence. They probably thought that an actual garden would take too much work or cost to much (hint: neither are true). We do appreciate the beauty of nature. That’s why we removed most of the pavers from the front garden near the end of the summer. After we dug out a large amount of sand we filled it with garden earth and planted a row of boxes and a rhododendron, both evergreens. The back garden will be done in the spring of 2017. We will replace half of pavers with grass.

The interior of the house had already been improved by the last inhabitants. We didn’t need to do anything, except for a small paint job. The kitchen is just a year or two old and looks good, same for the bathroom. The only thing I’d like to add are reproductions of paintings and photos to decorate the walls.

There are also some disadvantages. We have an air heating system instead of water heating. Good thing that we don’t see radiators, but it’s less efficient than water heating. I knew so at the moment we decided to buy the house, but it was not a critical issue for me. I will discuss the sustainability of our house in a later post.

Another problem is that it’s not easy to get a UTP-cable to the attic, where I placed my PC. Now I’m using a power-line adapter, but it’s unable to utilize the full bandwidth of the cable Internet access. It also gives me a lot of interruptions in the connection, something the Spotify web app can’t cope with. WiFi is not an option either with my current router, the signal from the ground floor is too weak. I want to investigate if there is a possibility to push a UTP-cable to the attic through an existing electricity cable tube.

Then the environment. During the summer our home seemed like a permanent vacation home, with the beach at 15 minutes distance with a bicycle. The beach at Kijkduin is busy and has too much construction for my taste. The beach between Kijkduin and Scheveningen is less developed and more beautiful. The market of The Hague is the largest market of the Netherlands is nice. There is plenty of choice in Surinamese and Indonesian restaurants. A tram stop lies at a distance of five minutes by foot from my front door. Unfortunately the tram is quite slow, I wish The Hague had a metro like Rotterdam.

My favorite places to eat in Rotterdam

As I wrote before, Stephanie and I moved to the Hague in June. Now I know that the Hague has plenty of good options to go eating out. The Hague is home to a large number of people with Indonesian, Indo and Surinamese heritage, which gives us a lot of choice in restaurants which serve these good cuisines. But I don’t think Rotterdam is inferior to the Hague in this regard.

Now that I’ve left Rotterdam, I want to document for others what my restaurant recommendations are for this city. I’ve become dissatisfied lately with restaurant review websites, such as Iens in the Netherlands. That’s why I give you a summary of good restaurants in this post, with metro stops in parentheses behind the names of the restaurants.

First the Indonesian restaurants. My favorites are Anugerah (Blaak), Ap Halen (Delfshaven) en Toko Toorop (Blijdorp). Toko Heezen (Slinge) is good too, but only offers take out. Ap Halen and to a lesser degree Toko Toorop have a limited menu which changes daily. Difficult if you want to eat vegan, but quite good for a reasonable price. Ap Halen has just two or three tables, Toko Toorop has more, but both businesses are cozy. Anugerah offers a more completele menu with more choice, but they could do with a better interior design.

The Surinamese restaurants which I like are Toko Asha (Rotterdam Centraal) en Warung Mirosso (Dijkzigt). Toko Ashes is more focused on Hindustani Surinamese dishes and makes great roti, I always take the vegetarian one. If people say they make the best roti in Rotterdam, I believe them immediately. De interior of this business looks very plain and uninspired, but I’ve been told that Surinamese people don’t care as long as the food is good. I can’t disagree with that. Warung Mirosso is a Javanese Surinamese restaurant, which is quite different. Logically the dishes are quite similar to Indonesian dishes, but often with a Surinamese twist. I would have liked to add Warung Sidodadi (Rotterdam Centraal) here, but they have apparently closed recently.

The Italian restaurants in Rotterdam are better than those in the Hague, as far as I can judge now. In the Hague I see too much Italian restaurants with unimaginative menus. When I see vitello tonnato on a menu, I usually take that as a sign that the restaurant is no good. In Rotterdam however, you have Da Adriano (Coolhaven) en L’Arancino (Stadhuis). Both mainly serve pizza, but they also have some extra Sicilian dishes which make these restaurants special. You won’t see dishes like caponata, arancini and pasta alla Norma on the menus of other restaurants often. Da Adriano has the best looking business of the two, L’Arancino caters more to take out and is slightly cheaper. La Pizza (Leuvehaven) misses the special dishes but has a larger establisment with a more well decorated interior. De Pizzabakkerij (ver outside the centre in Overschie) is good too, but has little else but pizza on the menu. Finally, there is Burro e Salvia (Maashaven), remarkable for their home made pasta, even if their business hours are a bit restrictive and their prices a bit higher than the other three.

