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?

The failure of GroenLinks to join the new coalition government

Jesse Klaver, political leader of GroenLinks, is blamed by VVD, CDA and D66 for the failure of the formation of a new Dutch coalition government. Negotiations failed because GroenLinks doesn’t want to make any “Turkey-deals” in the future to restrict streams of refugees from Africa. The VVD notes that governing leftist political parties elsewhere in Europe, like in Greece and Portugal, do agree with this policy. The CDA considers these deals a new European reality and thinks the desire of GroenLinks is impossible to satisfy with the rest of Europe being in favor of it.

The refugee deal with Turkey entailed that refugees ask for asylum in Turkey and are prevented from travelling to Europe to do so. Refugees (including those which reach Europe) are received by Turkey, for which the EU pays. Eventually, those who receive a refugee status (primarily Syrians) get divided over the EU member states. Klaver thinks that Turkey is not a safe country for refugees, based on the reports written by Amnesty International. He does not think Tunesia is safe, either.

Based on a reconstruction of the Volkskrant and the other parties, GroenLinks agreed to potential refugee deals on Thursday 8 June. This happened after a top diplomat explained that refugee deals can be compliant with international law. According to GroenLinks all parties should have known that Klaver would bring in new discussion points the day after. Klaver added a demand that the Netherlands should take in 5 to 25 thousand refugees a year after committing to refugee deals. This demand was later shelved, but Klaver maintained his objection to sending back refugees to African countries. When the impasse continued on Monday 12 June, the negotiations ended.

In an interview with the Volkskrant on Thursday 15 June, Jesse Klaver said negotiations could have failed over plenty of other issues. Examples he gives are the failure to meet the goals of Paris climate treaty, or the desire of the other parties to ease the bonus regulations for bankers. That last wish was apparently dropped by the others after Klaver stated he didn’t agree with it, but imagine how different the news headlines would have been if negotiations broke down over either of these two issues. Klaver wouldn’t have been blamed for ending the negotiations. Compliance with the Paris treaty would have been considered a much more legitimate policy goal than a more lenient asylum policy.

I’m very disappointed with Klaver. He gained a historical election victory and could have made GroenLinks participate in the governing coalition for the first time in our party’s history. But he squandered it. He bowed his head to the pro-refugee camp in GroenLinks and refused to compromise on the refugee deals. We know that there is huge support for such deals among other EU-member states and among the general Dutch population. Actually, given the seats the right wing parties have won and the general sentiment, there is precisely that support for containing the refugee influx.

By now the VVD, CDA and D66 parties have formed a coalition government with the ChristenUnie, a Chistian political party. At least the sound environmental policy of the ChristenUnie comes second to only GroenLinks itself. It pains me to write this, but environmentalists might have been better off voting for the ChristenUnie because that party does have courage to make compromises. GroenLinks doesn’t want to compromise or take responsibility.

Stopped as secretary of GroenLinks Zuid-Holland

In April this year I ended my tenure as the secretary of the board of GroenLinks Zuid-Holland. That is the local chapter of the Dutch Green party in South Holland province. I could have opted for another two year tenure, but I felt I had no longer had the motivation for the job.

Mostly, it was simply the desire to do something different after two years of working for the board of the provincial chapter. That’s why I’ve solicited to become a candidate for the GroenLinks branch in The Hague for the municipal council elections of 2018. Another reason is that the nature of work done by the secretary is not satisfying. It became frustrating and inefficient too often. I’ll explain this in detail here.

As the secretary I often communicated with local chapters and party members in our province. Contact data of party members, including members of local chapter boards and local politicians is all stored in the Customer Relations Management (CRM) system of GroenLinks. The secretary is the only one who has access to the CRM system.

I had to export the data on party members from the CRM to MailChimp, which is used by our chapter to send our members newsletters. Because there are constant mutations in membership, you have to perform a new export from the CRM every time you send a newsletter. If you send newsletters often, this can be quite a hassle. MailChimp is also expensive (around € 60 per month if I remember correctly) because the South Holland chapter has several thousand members who receive newsletters. If you consider that there are many more local branches in the country who use MailChimp to send newsletters, the costs start adding up. But the party bureau never considered a cheaper alternative for MailChimp for all local chapters, or at least some integration of the CRM with MailChimp.

Another issue with MailChimp is that a good template which local branches can use for their newsletters is missing. If every local chapter makes its own inferior template it doesn’t look like professional communication. At the very least the party bureau should design such a template. I’ve asked, but the answer was that everyone was busy with the election for the House of Representatives this year. But nothing happened after that election either.

It isn’t possible to filter on certain job titles in the CRM system. I can’t make a selection of municipal councillors or aldermen, or a selection of campaign leaders, and only export data on those persons. Because our campaigners need that contact data I had to maintain separate spreadsheets with those contact persons and manually update them when changes occur. Very dull work and inefficient. Giving every chapter distribution lists such as board.rotterdam@groenlinks.nl or campaignleaders.southholland@groenlinks.nl and synchronizing these with the CRM to catch mutations in the members of the list could solve this.

