Visited Sardinia in June 2018

For our summer holiday of 2018 we wanted to go to a place with a lot of good beaches. One reason was that we had to go in warm month of June, another was that Stephanie is pregnant. This meant frequent long walks through cities or nature were not an option. The destination also had to be relatively close by, so that we didn’t need to drive more than one day with our car. This made Sardinia an attractive option. The schedule was as follows:

  • Fri 08 Car from The Hague (5:00) to Toulon (18:00), ferry from Toulon (20:00) to Porto Torres.
  • Sat 09 Arrival at Porto Torres (8:00), Alghero, Grotta di Nettuno, Spiaggia di Porto Ferro, Sassari.
  • Sun 10 Sassari, Spiaggia di Platamona.
  • Mon 11 Asinara, Spiaggia della Pelosa, Sassari.
  • Tue 12 Castelsardo, Spiaggia di Rena Bianca, Arzachena.
  • Wed 13 Tempio Pausania, Nuraghe Maiori, Arzachena.
  • Thu 14 Porto Pollo (wind surfing), Arzachena.
  • Fri 15 Palau (boat tour), Arzachena.
  • Sat 16 Olbia, Cala Brandinchi, San Teodoro.
  • Sun 17 Spiaggia La Cinta, Nuoro.
  • Mon 18 Serra Orrios, Grotta di Ispinigoli, Dorgali, Nuoro.
  • Tue 19 Spiaggia di Sos Dorroles, Nuoro.
  • Wed 20 Cala Gonone (boat tour), Nuoro.
  • Thu 21 Nuraghe Santu Antine, Monte d’Accoddi, Porto Torres, Spiaggia della Pelosa, Porto Torres.
  • Fri 22 Ferry from Porto Torres (7:15) to Barcelona (19:00), car to Salou.
  • Wed 27 Car from Salou to The Hague.

We chose to use the car this time because it meant we didn’t need to rent one on Sardinia. Our own car was also nicer to drive because we had bought a good second-hand Toyota Prius in January. It also allowed us to take along more luggage because we didn’t have carry everything with us in a train. The car is a lot cheaper than the train, it cost us around € 110 for petrol and € 65 for road tolls to get from The Hague to Toulon. The train is much faster (7 hours and 41 minutes from Den Haag HS to Gare de Toulon) but would have cost us around € 350 for two people. Boarding the ferry with or without a car makes a difference of about € 20. And then I haven’t considered the costs of car rental yet.

Of course it didn’t feel good to use a car from an environmental perspective, but it was my compromise with Stephanie. But even if we did use the train, we still would have faced the huge black fumes coming from the exhaust pipe of the ferry. In theory we could have used the train and then a sailboat to travel to Sardinia, but the options I’ve seen for sailboats were very expensive.

Sardinia doesn’t offer as much with regards to culture as other regions of Italy. Alghero and Olbia have two good archeological museums (the one in Sassari lacked good presentation). The city centers of Alghero and Sassari are certainly worth visiting, especially Sassari because it is less popular with tourists (don’t visit Sassari on Sunday like us though, because most sights will be closed). Apart from cities, you will find many interesting prehistoric Nuragic sites scattered through the countryside. Some of these sites such as Nuraghe Santu Antine can be quite elaborate. The relatively smaller offer of culture didn’t bother us because we expected this and the abundance of beautiful beaches compensated for that.

Piazza Regina Margherita in Olbia

As for beaches, Sardinia made good on all expectations. I’ve visited great beaches in Puglia and Calabria, but in Sardinia they are more frequent and have a more consistent quality. The photos I’ve uploaded don’t do them justice, in reality they are even more georgeous. I loved swimming in the crystal clear waters, with such beauty I did not see any need to visit the best beaches in the tropics. What I enjoyed most was learning the basics of wind surfing in a day at Porto Pollo, with the company MB Pro Center. It was too bad I had planned just one day for this. I’d like to visit Sardinia again in the future. I intend to reserve more time then for snorkeling, kiteboarding and sailing, for which there was no space in the plan. I’d love to sail in the Maddalena archipelago with more freedom. This holiday we chose one of the motorized boats departing from Palau, but it catered to a large group of tourists and only went down the trodden paths.

Cala Brandinchi

As for other outdoor activities, there is a fair share of interesting caves to visit. We had to skip visits to Tiscali and Gola Su Gorropu, Europe’s ‘Grand Canyon’, due to the long hikes in the hot weather. I hope to visit these in the future. On the other hand I would have scrapped Castelsardo from the schedule. It has a castle on a tall hill, but its interior and the view from the top weren’t very interesting. I thought Tempio Pausania and Dorgali would be worthwhile because they lie in the interior, far away from the tourists, but there wasn’t much worth seeing there. You can buy some good wine though at Cantina Gallura and Cantina Dorgali respectively. In the interior, Nuoro is a larger city with more substantial sights.

Of course you can‘t have it all. For me Sardinia’s main disadvantage was the food. It wasn’t bad, but I consider the food of the other regions of Southern Italy to be clearly superior. The cuisine is rather carnivorous and vegetarian or vegan options are limited. Order a dish with fava beans and there’s a change it might include lard. I haven’t eaten a single satisfying fish dish during my whole holiday. Maybe it was just a matter of bad luck and I had to look better. I do recommend Agriturismo Candela near Arzachena and Agriturismo Li Mori in San Teodoro for offering tasty food for a good price in a nice decor, these places are most memorable for me.

At the end of our stay in Sardinia we took a ferry to Barcelona and then went to a camping in Salou were Stephanie’s parents were staying. The company was good, but I don’t like camping for long. That camping was far too massive for my taste as well. Salou is only good for mass tourism and lacks any authenticity. I would like to see more of other parts of Spain though. I’m not sure were we will go for our holiday next year, but I’m leaning towards Hossegor in southwestern France for some good surfing.

