In the Netherlands, the whole New Year thing is called “Oud en Nieuw”, which means “Old and New”. One of the traditional things to eat around this time is Oliebollen, which translated literally means “Oil balls”. Essentially, they’re deep-fried balls of dough, dusted liberally with powdered sugar. Mmm, donuts.

But don’t picture American style cake-like donuts, or British style sweet dense bread-like donuts. Oliebollen aren’t for dunkin’. They really are oil balls. They’re fried to an greasy golden crisp on the outside, and are hot, thick and sweet on the inside. You can buy them in bakeries and in oliebollen stands on street corners. Buy them from a street vendor, and they’ll come in a white paper bag that will be saturated to the point of see-through by the time you get them home. If they last that long. They’re delicious on their own, or with a beer, or with some champagne at Oud en Nieuw.

We bought my parents a deep-fat fryer for Christmas. Guess what we were munching on Boxing Day?

Here’s the recipe we used, cribbed (and translated) from the web site of Bakkerij Steevens:

Ingredients (makes about 40 oliebollen)

  • 1kg flour
  • 1l water
  • 25g salt
  • 50g sugar
  • 80g yeast (yes, really 80g)
  • 10g cinnamon powder
  • 200g raisins
  • 100g chopped apples
  • A splash of lemon juice

Dissolve the yeast in the water. Mix the cinnamon, salt and sugar into the flour, and then add the yeasty water. Stir this for a short while (or use a blender on slow) until you’ve got goo. Fold in the raisins, apples and lemon juice. Then cover the mix with a damp tea towel (to stop it drying out) and leave it to stand and rise in a warm place for at least 45 minutes. Make sure you put it in a big container, because it’s going to at least double in size.

Heat your oil to 180° C (350° F). Use an ice cream scoop or a large spoon to drop lumps of the dough into the oil, and let them sit and bubble for about 5 minutes, turning them over half-way through so they are golden on both sides. Then take them out and let them rest on some kitchen roll.

Don’t eat them immediately, because they’re burning hot. You can let them rest for a while until they’re merely warm, or you can keep them for longer and then gently re-heat them in an oven. Don’t re-heat them in a microwave, because they’ll go all soggy and horrible. (You can eat them cold, too, but they’re really meant to be eaten warm, on a frosty night.)

To serve the oliebollen, place a whole bundle of them on a big plate, and smother them in powdered sugar. Then make sure that everyone has enough napkins to wipe their fingers with….

High School Reunion, part 1

It was my high school reunion last week. Wow. It wasn’t a reunion specifically for my year, but rather a party for the whole school, which is now 90 years old. Several thousand former pupils and teachers showed up for the evening, and the entire school was packed out with people going, “Great to see you! So what are you doing now?”

I was having a lot of mixed feelings about going back. First of all, I’m not a very social person. Given the choice between going out to a party, or staying home and reading a book, I’ll take the book almost every time. I have an odd condition called “obscure auditory dysfunction,” which means that despite having perfect hearing under normal conditions, I have some difficulty making out speech in noisy environments. I could be charitable and say that this is what makes me uncomfortable in party situations, because I can’t hear half of what people are saying to me. Generally, though, I figure that I’m just a crotchety bastard who doesn’t like people.

Also, until the end of last year, I had completely lost touch with everyone from my class. This was all my fault. A Christmas card each year, and a postcard or two to communicate address changes is hardly a great effort, but it was still too much for me. Re-establishing contact with someone means admitting that you lost contact in the first place. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a tiny embarrassment. But after a certain amount of time had gone by, I found it easier to live with the personal guilt of losing touch, than to deal with the interpersonal shame of admitting my incompetence as a correspondent.

I left school in 1989, and I lost touch with my last set of school friends (Marco Linden and Ineke Linden-Brümmer) in about 1996. (All my fault. I didn’t follow up on an address change, and now Marco and Ineke are somewhere in Africa, practicing tropical medicine…I think. If anyone knows where they are, please drop me a line.) For a few years after that, I would have found it too awkward and socially painful to contemplate a reunion, if one had taken place.

