Handyman is...

Bart Samwel, Software Engineer working at Google in Mountain View, California. More...


It's RAINING. In June. This never happens here.

In other news: upright vacuum cleaners suck, except that they don't -- they mostly brush, until the brush breaks. I have learned to avoid them like the plague. Our new canister vacuum works like a charm, it makes vacuuming almost fun!

Back in the US

Here I go again with just another random set of updates!

A while ago we had a working replica of KITT at Google, courtesy of some drink vendor. That was fun!

The weather here has taken a turn for the better. Our trip to The Netherlands couldn't have had better timing: it was 14 degrees Celcius and raining in the Bay Area on the day we left (May 17) and it was 14 degrees Celcius and raining on the day we returned (May 31), while the weather in The Netherlands was just perfect during that time. And now that we're back, The Netherlands weather has taken a turn for the worse, and we're in about 30 degrees celcius here. Yesterday was 34, today even 36, but those days are rare, and it's a dry heat, so it's doesn't feel like a warm, wet blanket like such days feel like in The Netherlands.

Some time ago I noticed the greatest license plate ever. It said "WRRRRRR". Runners-up are an RV with the plate "RVHICLE", and a '69 Thunderbird with the plate "TBIRD69".

Work-wise things are going great, I've gotten good performance reviews, I'm close to finishing a big project that I'm pretty proud of (and that, of course, I can't talk about in public :-) ), and I now also have an intern to work with. Google culture is very low on process and control, which is pretty refreshing compared to some of my previous jobs. This is, of course, made possible by the fact that for pretty much everything Google does, Google also sets the schedule, so there's flexibility. In the web apps realm, there's almost no fixed release dates for products or features, and almost everything is incremental, so if your particular feature doesn't make it because it isn't done, it'll just be in the next release. That makes for a nice, pressure-low and inspiration-high environment where you want to finish that feature because you want to get it released, but where you don't need to have stress about hard deadlines. And because there's no hard deadlines, there's way less planning overhead, because it's fine to give ballpark predictions about when it'll be done, instead of having to track every work item hour by hour (which is doomed to failure anyhow, and which only leads to fruitless half-hour discussions to decide whether something is going to take three hours or six).

"Een Nederlandse Amerikaan..."

That's the title of a Dutch song, which goes something like a Dutch American, you can see him from afar. And I am now feeling like one one very American Dutchman, back in The Netherlands for a short vacation. I've only been here for two days, but I already have plenty to say. I'll probably do this in multiple installments, this is the first one.

Dog shit. None in California. Really. Two days in The Netherlands, about six successful dog shit dodges, and counting. Just waiting for the first unsuccessful dodge.

Water. Tap water in The Netherlands is not only drinkable, it tastes good, better than most bottled water in the US.

Speeding. I'm surprised at how little speeding I've seen so far. I've only been pushed to the side three times by black Audis, in ~500 km driven. And when I'm driving at 130 km/h (81 mph), 10 km/h over the limit, which corresponds to the maximum speeding ticket I'm willing to risk having to pay), I'm really driving faster than most other cars on the road.

Highways. Dutch highway traffic sucks, as opposed to US highway traffic, which sucks too, but in an entirely different way. For starters, Dutch highways are often only two lanes in each direction. That's fine, except for the fact that speed differences between vehicles are typically on the order of 40 km/h (25 mph), where on US highways the difference is usually just 10 mph (16 km/h). The only way to accommodate this is strict "lane discipline": everybody always drives in the rightmost lane except when overtaking another vehicle. It all sounds very nice in theory, but in practice you're driving 120-130 km/h for short stretches until you're stuck in the left lane behind a slower vehicle that's overtaking (a truck overtaking another truck at 91 km/h versus 90 km/h, or a slower car that only drives at 100-110 km/h. Or, if you fail to move to the left lane way before you actually reach a truck that's blocking the right lane, you're stuck behind the truck because the left lane is filled to the brim with a train of cars, all tailgating at 110 km/h. Even if you could find a spot where you could enter the "train", you're stuck behind a truck at 90 km/h so you'd have to speed up 20 km/h and then change lanes. Good luck with that. So while the maximum speed of 120 km/h sounds very nice, in practice you're driving at 105-110 km/h on average unless it's before 7 AM or after 9 PM. And what's the maximum speed on highways in California? 105 km/h (65 mph). Except that on California highways, the left lane pretty much always moves at 65 mph unless traffic is really busy. And if you want to keep driving at that speed, it's just fine to stay in the left lane (or at least, in the second lane). No constant lane changes. If somebody really wants to pass, they can pass on the right if there's space. All of that makes for much more relaxed driving. People don't tend to keep enough distance though in the US, so it's not uncommon to be rear-ended. I just find it very relaxing that having a tailgater doesn't mean that they expect me to move the fuck over to the right lane or they'll run me over, it just means that you can fit more cars on the same highway like that.

