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2014-01-27 08:48

Subtropisch zwemparadijs

A "subtropisch zwemmparadijs" is one of those swimming complexes with slides and wave-machines and a snackbar. It is where Dutch children of a certain age (which thankfully ours have not yet reached) aspire to hold their many birthday parties.

If you are president of Glorious Nation of Russia, like Mr Vladimir "Pantomime"Putin (boo!, we all shout!) you can go one step further and arrange to host the Winter Olympics in a subtropisch zwemparadijs.

Panto Putin (boo!) comes in for a lot of stick, all of it richly deserved, but as Evil Megalomaniac Dictator Follies go, this is actually one of the more cheerfully ridiculous ones we can remember.

(There's Ski Dubai - "the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East!" - we suppose, but it's not the same. And even if they did extend it to Olympic scale and stage the winter games they'd only be doing it for a bet with Qatar to see who could be more callously indifferent to the deaths of Nepalese gastarbeiters, and it just wouldn't be the same.)

2014-01-19 08:59

Why, despite being geeky and antisocial, I am not especially rich

1. Games!

The children have moved on from Finland's Angry Birds to Russia's Cut the Rope.

The adults abandoned Farmville long ago and are now doing Zweden's Candy Crush.

The Spiegel has a(n unlinkable) cover story about how computer games are no longer for antisocial teenagers plotting school massacres in darkened bedrooms and some factoidal nuggets about the economics of micro-transaction-driven social gaming. (Executive summary: you can make money.)

We ourself played a lot of computer games in the early 80s, and we regret bitterly having been too stupid, lazy and unimaginative to have learned how to write games in that era of teenage superstar hackers buying Porsches they couldn't drive. (We mostly played Elite).

Then we got out of computing for a decade during which (not coincidentally) the Microsoft-powered PC was the dominant platform. When we finally came back, it was all Unix and Linux, which we've used ever since. (But which are nobody's idea of a gaming platform.)

And now it's another glorious golden-age of bedroom hackers and untold riches and frankly we would quite like a piece of the action.

Now all we need is a cure for lazy and stupid...

2014-01-06 08:24

Other persons' hobbies

There is nothing - nothing! - more soothing on our occasional visits to Eng-ger-lnd than to call in at a motorway service station ostensibly for breakfast and then pop into periodical-vendor WH Smith's to browse the many glossy magazines devoted to hobbies we do not have.

Particularly delight was extracted, this year, from PC PILOT - a magazine dedicated to flight simulators, from which we learned that there is a thriving market in third-party extensions to Microsoft's venerable Flight Simulator - and Scale Aviation Modeller International. (We're currently building a plastic 1:72 model triplane to commemorate the impending centenary of the start of World War One. As a hobby it has all the appeal of watching paint dry, since this is quite non-figuratively the main activity.)

We also commend Retro Gamer, but that is of borderline relevance to our actually-existing interests. (We missed the 16-bit era, which is their main focus, altogether, and in these days of ubiquitous emulation we find we still can't be fussed actually playing the games. But we love the way they look, and we have an insatiable appetite for implementation details.)

2013-12-16 19:34

16 bits should be enough for anyone

If modern science has taught us anything - and it has! - then it is that children love video games. From horrible in-browser Flash platform games featuring Belgian super-heroine Mega Mindy, through incomprehensible Playstation games in shops and the children's play areas of motorway service stations, if it flashes luridly and has buttons then they are sold.

Meanwhile, one of our colleagues is a recovering Amiga fan, whose unrecovery takes the form of hoarding torrented games for an emulator, and another is (rightly) convinced of the superiority of the biweekly German computer magazine C't over the monthly Dutch version with the same name.

And then the German C't included an Amiga emulator on their included DVD, and I was both informed of this and of the necessity of acquiring it.

So I did. And I got what maybe the last PC gamepad in the world, judging by how hard it was to track down. And now Boris van 't Blad is a considerable fan of chunky 16-bit gaming action also.

The odd thing, though, is that the nostalgia these games invoke in us isn't especially for own past - we never had an Amiga or anything else 16-bit. (We skipped everything between the Acorn BBC 8-bit micro and the dawn of the Linux era.)

But we are nonetheless delighted to know of Retro Gamer magazine (twinned with Middle-Aged Man-Child), which tells you everything you need to know about the games, assuming you didn't need to be told, except how to play them now. (We assume that most of the answers to that question involve breaking applicable IP laws in some of the magazine's jurisdictions.)

But now we find ourself wanting to study 68000-era machine code and to know more of this "sprite" technology of which they speak. (Everyone speaks fondly of the Amiga. I've never heard anyone speak fondly of Windows-era PCs, and I can't find anyone who regrets the way they are increasingly being sidelined.)

2013-12-07 22:34

Monday review of stuff

Jeff Duntemann's Assembly Language Step by Step was published in 2000. He made the eccentric decision to spent most of the book explaining the anachronistic masochisms of the x86s 16-bit "real" mode, with its appalling set of segmented addressing modes.