The content management system (CMS) behind the websites is no good either. Drupal is used to power the websites. I don’t know if it’s inherent to Drupal or not, but it’s not user friendly at all, even for an IT guy like me. That’s why it’s even more frustrating to read that the web team of the GroenLinks party bureau simply denies that there are usability issues. This was especially frustrating for me, certainly after helping webmasters of local chapters in our province with issues several times.

A disadvantage of the CMS and CRM combined is that there is no feature to keep track of registrations for events. Advance registration is necessary in my opinion if you organize a meeting and have a voting procedure on the agenda. You want to know if attending people have voting rights, which are granted to party members who have paid their contribution. The best thing you can do in the CMS is enabling a registration form, which buries you in registration e-mails if a lot of people want to attend. You then manually need to verify if those people have voting rights. This is another very labour intensive and demotivating job. I suspect the party bureau does have some way to automate their registration forms for their own much larger events. Yet they never considered to develop a registration form for the CMS which is integrated with the CRM for local branches.

To conclude, the secretary plays an important role on the board. But if the secretary is not supported by the party bureau with the right tools, the job becomes very unattractive. You find yourself wasting too much time on work which doesn’t demand your skill and intelligence, work which should be automated.

Of course being the secretary also taught me a lot about organization and teamwork skills. I had the benefit to work with many good people. Even though I’m quite critical of the IT facilities provided by the party bureau, there are two employees I’d like to thank: Marieke Schep and Folko de Haan. Both work tirelessly for local chapters.

CETA is dangerous and should not be ratified

On 15 February 2017 the European Parliament approved the Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA). Now the treaty will need to be ratified by individual member states before it comes into effect. Let’s hope that CETA is either adequately modified before it’s ratified or rejected. I’m not principally against free trade agreements, but CETA is a bad treaty. As you might already know, CETA contains many nasty provisions favouring big business over the small citizen.

The Stop TTIP campaign (which also wants to stop CETA) covered these issues very comprehensively. There are too many to discuss in a single post so let’s single out one which worries me most: the investment court system (ICS), also known as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). This is not unique to CETA, but included in many other free trade agreements as well.

The problem with ICS is that it gives foreign investors acces to special courts for investment disputes with states. I can imagine this is justified in case the state in question doesn’t have an impartial legal system, but the EU and Canada have high-quality legal systems. ICS is only accessible for foreign investors, which creates inequality for domestic investors and other actors in society. The rights for foreign investors to have their investments protected are vague and can interfere with the democratic process of lawmaking. And even after modification, judges aren’t employed on a tenured full time basis and a fixed salary, which gives a potential for conflict of interest. These objections, and more, are voiced by 101 European law professors.

Recently South Africa decided to withdraw from treaties with ISDS, Indonesia won’t renew them. India will remodel its treaties to nerf ISDS. Brazil never signed an investment treaty with ISDS at all and doesn’t have difficulty to attract foreign investment. Why do the EU and its member states not notice that? Do we really have to wait for ridiculous claims from foreign investors before we realize that ICS was a terrible idea? Unsurprisingly, my own political party GroenLinks voted against provisional application of CETA for this and other reasons. Another left-wing party, the Dutch Labour Party, thought that ICS was okay after it had been softened (but still subject to the above criticism). D66, slightly less left-wing, maintained that CETA shouldn’t interfere with the rule of law, but voted in favor anyway. They didn’t explain at all why a separate court for foreign investors is necessary.

Fortunately, the regional government of Wallonia resisted CETA fiercely before it reached a compromise with the Belgian federal government to approve the treaty on 27 October 2016. The compromise consisted of an addendum to the treaty which is analyzed in detail here. The most important succes of the compromise is that it requires a review of ICS for compatibility with European law by the European Court of Justice. It also states that the Wallonian region may veto the treaty if the chapter on investment protection is not improved by the time of ratification. We will have to see what their effort is worth by the time they make the decision to ratify the treaty or not.

Even though he couldn’t stop CETA, I’m grateful to Paul Magnette, the minister-president of Wallonia, for his efforts. In an opinion piece on CETA he not only discusses the danger of corporate privilege, but also the environmental consequences of international trade. International trade accelerates climate change through transportation of goods with fossil fuels and should therefore not expand any further. We have to produce more of our goods locally to counter climate change.

Making our home more sustainable proved too costly for now

When we bought our current home over a year ago, I was in love with it. Affordable, in a nice and quiet neighbourhood, lots trees and plants, a decently sized garden. The only caveat was the air heating system, because I wanted my home to be sustainable. Because there weren’t much alternatives, we decided to buy our home and figure out ways to make it more sustainable later.

