Monday, June 21, 2010

France Wins!!

The results:

1st place: France
2nd place: Germany
3rd place: Netherlands
4th place: Belgium

What's this? World Cup? No way, it's the motorway challenge, my subjective ranking of national highways, freeways, motorways, autoroutes, autobahnen, autosnelwegs, whatever you want to call them... I've driven all of these multiple times in the past year, and let me tell you why they're quite different.
Bringing up the rear, in 4th place, is Belgium. Belgium takes fourth because there are only four contenders in the contest -- Belgian roads are actually in a different league, a horribly underfunded and frustrating league. They're potholey, trafficky, and worst of all, terribly marked. Even with a TomTom telling you where and when to turn, you can still pick the wrong exit ramp, sub-exit ramp, left-exit, unmarked split, whatever. Horrible. Belgian autosnelwegs kind of redeem themselves at night, however, when their abundance of lighting really makes them shine. I've heard it's because they have so much nuclear energy to burn, and that's the best thing they can think of to do with it. Maybe Google should build a server farm there (actually, that would help me a ton, because Google Maps is excruciatingly slow here!).
Next up, in 3rd place, is my current home, Nederland. The roads themselves are fabulous, so smooth and quiet, at least when they're not under construction. The trouble is, they're almost always under construction. Between the road work and the traffic, which is what you'd expect it to be in the most densely populated country in Europe, driving just takes unreasonably long around here. When you have extra time on your hands for delays, however, they're a pleasure, with good signage, consistent traffic patterns, local & express lanes, and excellent rest stop plazas. The speed limit is the same as Belgium's, 120 kilometers per hour.
Speed, of course, is the main thing going for Germany's autobahns. Speed-hungry Americans at home with their car magazines dream of a beautiful Bavarian day in an ungoverned Porsche Carrera GT. In reality, even a Volvo can be fun to open up for a stretch of no-speed limit driving, and I enjoy doing so on occasion when, for example, I have to pick someone up across the border at Dusseldorf Airport. I've had my V40 up past 160 km/h (100 mph) a few times, and it glides pretty nice. The interesting thing is, though, in the land of Porsche and BMW, that there's always someone faster than you -- no matter how fast you go, and how white-knuckled you feel, you ALWAYS have to keep your eyes on the rear-view mirror because some red or black streak is about to whiz by you. And, famously, they're not shy about flashing headlights and horn-honking if you're in the left lane when they reach your backside. The autobahn is not all speed and roses, however: Germany is a pretty busy country, and the no-limit sections are only out in the countryside between big cities. There are plenty of 120, 90, and even 70 (in construction) km/h speed limits, and it gets quite tiring to be constantly speeding up and slowing down when you're traversing the country. Traffic can get pretty snarly, too, and there's nothing like cresting a hill at 140 km/h to discover a sea of brake lights and hazard lights three lanes wide as you slam on the brakes. The autobahn has great rest stop plazas, and the slight annoyance of having to pay 50 cents to use the toilet is mostly quenched by the fact that you get your 50 cents back in discount form when you buy a drink or anything. Between Germany and the Netherlands, the roads themselves are similar, Dutch rest stops are a little better, but the optional speed limit (official rule is "130 km/h recommended") wins by a mile. Or a kilometer.
In first place, France takes the gateau, even though its autoroutes are the only ones in the group with tolls -- expensive tolls, at that, like 14 Euro for 2 hours of driving! French speed limits are 130 km/h, marginally higher than Dutch and Belgian, rest stops are fine, similar to Dutch ones, and the roads themselves are generally in good shape without many construction delays. This all sounds fine, though not outstanding, but somehow everything comes together to make a very pleasant driving experience. I've driven all the way out to Bretagne, and the near-constant 130 km/h just feels more productive than the start-stop annoyance of the autobhn. Traffic somehow is rarely a problem, except right around Paris -- maybe it's the abundance of lanes (3 lanes each way most of the Autoroute du Nord from Lille to Paris), maybe there are fewer trucks, or maybe the lack of tailgating Audis makes it seem more relaxed. It would be easy to argue either side of all-out speed vs. average speed & convenience in the Germany/France contest. But, on my last trip to France, they truly frosted their own cake. Surely you know how infamous the French are for their propensity to go on strike: "GREVE" signs, farm fields on Paris streets, walkouts in the Metro, etc. Well, it turns out when the toll collectors strike, there's nobody to collect the toll! They just wave you right through. Viva la France!

