Thursday, 4 December 2014

Non scholae, set vitae...

It's been a while since my last entry - shame on me! I've had several posts in the pipeline for a while, I just lacked the time and/or leisure to actually sit down and write them. The usual November depression might have had its share in that - it's gotten quite cold here in the past couple of weeks, with a nasty wind. Not very motivating.

In the meantime, I've gone through my first exam period here and am now in the middle of the second study period. As I might have already mentioned in a previous entry, the semesters here are divided into 3 study periods of 8 weeks, 8 weeks and 4 weeks respectively. Usually we have to take 2 courses in the long periods, 1 course in the short ones. 2 courses with around 2-3 lectures per week doesn't seem like much, but since they're only 8 weeks long, the content is rather dense and usually there are lots of assignments due to be handed in, for some courses every week. Another peculiarity here is that most to all assignments have to be completed in teams, whereas the whole team will get the same grade. While most courses' final grades will be a combination of the practical work and an exam, the grade for my Service Oriented Design course was only composed of team assignments, without any exam - something that is rather frustrating when at least one member of the team is not working at all and will still get the same grade. Apart from that, with a group of 5 people there is a lot of synchronisation overhead and things often took a lot longer than if one of us had done everything alone.
My other course however, Concurrency&Multithreading, was fine. Other than SOD the course content was rather theoretical, and not having followed the lectures too attentively, I had quite a lot to study for the exam. The last time I actually had to study for a test was probably in 2008 or 2009 - took me a while to get used to it again. In the end it was no problem. Even having skipped one question, I got an 8.5 out of 10: no reason to complain here :)

This period I'm taking Software Architecture, again a rather practical course with some groupwork - but this time my group works together very well and we're actually having fun! My other course, Distributed Systems, is again more theoretical and theoretically it's a rather interesting and widespread topic...if only the lecturer weren't boring as hell! And, since my Masters Programme is offered by the VU (Vrije Universiteit) in collaboration with the UvA (Universiteit von Amsterdam), it takes place in the Science Park in Amsterdam-Oost, 45 minutes away by bike. You can imagine my lack of motivation to get up for this course at 8 on a cold December morning...

The Science Park itself however is actually quite nice. Modern and well-designed buildings, bright seating and working spaces everywhere, huge rooms with computer workplaces, fancy group workrooms that anyone can use, and most importantly: coffee is cheaper than at the VU!

Another thing that happened since my last post was the retirement lecture of Andrew S. Tanenbaum. Most people outside of computer science or related fields probably won't have heard of him: he wrote several standard text books for computer science (on Operating Systems, computer organization or networks for example...) and developed an operating system called MINIX, which was the starting point for Linus Torvalds to develop Linux (so basically, without him you wouldn't have your Android phone today). He's been working and teaching at the VU since the 1970's and announced his retirement this summer. I had already signed up for the retirement lecture in July, one rarely gets a chance to see the last lecture of such a legend.

To my great surprise, the Aula at VU where the lecture took place wasn't even completely full. I would have expected more people to come. Tanenbaum spoke for around an hour about his past >40 years at VU, where he started as one of the first three employees of the at that time not really existing computer science department. Videos were shown, memories were shared, colleagues praised him... all in all a very entertaining and humorous last lecture.

And, what was probably typically Dutch: Along with wine, champagne and orange juice, they served milk and buttermilk at the reception afterwards.

Monday, 13 October 2014

I don't think we're in Karlsruhe anymore...

We mostly spent the past weeks here getting our apartment set up: Multiple trips to IKEA for picking, buying and returning furniture (-parts), multiple trips to the hardware store and carpet/flooring shops, and many hours of my dear flatmate torturing me with possible apartment layouts, furniture arrangements and flooring options – we both aren't naturals or in any way talented at interior design, but while I myself seem to have come to terms with that and don't mind unprofessional furniture arrangements, he spent a lot of time with an interior design program trying out different options. He also seemed to be incredibly keen on laying out laminate himself in our living room and eventually he got what he wanted: 27m² of laminate are now lying downstairs, waiting to be unpacked. I do really appreciate his efforts though – we have an amazing apartment (in a quiet street just off Prinsengracht! With garden and balcony!) for an incredibly cheap price considering we are in Amsterdam and it would be a pity if we didn't furnish it nicely. Did I mention that the apartment comes with a fish pond, visiting cats, and a huge shower? I also really love that one of the tourist horse carriages, with a driver wearing a tailcoat and a top hat, drives through our street from time to time. The first time I saw it through our historically accurate window I thought I was dreaming...