It's not even a good book on its own terms - it is engagingly garrulous and readable, but the information density is distressingly low, and even when you put all of it together you don't really have enough to actually do anything.

(I note he now has a new book specifically on Linux, but I can't say I'm particularly tempted.)

This wouldn't matter even to us, if it wasn't for the fact that I am currently more than usually interested in compiler theory, and I want to use the x86 as the target for my Toy Compiler. Compiler book writers seem to basically hate the x86, and they would rather have you generate code for a fictional RISC architecture than endure its palimpsest of historically-conditioned disfunctionalities. And I wouldn't blame them either, except that it is still what I've got to work with.

Then, of course, there is the fact that gcc generates mad code in the equally mad AT&T syntax, which everyone else refuses to talk about, and before you know it you're having roughly no fun at all.

My goal is to write a tiny, trivial compiler for a desk-top calculator and then to gradually build it up to something approximating a programming language. (I haven't seen this done before with a "real" compiler, although Kernighan and Pike do build up their "hoc" calculator for a virtual machine in The UNIX programming environment, which is certainly an excellent book.)

Ultimately, we would also like it to do Just In Time compilation, and it is not improving our mood at all that this leads us to use C as the implementation language.

We have to say, though, that getting an actual assembler program to run and actually do something (anything!) is kind of a kick. We haven't tried to do that since the glorious 8-bit days when the big religious war was Z80 vs 6502.

2013-11-17 21:52

Smrgspost, because really

1. Yankee doodle!

Being a small chain of American "fun" restaurants in the north of the Netherlands, which we may have had occasion previously to mention. Our Varied Reader will waste no time inferring that "fun" means "basically wretched" and quite right too: it is an all-you-can-eat formula redolent of budget all-inclusive holiday kitchens.

BUT they wisely include bier and childrens entertainment, and if your extended family is anything like ours then it will probably come out as a net win. (Unless it is your problem when they end up puking their guts out afterwards, which happily it wasn't.)

2. e-Cigarettes; best thing evar?

Of course they are! Of course, our basis for comparison is currently some past-its-drink-by-date Polish lager that our colleague brought back from our other colleague's wedding a couple of years ago, but it is nonetheless a considerable pleasure to inhale a mild drug without being exiled to the outside.

3. Winterval

Apparently Winterval is mostly scheduled to begin on 30 November, as are assorted Cherman Christmas Markts.

But for us, the opening of the season is the Sint Maarten parade of lampioens, when children go door-to-door singing their many songs of Sint Maarten in the expectation of snoep, sweets and/or candy.

(Our family museum, which doubles as the downstairs toilet, is largely full of yesteryears lampioens - it is the pre-school project of choice for the autumn, fall or herfst.)

4. Intocht

As our Varied Reader will be acutely aware, the arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands is scheduled for the Saturday following Sint Maarten, and this year the televised national intocht came to our very own city of Groningen.

Thousands were expected to show up; we stayed firmly at home and watched it on the telly. (And grew swiftly restless and wandered off to play with Lego and stuff, to say nothing of the children. Which is why we stayed at home.)

Every year the Sinterklaasjournaal dramatizes the run-up to the actual festivities on or around 5 December, and every year our children apparently conclude that they will get their presents anyway and that all the hilarious dramas can safely be neglected, and we for one can see their point.

5. Exercise and its discontents

We ran a 5km fun non-race in October. This was of course a mistake: despite having done slightly more training than none we noticed after a kilometre that our ankle was b0rkd, and after the full distance it had swollen up and was a source of considerable discomfort.

We then spent an entertaining few weeks limping around. What larks!

6. Parsenakkers!

Thanks, presumably, to us parsenips are now pretty commonly available in our local supermarkt. We like to roast them, and them eat them.

7. Langwidge politics

#2 Daughter continues to more-or-less refuse to speak Engleesh to us or anyone else. At the same age #1 son was vigorously patrolling linguistic boundaries - he was and is scandalised when I speak my "terrible" Dutch.

We'll see how far Twinkletree in Blighty can remedy the situation - our children are getting bilingualled not because Increasingly Global English, but because Actually-Existing Grandmother, and it would really help if #2 could communicate with the Dowager Countess.

8. Bedtime!

2013-10-15 16:52

The end of an intergalactic era

So farewell then, Intergalactic Herald Tribune.

From now on any luddite ex-pat who wants to read base-ball reports a day late on a base of smooshed dead trees, or to keep up with the very latest on the FDR's "shape of the earth: opinions differ" debates will have to look out for the "International New York Times".

(We mock it, but it was still better than most british newskrants, if you have even a passing interest in Abroad. British newskrants don't really do Abroad.)

2013-09-16 11:23

How to tell if you're getting any younger

The guitar I bought myself for my fortieth (40th) birthday now has some pretty serious wear on the frets.

As the long-suffering Countess would be the first to tell our Varied Reader, we have played it a lot in the period before and after our now-mangled finger was splinted up, but even so.