Thursday, June 3, 2010


That's right, Verkiezingen (fair-KEYS-ing-n) -- Elections!

As you may have heard, the Dutch government dissolved in February over a disagreement about continued Dutch participation in the war in Afghanistan. This dissolution nonsense is foreign to American politics, but the basic idea is that the "government" is always a coalition of parties in Parliament who agree on a common platform and work together toward their shared goals. This is necessary because unlike the two-party system in the US, in which one is always a majority, there are a dozen political parties here so no party can have its way without cooperation. Apparently before the previous elections in 2006, the Labor party, PVdA (Partij voor de Arbeid) promised to pull out of Afghanistan once the present commitment expired. However, PVdA, as part of the governing coalition, did not get the other major party, CDA (Christen Democratisch Appèl, literally Christian Democratic Appeal, a centrist, conservative-leaning and actually not Bible-thumpingly Christian party), to agree to this pull out. In February, de poep sloeg de ventilator aan (the shit hit the fan) on the issue, no agreement could be made, and poof, the coalition dissolved.

The only solution to a dissolved coalition is a new election, after which a new pecking order is established among the parties, and they can negotiate new agreements to forge a better coalition. This election is coming next week, on June 9. And yes, that means that from February until now, the Netherlands has not had a functioning parliament. Apparently this is no problem?! As everywhere, voters are reactionary and have short memories, so in the current election CDA is expected to be punished, PVdA is likely to gain seats for standing up for the pull-out from an unpopular conflict, and various other parties will win or lose a bit. It will remain quite a mystery which (and how many -- it might require 4 parties this time) parties will join the first-place party to form a governing coalition.

I don't get to vote, of course, but if I did, the party best suited to me is Partij voor de Dieren (Party for the Animals)! Surprised? Me too, but that was the result of an interesting online election guide in which I had to agree or disagree with a bunch of issue questions. Go animals! Actually, as you can see below, my preference for the animals is really quite small. In fact, judging from this graph, there really isn't any party in the Netherlands for me. I suppose that means there's room in the political landscape for a new party - the Grumpy Americans Party (and we'll shop at the GAP).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Funkadelic Philatelic

A collection of interesting stamps, all on one envelope, which by the way was the vessel for the Master's thesis that a student I supervised mailed me. Cool, eh? Click the pic for the big version!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

58 Miles Per Gallon

That's right, I GET 58 MILES PER GALLON, consistently, in daily commuting, without fancy devices or expensive add-ons, and YOU CAN TOO!! I'll share the secret to my success with you, DEAR READER, not because I want your money, but because everyone deserves to benefit from such AMAZING FUEL ECONOMY!!

When I moved to Holland, I sold the two cars I owned in USA: a 1998 Acura Integra and a 2003 VW Jetta Wagon. The Acura averaged about 29 mpg, and the VW about 27. Not bad, compared to the average American's ride, but not stellar, either. Here, I bought a Volvo V40, same vintage as my previous VW -- however, with the exchange rate and the higher cost of cars here, the Volvo purchase depleted the sale value of both the previous cars! Bummer...

Luckily, the Volvo is a nice car. Comfy, quick, good for a growing family driving to Switzerland and such. When shopping for cars here, comfort and efficiency were of main importance, so I was immediately comparing tax costs and fuel economy. The tax (paid quarterly, more like a registration cost than a sales tax or such) on a car in the Netherlands is determined by its weight and fuel economy. The Volvo is middle of the road for both, but the fuel economy numbers were the interesting ones for me. How does 9.4 Liters/100 kilometers sound? Compared to what, you say? Inverting that figure and converting to English units, that means 25.5 miles per gallon (mpg). A little worse than our American cars. It is interesting to note that the average engine size in USA is 3.6 Liters. Here, it is 1.8 L: half! Ever the wiseguy, though, I'm countering these statistics. Both the VW and Acura in US were 1.8 L cars, and the Volvo here is a 2.0! The Volvo can roll with about 31 mpg on the motorway when driving long distances, but much of what we use it for is trafficky, low-speed driving in the local area, where it dips as low as 21. Surely, there is something better, right?