For sustainability advice I contacted Hoom, a non-profit organization which provides advice on sustainability measures for homes. They send an expert to inspect your home and determine which improvements can be made. This is free of charge, they only charge a small fee for the rest of the process. This starts when you actually want to proceed with making the improvements and ask them to gather and advise you on bids from construction companies. Afterwards they also evaluate the results of the improvement measures.

In November 2016 I had made an appointment with their expert to inspect our house. He was a nice and knowledgeable man who was honest in his advice: I shouldn’t do anything because I wasn’t going to break even on any of the measures I could take. To make our home seriously sustainable, the recipe would be underfloor heating at low temperatures, which in turn requires good insulation. Solar panels on our roof would reduce the electricity bill and a heat pump could replace gas used for heating.

Underfloor heating would require breaking up the floor, a costly measure. The insulation is still decent for a home from the 1980’s, further improvements would have a minor effect but cost lots of money. We couldn’t inspect the insulation of the floor because I couldn’t (and still can’t) locate an entrance to the crawl space. We can’t have solar panels placed on the sunniest southern half of our roof because the large flat roof dormer there can’t carry weight. The remaining free space there just isn’t enough to accomodate a decent surface area of solar panels. And a heat pump is still very expensive and possibly not sufficient to abandon gas completely.

After evaluating our electricity and gas bills I concluded that, even with our relatively inefficient air heating system, we don’t use much gas for our house type (a house at the corner of the block). No more than 1000 m3 compared to 1570 on average. Surprisingly it’s the other way around for electricity, more than 3600 kWh compared to 2930 on average. I don’t have the idea we use devices demanding much electricity often though and most of our lighting uses LED’s.

Sustainability is an ideal for me. I’d also appreciate the comfort of underfloor heating very much, because the air heating system does a very poor job at heating our attic in the winter. However, I’m also motivated financially and don’t want to spend a large percentage of my modest savings. I’ve heeded the advice of the expert and won’t perform any home improvements for now. I’ll focus on figuring out how we can reduce our electricity consumption, that would definitely be the low-hanging fruit now. At the same time, it’s disappointing that I can’t take serious measures. I’ll probably ask Hoom or another organization for a new opinion in a few years.

Make high-speed rail travel more efficient

Last year I wrote that I had stopped using aircraft because of their excessive use of fossil fuels. The consequence was that from then on I would only use other forms of transport to travel for holidays. In fact mostly trains for their speed. Last year we practiced what I preached and used the train to travel to Puglia.

The journey went well. The French TGV and the Italian FrecciaRossa high-speed trains can reach speeds of 300 km/h, shortening travel times significantly compared to ordinary trains and buses. On the railroad from The Hague in the Netherlands to Foggia in Italy, you’ll experience these speeds between Paris and Lyon as well as Milan and Bologna for example. It’s awesome to see the surroundings next to the train flash by in the blink of an eye. The problem is that you won’t be travelling so fast for most of the time.

Take the part from Rotterdam to Paris, Lyon and then Milan for example. Coincidentally, according to Google Maps the distance covered by all three legs of this journey is very close at approximately 450 kilometers each. Travel times are also close, at 4:30 hours each. This doesn’t take into account possible congestion, but the route is a worst case scenario which passes through the center of each city. For the train journey with Thalys (from Rotterdam) and TGV (from Paris onwards), the three legs take 2:46, 1:51 and 5:11 (!) hours respectively.

Much of this is to blame on the route through the Alps where the TGV can’t go fast and stops at every provincial backwater. This will be solved with the Turin–Lyon high-speed railway, but that is expected to be finished by 2028 due to the construction of the 57 km long Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel. Another big issue is that the Thalys arrives in Paris at Gare du Nord and that the TGV to Milan departs from Gare de Lyon two hours later. There is a good subway connection between both stations, but you lose a lot of time which could have been spent in the train.

Such important tunnels as the Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel should already have been constructed in the past if there had been foresight of the future. Paris should have one huge TGV station on the outskirts of the city. Give it a good connection to the center with a subway line so the TGV’s can be focused on serious long distance travel and short transfers between trains (which also means more trains). When that’s done, high-speed trains will be able to compete much better with aircraft.

In other places the story is the same. Milan also has two stations for high speed trains, requiring you to make a transfer. When you travel from Milan to Foggia, there simply is no high speed rail on Italy’s eastern coast. The intercity on that route wasn’t slow, but I’m looking forward to the new high-speed line from Napoli to Bari which is due to finish in 2022. When I explored options for a trip to Spain (which also has a decent high-speed rail network) I noticed that there is still no high-speed railway between Montpellier and Perpignan (in France) and that there is no high-speed railway from Madrid to Lisbon (even the ordinary railway connections to Lisbon are scarce).

I can deal with such limitations by spending the night in a city half way through the journey. But others will just take a flight. If we want to make long distance train travel attractive, we have to do a lot more.