For vegans and vegetarians Gare du Nord (Rotterdam Centraal) en Spirit (Blaak) are recommendations. Gare du Nord has a changing menu with often original vegan dishes. The restaurant is located in a train wagon, which is very original. It’s not really practical and not so easy to heat in the winter. Spirit is a buffet restaurant and also serves vegetarian dishes. Its food might not be as good as Gare dy Nord, but it does have a lot more space and has a more modern interior.

Then the other cuisines. La Taqueria (Oostplein) is the best Mexican restaurant of Rotterdam because it has a more authentic menu than the other Mexican restaurants in the center. These have a more vulgar interpretation of the Mexican cuisine. For Spanish cuisine I can recommend Camarón (Delfshaven), it has a strong menu, even if choice for vegans is limited. Burgertrut (Beurs) is a nice hamburger joint which will please both the carnivores and the vegans. If you want something more exotic, you can try the Ethiopian restaurant Sallina’s (Coolhaven). Their restaurant’s interior looks dated, but the menu is good and has plenty of choice for vegans. The Ethiopian cuisine is reminiscent of the Indian cuisine. Indian cuisine is my greatest favorite, for which I haven’t been able to discover a remarkable restaurants in Rotterdam.

What I miss most from Rotterdam is the bread of Jordy’s Bakery (Eendrachtsplein). Without blinking I can say that their bread is the best I’ve ever eaten. They only make sourdough bread, which is a bit more expensive than the best bread from the Albert Heijn supermarket, but it’s worth the extra without a doubt. I used to go there at least once in a week on the day when I worked from home to get a fresh bread. It’s also possible to eat in their establishment instead of just buying bread. SUE (Beurs) doesn’t bake bread, but does sell sugar free sweets. Completely responsible, if not somewhat pricey.

Finally, I must mention what is perhaps the most fun and unique place to eat in Rotterdam: Fenix Food Factory (Rijnhaven). This is a food court filled with local entrepreneurs selling all kinds of things to eat, directly or for take out. There’s just about everything: bread (Jordy’s Bakery is here too!), Moroccan food, good cheeses, locally brewn beer and applecider. All of it is located in a big, cozy warehouse near the water in Katendrecht. Every food lover will feel like a kid in a candy store here. It’s a shame the Hague doesn’t have such a food court.

Eden kitchen knives and knife sharpening

After I started living on my own in Rotterdam in 2013, I spent much more time in the kitchen. Soon I realized that kitchen knives are very important tools. Cheap knives are often blunt or get blunt quickly. This makes cutting work slower and more frustrating. It also makes it less safe, because blunt knives are prone to slide off certain vegetables, which is dangerous for your fingers. In my search for better kitchen knives which were not expensive, I found the knives of Eden, the house brand of Knives and Tools. This is a web shop based in the Netherlands which also has websites to serve customers in France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

I bought their Eden Classic VG10 chef’s knife and paring knife, which are respectively 20 cm and 9 cm long. VG10 is a designation for the type of steel, diverse steel types give knives subtly different properties. The chef’s knife is the most flexible knife, best used to cut up large pieces of food quickly. The paring knife is used for finer cutting work. I think these are the only two knives which are essential, but you could add a bread knife.

The chef’s knife features a design similar to more expensive knives, for the price of about € 50. It also has good ergonomics. The sole problem was that this knife, just like the paring knife, was quite blunt out of the box. This was evident in the relatively difficulty it had with cutting tomatoes and how it launched pieces of onion. This surprised me, but fortunately I could sharpen the knives with the Japanese waterstones, which I purchased together with the knives for approximately € 50.

Knives and Tools was so helpful to create elaborate instructions (only in Dutch for now) with good videos to explain how knives can be sharpened with waterstones. At first I did not succeed with this, my knives stayed blunt even after grinding them over the stones for many minutes. I remember that I discussed the subject with someone who had trained to become a chef. He told me that he and many others simply had no affinity with sharpening on stones, which is why some cooks outsource sharpening to professional knife sharpeners.

