For the last few months, we’ve been working to get the house ready to sell it. We’ve been throwing stuff out, tidying stuff up, rearranging storage, and where necessary adding small decorative features. Because I’m a geek, I think of this as a process of compression and optimization: we’re refactoring our life.

When we put in our new kitchen a couple of years ago, we chose a very pale colour scheme for it. White cabinets and white splashback tiles, light painted walls, and light floor tiles. I often thought it looked a bit stark, but it was very practical, and because we were living in it all the time, we were used to it. I didn’t realize just how stark and uninviting until we came back from holiday last week. We had been away for two weeks, and so when we walked back into the house, it was almost like seeing with fresh eyes. My first impression of the living room was that it felt bare and un-lived in, but my reaction to the kitchen was: “Huargh!” The overall lightness made it feel unfinished–like the builders had just wandered off mid-way through the job.

So, our project this weekend has been to “finish” the kitchen. We’ve chosen blue as our highlight colour, and the addition of a new window blind, a new blue toaster, and various other blue highlights seems to make a big difference. Blue isn’t a very homely colour, but it gives a modern, practical feel to the kitchen instead.

We’re also redecorating the fridge. Over the years it has accumulated a variety of magnetic attachments, but it makes the rest of the kitchen look a bit messy. We have got attached to the fridge poetry over time, though, and we didn’t want to get rid of it without keeping a record for posterity. Hence:

Our fridge poetry

My favourites: “tiny bunny in ferocious wuv urge”, because it’s cute, and “son born & I smiled”, because it’s a reminder that we bought this house as a couple, and we’ll be leaving it as a family.

Going Dutch: NL in ’07!

The year is 2007, and the time of the Big Move is drawing near. For three years, we’ve been planning to move to the Netherlands, and it is finally starting to happen.

We took a trip to Rome in the spring of 2003. Alex had just turned two; Fiona was still in the planning stages. Our journey to Rome took us through Stansted Airport, where we had a couple of hours to kill. It was a nice day, so we went outside to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. We were joined by a few other kids and their parents, and we started chatting. We ended up speaking mostly English, this was mostly because it was the main language we all had in common. I don’t remember what the nationalities of the other couples were, but I think that one of them was Spanish + Italian, and the other was Italian + Danish. Their children were all merrily running around and jabbering away in a variety of different languages at age two.

Abi is grew up in California, I grew up in the Netherlands, and we both have a very international outlook. But talking to those other parents, we felt painfully aware that staying in Scotland was not the best way to pass our multi-cultural perspectives and love of languages on to our children. So we decided to move, and to live in a country without English as its primary language.

Because we’re very cautious by nature, this wasn’t an overnight decision. For a long time, we just talked about where the best place to settle would be. We love Rome, but Italy didn’t feel right. Initially we also dismissed the Netherlands, because I thought it would be unfair to give me the advantage of living somewhere I already spoke the language. Then we thought about Quebec, because it would give us a nice balance between English and French. It wasn’t until after Fiona was born in 2004 that we cut the knot and made a decision: yes, it would be the Netherlands. And the year would be 2007.

Why wait three years, though? Well, did I mention that we’re very cautious people? Although we knew intellectually that this was what we wanted to do, the idea of moving straight away scared the crap out of us. We were both at transition points in our careers. I had just started contracting, and Abi was just moving into test management. We both felt that we would prefer to pump up our skills for a while before attempting a big move. We recognized that we had to set an exact date, though, because otherwise we might just keep postponing it because we didn’t feel “ready”.

That’s why we chose 2007. It was far enough in the future not to be too scary, but not so far away that it was a pipe dream. Alex would be six, Fiona would be three; almost exactly the ages that Scott and I were when we moved to NL. We were both speaking Dutch within a matter of months, so we knew that Alex and Fiona wouldn’t have any great problems with the language. In three years, Abi could take Dutch lessons, and bring herself up to a level that would allow her to hit the ground running in a Dutch company. We both had specific professional goals that we wanted to achieve that would maximize our value to employers. It would also give us time to do some work on our house (new kitchen, bathroom) to increase its value before selling.

So here we are. Abi has been taking Dutch classes at Edinburgh University for the last two years. In 2006, we took a couple of scouting trips to the Netherlands to look at some different cities and to get a feel for the place. Alex finished his first year of school at the end of June. Yesterday evening we had a decorator round to give us a quote for painting our hallway and living room in preparation for putting the house up for sale. And at the weekend, Abi sent off her first job application.