2013-09-16 08:07

Stang by a wesp, and other stories

1. Stang by a wesp.

It's the time of year when the wesps feel the chill of approaching death in the air and totally lose their shit. One of them decided to go out in a blaze of "Huh, WTF?" by sneaking up my trouser leg and stinging me on the calf.

2. Retail - my part in its downfall

The local guitar shop has what they say is an 80s Korean-made Squier bullet strat for sale, including a case, for just EUR 95.

The Countess, having accompanied me on the expedition to buy strings, promptly suggested that I could buy it if I liked. But I didn't like - I don't get on with strats.

Previously that day I had neglected to buy Total Guitar Magazine. It is cool that they sell it in the newsagent in my unfashionable suburb of a northern Dutch city, but they sell it for EUR 10.49, and the transcription of Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" in the last issue we bought was shockingly far from fit for purpose - you would be better off with random Internet tablature, and that's setting the bar pretty low.

On the other hand, my new hobby is being outbid for heavy metal transcription books on eBay, so there is a chance capitalism may survive after all, even if the retail sector continues to collapse.

3. Moondag review of moondag

Moondag is the day we are home with assorted childrens, but it is still a dag when no errands of any consequence can be run - the local bikeshop isn't open and the computer shop isn't open either.

Last moondag morning we cycled into town, only to find that that is shut until about lunchtime too. Broadly speaking I am totally up the workers, and this is not an exception, but it does impactfully affect the amount I can get done.

2013-08-23 13:51


We have a print of a Dubonnet poster in our kitchen, but we have never actually tried the stuff. And it looks increasingly unlikely we'll get the chance - hypermarkts in France overwhelmingly neglect to stock it.

And if the Beeboids are to be trusted it's not exactly ubiquitous in Blighty either:

Both in age and class, the Queen fits the dwindling demographic of Dubonnet drinkers, says Mr Wykes, who says his own grandmother is partial to it.

(The Beeboids can of course be trusted to confine their attention only to Blighty, but that happens a lot.)

Meanwhile, a monthly events magazine in Alsace had a comedy "What Alsations miss when they're on holiday" column that brought to our attention the (typically) orange bitters Picon, used as an additive to beer for l'apro.

So we took to drinking that instead.

The aperatif is a particularly vital part of French culture: advertisements for pretzels and crisps ("chips") in glossy magazines have (presumably mandatory) small print warning against consumption between meals and rather larger print commending their merits as aperatifs.

The half-kilo bags of crisps ("chips") piled up at the checkout at the supermarket in Champagne-Ardenne where presumably all destined for particularly festive aperatifs with many guests, because that's an awful lot of crisps ("chips").

(Although the persons who tell you that Frenchpersons don't get fat apparently mean that the Frenchpersons they see in fashionable parts of Paris they themselves restrict themselves to frequenting, because out in the campagne there is not particularly or especially a shortage of persons of more than considerable substance or heft.)

2013-08-20 21:42


Luxembourg always seems unreasonably trim and dapper, even by Dutch standards. I have a sneaking suspicion that it is actually auditioning for a role (as Luxembourg) in a Paul Auster novel, in which a man has undertaken - for reasons too profound to discuss - to replace the country with a 1-1 scale model of itself, and see if anyone can tell the difference.

2013-08-18 20:12

Vers de vancance


The children, slathered in ointments,
Bounce on the campsite trampoline.
Their parents refill their waterbottles
And seek out a seat in the shade.

On the road

The posters urge for Marine le Pen,
The bar-tabac is overgrown and long since shut.
The supermarket takes a three-hour lunchbreak -
Some things are still sacred.


They come out of the low countries in their thousands
and their hundreds of thousands.
They come with their caravans and their trailers
and their cars stuffed full with tents,
And all of these adorned with bikes.
They come - malicious rumour has it -
with bags of potatoes and crates of beer
And their own peculiar sandwich toppings.

They follow the tracks of their fathers,
And their fathers' fathers.
And I am coming with them.


Astride an inflatable crocodile,
With rubber armbands, just in case,
A murky pool beside a sluggish canal
Is a sea of (more or less) endless adventure.

The slimy feel of vegetation underfoot
Reminds me - my legs have grown too long
And my mind too jaded.


On my second trip in a day to the supermarket
My attempt at the vowel for "stamps"
Comes out intelligibly, for once.
My "Au revoir" is countered
With "Je vous en prie"
The cashier turned already to rebugg
Another ill-conceived attempt
to buy - "C'est rserv" - a loaf of bread

On a Mountain Lake

Below us drift white clouds in barely-rippled water.
A dash of blue as a dragonfly darts by.
The gentle thrumming of the paddle wheels -
Be prompt for the pedalos and these are the rewards.

On the weather in Alsace

"C'est un orage", says the man
At the snack-bar counter, beer in hand,
As the thunder rumbles in the clear blue sky,
"Mais pas ici. Dan les Vosges."

Qu'est-ce qu'on va faire?

On va faire un shopping,
Un shopping, un shopping,
On va faire un shopping,
Un shopping,
Un shopping aujourd'hui.

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