Cala Luna, looking north

The Histories

With my bachelor in History I’ve desired for a long time to read the work of Herodotus, who is often called the father of History. He wasn’t covered in detail during my bachelor’s program, but he is described as the first who used a critical investigative method to write history rather than destiny or the will of the gods. His work covers the expansion of the Persian Achaemenid Empire and how it was halted by the Greeks. During my holiday I finally got around to finish reading it (and the extensive footnotes with scientific commentary on his work).

As you read The Histories, you often see passages where Herodotus analyzes different accounts of specific events. If he reports stories which he considers dubious, he argues why these are unlikely to be true or should be be dismissed. If he can’t decide which version is true, he leaves the judgment to the reader.

The Achaemenid Empire and the Greeks are the red thread in the work, but Herodotus often deviates from this red thread. Often because he provides long geographical, ethnographical, historical and zoological descriptions on the regions which make up or are invaded by the Achaemenid Empire. Some of these are rather long-winded and boring.

At several points it becomes clear that Herodotus hasn’t traveled to all those regions himself, such as when he describes the hippopotamus in Egypt. You’ll understand why people call him unreliable as he reports on the bizarre cultural practices of some exotic tribes, Arabian flying snakes and Scythian werewolves. While some of his stories are fantastical, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss all of it. The giant Indian gold-digging ants have actually been identified with marmots, for example.

Herodotus doesn’t just write history, he writes to entertain his audience with a good story as well. This is obvious in his impossibly detailed descriptions of dialogues. Sometimes this entertainment seems to be detrimental to historical accuracy. For example when an ophthalmologist sent by the Egyptian pharaoh to the Persian king is (indirectly) the cause for the Persian invasion of Egypt. Herodotus doesn’t mention anything about the strategic reasons for the invasion. It’s like believing the abduction of Helen was the real or sole reason for the Trojan War. Even so, there is always a core of truth in his work.

In the second half of The Histories the pace is picked up as it focuses more on the war between the Persians and the Greeks. The Persian king Darius and his successor Xerxes have many ambitious and manipulative subordinates who work more to further their own goals instead of what benefits the empire. They do have a fair share of good advisers to which they listen. To the amusement of the reader the kings more often follow the bad advice of their underlings who seek career advancement!

The amusement of Persian bad judgment is varied with Greek fortitude. You become inspired when the Greeks settle their internal conflicts and form a unified front against the Persian threat. You are deeply impressed by the Greek self-sacrifice in their last stand at Thermopylae. You feel glorious when the Greeks win a heroic victory at Salamis in spite of the low odds, as if your favorite just won sports a championship. You rejoice as the Persians are punished for their overconfidence! Like the ancient Greek audience of Herodotus, you will love the hubris and the inevitable punishment it calls for. If you’re from Iran though you’d probably say the Athenians started it when they pillaged Sardis.

I also noticed a pattern that even the virtuous Greeks fall to their desire for power and wealth. After the Persian Wars the Spartan general Pausanias and the Athenian politician Themistocles become Persian collaborators. Athens eventually starts oppressing the Ionian Greeks through their Delian League.

Herodotus may be the father of history, but he is also rooted in his own time and culture. He obviously believes that humans have agency and can steer history without divine intervention. But that does not mean the gods play no part. In The Histories divine vengeance or tisis for the sacrilegious acts of some Persians (and occasionally Greeks) is a common theme. An example are the storms which batter the Persian fleet.

Speaking of Greek religion, Herodotus reports extensively on revelations and predictions of the future given by oracles. Like his contemporaries, he believes in the ability of oracles. His report that an oracle was bribed by the Spartan king Cleomenes for a favorable prediction doesn’t damage that belief. However, as modern readers we know that predicting the future isn’t possible and all oracular predictions must have been made up after the predicted events happened. Herodotus isn’t alone in this, as many Greek and Roman historians have used the same literary device. But how did they reconcile their genuine belief in oracles with this reality of ex eventu oracular predictions? Google Scholar doesn’t provide me answers.

Switched from Samsung Galaxy S7 to the iPhone 6

My previous employer FRISS provided me with a mobile phone I could use privately as well. This was needed for their work from home policy and the occassional standby shift. My new employer ID Ware doesn’t do those things, so it was not unreasonable that they didn’t provide me with a phone. Because it was expensive to take over the Samsung Galaxy S7 which I used while working for FRISS, I decided to look for a new phone.

The subscription FRISS had with T-Mobile allowed some choice in different phones. Among the phones with Google Android, the Samsung Galaxy S7 phones stood out as the best choice. The iPhones required an hefty extra payment, so I chose the Galaxy S7.

While the Galaxy S7 was a great phone from a hardware point of view, I didn’t like the software. Apart from the obvious spying on your personal data by Google, the phone came crammed full of bloatware by Samsung. Some of which you couldn’t uninstall. Samsung has a annoying habit of supplying their phones with their own alternative apps for the standard Android software (such as the web browser and calendar) which add nothing. They also have a bad reputation for ending regular security updates for their phones quite soon. There are of course other manufacturers which sell phones which do run stock Android and do receive security updates for a reasonable amount of years after the phone was released. But you haven’t solved the spying problem then.

Installing a custom ROM on your Android phone, like LineageOS, doesn’t solve the problem either. I’m not aware of all the details, but the fact that you will have to deal with lower photo quality of the Galaxy S7 is a deal breaker for me. And you will still need to install Google software which spies on you if you want to use the Android app store. It’s too much uncertainty and work. I wanted something which is (relatively) privacy friendly, bloatware free and easy to use.

My choice was a refurbished iPhone 6 from Forza, included in a Tele2 contract with unlimited calling/SMS’ing and 2 GB of data per month for € 22. Paying € 1.000 for the new iPhone X, even though it has that nice OLED screem (and that silly notch!) is madness. But € 22 a month is barely more than I paid for a SIM-only subscription in the past, which excluded a phone.

A brief remark about Tele2: avoid them. I found my number was published in the phone directory, online and on paper, without my permission. Their helpdesk doesn’t have a clue how this could happen and they didn’t compensate me in any way. I submitted a complaint for this with the Dutch Data Protection Agency.