I was discouraged, but I kept trying. Only in the first half of this year I figured out that I had used a fine waterstone too soon; the coarser waterstone with 200 and 800 grid should be used first to remove more material from the knife. Initially I had not done so because I understood that this coarser stone is only necessary for knives with a damaged edge. After doing so I finally started to notice results. Ideally the knife should be able to shave off the hair on my arms like in the videos. I can’t sharpen my knife to such an extent yet, but I’ve gotten the hang of it.

I concluded that I now have two good knives and waterstones which can last me several decades for a bit more than € 100. The alternative, buying low quality knives more often or sending them to a professional knife sharpener for maintenance, is more expensive. Sharpening knives yourself has a learning curve, but I can recommend most people to learn this and spend some money on good knives and water stones.

Unfortunately the Eden Classic VG10 series is no longer produced and mostly sold out in the web shop of Knives and Tools. That’s why I’d recommend to buy the Eden Classic Damast series now that it’s discounted. It’s practically identical to the VG10 series, only the looks are slightly different because of the pattern welded steel. The Eden Essentials which is supposed to replace the Classic VG10 series does not compare to the quality of its predecessor. It looks cheap because it doesn’t have a recessed bolster to separate the plastic of the handle from the blade of the knife. The plastic handle abruptly ends where the blade begins, while the VG10 and Classic Damast knives have a wider piece of steel between the handle and the blade.

I fear the Classic Damast series won’t be replaced when it’s sold out, either. In that case you would have to look at knives from other brands, which are generally more expensive. If you do, make sure they also feature a recessed bolster rather than an extended one. An extended bolster has a thicker piece of steel extending all the way to the heel of the blade, this is a pain if you want to sharpen the knife on a stone. Because you can’t grind off the material of the thick heel on a stone, it will eventually lose pace with the rest of the blade’s edge. Then you’ll have to ask a professional sharpener to remove that part of the heel, because the knife will become unusable otherwise.

No mortgage from Triodos Bank

In February this year Stephanie and I bought a home in The Hague. Since June we live in this corner house with a small garden in Loosduinen. We have much more space now than in our small apartment in Rotterdam. The location is convenient because Stephanie can now go to work by bicycle in ten minutes. I will write more about the home and The Hague later, for now I want to write about the mortgage we have taken to buy our home.

For me, the first bank to consider as a mortgage provider was Triodos Bank. This bank is one of the few ethical and honest banks in the mass of big and greedy ‘too big to fail’ banks. I already had a bank account there and if there had to be anyone to charge me an arm and a leg for an expensive home, it had better be Triodos. Total costs for the (compulsory) advice and closing of the mortgage turned out to be quite high: € 2,050 for those with an existing mortgage, including a a discount.

High costs, if you compare with competitors such as Hypotheek24. There it’s possible to close a mortgage for € 650 without advice. Advice often isn’t necessary, especially since only linear and annuity repayment schemes are tax deductible for new mortgages in the Netherlands now. These are relatively uncomplicated. So why can’t Triodos make it’s advice optional? Why can’t they go with the flow?

In the end we decided to use the services of Stephanie’s last financial advisor again, the VvAA. We actually needed the more complex advice because it turned out to be financially advantageous to maintain our ‘bankspaarhypotheek’, an older mortgage type with a savings-based repayment scheme. Combined with advice for insurances, we paid them € 3,000. The mortgage was closed with, unfortunately, ABN Amro: the greedy bank which had to be bailed out by the government, with the tax payer’s money. Triodos apparently doesn’t do business with external advisors, so the VvAA couldn’t close a mortgage with Triodos.

I might want to transfer the mortgage from ABN Amro to Triodos in the future, but for transfers the costs are € 2,050 as well. I could spend that on two weeks of holiday in summer. It seems as if Triodos doesn’t want mortgage customers.

Why I don’t want to travel with aircraft anymore

To travel to Nepal and the USA from the Netherlands several years ago, I’ve used aircraft. For traveling to closer holiday destinations such as Spain and Italy, I’ve also taken flights to get there. Since I’ve become more conscious of climate change, I decided to investigate the climate change impact of flights. My findings shocked me.

