Category Archives: Personal

How to sour a community, in one easy lesson

Simple. Tell them that they’re not one.

It won’t destroy it, of course. Wherever a group of people collaborate for a common endeavor, there we find community.

But communities come in different flavors. My favorite kind includes a substantial amount of trust among the community members, and between them and their leaders/moderators. They are often powerfully goal-oriented, whether the goal is to build something or simply to have good conversation. These ones are electrifying to be a member of. Shared endeavors and a sense of shared ownership seem to actually create energy.

Other communities, however, just depress everyone. A group of rules lawyers, whose shared energy is absorbed in the feeling that bad behavior is punished but good actions go unrewarded, is still a community. It’s just not a very pleasant one. One doesn’t go out and evangelize for such a community or for what it does. One doesn’t hope that others will come join it.

(There is a third kind of community to be mindful of, of course. A mob, like a depressive community, is a common failure mode of an energized community.)

The breakdown of trust is of course the most common reason that the first kind of community turns into the second. It’s easy, particularly as a leader or moderator, to feel betrayed by everyone when the crowd goes in a direction that you don’t want it to. And the fear of the mob is a powerful motivator. The temptation is to lock everything down, pretend that there is no community ethos but the one you provide.

But people don’t work that way. Clamp down on a community, and it turns sour; the community spirit becomes one of grumbling and nit-picking conformance to the stated rules. Spontaneous action for the common good, being unrewarded, goes away.

I’ve seen online communities go completely sour at this point, as the members in their turn feel betrayed by the moderators. Subsequent events just confirm the mutual hostility. Eventually many of these things break up completely.

This isn’t universal; sometimes the shared endeavor of the community is motivating enough to overcome the mutual mistrust. Gradually, a new balance is found; member behavior builds moderator trust and moderator trust reduces member resentment.

Communities may recover in time, but it’s not a pleasant process.

This rather discouraged rant has been brought to you by the letter M and the number 2.

Immoderately Pleased

I have a confession to make.

Over the past couple of years, I have been spending more and more time on another blog. After my experiences with Everything2, I never intended to join an online community again. But somehow, by accident, I kinda did.

It’s owned by the Nielsen Haydens, a couple with deep roots in science fiction and fantasy publishing and fandom. Patrick is a senior editor at Tor Books, and has won a Hugo for his editorial work. Teresa has edited for Tor (and is still a consulting editor, I gather), but is now – among other things – moderator in the recently reopened comment threads at Boing Boing.

The blog, Making Light, is what’s got me back into writing sonnets. I’ve spent a good deal of time there, punning and playing with words, getting to know and like the people. We kick around a lot of topics (the blog subhead is “Language, fraud, folly, truth, knitting, and growing luminous by eating light.”) I’ve hosted them here when the server there went down. And, when there have been quarrels, I’ve done my best to restore the peace. It’s a community of smart folks and good writers. They generally manage to impress me at least once a day.

I guess I must have been impressing right back, somehow, because I’ve been made a moderator and front page poster there (one of five). I’m very aw-shucks and embarrassed about it, because I’m writing on a site owned by editors, and moderating on the home site of one of the most skilled moderators on the net.

This doesn’t mean I’m abandoning Evilrooster Crows – the reasons I haven’t posted much here are not to do with Making Light. (They’re to do with the difficulty of summing up our experiences of moving to the Netherlands while we’re still in the trenches. Sorry.)

But hey – yay me!

M’n Fiets (my bike)

Martin has written about the new car, which forms part of our fleet of transport mechanisms. But Turty is mostly intended for the movement of children (plus sundry light haulage). I’d like to spend a little time talking about my commute vehicle.


I’ve always had blue bikes, for some reason, since the first banana-seat cycle with the coaster brakes. Since the age of 10, I’ve always had multi-speed bikes with rams-horn handlebars; this is my third and best of the line: a Dawes Horizon bottom of the line touring bike (heavier and stronger than a road bike or racing bike). It’s a nervy, responsive thing, though maybe just a little short in the frame for me.