Not too long ago there was a critical investigation by the Dutch Consumer’s Association which slammed refurbished phones. They found that these phones can be badly repaired with second-rate components and aren necessarily much cheaper than new phones. Forza got a bad review too. In my case I have nothing to complain, my refurbished iPhone 6 works fine.

I expected that I would miss the great OLED screen of the Galaxy S7 on the iPhone 6, but this didn’t happen. In the majority of my use cases the screen doesn’t have to display a lot of black color and it isn’t used in dark environments, so I don’t notice the lack of an OLED screen much. On the software side iOS is much more pleasant than Android, no spying and bloatware. The sporadic app you can’t remove such as Apple Health doesn’t really get in the way or take up a lot of storage. No problem if you want to set DuckDuckGo as the default search provider in the Safari web browser (it’s not possible in Google Chrome on Android).

However, Apple wouldn’t be Apple if it wouldn’t combine it’s superior product design with its fair share of dick moves. For example their negligence in keeping their web browser engine WebKit up to date with the latest web standards. Usually this is no issue because you could install a different web browser with a different engine, but Apple is actively blocking anything else from WebKit being used on iOS. This reached the news after the French software company Nexedi sued Apple for this. This was in 2016 and while WebKit is still the only option on iOS, I’m not up to date on the current web standards compliance of WebKit.

Another one is that Apple refuses to implement support for the open and cross-plaform Vulkan graphics API on iOS, in favor of their own closed Metal graphics API. Metal was released in 2014 while Vulkan was not finished yet (it was in 2016), Apple might have legitimately thought that Vulkan was taking too long. But for some time now Vulkan has been accepted as the open standard for graphics and is frequently used on Linux and Android. While it’s not visible to the consumer, Apple is effectively screwing all those developers who have to convert their software from Vulkan to Metal if they want to release it for iOS. If the life of developers is unnecessarily made more difficult the consumer is disadvantaged indirectly.

Then there is the inability to use another app store than the Apple App Store (not the case on Android). Apple says it wants to protect its users, but that doesn’t justify restriction of freedom. They could easily give a warning that there are no safety guarantees once users add other app stores. The real reason is of course that they want a monopoly on paid iOS apps so they can reap more profits. Just like Google they take a share of app store transactions. My solution for this is simply refusing to buy anything from the Apple App Store. I don’t need any paid apps anyway.

I could mention the fact that iOS is not open source, meaning there is no opportunity to create custom ROM’s for iOS. The more complex reality is that while Android is open source, many Android apps are not. They are now close source as part of a deliberate strategy by Google to make the open source Android unattractive. Presented with this choice, I value privacy more than software freedom, hence my choice for Apple. I think I’ve made it clear now that I merely consider Apple the best choice out of two bad choices.

New job with ID Ware

Shortly before quitting FRISS I had started three concurrent job application procedures. I ended up signing with ID Ware, which sells smart cards, smart card printers and the software to manage them. I started in my new job in March. I will discuss the job applications first and then my new employer.

The first job application was with the Dutch Ministry of Finance for a job as (junior) policy adviser. I passed the job application letter selection. Because I wanted this job so badly I prepared better than usual for the interview. I even practiced it with a career counselor, something I had never done before. I thought the interview went well, but it seems I always have to deal with extremely choosy interviewers. After I was refused I asked for and received detailed feedback, but I was too upset to memorize it well. Except for a remark about inadequate analytical skills, which shows the unwillingness of interviewers to look past first impressions and consider proven accomplishments. Such as an scientific publication for example, which the vast majority of their candidates wouldn’t have had. If that doesn’t vouch for analytical skills, what does?

The refusal felt devastating to me. Why does fate forbid me to get a job which I was trained to do, through my education in Public Administration? My suspicion is that there is a relatively large amount of applicants for jobs like policy adviser, while IT personnel is relatively scarce. Not long after the refusal the cognitive dissonance arrived. I got fed up with soliciting for government jobs, certainly after the realization that my current salary with ID Ware matches the minimum salary of a senior (!) policy adviser. I can anticipate what will happen with that salary if I acquire some more experience and certifications like Scrum Master and Lean Six Sigma.

I had two other job applications, after two recruiters had invited me. Of course it felt good to be invited instead of having to take the initiative. One of these companies was Doculayer, which produces an Enterprise Content Management system. I liked the diversity in their team of employees, was impressed by their product and thought they had an attractive office building. I didn’t like their location right next to a big highway and the long bike ride to their office, which necessitated using public transport. The salary was attractive, but ID Ware offered more.

ID Ware is a much smaller company with a rather unassuming office in a large residential house. Almost all my colleagues are white and male. On the other hand, I can reach the office in half an hour with my bike, it’s located in a nice neighborhood with a beautiful park nearby. The good salary offer came after I had told their recruiter that it was difficult to decide between Doculayer and ID Ware. As mentioned in the previous post, I gained € 1.000 in gross salary. For the first time ever I feel respected and valued by my employer instead of a replaceable pawn to reap in profit.

Unlike the job interview with the Ministry of Finance, I didn’t do any special preparation for the job interviews at these two companies. I was just myself and asked as lot of questions, roughly equal to the amount I answered. Maybe I didn’t leave a good impression with them either and they were so desperate for new personnel to choose me anyway? Or maybe I held up fine during the interviews while the ministry was searching for unicorns and had a lot of choice? I have no idea.

My job is challenging. Basically I have to learn about the company’s products and software from the ground up again, because it is totally different from the software made by FRISS. The documentation could use improvement. Many processes suffer from administrative overhead and could be optimized. The ERP software which we use intensively, SAGE, is quite terrible and should be replaced. We use a very old on-premises version of SAGE based on Microsoft Access, which is very slow and user unfriendly. On the IT Service Management side there is decent incident management, but there is no structured problem management to reduce the amount of incoming incidents by fixing their causes. We need better monitoring software so that we are immediately informed when business critical systems go down.