Muir Woods, Sausalito, San Francisco

This was a very good day. We drove up to Muir Woods, a monumental forest somewhere North of San Francisco. Over Golden Gate Bridge, into the mountains. Highway 1 is really a very curvy road in these parts, it doesn't really deserve the name "highway". The forest isn't really a huge place, but it's nice for a one-hour hike with the kids. What is huge there: the enormous redwood trees -- they are enormous. There was a display with a cross section of a tree that toppled over in 1930, which was about 1000 years old according to its rings. These things don't die either: their root systems stay alive, and the bases of dead trees just sprout new trees. So you get these "family circles", where an age-old dead tree stump is in the middle of a circle of "new" trees, each of which might itself already be hundreds of years old.

After Muir Woods we drove down to Sausalito, a very picturesque place just across Golden Gate Bridge, which has a marina, great views, and a very nice fish restaurant called, well, "Fish." The kids had nice fresh Fish Sticks (with real fish inside, wow!), and we had great fish and chips, with halibut fried in beer batter. Yay!

The way back brought us a little detour through San Francisco because I missed a turn. Man that city has steep streets. I'm just so friggin' happy that we don't have to do this in our old manual-shift Volkswagen Polo 1.4. Our Ford Fusion has "just" a 2.5L 175hp engine, but it took the hills just fine, thanks for a large part to the automatic transmission. And it was a load of fun!

Oh, while driving home I heard Lucas singing the alphabet song (melody of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" / "Altijd is Kortjakje Ziek"). Where two months ago he went like "Q R S, SUV" (I taught him the word SUV just before), he now does almost the whole song, starting with "AC/DC E F G". I'm not sure that's an improvement. :-)


Apparently there's a Catholic church in San Jose where they re-enact the passion of Jesus each year, which goes as follows. Some hispanic guy gets chosen a year in advance to be the "next Jesus", and he lets his beard and hair grow for the entire year. Kind of like "Prince Carnival", but different (Prince Carnival has only 11 apostles!) Then when the time comes, he undresses, puts on a loincloth, gets beaten up by the crowd, carries a real wooden cross, and gets dumped in a "cave", from which he then mysteriously disappears. So a couple of years ago my massage therapist (yes!) and her husband had just bought their new house which is within a stone's throw from the church, and they closed the deal just before Easter. They wouldn't get the keys until June or something, but of course when you're a young couple and you've just gotten your hands on your dream home you drive by there every day, because it's such a nice house and you just have to see it and imagine yourself living there. So picture her and her husband driving past their new home, and then seeing a large crowd of hispanics beating up a guy in a loincloth, clearly a homeless person. What the fuck is going on here? Did we buy a home in a bad neighborhood? Let's call the police, this isn't right! ...oh. Yeah. It's those weird Catholics. So ever since that day, every year they have friends over for Easter, and they sit in their front yard in folding chairs, and watch the reenactment, beer in hand. Nice!

W00t: it's mango season!!!

Maybe it's a bit boring to write about, but still: the fruit season has started. In winter, we noticed that fruit was pretty expensive here compared to The Netherlands -- all except for oranges, which have always been about $0.49 / pound (= ~EUR 0.75 / kg). I hear that the California navel orange season runs from November through April or May, that's just plain weird. But now it's April, and here we go for a bunch of other fruits: 1 kg of strawberries: 3 dollars. Better: mangos are now $0.33 each. Yes, that's like EUR 0.20 for a whole mango, those things that are at least a full euro each in The Netherlands even when they're in season. My kids just love those things, and they never could eat them freely because they were way too expensive for that. They are fruit monsters, and now they can eat as much as they like! Yay!!

Trip to Yosemite

We took a trip to Yosemite last weekend. The pictures are here. Highlights:

- We didn't bring snow chains because we were hoping the roads were clear. It turns out they weren't, not entirely. We kind of cruised through the parts that were still covered in mild snow, it turned out OK but it was a bit scary at times.

- It's very scary to suddenly be without cell phone reception, if you're used to always being connected!

- We had our old neighbors (well, boy-next-door and girl-next-door) with us, who were staying with us for a couple of days. That was loads of fun, it's fun doing a road trip with a bunch of people! Mieke went with them to San Francisco for a day as well, she was lucky enough to see Alcatraz and some more nice things. I still need to go and do that, even though it's only a 50-minute drive to get there.