I bought it in Edinburgh, about a year ago, in the hopes that I would be able to ride it during the brief Caledonian summer. I used it about five times before fear of the homicidal Scottish drivers caused me to stop.

It was quirky and bizzare in Scotland, where pseudo moutain bikes are all the rage. It’s even more outré here, where the classic Dutch granny bike rules the roads, with its upright riding position and its near-immortal construction.

Unfortunately, it’s also a target for theft, since it’s what the bike shops here call a “sport bike”. And bike theft is a national phenomenon – all my colleagues have stolen bike stories. I’ve guarded against thieves with a few strategies. First off, those large and ugly silver panniers really do ruin its sleek lines, so it doesn’t look so appealing.


(They also hold a rain jacket, trouser clips and a few other useful items.)

Also, I’ve added a Dutch wheel lock. These things are practically indestructible, and it’s positioned so even cutting the cable ties won’t allow you to get the back wheel off while it’s present.


But most importantly, though I always double lock it (with a cable through the front wheel and frame and through something fixed; the Dutch have bike racks everywhere) or treble-lock it (another wheel lock, loose, through the back spokes and the frame), my main defense is geography. It does not go into high-theft areas such as central Amsterdam. And where possible, I park it among many bikes, because the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest.

Because I ride it in street clothes, I had to change the pedals on the bike. It comes with toe clips, and usually I love toe clips. But I can’t use them with all my shoes, so I went for some non-slip pedals instead. I considered a chain guard as well, but the sprocket is too large for most of the aftermarket guards I have seen. So I still use a trouser clip when I wear trousers. (I also cycle in skirts. There is nothing so pleasant as riding in a long, flowing skirt.)

Naturally, I also have reflectors, lights and a bell. I keep a spare inner tube and a set of tyre tools in the bags, and have already done one roadside swap. This weekend, I’m going to buy tyres with reflective stripes around them – both because they are required by Dutch law, and because they really are safer.

I’ve really enjoyed my commutes by cycle, even in the rain. The endorphins mean that I arrive at my destination glowing a little, no matter how challenging the day. And if I have a little extra time (25 minutes instead of 15), I take the route that runs through the Twiske, the local recreation area.


(It even has its own windmill!)

In short, I love my bike. I love working on it, commuting with it, shopping on it (the panniers can hold a lot of groceries). I might start calling it Vera.

Wednesday Nights Are Update Nights

Probably because I keep them free due to the need to pack for the weekend at home, I seem to be falling into a pattern that includes blogging on a Wednesday. So how has it been, this last week?

Things really divide into separate timeframes, based on the two cities I’m living in at the moment.


Returning home on Thursday was exhausting. It was the end of a draining week, and I had been with my colleagues at the drinks before a company dinner (I had to leave afterward to get my flight). It meant I got to meet company founder Thijs Chanowski, known to most of my Dutch contemporaries as the producer of the children’s show De Fabeltjeskrant (British readers: it would be like meeting Oliver Postgate. American readers: think of one of the early founders of The Children’s Television Workshop). He’s a perfectly delightful gentleman, with a gift for telling stories, and I was sorry not to be able to stay for the meal (though I wouldn’t have understood the speeches anyway).


Friday was a very pleasant day with the kids. Both had the charm going full blast, and we did a lot of playing while the washing machine repairman came and replaced a couple of parts. Then we went to the Gilmerton crossroads to pick up Alex’s friend Murray, and I had a funny moment. We were going into the small supermarket on the corner, and I caught myself mustering my Dutch to deal with the transaction before I remembered that here, I speak the language! It was almost a disappointment, like a challenge balked at.

Martin and I did a lot of packing and arranging on the weekend, and even managed a bit of garden work. I’d like to get the back garden weeded and mulched before we go, because otherwise the dock and the dandelions will eat the place alive.

I got the chance to admire the gap in Alex’s teeth, and to have a number of very pleasant conversations with both kids. There was some cuddling, too. And a bit of grunching, toward the end of the weekend, because they are human, and they miss me.