Of course I like to be challenged. However, the reality is that I can barely keep up with my regular work. This consists of solving incidents with our software, placing purchase orders and processing incoming and outgoing deliveries. I don’t have enough time, I feel like I’m so busy evacuating water from my boat that I don’t have an opportunity to patch the hull leak. I hope to get more efficient in my daily work in the coming months so that I can free more time for structural improvements.

There is one thing which has been much more troubling though. The collaboration with one of my direct colleagues is very strained. I feel he treats me with disdain, like an inexperienced intern rather than a colleague. He works much longer for the company, is more experienced and has unrealistic expectations of how fast I can get acquainted with my new job. The vast majority of the interactions he has with me are negative because he always complains about me. Even though he is not my manager he frequently micromanages me and orders me around. When I ask him questions on how I should solve more complex incidents, he frequently answers with the question “What do you think yourself?”, as if it were an exam. I experience this as very condescending.

I consider myself easy to get along with and can get along with everyone else at ID Ware. I did have one direct colleague at FRISS with whom I collided occasionally, but over time I developed a professional understanding with him which enabled us to get along. I still didn’t like him on a personal level, but in the end I did develop some respect for him as my colleague. With this guy, I don’t know. I’m not sure if it’s genuine passive-aggressive behavior or just social ineptitude. So far I’ve started to behave slightly more assertive towards him and I ignore his complaints and more counterproductive advice, but that’s not a road I want to go down further.

I thought I’d endure it for some months and wait to see if our collaboration would improve, but after four months it has not. This matter has been detrimental to the enjoyment of my work. If it continues for longer, I definitely should speak to him about it. The fact that I’ve been postponing that conversation tells me that I consider it difficult and want to avoid it.

Quit my job with FRISS

February 2018 was my last month at FRISS. After two and half years I found a new job with ID Ware. I will write about my new job in the following post and look back on my job at FRISS in this post.

In the coming paragraphs I will primarily discuss what I didn’t like and didn’t go so well at FRISS, but I want to be clear about the good things. I appreciated the interaction with my colleagues very much, especially those from the group who participated in the lunch break walks and who I got to know quite well. I liked the (international) diversity and how I could discuss the intricacies of Indian food for hours with my Indian colleague, as well as other subjects with co-workers from many other cultures. My manager was a nice guy. The management team held monthly meetings with all employees near the end of a workday to discuss the progress and direction of the company. This was combined with a free dinner after the meeting. This was very transparent way to keep employees informed and involved in the company.

But there were several factors which diminished the enjoyment my job gave me. Most importantly, the salary. Since I joined my current employer ID Ware, I make € 1.000 more before taxes. I did benefit from the experience I gained with FRISS and an ITIL Practitioner certification to get to my current salary, as well as some good negotiation moves. However, I’m still mostly doing essentially the same work as with FRISS. If you consider that, the gap is quite large.

Another very significant detractor was the IT Service Management software I had to use for the job. I felt like a chef who was compelled to work with a blunt chef’s knife all day long. This software, called GAIA and made by a Dutch company called AllSolutions, was a downright nasty piece of software from the Stone Age. It could apparently do everything but did nothing well. The difference with modern IT Service Management software was like night and day. It couldn’t even send e-mails to report the closure of an ticket or automatically record the name of the person writing a comment on a ticket. The finance department used it as well for financial administration. Everyone I spoke to hated it, except for the guy who administered the application because that skill had made him irreplaceble.

I addressed the inadequacies of GAIA in the first weeks after I joined FRISS. I didn’t have the time and persuasion skills to get things moving quickly. Eventually a new CFO did have a sense of urgency and took the lead because GAIA was so unsuitable for the finance department. Shortly before I left I participated in the effort to migrate to Oracle NetSuite, but I felt FRISS should and could have been looking for something else years earlier. I think I have to partially blame myself for not pushing harder and not being able to convince people of the need to change.

Apart from tools the processes were not optimal either. Even though I had a very good understanding with the Product Owner (Scrum terminology) of the development team, it was my experience that our feedback and suggestions almost had no influence on the work of development. I think this is because the Product Owner’s hands were tied and he had to listen to the CTO and the Product Managers. Of course prioritization is needed, but when it takes ages to address issues which harmed the productivity of Support and even the occasional bug which is harmful to customers, another extreme is reached. I felt that the CTO and Product Managers were pushing development too hard for all kinds of new hyped features while the basics weren’t receiving enough attention.

An example of insufficient basics was the implementation of watchlists for adresses of known fraudsters. This functionality was a filthy hack at best. The feature was so user unfriendly that the customer generally couldn’t upload these watchlists, so they would sent them to us. We would then use some SQL queries to insert the watchlists in the database. Because the customers who used these watchlist were using a deprecated (but still supported) version of our software, development didn’t work on improving the functionality. The idea was that the improved functionality would be implemented in the version which did see active development, but it was never prioritized. That’s why this situation could continue for the full two and half years I worked at FRISS. The customers must not have been pleased, because we would charge them a small fee for the time it took us to process those watchlists for them. I was downright frustrated because nothing was undertaken to improve the situation (I did bring this up more than once) and I was essentially doing something which the customer should have been able to do themselves.

Apart from features not working properly, I became pessimistic due to the lack of progress in making our product scalable. With our product it was possible to have the same functionality implemented differently for every customer. This made it more difficult to diagnose issues and increased the workload for the Support team.

Because I wrote and sent the communication about new software releases to our customers I was well informed of the work done by our development team. This gave me the impression that the development of our software in general progressed slowly compared to the fte’s in the development team. Every new release contained a rather small amount of new features, and most of these were rather trivial. I was not alone in this sentiment, but I can’t explain why it happened. I certainly don’t think our developers were lazy, but it might have to do with the process. New releases came every four weeks at the completion of the sprint (Scrum terminology). Obviously the major new features can’t land every release in such a short time span, but even so I felt that they landed exceptionally sporadic.