That's right. Now, I get 58 mpg.

The story of this amazing transformation begins with coffee, or koffie, as it's known here - sounds the same, though, except maybe a little more closed "o" sound for the first syllable, unlike the midwest/Rochester "flat-a" sound that you may be familiar with. Anyway, when I lived in America, I never drank coffee. Despite all the Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and McDonald's, despite growing up near Seattle, despite engineering all nighters, I never picked up a coffee habit. But, my first week working in Holland, I was hooked. At work, coffee is free, and it's dispensed by a wonderful, shiny, touchscreen automat that is always ready to please. Coffee is a social thing -- several times a day, someone pops into my office, "Wil je koffie?" or "Becky?" (Becky -- my spelling -- is a shortening of the word "beker," or "bekertje," which is a coffee cup, though the word reminds me of a chem lab beaker.)

Dutch coffees are tiny. Forget venti and grande, a Dutch coffee is smaller than short. It tops out at about 4 ounces, 118 mL, especially the Mokka I typically get from the office automat. So, when I tell you I now drink a couple, sometimes even four, coffees per day, I think I'm still consuming less than one Starbucks...

What does all this coffee have to do with miles per gallon? Simple. I put a cyclocomputer on my Gazelle commuting bike, reset to 0 kilometers on 21 September, 2009. I also started keeping track of my coffee consumption at work (which is why I know that, on average, I drink about 160 mL of coffee per workday). In two months, I have biked 304 km, mostly on my 8km daily commute, but also including some grocery runs and some rides through the woods with my fuzzy dog. In the same time, I have drunk a whopping 12.7 Liters of coffee! The result?
58.1 miles per gallon of coffee!

And, if you think that 12.7 Liters is a lot, consider that in the same period of time, I have consumed 106.5 L of water, just at work. At home, I regularly drink another liter or so per day. Oh, and also some tasty Belgian beer, but not every day... Mmmm, Trappist... topic for another day.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hassle-Free Healthcare

No one can avoid joining the debate about healthcare happening now in the USA. Not even me, safely healthy in Holland. In our stay here so far, my wife and I have made good use of the system, with sick and well visits to doctors and specialists as well as a complicated childbirth. I can say unambiguously that we are satisfied customers, and I really hope the US gets healthcare straightened out before I come back!

If you don't read anything further, read this: the Dutch healthcare system is better than the American one, costing less per person with better results and 100% coverage. It's not perfect, but the US could plagiarize it wholesale and everyone would be better off.

One important reason the Dutch system is good, if you ignore being cheaper and more effective, is that it is nearly entirely hassle-free. It is a semi-socialized system with obligatory private insurance. That means that everyone has to buy health insurance from a private insurer of their choice, and those who are unable to pay get subsidized premiums (and yes, that means that I am funding some less fortunate people's healthcare, but even so, overall I pay less than I did last year in the US). The result is simple: I go to whatever doctor I want to see, everything is covered, and there are no bills. The premium is deducted pre-tax from my paycheck, with no copays, no prescription costs, no receipts to save, no claim forms, no bills whatsoever. It is amazingly hassle-free! The only exception to this rule is care from non- or atypically-medical services, such as a reflexologist. They fall outside the system, so you pay out-of-pocket and request reimbursal.
Compared to the high-deductible insurance I had my last year in USA, with a Health Savings Account, endless online forms, and the IRS forcing me to save receipts to prove they were medical expenses, I am loving the lack of hassle. Really.

What's that? You don't buy the "cheaper and more effective" claim? If you'd like to have a look for yourself, the World Health Organization makes data freely available here. The database search takes a few steps to configure, so I've saved you the trouble, exporting a list of interesting statistics for a few relevant countries: USA and the Netherlands, of course, plus Canada and the UK, whose systems have been ridiculed by many in the current debate, and France, for some reason always treated as the antithesis to Americanism, whose system received the second-highest user satisfaction ratings in a recent poll. I put the entire data file online here for you, in case you're interested, but my summary is this:

First, cost: per capita total expenditure on healthcare, in 2006, in US$: UK leads with $3300, Holland is next at $3700, Canada & France are both about $4000, and the USA totals up to $6700. Pretty obvious comparison, eh?