Coming into Schiphol, taking the train to Amsterdam Centraal, and taking the tram to the flat in the Oud West was almost routine. It was certainly easy – Dutch public transport is well thought out and pleasant to use. And the flat I’m borrowing, which seemed strange and foreign when I first moved in, seemed much more homelike.

Monday morning, I started a different commute. I work north of the river Ij, which used to be the northern border of the city, but has now been surrounded on both banks. There are two ferries that go to the appropriate section of the city, one from Centraal station, one from a less well-known area. And the knowledgeable at the office had pointed out that if I could bike, I could take the lesser known ferry, which would be faster and more fun than the tram.

My landlord was willing to lend me his bike (on the condition that I lock it well – Amsterdam is bike theft central!). It’s a classic “omafiets” – a black banger of a bike, with no gears and coaster brakes. These bikes are ubiquitous in the Netherlands, primarily because they are virtually indestructible. They also weigh a ton and are not very fast unless you pedal like a maniac (like the colleague I commute with on occasion.)

So I’ve been commuting by bike. And it’s been wonderful, even on rainy mornings. How can you beat riding along a canal on an omafiets?

The only thing that takes some getting used to about this method of commuting is the other cyclists. They scare me. In the Netherlands, if a car hits a cyclist, no matter what, it’s the driver’s fault. And in Amsterdam, the cyclists know this, and ride accordingly. Red lights are really for other people. It’s unsporting to indicate where you’re going next – just veer over and let the other traffic figure it out after the fact. The only thing a cyclist will get out of the way for is a tram.

But it’s kind of fun, once you accept that the fiets conveys immortality. It also seems to grant exceptions to any consideration of practicality – I have seen a woman cycling in three inch spike heels and a tight miniskirt*. I have seen children in wee baskets on the fronts of their parents’ cycles. I have seen kids with bikes and training wheels being pushed along by an accompanying parent’s hand on their backs. I have seen a window cleaner who used a bike to transport the tools of his trade, including the ladder (carried in one hand, parallel to but longer than the bike). I have seen a man riding slowly while his dog trotted along beside him on a leash. And that was just this morning.

And work has improved as well. I got further into the system this week, and got the chance to do some testing (you know, what they hired me for). I’ve even found an interesting bug or two, though I’m not sure the guys looking at them are as pleased as all that. And I feel more at home around the office, less concerned that I’m going to violate some invisible norm or offend people unwittingly (now I violate visible norms and offend people on purpose. But I am a tester.)

One high point this week was dinner with Dave and Liz, the couple who let me use their flat the first weekend in Amsterdam, and hooked me up with the place I’m in now. Every conversation with them these days is really a set of markers for much longer conversations we want to have over time. It’s really something to look forward to.

And the other high point was that Martin flew over today and we signed the lease for the house. Both of us had been worried that something would fall through…the product of the previous experience is a slight nervous twitch. But the paper is signed and things are committed. With luck, we can move on to the other challenges: getting school and childcare places for the kids, getting the move done, changing a lot of addresses and defaults.

All in all, though, we have been lucky. Nice house, nice jobs, and enough resources to see us through the unexpected. I feel much more optimistic than I did this time last week.

(So you can all stop worrying now.)

* I’ve cycled in a skirt one day this week, but it was long and loose. Dutch bikes tend to enclose the whole chain, so things don’t catch in the gears.

3 Days of New Job

I’m afraid I’ve been busy with social things these past few days, which is why I haven’t blogged about starting my job. Well, it’s one reason, anyway.

It’s very funny how I can move into a city where I know so few people (Dave and Liz, and people I met interviewing at MediaLab, and absolutely no one else), and still find myself dining socially two nights in a row. Monday evening was with Dave and Liz, and was a very pleasant chance to get re-acquainted after years of intermittent contact. It was less of a conversation we had than a series of pointers to future conversations – I don’t think we actually finished discussing any topics at all.