Backup child care, straight from the battlefield

OK, so my employer offers its employees free backup child care, for a couple of days a year. Excellent! For me the backup child care is provided by a company called Bright Horizons, which have locations all over the country, plus an extended network of locations they can contact. As it turns out, arranging backup child care is... well... complicated. Here's an account of our battle so far.

We requested child care about three days ago, but they were only able to confirm this last night at 7pm. Then they pointed us to a bunch of forms we had to fill out. 16 highly redundant pages per child, most of which required signatures from both parents, in blood. In The Netherlands this would have been five pages in total, of which three pages had been a list of children, half a page per child, of which I'd only have to fill out the first two (because I only have two children). Oh, and they wanted an immunizations report, and a physician's report saying that they were healthy enough to go to daycare/preschool. And photographs, which they didn't actually ask for when I brought the kids in, so that's just as well, because I didn't bring any. :-) So last night consisted of about 1.5 hours of filling out forms, with both me and Mieke writing at the same time. I might just as well have used that time for working, and then I wouldn't have needed backup child care.

This morning I asked our regular child care center to fax over the medical stuff. That was easy enough, except that they momentarily couldn't find Kwint's immunization records. So I printed them from the Kaiser Permanente web site, scanned that and sent it to them by e-mail, once again easy enough. Checking in the children was a bit more of a hassle: more paperwork (5-10 minutes per child) that actually has to be filled out every day, sigining in, explaining everything to everybody, darn, that's a lot of work. Oh, and it turns out that our son Kwint, who doesn't walk yet, can't play in the toddler room because (yes, here it comes): he doesn't have any shoes. What??!?

But it gets worse. I got a call why my children hadn't been immunized for Polio and Hepatitis B. The Polio stuff I figured out, it's given together with DTaP in The Netherlands (it's called DKTP, where K = kinkhoest = pertussis, and P = polio), that had just not shown up on our immunization records (note to self: fix that!). Hep B was just our choice, since it's optional. So then they asked me to call our doctor and let her write a note saying why we didn't do the Hep B shots. Which was our choice. So we'd have to ask our doctor to tell them that we told the doctor that we didn't want it? WTF? Eventually they just accepted an e-mail from me saying that it was OK because I chose to do it.

Time passes. I get a call from the toddler room teacher saying that they are not allowed to mix formula. Again I went, like, WTF, these people are supposed to be able to take care of my child but they're not allowed to mix formula? So I tell them to give him regular milk, because we were switching to that anyway. So they don't have that, but they do have soy milk, so they'll give him that. Then twenty minutes later I get another call saying that giving soy milk to toddlers is against company policy, so if I could please come by and mix the formula for them. Oh, and could I bring some more bottles, because then I could mix several bottles at once, otherwise I'd have to come back several times to mix formula. Anyway, they turned out to have some containers that I could use to store the formula in, but I did have to go out there and mix formula. When I went into the infant room (where Kwint was conspicuously not playing, they were all in the toddler room!) to mix the formula, I had to put some sort of special protection over my shoes so that the floor wouldn't get bacteria or something, due to the crawlers. Oh boy, bacteria and children, don't mix them, they might develop an immune system! I must say I did yell at the people. I was MAD. I didn't do any proper work today until now, hopefully I will finally get some work done in the next few hours until I have to pick the kids up again...

Update: I just got a call warning me that they found bite marks on Kwint's arm. They didn't see it happen so they didn't know who or what, but they put ice on it and the little guy wasn't crying or anything so he's probably not hurt at all. Anyway, I don't know if I prefer this to just an accident report like at the other daycare. In fact, I think I'd prefer not to be called if the kid is OK -- what am I going to do, run over there and pick up the kids in the middle of my workday, over what amounts to just normal interaction between kids? Please.

In other news...

So one of our neighbors down the street turns out to work at the Computer History Museum. Small world!

Our old girl-and-boy-next-door from Nijmegen have come to visit us today. Tomorrow morning at dawn, off we go to Yosemite! I'll try and post photos when I get back, hope it'll be really good. I was afraid we'd have to use snow tires because there's been snow today and yesterday, but it turns out that we're going to be OK without them. Phew.

Last weekend the weather was really good, so we put together a gazebo (Dutch: partytent; IKEA), swing bench (Orchard Supply Hardware), and a new table (IKEA). Our old, plastic, significantly-less-than-sturdy table was so light that our 11-month-old Kwint was able to push it over with his feet while sitting in his high chair, even while there was loads of stuff on the table. We really didn't want to spend that money while we still had a perfectly good table, but we figured that, well, buying new tableware is expensive too.

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