Next, effectiveness, which of course is impossible to measure with one number. How about a few numbers, instead? Looking at life expectancy at birth, there is actually a pretty small range among these nations: Canada & France both expect 81 years, Holland and UK follow with 80 and 79, respectively, and USA is not far behind, with 78 years. Two statistics that show a clearer difference and were especially relevant to my wife and baby daughter this year are infant mortality and maternal mortality, in both of which the USA's rate is nearly two times that of the Netherlands. Again from 2006, France and the Netherlands have infant mortality rates of 4 per 1000 live births, Canada and UK 5, and USA posts a 7. From 2005 (the years chosen were "latest available data" for each statistic), the maternal mortality rate, which I assume means death via childbirth, in the Netherlands was 6 per 100,000 live births. In Canada, France, and the UK, the numbers were 7, 8, and 8, respectively, while in USA the rate is 11 maternal deaths per 100,000 births! Not exactly an effectiveness measure, but interesting for well-informed mamas to consider, is that the American c-section rate is 23%, while the Dutch is 14% (2000 and 2002, respectively, and I think the American rate is even higher now, perhaps 30%). This goes along with Holland's emphasis on natural childbirth, which obviously works well for both mothers and babies.

Stepping away from childbirth-related statistics, the American emphasis on oncology does seem to make a difference, because as of 2002, the US has the lowest of all five countries in cancer death rate with 134 per 100,000 population. The Netherlands is the highest at 155, and the other three are all at about 140. The US doesn't fare so well for cardiovascular death rate, possibly related to obesity rates, with 188 deaths per 100,000 population. The Netherlands is mid-pack with 171, and France somehow pulls off a 118. Maybe it's the wine!

Correlating more with effectiveness than cost are some infrastructure statistics. Notably, the USA, despite all the cost, has the fewest hospital beds of the five: 32 per 10,000 population. France leads with 73, and the Netherlands is next with 50. Also interesting, though aggregating data from different years, the Netherlands leads with 37 physicians per 10,000 population, while the USA is mid-pack with 26. Single-payer UK and Canada have 23 and 19, respectively.

Enough statistics for one blog. There's more to say, though, so stay tuned.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Gotta be In It to Win It

Lottery! Everyone loves lotteries, right? Tonight's the drawing for the big jackpot of €27,500,000! At today's exchange rate, that's almost 39 MILLION DOLLARS!

Wow. Take a look at the little logo at the bottom of the Staatsloterij (State lottery) poster I saw in Maastricht this weekend:

A big fish eating a little fish. If you play the lottery, which fish do you suppose you are? The big, happy orange one or the naive little guy who's about to get chomped?

I think everyone knows -- despite the irrestistable, irrational appeal of the jackpot -- that on a rational level, lotteries are pretty much a scam. Not that they're rigged or whatever, but just that the odds are so severely against you that participating is simply throwing your money away. But most lotteries try to maintain the illusion that you're not getting hosed! They don't show you your fate in fish-pictogram form right on the advertisement!

Chalk it up to Dutch straightforward honesty.

Oh, and I didn't buy a ticket. As they say in New York, you've gotta be in it to win it. I'm out, so I'm absolutely sure I won't win. My colleague is in it, and I'm almost entirely absolutely sure he won't win. However, on the off chance that he does win, let me just put it here for the record that he's my best friend. Good luck, little fishy!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Wielersport na de Tour

As I may have mentioned, I like biking. I have never been a bike racer, but over the past few years I have dabbled a bit in Tour de France watching. I know, I know, with all the doping scandals, it's been a bit off-putting, but it's a fascinating, hierarchical, political, team sport in a multi-stage event. I watched a few stages of the 2009 Tour on TV, and I too was rooting for Lance Armstrong and wondering what would happen with him on the same team as Alberto Contador.