But time is a damp sponge that wipes many slates clean. After a certain amount of time, I found myself wanting to find people again, and to reconnect to my friends from back then. I started doing web searches to see who I could find. In November of last year I came across Evert-Jan, who was in touch with several others from our old gang, and so the first set of links was established. In June of this year I found an email address for Olga, who has been a friend since primary school, and who was instrumental in bringing Abi and me together. (A story for another occasion, perhaps.) Olga was in touch with a different knot of contacts, and we joined the two chains together. By the time the reunion came around, we had about twenty classmates on the list.

Next in the list of sources for mixed feelings, there’s the problem of language. My old school is in the Netherlands, you see. I grew up there. I was six years old when we moved to Voerendaal; my brother Scott was four. We both attended Dutch primary schools, and we picked up the language very quickly. We only spoke English at home, and Scott and I even started speaking Dutch with each other. We still do. Although we spoke and read English at home, we both learned “formal” English (grammar, etc.) as a foreign language at a Dutch high school. In many ways, Dutch is our first language.

Or at least, it was.

After finishing high school in 1989, I moved to St. Andrews to go to university. I went back to see my parents in the Netherlands during the holidays, but less frequently as the years progressed. Scott also moved back to Scotland, and went to Stirling to study psychology. Abi and I got married in 1993, and we set up house in Edinburgh. My parents moved back to Scotland in 1995. With all of my family back here, and having lost contact with almost all of my school friends, I have very little reason to go back to the Netherlands on a regular basis.

Consequently, my Dutch suffered. Enormously.

I can still understand spoken Dutch easily enough–that was never a problem. Because Scott and I still speak Dutch to each other (although by now it’s more of a personalized English/Dutch creole), I have retained a certain amount of fluency in speaking the language. I still have a Limburgs accent, for example. I’ve lost a lot of idiom, though. When speaking with Scott, if I can’t think of a Dutch phrase quickly enough, I’ll throw in the English version, rather than waiting or asking him if he knows the right expression.

Written Dutch is a different matter altogether, though. I can still read Dutch perfectly well, just much more slowly than I used to. Written language generally uses more complex grammatical constructions than spoken language does. Sentences are longer, and people are inclined to use longer and rarer words than the ones that roll happily off the tongue in free-flowing everyday speech. I have to concentrate to read Dutch newspapers. (Weblogs are an interesting cross between formal written language and informal conversations, and I’ve been reading a couple regularly to try and increase my reading fluency.)

As for writing Dutch…. Aargh. Now that’s really difficult. When I was getting back in touch with all of these friends through email, it took a lot of time and effort to construct even the most basic paragraphs in reasonably grammatically correct, simple Dutch. A few times I had to revert to English just so I could finish an email in a single evening.

Forgetting a language you once knew very well (I was editor of our school magazine, for goodness’ sake) is strange, and more than just a little scary. There was a point last weekend where I went into a bakery to buy some pastries for a late breakfast. The bakery shelves were filled with delicious sweet things I recognized from my childhood. But I could not remember what any of them were called. The price list behind the counter showed the names of all the pastries: hanekammen, nonnevotten, moorkoppen, and lots more. But the words were meaningless to me. Even with the items themselves right in front of me, I couldn’t make the mental connection between the pastries and their names.

I suddenly had a glimpse of what it must be like to be suffering from dementia, or to have some other form of brain damage. It chilled me.

All of this, then: the reluctance to socialize, the embarrassment of having lost contact, and the awkwardness of not being able to speak the language properly; they all contributed to make me feel uneasy and uncertain about going to the reunion.

The last major factor is change, or at least the fear of change. How much would people have changed? Would we still have anything to talk about? Would we still have anything in common, apart from our memories of school? Would we even still recognize each other?

My fear was partly allayed, and partly exacerbated by our visit to the Netherlands a month previously, at the end of August. On the one hand, while we were driving around Voerendaal and Heerlen (the nearby town where the school is located), I was so freaked out by some of the changes that I had to stop and let my dad take over the driving. What are those houses doing there? Where did the road go? There’s a shopping centre there? Where are we? Help!