Talent management was lacking. I didn’t expect to climb up the ladder quickly because I signed up as a Support Engineer and my aid was essential to manage the workload for the Support team. However, half a year after I started two new people were posted from an external company. They had acedemic master’s degrees unrelated to IT just like me, but respectively no and equal experience in IT compared to me. I was surprised when they soon started working in the Consultancy team while I remained in Support. Ironically, one of them asked me for help on several issues after getting promoted. I also noticed that it was possible for management to offer someone else who was not satisfied with her job another position, even though nothing was done to address my dissatisfaction. I considered all three of these people pleasant colleges, but as you can imagine I felt treated unfairly. Shortly before I announced that I would leave FRISS I was told to expect a transfer to Project Management. While I appreciated this very much, the offer was not as attractive as the one ID Ware had made me.

Finally, the grim environment of the Papendorp business park was another motivator to leave. Especially because I liked to take a walk with colleagues during the break. Papendorp is a desolate collection of grass and pavement, with an asphalt factory and a large highway close by. If FRISS needs to consider a new office due to growth in the future, I sincerely hope it is situated in a more attractive environment which stimulates the senses more positively.

I’ll summarize the morale of this story on how to keep employees motivated, management literature style. Pay your employees a competitive salary to make them feel appreciated and prevent other companies from hyjacking them. Give them good tools to execute their daily work. Support them in their search for better tools if they need them. Take care to listen to the wishes of your Support team next to your Product Management team. Support gets different insights from the users of your software, which Product Management won’t have. Balance development of new features with polishing existing features. Employ sound talent management to make sure there is no misalignment between the skills of your employees and their actual work, in a way no one feels left behind. Provide an attractive working environment, both indoors and outdoors.

Switched to ProtonMail

Since September 2017 I’ve been a rather satisfied user of the ProtonMail email service. I’d like to explain why I switched and why I think you should do so too.

Before ProtonMail I had been using Roundcube. This the open source webmail solution offered by my website’s hosting provider Antagonist. Just like many other webhosts their email service is included in my hosting package. The problem is that Roundcube sees very little development and is archaic now. Its web interface isn’t responsive, so it’s a pain to use on a smartphone. There are no smartphone apps either. Even on a laptop or desktop, it’s interface is old and clunky. It’s not even a contest between Roundcube and modern free webmail solutions like Outlook.com and Gmail.

But you don’t want to switch to Outlook.com or Gmail either. Those are delivered by unscrupulous companies who lust for your data and privacy. You don’t just use their product, you are the product because they will use your personal data for advertising purposes. In practice the advertising they employ is unobtrusive, but in principle this is unacceptable. No one gets to stick their nose in my emails, whether they are strangers or automated advertisement software!

After some time of considering the alternatives such as getting a VPS and installing SOGo on that, or other smaller paid email services, I arrived at ProtonMail. I chose the paid account because it was possible to associate it with my own custom domain. This way all the emails which are adressed to my existing email address simply get routed to my ProtonMail account. So I didn’t need to change my email adress everywhere. Using my own domain required reading some documentation and changing a few things in the email configuration of my host Antagonist and ProtonMail itself, but was relatively easy.

The greatest advantage of ProtonMail is that it focuses on privacy and good encryption. The encryption employed is both zero-access and end-to-end, as explained here. They can’t search through your data and sell it for advertising purposes. They have a good web interface as well as Android and iOS apps. I’d highly recommend everyone to get a free account with them, or a paid one if you want the custom domains feature. These people rather than Microsoft or Google deserve your financial support.

However, it also has some problems. The most important one is that it’s not completely open source. They do give the impression that all their software is open source on their website’s front page, but they are misleading their customers. Actually only the frontend (graphical user interface) is open source and the backend (the inner workings) is not. Neither are the iOS and Android apps.

The developers claim that they don’t publish everything because it would expose their spam filter to circumvention by the spammers. As others have already pointed out, they should not use this excuse because if their software is properly modularized they can maintain a closed source spam filter while the rest is completely open source. As for the iOS and Android apps, they have already been claiming for years now that those would be open sourced once sufficient code quality had been reached. After several years of waiting this is no longer a credible excuse. I’m not going to assume malice where I can assume negligence, but the communication on their open source strategy is very disappointing.

It is important for their software to be published under a free and open source license so that far more people than just their own developers can analyze it and check for security vulnerabilities. Also, it would allow other parties to host ProtonMail. I think this is an important reason why ProtonMail is holding back with open sourcing their software; if everyone can host it they will lose paying subscribers.

Currently I’m paying Antagonist for the web hosting (including their email service which I don’t use anymore) and ProtonMail for the email. It would be more efficient if Antagonist could install the ProtonMail software so I would have everything hosted with one party. I would probably still donate to ProtonMail so they can keep developing their software.

Apart from the open source issue, I would like to see several important features in ProtonMail. First, a calendar feature would be useful so that I don’t need to use separate software for that. Currently I just use an old-fashioned paper agenda. Second, the ability of the phone apps to synchronize with the phone’s contact list. If you get a new Apple iPhone there is no way to tell the ProtonMail iOS app to place all its contacts in the iOS contacts list (it’s the same on Android). Migrating your phone’s contacts is thus more complicated if you don’t want to use Google or Apple cloud services for that. Finally, the fixed American mm/dd/yyyy date format should be adjustable and preferably default to the date format of the user’s location.

Visited Portugal in September 2017

Since we moved to The Hague we have become acquainted with surfing (wave surfing) in Scheveningen. A single surf lesson there started our interest. Considering that the surfing conditions in The Netherlands are often quite bad, we thought about doing more surfing during a holiday elsewhere in Europe. This led to our holiday in Portugal right after our wedding on 2 September 2017. Below is our travel schedule, with the train journey and ticket prices for a single person.