What's that you say, dear [American] reader? You don't know/give a hoot about the Tour de France? Yeah, yeah, I know it's not real popular in the USA, but on the Continent it's a huge deal. In France more so, I assume, but even here in NL there's quite a buzz about it. In fact, there's an interesting tradition of holding post-Tour criteriums in small villages in Holland and Belgium featuring Tour winners and superstars. Most of the Dutch racers from the Tour participate, to bring home the spirit of the Tour, and the big names come also, to bring home the bacon. I hear that Contador and the brothers Schleck make 50,000-75,000 Euro for each of these events -- not bad for a couple of hours of riding around in circles in a small Dutch town. Did I mention that a criterium is just that? It's a bike race consisting of many laps around a short course, usually made up of city streets and therefore including sharp turns and fast straightaways. It looks like this:

By the way, Rochester, NY had a criterium for a few years, which expanded to a multi-day event and almost became a stage race tour of upstate NY, but alas, it was cancelled.

So I decided to check out one of these Wielersport (cycling) events. I had three local choices: Daags Na De Tour (Days after the Tour) in Boxmeer, Bavaria Profronde (Bavaria being the local beer, and main sponsor, profronde meaning something like "professional lap/round") in Stiphout,
and Acht van Chaam (8 of Chaam) in Chaam. I went to the Bavaria Profronde, which was a 100km race on a 2km roughly-rectangular course (see below my attempt to embed a "live" Google map).

I was quite impressed. These guys are super fast! Standing along the rail, when the peloton of 30+ riders goes by, you get the same wind you would get from a subway entering a station. By the way, the dude in yellow is Alberto Contador (1st place, 2009 Tour de France), the guy ahead of him in white is Andy Schleck (2nd place), and Andy's brother Frank is in the pack somewhere as well (5th place). Some of the best cyclists in the world, right in my backyard!

The guy below was a local favorite, Bram Tankink. He didn't ride in the Tour de France, but he's on Team Rabobank (big Dutch bank) and grew up near here somewhere. He was all smiles and handtekenings (autographs) before the race.

Finally, a parting shot of Contador (who indeed won the criterium) as the darkness grows. I happened to catch the flash of another photographer as I was panning, which was a lucky break.

I think I shot 300 photos that night and yielded maybe 6 decent ones. Fast bikes in low light = lots of blurry photos!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Grocery Bike (& Friends)

The Dutch have bikes for every occasion. One of my favorites the moederfiets (mother bike) for on-the-go moms (or dads!). A bakfiets (carrier bike) takes the place of the American pickup truck. The standard omafiets (Grandma bike), preferably old and beaten-up, is the bike of choice for urban errands and parking outside the pub (so you don't have to worry about it!). There are cargo bikes and tandem bikes and even a backseat-driver tandem bike that lets your kid think he's in charge by riding up front, while you steer from behind! Folding bikes are for hybrid commuters who must take them on the train (bringing a real bike requires a ticket for the bike, but a foldy is free!). The fietscafe is a bike that's also a bar (yeah, yeah, it has four wheels, so "bike" isn't quite the right word, but it does have a pair of pedals for each of its 12 barstools -- luckily the bartender gets to steer!). I've seen one of these and they look really entertaining.

I once saw an entire brass band on a bike in front of city hall in Eindhoven:

These guys are rad; check out their website.

Sadly, I don't have all these special bikes (although I am "average" by Dutch standards as the owner of 2.5 bikes: my commuter bike, mountain bike, and my half of the tandem my wife and I used to ride before we had a baby!), but my trusty Gazelle does great work as a boodschappenfiets (grocery bike). I affixed the milk-crate with some old climbing webbing, and it works great. This particular outing, I packed the crate FULL of heavy stuff (note the stiff canvas bags, wonderful, thanks to my Ma), hung another bag off the handlebars, and I even was able to tuck the stems of some lilies into the crannies. Did I mention that flowers are cheap in the Netherlands? Each bunch was €3.

Hoera! Lekker fietsen!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Home again, home again...

...jiggety jig. Phew, I'm back home -- in Eindhoven -- from a nice, long vacation home -- to USA.