If we could choose all our dates, this is what our ideal plan would look like for the next few months:

  • Mid April: we come back from holiday, and Abi starts sending out CVs and job applications
  • Mid/end April: paint & tidy up the house
  • Begin May: house goes up for sale
  • Mid May: Abi starts getting job interviews
  • Begin June: Abi gets offered a job, to start on 2nd July
  • Begin June: House gets sold
  • Rest of June: Various trips to NL to look for houses and schools
  • End June: We find a house in NL
  • Begin July: Abi moves to NL, stays in a hotel or short-term rented accomodation
  • Begin July: I stay in Edinburgh with the kids, tying up loose ends
  • Mid July: The kids and I move to NL, to stay in a hotel or short-term rented accomodation
  • End July: Arrange school for Alex, and find childcare for Fiona
  • Begin August: Move out of house in Edinburgh, and into new house in NL.
  • Mid August: Alex starts school.

As Abi is fond of saying, it’s a plan for Angels. It wouldn’t take much to blow all of this careful preparation out of the water. But we’re ready for that. Abi has handed in her notice at the Bank, and won’t be going back to work after we get back from holiday at Easter. This will give her the opportunity to be flexible with anything the comes up. And in the absence of any major emergencies, we still plan to go ahead with buying a house, and moving in July. It’s a bold move, but we think we’re ready for it.

(Oh, and as for me? I had the foresight to find an excellent company in Edinburgh that will let me work…from the Netherlands. They rock.)

UFOs in Utrecht

We’re just back from a few days in NL. Didn’t take many photos, but we did manage to catch a UFO parked on the side of a building in the middle of Utrecht. After discussing the matter with Alex this evening, we concluded that the aliens had simply run out of petrol, and didn’t realise that on this planet you’re supposed to park on the ground, in designated parking areas. Nothing to worry about.

UFO in Utrecht

Writing without end

Paul Graham’s recent essay, “The Age of the Essay” struck a chord with me. The kind of essay writing he describes, a more free-flowing exploration of ideas than the traditionally structured “taking a position and defending it” essay, is exactly how I write.

Writing makes me think better. By putting words down on the page, my thoughts take better form. And the more thoughts I write down, the more ideas arrive. It’s like letting them out makes space for new and better ones.

I never learned how to write a “standard” essay at school, like most of my British and American contemporaries did. It wasn’t until after we were out of university and married that Abi told me about the technique of “say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you just said.” This came as a revelation to me, and has always struck me as a deeply uninteresting way to put an argument.

We did have writing exercises at school in the Netherlands, but we were never restricted to writing just essays. In every writing assignment, up to and including our final exams, there was always at least one topic choice that was open to a fictional approach. No matter how bizarre the topic, I always chose this option.

All our Dutch teachers warned us (and me especially, as a persistent offender) of the danger of sticking to fiction for these assignments. Stories are harder for teachers (and external examiners) to grade, and so they generally get judged more critically, and end up with lower average grades than essays. It was always deemed easier to write a competent essay than a competent story.

I’m sure that my contrary nature contributed to my insistence upon always choosing the story option, but mostly I just enjoyed writing fiction. And at school I always wrote stories the way Paul Graham describes “real” essay writing: I started with an idea, and then I developed it. If I didn’t find myself excited and surprised by the road the story took as it flowed out of me, then that was an indication that my readers would bored, too.

At school, I don’t think I ever knew where a story was going to end when I sat down and started it.

Looking back on it, this is probably what I used to enjoy most about writing fiction.

It is certainly what I enjoy most about blogging. When I get a-rambling, I rarely start off with a well-defined idea of where I want to go with the thought that prompted me to start a new entry. I rarely start off having done all the research (if any is needed) to back up what I say. If I start an entry in a new Firefox window, then chances are I’ll have about twenty or thirty tabs open in it by the time I come to press “save”, and I’ll always have learned something new on the way.

Coming back to fiction: it has been about a year since I last tried to write any, and probably three since I actually finished a story. So why did I stop?

Until now, I probably would have mumbled something about not having enough time, or not having anything really interesting to say, both of which reasons are thoroughly nixed by the existence of this blog. I think I realise now that the real reason is: I stopped enjoying writing fiction.

So, digging deeper: what made me stop enjoying it?

Plot. Endings. Structure. At some point in the mid-nineties I started being more concerned about these things. It started to worry me that I usually had no idea where a story was going. (Although this was a perfect jumping-off point for the “Best Openings” contest in the IMPs writers’ group on Compuserve.) I got into the mindset that I had to have an outline before starting a story. I started to feel inhibited about writing without an ending in mind. And guess what? Pretty soon the ideas just dried up. Without ideas, I couldn’t come up with endings, and so I stopped creating beginnings. Catch-22.