Last night was much, much stranger. You see, when Dave and Liz came home, I moved out of their flat (the cat prefers them and she owns the place, really). I’m now staying at the flat of one of Dave’s friends, Patrice, whom I have yet to meet. And Patrice has friends who needed a place to sleep last night, en route to Schiphol. He’d offered them the flat, and there are beds enough for all, so I threw together something easy for dinner*, and had dinner guests from two degrees of separation. We had a delightful time.

But now that’s all done with, and I get an evening alone. There’s some sorting through things to do, since I fly home tomorrow evening. (Which is a good thing. I miss my bunnies.) But really, I haven’t any excuse to avoid blogging about starting work and how it’s going.

Well apart from one. I don’t know how I’m doing. I can’t tell. The learning curve is very steep – it’s a lot of information to take in at once. But more than that, I’m not a standard new joiner. They can’t just sit me down in front of an IDE† and tell me to go code. I’m the first tester, and the first QA person, and it’s a little unclear what they expect of me. I know what I want to do – some of it – but I don’t know how to do a fair bit of that (in terms of what to type into the keyboard to get things to happen, not what I want to have happen), and whether what I want to do will make the company happy.

I just don’t know. And not knowing, I’m prone to thinking the worst.

On the other hand, I had been sure I’d failed my driving test.


* Chicken breasts wrapped in Serrano ham, in a passatta and basil sauce, served with pasta and salad. Which sounds like an awful lot more work than it was, particularly when the guests then cleaned up the kitchen!

† Interactive Development Environment, the place where coders write their stuff

In Amsterdam

I’m in Amsterdam.

Specifically, I’m sitting in the flat I’m borrowing (and cat-feeding) from a couple of friends for the weekend. (They’re off in Brussels so Dave can turn 40.) It’s a nice place, right in the centre of the city. I’ve made the acquaintance of their very pleasant neighbour, and their cat Magic (black, naturally). Though Magic is shy, I think we’re coming to an understanding. Feeding her helped.

I’ve also made the acquaintance of their wireless LAN, remarkably easily. Whatever one can say about modern technology, I love the ability to take my computer with me and connect to my virtual world in minutes. I spend so much of my mental time in cyberspace, and that is going to make this move dramatically easier, because wherever I go, there it is. It’ll still be there Monday, when I move into the flat I have for the bulk of the month.

I’m going to go out and explore the area this afternoon. I want to get some food for the flat (though all the necessities are here), and generally settle into Amsterdam life. It’s going to be an interesting month, living alone here (weekends aside). I suspect, though that it will be largely a wasted opportunity, from the point of view of cultural exploration…I simply do not feel like walking all over the city and having adventures every evening, particularly when I’m doing something challenging during the days (travel and starting a new job both count in this context).

One thing I do find: coming to Amsterdam one day a week, as I did for about three weeks running, has given me a lot of comfort in making this move. The entire transaction up to this point has felt like business as usual. And I’ve done enough aimless wandering around the centre of Amsterdam itself to feel OK about the next few hours. I suspect that the discomforts will come in the form of little surprises, unexpected moments. But that’s better than being overwhelmed by all the changes at once.

Standing poised…

…at the edge of the high diving board, toes curled just over the edge, arms extended to their fullest length. I can feel the thrum of the board as I flex my calves a little, just scraping the soles of my feet on the rough surface. This is the moment before the moment, before I bounce down, then up, before I soar and slowly draw my hands together above my head, before the long inevitable plunge to the water.

Tomorrow morning I fly out to Amsterdam. Monday I start my new job. Although I will be back in Edinburgh every weekend in July, tomorrow’s trip marks the first stage of moving out of Scotland.

I take a deep breath…

What’s that piece of spaghetti doing on the wall?

Many people who know me know that I don’t drive in the UK, though I have been a US driver for many years. (American licenses can’t transfer to Europe, though European licenses are inter-transferrable as a rule. UK and Dutch ones certainly are.)