Before I get into that, however, I must acknowledge the dearth of blog posts over the past 4 months. One word: baby! My wife and I are oh-so-pleased to welcome our daughter into the world, and oh-so-tired all the time from lovingly taking care of her. This recent trip with her was wonderful and difficult: amazingly good on the airplanes, flustered by the timezone difference, great to share her with her grandparents, cousins, and friends, hard on her because of all the new people, and nice to have someone else eager to hold her when she insists on waking up at 5am. Now we're back, adjusting our clocks back the other way, reestablishing our routines, becoming self-sufficient once again. We miss everyone!

Right, so "home." Where is home again? I must say it was a bit weird to be a visitor to America. I'm sure this won't be news to anyone, but there are a ton of little differences between here and there that stand out all the more readily when they're "new" again, as they were after 8 months abroad. We flew from Amsterdam to Washington Dulles, then after customs on to Rochester. Arriving at IAD, two things smacked me immediately -- first, the heavy, serious, security presence; and second, my ability to understand all of the conversations around me! Once in Rochester, I was back at the wheel on the American highways.

Security and customs at airports is serious and necessary business, and I've seen it countless times. However, I must have really gotten used to the Dutch style of hands-off, nearly invisible policing, where if you walk through the door marked "Nothing to Declare" at customs, a guard gives you maybe a look, maybe a smile, and out you go. At Dulles, I realized the mistake of cleaning out the fresh fruit from my fridge and bringing it in my carry-on: I declared it on my blue form like a good traveler, then got directed to a secondary line for the inquisition.

"What kind of fruit do you have?"
"Apricots, an apple, and a banana."
"Apricots are not allowed." Okay, so I hand them over.
"Neither are apples." Okay, have that too.
"Nor bananas." Fine! Just put up a sign that says "PUT YOUR FRUIT IN THIS TRASH CAN!" and don't waste everyone's time!

Linguistically, I was surprised at how apparent the myriad overheard conversations suddenly became. Most Dutch people do indeed speak English, but of course when they're talking to Dutch people, they're talking Dutch. I understand maybe half of what they say when I'm listening carefully and there's not much ambient noise. I've learned to simply ignore overheard conversation, mostly because it's usually an obstacle to the conversation I'm trying to participate in. The concourse at Dulles was suddenly cacophony -- so many conversations at once, all of which I could hear and understand! It was nice, but strange, relieving, yet loud. Interestingly, this awareness of the clarity of English lasted about half an hour, then it was gone.

Finally, when I started driving from the Rochester airport, in a minivan -- one I've driven many times before, mind you -- it felt huge! And the road -- the Thruway -- was huge as well! Such big lanes, so much space along each side and in the median. Wow, there's a lot of space in USA (newsflash!). Curious to quantify this, I looked it up. According to the US Interstate Highway specs, lanes are 12 feet wide, minimum. The NYS Thruway was designed to have 12-13' lanes. Dutch highways (autosnelwegen) have lanes in the range of 2.75 to 3.5 meters, or that is 9.0-11.5 feet. Yikes! No wonder the roads feel tight here in a Volvo V40 and comfy in USA in a minivan. The real wonder is that, after driving in the Netherlands for a few months, the narrow Dutch roads feel fine, and the US ones huge -- amazing how fast we adapt to everything!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why Biking to Work is Better Than Driving

There are a whole pile of reasons why biking to work is better than driving. Here are some visual reminders of some of them...

Traffic sucks. Sitting in stop-and-go traffic makes me crazy. Having to drive to and from work during rush hour is like a punch in the mouth. However, passing cars in the wide-open bike lane makes me quite happy.

Gas is expensive. Below is the sign at the local BP. Don't shrug off the seemingly-low price for Euro 95 (standard unleaded) -- that's in Euros per liter. Today, a Euro is worth about $1.30, and there are 3.8 liters in a gallon. Factor those conversions in, and gas here costs just over $6 per gallon. No wonder this is the land of the Smart car. What's that 51-cent price, you ask, for "Autogas?" Autogas is LPG, liquified petroleum gas, some sort of mix of methane, propane, and similar stuff. Apparently many cars here have been retrofitted to burn LPG rather than gasoline (benzine, in Dutch). I looked into it when I bought my car, but I guess that while LPG is ubiquitous within the Netherlands, elsewhere in Europe it is tougher to find. But, luckily, I don't need any of this nonsense to bike to work!