On the other hand, Abi, Alex and I took some time out to go and visit Olga and her husband Hans. I was nervous before seeing her, but the visit was wonderful, and very reassuring. Apart from being pregnant, and looking a bit narrower in the face (and more like her mother), Olga hasn’t changed much. Hans is a wonderful, friendly guy, who was more than happy to play with Alex, and to speak English with Abi. We didn’t pick up our friendship from exactly where we left it ten years ago, but that would have been even weirder. Instead, we talked as adults, as fellow parents and parents-to-be, and as ready-made acquaintances.

If you don’t cultivate them, the bonds of friendship undoubtedly grow weaker with time. Shared history never disappears, but the experiences belong to the people we were then. To us, they are memories. Friendship can be rooted in the past, but it has to live in the present. Its bonds therefore have to reflect the people we are now. That’s probably the thing I feared most: have my old friends and I changed so much that we could no longer become new friends?

Dutch car license plates and traffic control

Dutch license plate: 01-LX-RP

The picture above shows a Dutch car license plate. Notice anything strange about it? Something odd about the letters “R” and “P”? The strokes of the letters are not completely joined up.

I’ve been trying to dig up some information about this typographic oddity, but I haven’t found anything concrete yet. My best guess is that styling these two letters this way makes computerised license plate identification easier. I’m no expert on optical character recognition, but it I’m sure that every little visual cue that distinguishes one character from another, helps in improving accuracy and processing speed. In the case of license plates, they must still remain easily readable by humans, so small adjustments, like the gaps in the letters “R” and “P” are probably a good compromise.

If you’re just taking a “wet film” image, or a digital snapshot of a car and its plates for later processing, then the speed and accuracy of identification of important, but not critical. If the computer system cataloguing the photos has trouble reading a given plate, it can flag an exception, and get a human being to check its work.

However, the Dutch police and Ministry of Transport are experimenting with traffic control systems where speed and accuracy of identification is critical. On the A-2 motorway between Amsterdam and Utrecht, they no longer just measure a car’s speed with a simple radar or laser speed camera. They use a connected network of cameras and detectors to identify cars at multiple places, so that the system is aware of the car’s average speed over that stretch of road.

It’s no longer any good just slowing down if you know a speed camera is up ahead, and then speeding up immediately afterwards. By measuring your average speed, you have to keep your speed down over that stretch of road.

Because you now need two cameras to monitor a stretch of road (one at the start, one at the end), you will be taking twice the number of images, and processing twice the number of license plates. If the accurancy of recognition remains the same as before, then you will also be generating twice as many exceptions, which requires twice as much human input to correct.

Also, because you have to correlate multiple data points, you have to identity the license plate correctly at both the entry and exit point in order to measure the car’s average speed.

Looking at this from the point of view of a motorist, say you have a 90% chance of being accurately identified at each speed camera. If you have to be identified by both cameras, then you have two chances of slipping through that 10% gap. The overall probability of getting caught therefore comes down to just 81%. (Note: 90% is just a number pulled out of thin air to make the point. The real-life identification rate will be different.)

Looking at it from the point of view of the system designers, if you want to maintain a 90% accuracy rate over the two cameras combined, then you have to increase the accuracy of each individual camera to about 95%. So accurancy becomes a hot issue.

Speed of processing also becomes much more important, because you now have to identify the license plate of every car that passes the camera, not just the ones radar tells you are breaking the speed limit. The number of license plates that need to be processed every takes an enormous leap upwards….

…which brings us back to the need for accuracy. Because the more identifications you make, the more error reports will be generated, and the more manpower will be needed to verify them. If the system is not accurate enough, it either becomes a manpower nightmare, or you end up with enough violaters slipping through the net that it’s no more effective than single-point speed cameras.

Does it work? Oh yes. Here are some statistics, from the Dutch Institute for Traffic Care (ITC):

  • 99.7% accuracy over the course of 24/7 operation
  • Number of speeding violations dropped by 90%, from 6% of traffic to 0.6%
  • Average speed on the monitored stretches of road has dropped from 72mph (115km/h) to 66mph (105km/h)

Accident rates have dropped, and congestion has decreased.