Flights cause much more carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than cars, buses and trains. How much more depends on the method you use to calculate it. There are various calculators available on the Internet which can calculate CO2 emissions for a specific route. Because calculation methods and results vary so widely, I’ve compared them in the table below, on the basis of a journey with the train from Rotterdam Centraal railway station (Netherlands) to our next holiday’s destination, Bari Centrale railway station (Italy). For the flight I chose a hypothetical, non-existent flight from Rotterdam The Hague Airport (IATA: RTM) to Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport (IATA: BRI).

This is one way to do the comparison. In reality, you would need to travel 200 kilometers with a car (or three hours and a quarter with the train and bus) from Rotterdam to Maastricht Aachen Airport (IATA: MST) to get a flight to Bari. You would also need to take the metro from Bari Airport to Bari Centrale, which takes around twenty minutes. This makes the comparison more favorable for the train. Also consider that the huge advantage of faster air travel can be negated in practice; the flight departs only on Wednesday and Sunday in the second week of September. We depart on Thursday with the train, which departs every day.

Calculator Flight CO2 (kg) Train CO2 (kg)
MyClimate 310
EcoPassenger 269 63
Carbon Footprint 210
Loco2 144 27
ICAO 141

I should mention that the Carbon Footprint calculator has an option to include or exclude radiative forcing. Without radiative forcing, the CO2 emissions will be 110 kilo, but considering the effect of radiative forcing I think it’s fair to include it.

EcoPassenger seems to have to most refined methodology of all the calculators. If I just enter departure station and arrival station it gives me a figure of 70 kilo for the train, but it tends to select a strange route via Switzerland to come to this result. I got to the figure of 63 kilo by calculating every leg of the journey independently, for the exact trains I’ve booked:

  1. Rotterdam to Paris (Thalys) = 6,0
  2. Paris to Milan (TGV) = 16,5
  3. Milan to Bari (FrecciaRossa to Bologna, then FrecciaBianca) = 40,3

The difference between rail transport in France and Italy is explained by the methodology used by EcoPassenger, which is accessible on their website. They take into account which fuel sources were used for electricity production in 2013. It turns out that nuclear power had a share of 75% in French electricity consumption, followed by renewable energy with 18%. Because this gives very limited CO2 emissions the journey through France scores well. Italy doesn’t use nuclear power and had a share of 41% renewable energy in total consumption. I had expected the journey from Rotterdam to Paris to emit more because the Dutch electricity mix is lagging behind. It is heavily dependent on fossil fuels with a pitiful share of merely 14% renewables in electricity consumption.

Some of the calculators indicate a huge difference in CO2 emissions between aircraft and train. A Dutch environmental organization, Milieu Centraal, calculated the difference at a factor of 7,5 for a journey from the Netherlands to Nice in France. With Loco2, aircraft emit more than five times more CO2 than the train. EcoPassenger shows the smallest difference with a factor of more than four. Their estimate is the most conservative, but their methodology is also appears to be the best and the most transparent.

So how does 269 kilo of CO2 emissions compare? Consider for example that in the Netherlands, cars traveled 12.935 kilometers on average in 2012. They emitted 119 grams of CO2 per kilometer on average in the same year, giving a total of 1.539 kilos of CO2 for the whole year. So a return flight from Rotterdam to Bari equals four months of driving an average car in the Netherlands. This still might not seem much to you. Actually, considering that in the real world you can take a one way flight from Maastricht to Bari with Ryanair for less than € 20, you might not care.

But consider some other things. If you fly long distances, CO2 emissions will equal or exceed the emissions of a car in a year. Commuting to work with your car might be a necessity, but a holiday with a flight is certainly a luxury. With all options for video conferencing today, I think flights for business reasons aren’t essential either. You can also commute to work with electric public transport, an electric car or a more efficient bus. Electric cars and buses are already showing strong growth and are likely to replace their counterparts on fossil fuels in the near future. On the other hand there is no alternative to aircraft which run on kerosene for the foreseeable future.

Because there is no way to make air travel environmentally sustainable at this time, I think we should stop doing it altogether. We have to take action against unchecked climate change. The year 2016 will be another year with a new temperature record, just like the six other years after 2000. If it goes on like this, southwest Asia is predicted to become uninhabitable due to extreme temperatures. More needs to be done to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Why not start with air travel, which was conveniently kept out of that agreement?