A smaller and less fortunate group of people have been around me at the time of one or both of my British driving tests (both, coincidentally, in October, which is too close to winter for sanity), and have seen how badly I react to failing them. If this isn’t you, dear reader, count your blessings. Seriously.

While we were in California at Easter this year, I did all the driving and really enjoyed it. So when we got back M and I agreed that I should do one more test before we left the UK. It would be like throwing spaghetti at the wall – if it sticks, great. If not, the Dutch test is reputed to be easier, even if all the road signs are in Dutch.

Accordingly, I’ve been taking lessons from the very patient Gareth of Euan’s School of Motoring. My competence as a driver has never been in question, but my nerves were pretty iffy after two failures. Along the way, Gareth and I have discussed the move to the Netherlands, various gems of classical scholarship, the comparative values of swear words between Battlestar Galactica and real life, and of course the odd bit of driving lore. (I talk when I’m nervous.)

I didn’t tell anyone about this, apart from two conversations where it was, for specific reasons, relevant. I simply didn’t want any expectations, didn’t want to tell anyone I’d failed again. It would just sink without a ripple, unnoticed.

And I did everything differently that I could – different test centre (Currie instead of Joppa), had the instructor in the car for the test, every change I could manage. Not to break any “jinx”, but to persuade myself to relax.

And still I was still sure I had failed. I was promising myself that entire bag of Hershey’s Kisses that’s stashed under my bed, with an afternoon of junk TV after the inevitable bad news. I saw the examiner marking minor points against me over and over again (you fail if you get 15 or more, even if all of your major behaviours are acceptable). By the time we pulled into the parking bay at the test centre, I was feeling deeply gloomy.

Well, the fact that you’re reading this means that I was wrong to feel glum. I got 11 minor marks (all due to nerves…you try to do 40 minutes’ drive perfectly error free while shaking like a leaf!) and no majors. I passed. I am now a licensed British driver.

I can use my UK license to drive in the Netherlands (or exchange it for a Dutch one, or use it to get a Dutch one – not sure). This will make logistics a lot easier, particularly if we don’t have childcare in Oostzaan. And I don’t have to sit any more tests, or do any driving lessons!


Miranda Dreams, I wake up

One sunny autumn day in 1989, I was walking through the UC Berkeley campus. I was a sophomore in college, coming from a class in Dwinelle Hall, heading back to my student co-op on the south side of campus. There’s a small brick-paved bridge just before Sather Gate, with low concrete parapets. The trees growing in the stream bed by Strawberry Creek created a mass of green behind the sunlit bridge.

Standing on the bridge, bright against this backdrop, was a group of three men. Two were playing hammer dulcimers, one a guitar. They were busking, as musicians so often do on campus. Drifting across the light, warm breeze, I heard a song like sunlight transformed into music. The lead hammer dulcimer led the way through a rhythmic melody, punctuated with sycopated notes in bright counterpoint to the basic tune. The second hammer dulcimer added complexity, the guitar lent depth to the thin brightness of the tune.

I was filled with a senseless joy. I can’t explain it; it’s not a song that creates this effect for anyone else I know.

The song was called Miranda’s Dream, written by Lawrence Huntley and performed by the Whamadiddle Dingbats. It is on their instrumental album, Saturday at the Market.

I bought a couple of tapes by the group (Saturday at the Market and Lucky!), but shed them over time. Once, I wrote to Lawrence Huntley and managed to convince him to send me the sheet music for the melody. That I still have, and I used to be able to do a respectable rendition on the guitar. But the place the song has played, faultlessly, for years, is in my head. It’s stuck with me for eighteen years, vivid as the first day I heard it, delightful as sunshine.

Over the last two or three years, I’ve been putting some time and effort into getting that track again. I tried the direct approach, tracking down two different emails for Lawrence Huntley on the web and emailing him directly. All attempts either bounced or vanished. I found a more recent version with steel drums, but it loses the crispness of the original dulcimer and guitar piece.

So finally, I found it on ebay (purest luck!) and bought it. It arrived last week, and once again I can hear the bright, intricate and glorious piece, just as I heard it that warm fall day in Berkeley.