Biking puts a smile on my face because it's simply pleasant! Check out the bike paths I get to use every day, which are way nicer than even the quaintest European roads:

Nice, eh? Of course, it's not always sunshine and roses... Sometimes other "traffic" in the bike lane leaves its mark:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Silent Crane and the Singing Mason

Construction... a necessity everywhere, a general inconvenience, a way to manifest humanity's desire to build higher, faster, more. While stuck in traffic when I'm forced to drive the Aalsterweg under a half-built overpass of the long-under-construction A2 motorway, it's easy to be annoyed by the general concept. However, this fall, when taking my time, riding my bike, walking my dog along the quieter streets, I discovered some nicer, more civilized, more craftsmanlike kinds of construction.

One early morning, I was walking Lacey the doodle dog near my apartment, and I heard a baritone voice singing operatic phrases. Overhead, a crane was moving large sheets of cement into a hole, where they were taking shape to create the foundation for a new house. As I approached, I realized that the singer was one of the masons in the hole, guiding the cement blocks into his ready lines of mortar. Cranes like this are way more common here than in the U.S., for residential construction at least, probably because the materials here are all heavy cement and steel, not wood that a carpenter can carry up a ladder...

Cool, I thought, that the mason sings while he works -- but wait, why was it quiet enough for me to hear him? Every construction site I've seen is reverberating with diesel noise, from generators, compressors, not to mention heavy equipment. This one was totally silent, save the singing, even as the crane toiled! The crane's winches and rotation hummed and clicked a little, but quietly like an electric motor rather than a rattling diesel. I went back one evening to scope the crane, and it was indeed plugged in to the grid via a big temporary electrical junction box. Very nice, very civilized. Quiet in use, and pollution-free (at least at the construction site). A picture of the folded crane can be found on the manufacturer's site.

Speaking of masons, if I were to ever become a mason, I would want to apprentice in Holland. The Dutch love bricks: virtually every house is brick (I heard that wood construction for a dwelling is simply illegal), garden walls and fences are brick, and streets and sidewalks are brick. Of course, many major roads are asphalt, but most residential streets, mine included, are indeed brick, laid in tidy herringbone patterns and set into compressed sand.

How are these brick streets built? Well, for the first couple weeks I was in the Netherlands, I was staying on a road that was being rebuilt due to plumbing changes or something. The process was this: dig a hole, play with the pipes, fill it with sand, compress and grade the sand, lay the bricks, then fill the gaps with more sand. Move 20 meters down the street, and repeat... I took pictures, natuurlijk. Here, road in progress (to the right is the perfectly-smoothed sand):

Check out the two kinds of special edge-bricks, perfectly shaped to blend the herringbone pattern into the edge course and curb. Very nice, I think.

So what does brick road construction sound like? Well, when the backhoes are at work, it sounds as noisy as any other, but when the bricks are being laid, it's quiet and craftsmanlike, rubber mallets thump-thump-thumping each brick into place, with the occasional high metallic ching-ching-ching as a brick is trimmed with a chisel. Real, manual work, patiently done, day after day, until the road is complete. Here's a more complicated bit, where the herringbone is interrupted and the bricks need trimming:

This general thread dates from the fall, and the photos were taken then, when I noticed these things, but before I had a car. Apologies for waiting so long to post, but I think my appreciation for the quiet, civilized construction projects has grown with the time I've spent in the car on crowded, ever-unfinished motorways...

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Learning the Meaning of Snelheid

Despite his appearance in our driveway every day on his bike with bright orange "TNT Post" panniers, the mailman still receives a savage set of warning barks from my watchful and cute doodle dog. Yesterday, however, he brought something worth barking at: a Beschikking, or judgement, from the Centraal Justitieel Incasso Bureau, which is essentially the Judicial Collection Bureau. And guess what, they judged that I owe them money! Let me explain, and please mind the tangents...