The question is, can we do with less? Commercial aviation is still relatively young and became popular no sooner than the 1960’s in the Netherlands. Our parents could enjoy their holiday in the Netherlands itself or elsewhere in Europe without a flight. If they could be content with that, we should be able too. I’d still love to go to Mexcio, Brazil, India and Japan one day, so this is not easy for me either. However, I can live with less and be satisfied with holidays in Europe by train. Given the danger we are in, our climate should take precedence over my and your desires. Don’t fool yourself with arguments like ‘that aircraft will still fly without me’. This assumes you are the only one prepared to act. I’m asking you to assume something different: it might take no more than two hundred people to make one flight unprofitable for an airline.

Now you know what is at stake and you know what you can do about it. What will you choose? The earth or your own desires?

Visited Amsterdam in January 2016

Amsterdam is the city which is most popular with foreign tourists in the Netherlands. As a domestic tourist I’ve visited Amsterdam a few times in the past, but there is much worth seeing there which warrants more trips to our capital city. That’s why Stephanie and I decided to visit Amsterdam on Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 January.

On the first day we took a train from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, arriving a little bit later than we had intended, around the start of the afternoon. We first visited the Van Gogh Museum. It’s strange that I hadn’t visited this earlier, considering the treasures of art exposed here. I adore Van Gogh’s work, I consider him the last great Dutch painter. I was so impressed and fascinated with the paintings that I felt overwhelmed, almost in a state of ecstasy. It is for good reason that the museum has some text which describes the Stendhal syndrome.

The Rijksmuseum was next. I had visited it before years ago, but this was the first time I visited the museum after its renovation. I consider the renovation a great improvement, though I don’t remember well how it looked during my last visit. Loved the paintings here too. When the museum closed in the afternoon, we went to Mana Mana for dinner, an Israeli restaurant which we can recommend. Not the best I’ve sampled from Israeli cuisine, but it has a good selection of vegan dishes. We then spent the night at a hotel far to the west of Amsterdam’s center, because that was much cheaper than within the center.

On Sunday we had more time. We walked from our hotel to the center, through the Vondelpark, to visit the Stedelijk Museum. I did not like this museum, it felt like the suprematist paintings of Kazimir Malevich there ripped me out of the swoon I had entered in the Van Gogh Museum. Next was the Tropenmuseum, which has expositions on various cultures in the tropics. Especially the building it is housed in is remarkable. We finished in the Allard Pierson Museum. I had visited this archeology museum a few years ago already, but Stephanie had never seen it yet. The temporary exposition on Sicily was still interesting for me, and I would like to visit again when the renovation of the museum is finished.

We had dinner in Indonesian restaurant Kantjil & de Tijger. The food here was average, but at least it had enough vegan options. It was after dinner when we saw the best attraction of this day, the Amsterdam Light Festival. This is a boat trip through the canals of Amsterdam, which were decorated with many light art installations. It was a beautiful conclusion to our trip. The boat trip ended close to the Central Station of Amsterdam, from where we took a train back to Rotterdam.

But there is much more to see in Amsterdam. Next year I want to visit again during spring or summer to see those things for which I didn’t have time to visit. I have visited The Amsterdam Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Hermitage Amsterdam in the distant past, but would like to see them again. Attractions which I haven’t visited yet are the Hortus Botanicus, EYE Film Institute Netherlands, FOAM, Rembrandt House Museum, the Royal Palace, the New Church and the Old Church. At Muiden, at a short distance of Amsterdam, I want to see Muiden Castle.

Fairphone 2 now available

The Fairphone 2 was released on 21 December 2015. I love how this phone is designed to be durable, easily repairable and open source. In my personal correspondence with their support I was also assured they don’t pay Microsoft for a licensing deal, which is good. Of course there is much more which makes this phone laudable, such as the conflict-free minerals used for its construction and the transparent supply chain, but those three advantages are my highlights.

Since Mozilla pronounced Firefox OS for smartphones dead, I’ve been looking for an alternative smartphone. Right now I’m using a Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo with Android from my employer, which I’m also allowed to use privately. I’m very uncomfortable with it, because Google loves to spy on me. So ordinary phones with Android are out of the question. The Fairphone 2 ships with stock Android by default, but fortunately Fairphone provides the Fairphone Open Source OS as an alternative. This ships without Google Mobile Services (GMS). GMS is Google’s proprietary software running on top of the open source part of Android. However, this raises questions about what life is like without GMS.