  • Mon 04 Sep train from Rotterdam to Lisbon at 8:58 AM (€ 153).
  • Tue 05 Sep arrival in Lisbon at 7:20 AM (€ 148).
  • Sun 10 Sep bus from Lisbon to Peniche.
  • Sun 17 Sep bus from Peniche to Lisbon.
  • Sun 17 Sep train from Lisbon to Rotterdam at 9:34 PM (€ 148).
  • Mon 18 Sep arrival in Rotterdam at 10:02 PM (€ 158).

As a genuine environmentalist, it took some research to figure out how to get to Portugal by train in a short time. While France and Spain have comparatively good high-speed rail networks, they are not well connected now. The journey over the France-Spain border isn’t possible with high-speed trains yet. Portugal is much worse because even the normal railway connection with Spain is poor.

Fortunately the Spanish Renfe Operadora operates a night train from Irun. This Spanish town is just across the border from Hendaye in southwestern France, which is the final stop of a TGV line. This night train goes all the way to Lisbon. Starting from the tram to The Hague Central Station in the early morning, this meant we could step out of the train in Lisbon the next morning.

While efficient, that night train isn’t very comfortable. We opted for the expensive two-person cabin with shower and toilet, but the bathroom didn’t look very inviting. We didn’t sleep very well either and the dinner was quite bad as well, I’d seriously recommend taking your own food, maybe even an army ration with a flameless heater if you insist on warm food. If I’d take this train again (which I would because it’s a fast way to travel) I’d just go for the simple reclining seat. Much cheaper, just suck it up with the discomfort and lack of quality sleep. It won’t be much better in the expensive cabin anyway.

We spent five days in Lisbon first before we took a bus from Lisbon to Peniche for a week of surf camp. Lisbon reminds me of Amsterdam in a negative way. Like Amsterdam, Lisbon has been turned into a zoo for tourists, complete with tuk-tuks contributing to traffic congestion. All thanks to ridiculously cheap flights while honest tourists like me pay a premium for sustainable train travel. In spite of this, it is a nice city with an interesting city center spread over several hilltops. Not the most interesting city I’ve seen, but certainly good. The day trips to the palaces at Sintra and Mafra were very memorable on the other hand.

Peniche and it’s surroundings aren’t a tourist trap, it’s busy with surfers instead. The surf camp we booked with, Maximum Surfcamp (now defunct), followed a simple formula: you have a small room, shared bathroom and a communal courtyard where meals were served. In the morning everyone gathers for the buses to the beach, for the surf lessons which continue into the afternoon. You also get a wetsuit (the water isn’t warm on Portugal’s Atlantic coast) and a surfboard. And mountain bikes to explore the surroundings. This for seven days for a flat fee of € 500 per person.

The food was very simple but adequate. We did decide to eat in a good restaurant in Peniche a few nights for more varied food. We would have desired some more luxury in the sense of a private bathroom. The surf camp also had a rather large scale, with a lot of people who were hosted on the grounds. Smoking being allowed at the busy courtyard wasn’t good. On the other hand, the company of the other surfers was great and the surf teachers were friendly. And of course the surfing itself is so much fun. There is some kind of magic in the calm of waiting with others in the line up, waiting for the next wave to ride.

I felt like I learned a lot and would definitely want to do a whole week of surfing again. Since doing the surf camp I surf regularly at Scheveningen. You have to be lucky to get good surfing conditions and with surfing being relatively difficult to learn, I feel I need a lot of time to advance in skill. Even so, I greatly enjoy it. I certainly want to come back to Portugal for more.

Photography wise, I couldn’t be stuffed to take a lot of photos somehow. Those I did take I don’t regard as interesting. I want to finish with a few restaurant recommendations: Laurentina in Lisbon and A Sardinha in Peniche. You’ll have a hard time with vegetarian and vegan food, but I like the ubiquitous dried salted cod, called bacalhau in Portugese. It’s interesting how they can prepare it in so many different ways.

Married to Stephanie

After I proposed to Stephanie in September 2016 I married her on 2 September 2017. After a lot of organizing the day of our marriage turned out fabulous. And best of all, we still feel as if we are in love and enjoy the days we have spent together since then.

Wedding photoshoot at Clingendael garden

We decided to give ourselves approximately a year to organize the marriage. I consider this to be a very long time. Depending on what your choices are it could have been done in a few months, but with our wishes a year was justified. Apparently a year is close to the average time taken to organize a wedding.

The first choice was the wedding location. A good wedding location for us meant a combination of attractive outdoor and indoor spaces. The latter is important if the weather doesn’t cooperate. These are hard to find around The Hague and the ones which do exist are expensive. We turned down Landgoed Te Werve in Rijswijk because the location’s catering was inflexible, since we had specific ideas about what should be on the menu. In the end we settled on Kasteel de Wittenburg, a beautiful country house in Wassenaar.

This location was relatively expensive, but it was worth it. We intended to get married only once in our lives, after all. What convinced me was that I could talk directly to the chef about the catering and the menu. The location had a beautiful garden and outdoor space, as well as a spacious interior.

Arrival at Kasteel de Wittenburg

The dinner we had ordered for the day guests turned out to be merely okay by my standards, it wasn’t as good as I had hoped for. This might have been so because a new chef had been employed by the time of our wedding. Unlike the former chef, I did not communicate with him and involve myself more in the vegan dinner dishes. Our day guests, who ate the meat and fish dishes, were satisfied though.

Personally, I’d like wedding locations to allow external catering so that we could have hired the finest Indonesian or Surinamese catering from The Hague to provide the dinner for the day guests and the snacks for all the guests in the evening. Like in a self service buffet instead of having personnel to serve all the food to the tables. Taking this further, if the location would allow it you could buy all the drinks yourself and tell your guests they can help themselves, so you can again do without personnel to serve it. Stephanie didn’t like these ideas though, so that’s why I compromised and we opted for Kasteel de Wittenburg.

Exchange of our wedding rings

We spent more time on finding a good band. From other weddings I’ve visited I know an average or a great band can make a big difference in the atmosphere at the party. We went with Plunck, which is a cover band which did mostly pop music, but they were very good at their job. They weren’t expensive either. We highly recommend them.