The gaps in the letters “R” and “P” on Dutch number plates are therefore just one element in a very interesting and highly advanced transport strategy.

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The fashion-conscious geek

I rarely enjoy shopping for clothes. I like having nice clothes, and I enjoy wearing them, but I hate the time it takes to choose them. I was raised in South Limburg, the southernmost tip of the Netherlands, where the people are naturally stylish, and where they add fashion sense to the drinking water instead of fluoride. But I’m also a geek. Geeks (or nerds) have inner “anti-fashion” demons whispering to us whenever we enter a clothing shop. “Does it hide your nipples and gonads? Yes. Does it cut off the blood to your legs? No. Great. Now lay down the cash so we can hit the computing section in the bookshop next door!”

I like Levi’s. I like the cut of Hugo Boss suits (their web site sucks, though). I like a nicely tailored pair or Ralph Lauren trousers, and the crisp feel of a Thomas Pink shirt. But do I want to pay twice or three times the cost of a normal garment just to sport a brand label? Holy crap no.

I’m therefore always delighted to find something that fulfils the four criteria of the fashion-conscious geek:

  • It looks good
  • It looks good on me
  • It doesn’t cost the earth
  • It’s available off-the-peg in the first shop I visit

I found two such items last week: a pair of classic blue Converse All Star sneakers, and a plain demin jacket. I can’t believe I’ve never owned either of these before. The All Stars are comfortable like slippers. They are the timeless sneakers: relaxed footwear that is effortlessly stylish.

As for the denim jacket, I passed by the £70 Levi’s jacket in favour of a £25 off-brand. Cheap! I’m not going to claim that it looks the same as the Levi’s version, because it doesn’t. Any denim jacket connoisseur will instantly see that it doesn’t have a trendy label. But my one doesn’t try to go beyond the archetypal denim jacket by adding excess frills, zips, clever pockets, or decorative seams. It has the same kind of elegant simplicity as the All Stars.

The jacket and shoes also look great together, combined with a T-shirt and a pair of chinos or cargoes. As soon as I bought them, I knew they weren’t going to be part of my wardrobe–they were going to be part of me.

The true test for the clothes came as we were passing through Schiphol airport over the weekend. Anyone who spends a lot of time in European international airports knows the game of Nationality Spotting: trying to figure out what country a passing stranger comes from. After a while you develop a sense for the way people from different countries look. You start to recognize the characteristic genotypes, the way they dress, and the way they style their hair. It’s generally pretty easy to tell the British from the Dutch, the French from the German, and the Americans from everyone else. It gets more difficult when you have to distinguish between the Dutch and the Germans, or the Spanish and the Italians, but a talented Nationality Spotter can get pretty good over time.

The staff at Schiphol airport are all professional players. If you look like you’re Dutch, they will start speaking to you in Dutch. Otherwise, they will start speaking in English. (Unless they happen to tag your origins and also speak your native language. Not uncommon.) Even if you then turn around and reply in Dutch, they may continue to speak in English, just in case you have learned some stock replies (like “dankuwel” for “thank you”, etc.) and don’t have any further depth.

I usually get addressed in English. Being genetically Scottish through and through, and living and shopping and getting my hair cut in Scotland, it’s pretty hard to avoid looking like anything other than a Brit. But this time round, I managed to get spoken to in Dutch every time! Yay!

I understand that this may sound like an absurdly small victory, in a non-existant contest of surpassing pettiness, but it matters to me. I lived in The Netherlands from 1978 to 1989. Since then, I have been back only rarely. My Dutch skills are very rusty. My knowledge of Dutch current affairs is virtually nonexistent. I have neglected a large part of my upbringing–a large part of myself.

It’s only in the last few months that I have come to realize that I really miss the Netherlands, and the side of me that is Dutch. So what has changed?

I’ve got my High School reunion coming up at the beginning of October.

I’ll be writing more about this soon.

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