I’d have to find open source replacements for several Google apps such as Chrome, Gmail, and Maps. I guess Firefox, some alternative e-mail app and Maps.ME would be good replacements. But you will also need to find another app store, because Google Play is also a proprietary Google app. Where am I going to find the Spotify and Netflix apps then? Amazon’s Android app store maybe? But how privacy friendly are they? Are those shady websites which offer APK downloads (Android app downloads independent from an app store) safe? How will my apps update automatically?

Using Android without Google’s proprietary software will be challenging. So challenging, that I might consider an iPhone as an alternative. Like stock Android, iOS contains both open source and proprietary software, but at least Apple has more respect for their user’s privacy as far as I know.

There are also other factors I consider before deciding whether to buy the Fairphone 2 or not. A price of € 530 is a lot of money for a phone, especially if the the hardware isn’t at the top of its class. An iPhone or a Galaxy, if new from an older generation or second hand, cost less. I’ve grown quite fond of the AMOLED display in the Galaxy S5 Neo, but the Fairphone 2 is equipped with an LCD display which is inferior to both Samsung’s AMOLED displays and Apple’s LCD displays. In principle I might be able to live with the price and inferior display, because I value the ethical and social goals of the Fairphone 2. But I don’t want to spend so much money on a smartphone right now.

Before I make a choice, I need to investigate which data Google (through both the proprietary and open source Android versions) and Apple exactly collect from me, the degree to which I’m being spied upon. I need to know how user friendly it is to use Android without Google’s proprietary software. When I’ve figured that out, documented it here on this blog and have determined how to deal with the Galaxy S5 Neo provided by my employer, I will make a decision.

Firefox OS is dead

On 8 December 2015 Mozilla announced that Firefox OS was dead. A day later they posted an official statement on their blog, in an attempt to mask their failure with positive spin. My last hope for a truly free smartphone OS was extinguished. Over  200 spent on two Firefox OS phones was wasted.

I had held off buying a smartphone until I purchased a Geeksphone Peak with Firefox OS in December 2013. I didn’t like and still don’t like phones with Android and iOS. I believed in Mozilla’s mission to use the web as the universal platform for smartphones, to make interoperability between different operating systems possible. The idea was good, but the execution was bad.

The Geeksphone Peak never gave me working GPS because the phone suffered from a bug, which Geeksphone could apparently not fix with a software update. They suggested their users to modify something in a config file, but even then I had no luck. I ended up buying the ZTE Open C, which did have working GPS. However, ZTE never bothered to ship updated stable versions of Firefox OS. Maybe Geeksphone did supply one stable version shortly after the release of the phone, but that was it. This way, bugs I noticed in Firefox OS weren’t fixed.

Mozilla itself is also to blame for this. On their website and wiki it was never clear what they were working on and what their release schedule for Firefox OS was. Bugs reports I (and others?) filed on Mozilla’s bug tracker weren’t processed. If they were, no or not enough work was done to fix them.

I was very disappointed in Mozilla. It seems like they got in over their heads. They misjudged how difficult and time-consuming it would be to dislodge Android. When they did figure it out they threw in the towel within two years time. They made some big mistakes which could have been avoided.

Mozilla should have taken ownership of the update process themselves, so that users were not dependent on the whims of indifferent smartphone manufacturers to provide updates. Good communications and building a strong community around Firefox OS would have helped much to gain momentum. Mozilla should have done more to get app developers on board to make their apps available for Firefox OS, before they started releasing phones with Firefox OS. Apps like WhatsApp, Netflix and Spotify for example should have been available from the start.

From a strategic perspective, Mozilla’s assumption that they could serve the bottom end of the market in developing countries without (much?) competition from Android fell through. They should have known this wouldn’t have been a viable strategy. I would have loved to see a different strategy: build a completely open source smartphone OS for all market segments, which respects user privacy and is not dominated by a single company. I hope I might see such a smartphone OS in the future.

Switching from Google to DuckDuckGo

I’ve been using Google since 2001, before it had become popular in The Netherlands. Back then it was a revelation: unlike its competitors like AltaVista, Google’s website was so beautifully simple, devoid of bloat. As the years passed by I’ve seen Google grow, but it has become corrupted in the process. Google has become a danger to our privacy.