For the wedding cake we employed Perfect Pastry. Usually I’m not a big fan of wedding cakes and would prefer a good apple pie or cheese cake even at a wedding, but Stephanie convinced me to do a traditional wedding cake. Perfect Pastry first invited us for a tasting to design the wedding cake and were very pleasant to work with, so they get our recommendation. For the wedding photography, we employed Rutger van der Bent and decided to go to the Clingendael public park in The Hague. The weather cooperated nicely that day. Both the photographer and the location have our approval.

Finally, I want to emphasize how important it is to have a good master of ceremony to have everything running smoothly on the day of the wedding itself. I’m very grateful to Stephanie’s sister and her friend for doing this.

Why the Fujifilm X100S disappointed me

The Fujifilm X100S could have easily been my perfect camera. It has all the features I need: a wide angle 23 mm lens, good image quality and a small size, all for a price which wasn’t too excessive. In theory, it had all the potential to improve on my previous photography gear, a Nikon D5100 with a Nikon AF-S 35 mm f/1.8G DX lens. After several years of use, I have to say it didn’t work out.

I’ve certainly used the Nikon and the 35 mm lens to make some great photos, but the narrow angle of view of the 35 mm lens kept bothering me. You need some distance from your subject to get them in view of the lens, but in some cases this isn’t possible. Especially if you like street, architecture or landscape photography, like I do. A 23 mm lens offers more versatility in this regard. It comes at the cost of being able to take photos more candidly, because you occasionally have to get close to people you want to photograph, but this is a trade-off I’m okay with.

For some reason I don’t understand, Nikon and Canon don’t offer 23 mm lenses for their APS-C cameras, like the D5100. Do note that APS-C denotes a smaller sensor format compared to cameras with 35 mm format full frame sensors. On full frame cameras, the angle of view of the 23 mm and 35 mm lenses for APS-C cameras are approximately equivalent to 35 mm and 50 mm lenses designed for full frame sensors. There is plenty of choice in 35 mm lenses for Nikon and Canon full frame cameras. Because those options were far too expensive, I decided to get the Fujifilm X100S APS-C camera with its integrated (the camera doesn’t allow you to change the lens) 23 mm lens. Like I bought the D5100 second hand to spend less money, I opted to buy a refurbished X100S for € 800 instead of € 1300 new. I’ve never missed the D5100 with the 35 mm lens since then, except for one thing: proper exposure.

For some reason my X100S structurally underexposes shots in certain situations, which gives you relatively dark and unattractive photos. For an example, see the photos below. The first one is taken by the X100S, the second by the D5100. These are unedited JPEG files without any exposure compensation.

Greenhouse (X100S)

Greenhouse (D5100)

The Nikon JPEG files sometimes exaggerate the saturation and contrast slightly, but for me its clear that the D5100 gave a more accurate representation of what I saw with my own eyes. The X100S shot makes a scene in full sunlight look like an overcast day. I thought something was wrong with my X100S because I didn’t see this issue with other users of this camera, so I sent it in for repair in March 2016. A firmware update and a sensor replacement later, the issue still wasn’t fixed. I sent it in for another repair in October 2016, but after another sensor replacement the issue still persisted. Even though Fujifilm easily accepted the camera for free repairs and did so quickly, I was disappointed with their service. They didn’t communicate at all about why they replaced these parts or their diagnosis of this problem.

I discussed this on the Digital Photography Review forum. I received replies that this is normal behavior for this camera and that people tend to be accustomed to oversaturated colors from other cameras to much. I agree with this argument to some extent, but the X100S takes it to the other extreme. I did heed the advice to shoot RAW files with the X100S and fix the exposure in post-processing. Darktable is excellent for this if you use Linux (though it works on Mac OS and Windows too) and like free and open source software.

This worked out reasonably well for my holiday photos from Italy in 2017, as you can see in my Flickr photostream. But if you take a look at the sky in the photo below (which was ridiculously underexposed originally) at full zoom you’ll see that increasing exposure tends to introduce visible noise. Editing RAW also takes far too much time if you have a lot of photos to process. And I never felt the need to do post-processing on any of the photos I made with the D5100.

Facade of the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia

This is the reason why I want to buy a new camera. The successor of the X100S, the X100F, is out of the question because I don’t trust Fujifilm anymore. With the options as of March 2018, I think I’ll opt for the soon to be available Sony Alpha A7 III (which has a full frame sensor) and a Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM Art lens (which will soon be available for the Sony E-mount). The A7 III body is not much bigger than the X100S, but the Sigma 35 mm lens is huge. I don’t think that will make much difference in practice though, because the X100S doesn’t fit in a pocket anyway. The A7 III will likely be much more expensive than the A7 II which sells at € 1300 currently, but it’s a formidable camera which will wipe the floor with its competitors.

Visited Campania and Calabria in July 2017

This is another belated blog post on our summer holiday. I need to work much harder and post more frequently to catch up.

During our summer holiday of 2017 we visited Southern Italy again, this time the regions of Calabria and Campania. Calabria because I had only seen Reggio and Maratea there, leaving much more to discover. Campania to show Stephanie what I had seen there before. Below is our travel schedule which shows the places of our overnight stays. The train journey and ticket prices for a single person are included.

  • Wed 28 June train from Rotterdam to Torino (€ 101)
  • Thu 29 June train from Torino to Napoli (€ 70)
  • Fri 30 June Scalea
  • Sat 01 July Scalea
  • Sun 02 July Cosenza
  • Mon 03 July Vibo Valentia
  • Tue 04 July Vibo Valentia
  • Wed 05 July Vibo Valentia
  • Thu 06 July Vibo Valentia
  • Fri 07 July Reggio di Calabria
  • Sat 08 July Napoli
  • Sun 09 July Napoli
  • Mon 10 July Napoli
  • Tue 11 July Napoli
  • Wed 12 July train from Napoli to Milano (€ 50)
  • Thu 13 July train from Milano to Rotterdam (€ 90)

On Friday 30 June we took a train from Napoli to Salerno and got our rental car there. We returned our car there again at Saturday 8 July. From Salerno we drove to Scalea, stopping at Paestum and the Pertosa Caves on the way.