Why, Mr Darcy, OF COURSE I want to come to the ball!
O hai!

Settling in from an administration point of view is also yet to be completed: I don't know if it is because things here just don't work as well as they do in Germany, or if it is because we are expats: Everything. Seems. To. Take. Ages.
I already mentioned the famous BSN in an earlier post, which is a tax/social security/citizen identy number. In order to get it you need a valid rental contract – which might take some time to get considering the housing market in Amsterdam. Then you need to get an appointment at the Gemeente for getting a BSN. Students like me can just show up, hand in their documents, and get their BSN within one week by mail. My Significant Other however spent 45 minutes on the phone talking to various clerks in various offices, just to get an appointment for handing in his documents some time in mid-November. It remains questionable how long he will have to wait after this appointment.
Without a BSN, it is not possible to open a bank account – or so I was told. In the end I did not need it at the bank, but it did take more than 10 days until I got the letter that I could pick up my PIN, which had not been sent to the bank branch where I had opened the account, but to a completely different branch further away. Ugh!
This bank account was necessary for signing up for gas and electricity, for getting a mobile phone contract, and most importantly for signing up for internet! Our internet connection will already be enabled „within 3 to 6 weeks“, possibly on November 3rd. How the hell am I supposed to procrastinate without internet?!

University is quite demanding as well – yes, I do have 2 days off every week at the moment, but trust me, I'm still not getting bored, since my courses are laid out in a way that we theoretically have to work around 40h every week. In practice, I had assignments due every thursday evening and every 2 weeks on friday, and since all of them were team assignments a lot of evenings during the week and most part of my „days off“ was spent coordinating and working with my teammates. I am still not sure whether or not to like the amount of teamwork we have to do here. One of my courses' grade is solely based on those group assignments, so it definitely sort of sucks to have others partly responsible for your grade. And there were definitely times when I had the feeling that I could have done the work faster and better on my own (ironically, that was for my Multithreading course – talk about synchronization overhead!). Then again: We can divide the work so I don't have to do the parts that I don't like (I'm completely fine with writing long text, but please don't have me do any diagrams!). And it does give me the opportunity to learn more about group dynamics, motivating others, etc. pp., all things which I might need when I'm grown up and want to manage projects. Haha.
At the moment I'm preparing, or rather: should be preparing, for the exam in said Multithreading course. The Dutch university system is a little different from the one we know in Germany (or at least: the one youknow; I've never attended a regular German university!): there are 2 semesters per year, both of them divided into 3 periods of 8, 8 and 4 weeks length. Typically students take 2 courses in the long periods, and 1 course in the short period, exams are at the end of each period. There is no real break between the periods and none between the semesters: only July and August are „free“, and 2 weeks around christmas and New Years.
Now, don't dare calling me a lazy student again!

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Amsterdam Girl Geek Dinner - Definitely Does Compute

One thing I had been looking forward to a lot about moving to Amsterdam was the fact that here exist several networking events for women in technical companies/technical professions, i.e. mostly in IT. A lot of them seem to be organised via Twitter or Meetup (a platform whose benefits I'm only just now starting to discover! Ah, the possibilities!) So far I've discovered the PythonLadies, the RailsGirls, the PHPWomen and, less technology-specific: Girls in Tech and the Girl Geek Dinner.

Considering that Karlsruhe, where I've lived before, is also considered a somewhat big technology and innovation hub, it's a little sad to see how few girls' networking events take place there: virtually none. I guess it's just a different culture here. Or there really aren't enough women in tech back home.