That’s why I’ve taken the decision to switch to the Internet search engine DuckDuckGo. Unlike Google, DuckDuckGo aims to respect the privacy of it’s users and does not track you or employ filter bubbles. At the same time, their website also features a simple design which made Google so good. It hasn’t been a complete switch though, because DuckDuckGo’s search results are not as accurate. Local businesses are an example, because I often search for them.

To see the worst case scenario, try searching for “hanting cuisine den haag”. With Google, this restaurant’s own website is the first result. With DuckDuckGo, the first result is the restaurant’s entry on the tourism website of the municipality of Den Haag. Next come the pages of this restaurant on Yelp, Facebook and TripAdvisor. Scroll further down and you see a lot of individual reviews of the restaurant on TripAdvisor. Not totally irrelevant, but of course the restaurant’s own website should be the first result.

That’s why I generally use DuckDuckGo first, but still use Google as a backup when DuckDuckGo can’t produce good results. I also still use Google News, Google Scholar and Google Books, because these services have no competing alternatives from DuckDuckGo. I hope DuckDuckGo will improve its search engine and introduce competitors for these three Google services in the future.

 

Is Zwarte Piet racist?

The Sinterklaas celebrations in the Netherlands last year again featured a very heated debate about the alleged racist character of Zwarte Piet. A group protestors consisting of mostly black people (and some whites) consider Zwarte Piet racist, while the majority of Dutch white people see it as tradition rather than racism. I recently watched a documentary about the matter, “Zwart als roet”, also available in English. This documentary, made by the (white) Sunny Bergman, appeals to a white public to consider the issue from a different perspective.

The matter was not a big deal to me before the discussion. Initially I considered the protestors a bunch of self-victimizing whiners who took offense at a tradition which was not meant to be offensive. Recently, and certainly after watching the documentary, I’ve come to see that the protestors are mostly right: Zwarte Piet is racist. Zwarte Piet became a tradition in the Netherlands during the 19th century, during a time when there were not as much Dutch people with foreign heritage as now. This, and the character of that time, meant that no one spoke up about the issue. Back in the day Zwarte Piet may not have been conceived of as consciously racist, to demean black people, but it is rightfully experienced as racist by black people now.

Especially revealing to me are the scenes where Sunny Bergman and a collaborator walk around in a British city as Zwarte Piet. Sunny remarks that most white Dutch people are prejudiced because we grew up with Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. For British people this is not the case: they are quick to condemn Zwarte Piet als gravely racist. This is because Great Britain and the United States had a tradition in blackface performances, we are told.

Later in the documentary, a parallel to broader racism is drawn. In another experiment, a white person and two persons with darker skin color try to steal a bike. Amazingly, the white person is even given assistance by passers-by to break a chain lock on the bike, because people consider him reliable. On the other hand, the bystanders quickly recognize the darker skinned persons as thieves and alert the police. Being white, it’s difficult for us to recognize this unconscious undercurrent of racism. The experimental method used by the documentary is a powerful means to expose it.

Apart from the unconscious racism, there is also conscious, explicit racism. It’s understandable that black people are upset when they are called ‘Zwarte Piet’ as a joke. All the racist insults hurled at the protestors are also evidence of the problem. I do think that some of the protestors lacked subtlety in their message. The average Dutch person who grew up with Zwarte Piet probably was amazed and insulted when they were indirectly called racists. Had they been more careful in their message, they would have received more sympathy because people would understand better.

I still like Zwarte Piet as a concept and I would want my children to experience the tradition while black people don’t feel shamed. Fortunately, this requires only a small interventions: remove the earrings, the wig with black curly hair, lipstick and completely black facial paint and replace it with smudges of black paint over the face. Anyone who considers the history of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet will realize the tradition has changed a lot in two centuries, so this is no objection to me. I was taught that Zwarte Piet is black because he climbed through the chimney, after all. This has already been done in several places last year, but needs to get wider following. However, some have also painted Zwarte Piet yellow and other strange colors, which is taking it too far in my opinion. Some schools even went further than that and consider Zwarte Piet a negative stereotype in all cases, no matter what color he is. They replaced Zwarte Piet with commercialized ‘minion’ figures. That is completely absurd.