One of the things I have started admitting to myself is that I don’t persist with things I don’t really enjoy doing. I started taking Tae Kwan Do lessons earlier this year, but stopped stopped going after a month or two. At first I tried to rationalise away the reasons for not going to the classes (family demands, injured shoulder, etc.), but the deep down real reason is that I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had hoped I would. Likewise, there are plenty of reasons I could trot out for selling my drum kit earlier this year, but the real reason is that I wasn’t enjoying playing as much as I used to.

The other side of this coin is that if I find myself persisting with something, that’s a way for me to know that I really enjoy it. Blogging, for instance. I’ve been doing this since 2000, without much sign of stopping. Ergo, I must enjoy doing it. Likewise golf. I don’t play very often these days, but I do still play.

(Curiously, I feel like this piece of self-knowledge is related to my realisation that a personal music player must have an FM radio built in for me to actually keep using it regularly. It has the same sensation of lifting the veil of self-delusion, and drawing the sting of unfulfilled desire.)

In summary, the only way I will ever write fiction regularly (and consistently) again is if I find myself actively enjoying it. And I to enjoy it again, I must stop worrying about outlines and endings, and just let it flow. I have to start surprising myself again. I have to start writing to please myself before I can even think about sending stuff out into the big wide world again.

That’s certainly what I do here with this blog. Some posts are for the benefit of family and friends, to let them know what I’m up to. Some posts are pointers to, or snippets of information about things I find interesting (like the Movable Type tutorials I’ve written). And some posts are just for myself: me thinking things through out loud, talking to myself in public. You might find them interesting, or you might not. If you take away something of value from the post, that’s cool, but it’s a fringe benefit. I’m no pundit, and I’m not trying to generate an audience for my ramblings.

I’ve had some story ideas brewing for a while now. We’ll see if this new self-knowledge helps to turn them into something tangible, or if it’s just another layer of writer’s block to hide behind.

Dutch train station clocks

Dutch train station clocks have always baffled me. They are, I am sure, the strangest timepieces known to mankind.

They’re visually quite distinctive, in an Ur-clock kind of way. They have plain, backlit white faces inside a black box with rounded corners. The hands are thick, and the minute divisions are chunky. They make the time very readable even from large distances.

But their visual apperance isn’t the strange thing about them. It’s their behaviour. Click on the image below for a video clip (about 1.6MB) of one of these clocks in action. I haven’t doctored this clip in any way. Pay close attention to what happens when the second hand passes the minute mark.

A Dutch train station clock

Tick…tick…tick…PAUSE…PAUSE…PAUSE…tick…tick. The second hand pauses for about three second at the top of the minute. Why? It means that the second hand makes a full cycle in 57 seconds, rather than 60. Each beat of the second hand is only 0.95 seconds long. By design, these clocks can only ever show the right time once every minute. The rest of the time, they are GUARANTEED to be wrong.

Okay, so they’re only ever fractionally out, but…but… it’s just wrong. It’s the kind of thing that can drive a person just ever so slightly mad…in 0.05 second increments.

This behaviour must be by design; it’s too strange to be an accident, and the clocks would have been fixed long ago if it was. So there has to be a good explanation for it.

Could it be a subconscious nudge to make people hurry up for their trains, by making them think that it’s slightly later than it actually is? Is it a subtle technique to help people relax in a tense rush hour environment, by giving them a three-second breathing space at the top of every minute? Are there any readability benefits from having the second hand pause like this?

There must be a reason. Does anyone know what it is?

(Amusing speculations are also welcome.)


I don’t know what made me think of it, but earlier today I was struck by a particularly vivid memory of reading Storm comics. When I think of “fantasy art”, the first name that springs to mind for me is not Boris Vallejo, but rather Don Lawrence. Lawrence was never terribly big in the UK, but he was huge in the Netherlands. Storm was published in weekly chunks in the comic Eppo, and whenever a story was running the delivery of each new issue was an occasion to be treasured. Googling around this evening, I was sad to see that Don Lawrence died in December of last year.

I used to have a whole bundle of Storm books, but I haven’t seen them in years, which means they’re probably gone. They have all been reprinted in beautiful new editions, but at €595 for the whole set (about £400), they’re going to have to wait for a very special occasion. Goodness, the price of nostalgia these days….