So, as soon as the date for the September edition of the Girl Geek Dinner here was announced, I just had to sign up! The Girl Geek Dinners are a world wide organisation who promote women in technology. In Germany they seem to be a bit underdeveloped, unfortunately, thats why I only came across the organisation when I moved here.
The dinners usually feature one or several speakers for varied topics, usually women, and a buffet style dinner. Men are allowed to attend as well, but only as long as they're invited by a woman - every woman can invite one man, like this women will never be outnumbered by men.

The topic for September's  GGD in Amsterdam was "Start-ups" and was hosted in the beautiful premises of Rockstart on Herengracht. The evening started out with drinks and socializing and me being a little shy, but I soon got into conversation with some other first-time attendees. And there were really only women! No men! And all of those women were working in technology!

The talks were rather impressive as well - especially since at least 2 speakers were a lot younger than me. At 22, I was still way too clueless to be even remotely thinking about founding a company (and I probably still am).
Oh, and of course there was food! Catering was provided by VanChefs, one of the presenting startups: Light salad, lentils, garlic bread, veggies.....and dessert cream with macarons! I would love to post some pictures, but my phone battery died at some point, but can assure that it looked and tasted delicious :-)

All in all I met a lot of intelligent, interesting and inspiring women at the GGD - I'm already looking forward to the next event in december and might even bring my significant other :)

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Wenn du vom Stricken sprichst, ist das so schön...

Having left my trusty sewing machine behind in Germany, my fingers began itching to MAKE something soon after I arrived in Amsterdam and I urgently needed some craft project to occupy myself. Sewing by hand was not an option, as I simply lack the patience for that and I would still have needed too much equipment.

Well, knitting it was then - I did know at least the basics, although so far I had only been able to knit socks (which I had actually been taught over the phone) and didn't know any terminology for anything I'd been doing, let alone was able to read knitting patterns. And there's only so many socks that I need anyway, time to expand my knowledge!

Off to the nearest yarn store I went, which was was in this case Penelope's Craft Boutique, where the friendly owner recommended a pattern for beginners like me and helped me pick the right needles and yarn for it.
I ended up with the Herbivore Shawl by Stephen West, who is apparently quite known in the knitting-scene and is living here in Amsterdam, and some Madelinetosh Light Merino in the colour "Flashdance" (why, of course I'm doing my experimental first real knitting project with an expensive yarn! *rolleyes*)

In the beginning there was a lot of cursing, unravelling und tutorial-video-watching involved, until I had gotten the hang of it and was able to knit away happily and frustration-free. Also, thanks again to my friend Nadja, who was there to help me in my initial confusion over knitting, purling and back loops!

All in all it took me around 2 weeks to finish, mostly while binge-watching Veronica Mars. Once finished, I first attributed it to my lack in skills and experience that it did not look as smooth and even as the sample piece in the shop - until a wise person told me, that it still needed to be blocked. For those who are as unfamiliar with the term blocking as I was until a few days ago: This involves gently washing the knitted piece, then stretching and fixing it into the desired form and letting it dry over night.

Considering how windy it is here and that university is a 20 minute bike ride away, this probably won't be the last scarf/shawl/cowl I've knitted. At the moment I'm still putting off buying yarn for new projects until we've somewhat finished picking/assembling/arranging furniture and unpacking boxes in our new appartment, but as soon as we're settled I'll probably start hoarding wool and producing one garment after the other. While sewing will always remain my No1 crafting activity, knitting is a nice way to make something without having to mess up the whole apartment.

Monday, 22 September 2014

De Taart Van M'n Tante - having cake with Pippi Longstocking

As we were told on our first day at university in the Welcome Lecture by a speaker from the alumni association: Amsterdam is a city with many temptations.
While most people will now probably think of cannabis and prostitution, my favourite temptations here are of a less frowned-upon nature and usually contain a significant amount of chocolate, sugar or fat. And so every day I find myself trying to resist the countless chocolatiers, artisan bakers, patisseurs, pancake stalls, burger bars and sushi places whose windows I have to pass...