The next morning we drove inland to Laino Borgo to go rafting on the Lao River with Pollino Rafting. Somehow the only English speaking instructor ended up on a boat with Italians and we needed some time to get to understand the Italian spoken by our Italian instructor, but we enjoyed the ride. The natural environment of the Lao river valley is so enchantingly beautiful. In the afternoon we relaxed on the long stretch of beach at Praia a Mare, with its peculiar black sand. Be sure to take a look at the secluded Arco Magno beach in the south, which is hidden behind a natural rock arch.

Beach south of Praia a Mare

We visited Cosenza to see more of the hinterland. On the way to Cosenza you can stop at Diamante for a nice historical center embellished with mural paintings. If you are a devout Catholic, make another stop at the sanctuary of Paola, but skip if you’re not. From Cosenza’s center we made the long climb to the city’s Swabian Castle on foot, to be rewarded with an impressive view over the valley of Cosenza. Except for an archaeology museum there isn’t much else to see in this city. Because I like botanical gardens we went to see the botanical garden of the University of Calabria, but this garden turned out to be purely utilitarian. It didn’t have the aesthetic appeal of other botanical gardens I had seen elsewhere.

Mural painting in Diamante

Cosenza seen from the Swabian Castle

Going further south, we made a short stop at Pizzo. It was in Pizzo’s small castle where Joachim Murat, general of Napoleon Bonaparte and king of Naples, was executed. Nowadays the castle has a small exhibition which documents his final days here. A short walk north out of town you can find the rock-cut Church of Piedigrotta close to the sea. The artistic quality of the sculptures there wasn’t really worth our time. What is certainly worth your time is a taste of tartufo, an ice cream dessert which was invented in Pizzo.

Vibo Valentia came next. It lies in the hinterland and is not frequented by tourists. For three days we would drive from this place to the coastal towns which were more popular with tourists. Tropea is the premier resort town in the area here. It has a charming old center, situated on cliff with a steep drop towards its beautiful beach with crystal clear water.

Further to the south, the beaches near Capo Vaticano were no less endowed by nature with stunning beauty. It is not surprising that the beach of Grotticelle is quite busy with tourists, but not in the extreme in early July. It’s certainly worth it, but there are also many beaches which are relatively quiet, remote and unspoiled by beach bars. I can recommend the beaches of Michelino near Parghelia and Marinella near Zambrone, both a short distance north of Tropea. I have a lot more beaches to visit in Southern Italy, but these around Tropea and Capo Vaticano rank among my best.

Grotticelle beach

A Ficara beach

Beach of Tropea

Besides hitting beaches, we had a cooking class and a diving trip. We went for a one day cooking class in the vicinity of Tropea, organized by In Italy Tours. This course at Agriturismo Manitta emphasized food tasting over teaching, but I greatly enjoyed it nevertheless. Our host Tania was very friendly, it was fun to chat with the other Canadian participants and the food was awesome.

We went diving with Dannam Diving Tropea. They are actually located in Marina di Zambrone and drive you to the harbor of Tropea to board a rigid-inflatable boat there. In our case, they took us to the rocks in front of the beach of Riaci. Because we had never done diving before, this was a discovery dive for people who don’t have a diving license, the dive doesn’t go deep, maybe five meters. We didn’t see anything the people from the beach, who were swimming above us with snorkels, would have missed. We certainly didn’t see the more exciting and exotic marine life shown on their website, just sea urchins and the common small fish. Even so, it was interesting to go through this experience. I’ll settle for free diving in the future though, because it doesn’t require so much preparation and equipment.

After all this, we continued south towards Reggio. We stopped at Rosarno and Gioia Tauro, which both have small museums on the excavations of Medma and Metauros respectively. Unless you are highly interested in archaeology and history like me, they’re not worth stopping for. The last stop before Reggio was Scilla, which was totally sublime. Like Tropea it’s located on the shore, but it’s sited on a taller cliff with a more dramatic drop towards it’s lovely beach. The Castello Rufo, built where the cliff projects into the sea, offers a magnificent view over the surroundings. Before leaving, we went to Ristorante Glauco east of the castle to enjoy very good food and more scenic views from their rooftop terrace.

Boats east of Castello Rufo

Beach of Scilla

Castello Rufo seen from east

In Reggio di Calabria I could finally visit the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia. The last time I visited it was under renovation. I love the result, anyone who is even remotely interested in archaeology and history should visit this museum. Especially the Riace bronzes are astonishing works of art. Since Reggio was leveled by earthquakes several times in history, there isn’t much else to see in this city.

We spent the following day driving back from Reggio to Salerno. I was in for a stop at water park, Odissea 2000 at Rosarno. Because we departed late there wasn’t enough time, so we skipped it. We spent three more days in Napoli, visited Herculaneum and Pompeii again south of the city. I wanted to see several places which I had not visited before.

Herculaneum, looking northeast

Of these, the Parco Archeologico delle Terme di Baia was very worthwhile. I like to fantasize about how decadent this huge thermal baths complex would have been in its prime. It’s a short walk from the Fusaro station on the Cumana railway. Determined to visited the Aragonese castle of Baia and the museum inside, we walked all the way uphill (no public transport there!) to see that the castle was closed on Sunday afternoon. The Portici Palace and it’s botanical garden were closed as well. There is so much to see in Napoli and its vicinity that another visit is warranted in the future.

I think the rafting, the cooking course and the diving added some more diversity to the travel plan. What also helped is that we stayed in the same place for longer and drove shorter distances. This holiday was a success. For the coming summer, my question is if Sardinia’s fine beaches can eclipse those of Calabria?