Turns out I got a speeding ticket, via mail, from one of the ubiquitous traffic cameras (known elsewhere in the world as Lazy Policemen -- I'm not sure if there's an equivalent Dutch epithet). Dutch speed cameras (flitscameras) look something like this (not my photo: thanks to Gebba1). Note that the Christmas decoration is strictly seasonal:

The beschikking found me guilty of "overschrijding maximum snelheid:" exceeding maximum speed. By 4 km/h.

Tangent 1: FOUR KM PER HOUR!?? I did 54 km/h in a 50. In American terms, I got a ticket for going 33 1/2 in a 31! No wonder they mailed me a ticket, because what self-respecting policeman would pull me over and look me in the eye for such a minor infraction?? Come to think of it, I've seen more cop cars on a single drive down the New York State Thruway than I have in three months of living in the Netherlands. Cops really don't make a big presence here, on the roads or anywhere else... so I suppose that's why I've heard lots of warnings about traffic cameras. This is my first real encounter with one.

And yes, I verified that it was me who earned the ticket, not my wife; based on the date and time, I was heading north through town, alone, on a quiet Sunday morning on the way to IKEA. The quietness of that Sunday morning is actually crucial to the ticket, because the normal volume of traffic here quite effectively prevents speeding. I got the ticket on the Aalsterweg, which is the artery joining my town (Aalst) with the bigger portion of Eindhoven. During rush-hour, it can be bumper-to-bumper for several kilometers and take 25 minutes to get through. On a normal afternoon, practical speed is something like 20 km/h, and there are plenty of stoplights, buses, and left-turners to keep everyone from driving a reasonable pace. I suppose I've never had to actually pay attention to speed on that stretch... until now.

Tangent 2: Why so quiet? Sundays, in general, mean absolutely everything is closed, including grocery stores, drug stores, any-kind-of-store, etc. This fact is a real blow to the American "open 24 hours" ethic that, while if I stop and think about it, is kind of silly, but nonetheless is dang convenient. Fact is, here you HAVE to stop and think about it, plan ahead for your weekend groceries, and not run out of toilet paper on a Sunday. Lest you think the Netherlands is universally anti-Sunday, there is a thing here called Koopzondag, or "shopping sunday," during which stores are open. Apparently there's a council somewhere that doles out Koopzondagen to all the locales of the Netherlands, and it's so unpredictable and autocratic that there's even a website to bring word to the masses about where and when you can shop your Sunday socks off: Typically, the Eindhoven city center is open for business on the first Sunday of the month. Occasionally, a big business like IKEA manages to get a Koopzondag waiver, and that was indeed the case this particular Sunday.

Anyway, the beschikking I received explained my infraction, where and when, and even listed the "fotofilmnummer," which I have to believe is a relic of older times. Mmmm, the heydey of Kodak -- wasn't it nice? The letter is of course in Dutch, and unfortunately my Dutch skills have not kept up with my driving skills.

Tangent 3: I finally got my scanner configured to scan a given letter in Dutch (of which we get several per week that require action of some kind) and do optical character recognition (OCR) in Dutch. I then pipe that through Google Translate, and voila, no unpaid speeding tickets! I have a Canon MP540 all-in-one, which I think is a Europe-only model, but it works pretty well. I'm using Canon's MPNavigator software for the text recognition, which is not flawless, but gets me 90% of the way there...

I learned some sweet new Dutch words with this beschikking:
verkeersvoorschrift = traffic regulation
waarschuwing = warning
sanctie = penalty
beroep = appeal
verhoging = increase

Tangent 4: Snelheid means "speed" in Dutch. It's related to snel, which means fast. I see a pattern here with the word gezond, which means healthy, and gezondheid, which means health. I translate the "heid" as something like "-ness," so fastness means speed, and healthiness means health. Funny that in English we start with a noun (health or speed) and make it an adjective with the addition of "y" (healthy or speedy). In Dutch it's the opposite, at least for these examples...

So how big is the fine for 33 1/2 in a 31? €19. First reaction: not too steep. Finally! Something that's cheaper in the Netherlands than in the US (besides tulips). Second thought: wait a minute, that's more than €10/ kilometer per hour! And for a ticket that you would never ever get in USA! Dang it again!

Thank you, Mr. TNT Postman... this was a real hit! I know, I'll pay the fine online and -- HA! -- no letter for you to deliver!