Why am I posting this? Several reasons.

  1. We have some Googlejuice. If the members of the Whamadiddle Dingbats (Lawrence Huntley, Mick Doherty and Keven Shay Johnson) Google themselves, they may find this entry. If you do, guys, thank you for making some lovely, memorable music. Leave a comment, if you like.
  2. I’m after another of their albums, Lucky!. Anyone reading this have a copy?
  3. It’s what’s batting around my head right now. This, is, after all, a blog.

Pieces falling into place

It’s been some time since I’ve blogged. Plans have been up in the air, and sometimes I can’t bring myself to write about things that aren’t yet complete. As Martin wrote in his Going Dutch entry, we are moving to the Netherlands this summer.

This is, naturally, terrifying. It’s been particularly scary for me to contemplate, because I had to find two very important things.

A job
Moving country meant moving work, and that’s a frightening thing. I joined the Royal Bank in 1997 – October would have marked ten years there, and I was thoroughly institutionalised after all that time. It was intimidating to even contemplate finding something else.
A house
Admittedly, unlike the job thing, househunting is for the benefit of entire family, and in theory I could fob some of the weight off on Martin. But I get emotional about my living situation, so it felt like it was really my worry.

So how has it gone, in the month and a half since I quit the Bank and started these searches?


Martin pointed a job ad out to me in late March, before I was even officially out of work. It was for a small company, MediaLab, which makes search software mostly used in libraries. It’s a tiny company, and a deeply cool one, writing interesting software and having fun doing it.

At his urging, I sent them a CV. When we got back from California, I had a phone interview, and made a strong connection with the people I talked to. They invited me over for a second interview in person in their offices in Amsterdam.

That went even better. I enjoyed the conversations and liked the people, and it was mutual. More importantly, from a business perspective, it was clear that my area of expertise and my approach to work will fill a need in their company.

So I got the job.

I start at the beginning of July, which sometimes seems a long way off. I find myself thinking about the work, and about sitting in that bright and friendly office while I do it. It’s been a long time since I looked forward to work.


We wanted to rent a house for a year, to give us a chance to try out the Dutch lifestyle before committing a lot of capital to it. But there aren’t a lot of spacious, affordable houses in commute radius of Amsterdam.

It’s also difficult to search for houses at a remove. (My friend who just moved to New Zealand can testify to this.) After poring over hundreds of advertisements on the internet, we finally identified one that looked nice, in a promising town. So Martin and I went across one rainy Monday to look at it.

It was awful. Cramped, grimy and grim, in the shabbiest neighbourhood. It was also not available for a year’s rental; the owners wanted to keep the option open to sell it (an endeavour in which I wish them luck). We straggled home after a discouraging day, ready to abandon the whole damned effort.

I tried to take a fresh tack on the matter the next few days, looking again at places we had eliminated, sending out emails to emails to estate agents. Then the phone rang.

It was an estate agent, calling based on a profile Martin logged on their website. He had a four-bedroom property, he said, just coming on the market for a year’s rental. In Wormerveer, a town in commute distance from my office. Large workroom as well, was I interested? I made interested noises, and he sent me pictures.

Then I was really interested. It’s a light, spacious place, converted from a schoolhouse. The owner, a painter, is taking his family to the Canary Islands for a year. I flew over on Tuesday to view it and the neighbourhood.

It was fantastic. The town charmed me, and the location of the house was particularly good (it’s right near the market plaza, two schools, shops, and some pleasant areas to walk through.) And the house itself was better than the photos conveyed, with an essential unity of light and design.

It didn’t hurt that I got on very well with the owner, the painter, who showed me round. We talked about aesthetics and the philosophy of art, bookbinding and lithography, history and philosophy (boring the estate agent senseless until he recalled another appointment). Practical matters will go easier with this channel of communication, but more importantly, I’m looking forward to future conversations.

So now I have a job and a house, and frankly, they’re both fantastic. What a good set of prospects to take into a challenging year!