But, as Oscar Wilde put it so nicely: The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it, which is why I used a visiting friend as an excuse to finally pay a visit to De Taart Van M'n Tante, a cake shop and café around the corner from our temporary sublet in De Pijp.

The place is especially known for it's over-the-top novelty cakes and lots of these fancy designer cakes (or rather plastic models of them) are on display in the windows. On the inside, the café might as well have been designed by Pippy Longstocking: no two chairs or plates match, everything is
decorated with kitschy plastic flowers and even more cake models and it generally looks as if a candy factory had exploded inside a dolls house.

Please note especially the Super Mario cake on the left!

I decided to order a rather light wild berry cream tart, while my friend Isa went for the "chocolate slut" - dark chocolate, cranberries, pecan nuts and chocolate chunks. Yum!

Above the café is also a bed&breakfast and apparently you can also get married inside the café, as it is registered as municipal marriage office - at least you won't have to worry about the cake!

Konditorei De taart van m'n tante
Ferdinand Bolstraat 10
1072 LJ Amsterdam
Tram 16/24 "Stadhouderskade"

Monday, 8 September 2014

Oh, I do like to be beside the sea side...

While the rest of my weekend was mostly unspectacular (well, not quite: I found an amazing Vintage store, but I'll probably get to that in a later post), we decided to make the most of the good weather (no rain!) we had today and go to the beach. The closest beach resort from Amsterdam is Zandvoort: from Amsterdam Central it was just a 30 minute train ride, which took us past the picturesque town of Haarlem, and which also featured the first pleasant surprise. Free Wifi in the train - in Germany it'll probably take another 10 years before that happens!

Zandvoort itself is barely worth mentioning. Several ugly high-rise hotels which have definitely passed their best days a long time ago, some resorts from the same era, bike rentals and tourist bars... The only somewhat noteworthy landmark was an old water tower, but even that is just a replacement for a water tower the Germans blew up in 1943.
However, the town must have had some glorious years as bathing resort in victorian times, after all Empress Elisabeth of Austria was one of its visitors.

Apart from that, there is really not much to tell except showing pictures: the beach is amazing, lined by bars, cafés and restaurants. Several take-away trucks cruise along the beach and sell beverages, ice-cream, and of course a large variety of fresh fish. We bought kibbeling (deep fried cod) with garlic sauce, a perfect snack for the beach. Some children and hardcore swimmers were in the water, we preferred watching it from further away while sipping a beer/cocktail.

I'm already looking forward to spend some warmer days there - having a beach this close to where I live is a dream come true!

Lurking seagulls

Monday, 1 September 2014

Grocery shopping!

Probably my favourite experience when going to another country (or even, region!) is going grocery shopping - being a foodie, trying new food is one of my main motivations for travelling and what better place to get an impression of what locals are eating than in a local supermarket or on the market?

The most common supermarket here is the dutch chain Albert Heijn - nearly everywhere in Amsterdam there's an AH within short walking distance (but then again nearly everything in AMS is within walking distance..). Lidl, Aldi, and some other chains exist as well, but apparently they don't stand a chance against AH ;)

In the welcome session at VU I was already introduced to Hagelslag: basically, Hagelslag consists of chocolate sprinkles that are commonly eaten on buttered bread. Hagelslag is typically made of chocolate, ranging from white or milky until dark chocolate, but comes in all sorts of other flavors and colours as well: fruity and colourful! I haven't tried it yet myself: surprisingly enough, as fond as I am of chocolate in all forms, I can't bring myself to combine chocolate with savory food like bread. However, it might be a good present for all those Nutella-junkies back home.

Huge shelf in the small Coop next door

Something else that dutch people seem to love: Licorice! Now, this is something that I can relate to! I knew that scandinavians tend to love licorice, but didn't know that this applies to dutchies as well.
Just for comparison: I had a hard time locating Pasta in the supermarket, which occupied only about a third of the space that was given to licorice or hagelslag.

Another huge shelf!

Ok, and then of course there's cheese. You can find cheese stores all over the city (although I think some of them are mostly for tourists, you can usually tell from the prices..) and they seem to have nearly everything in cheese you've ever heard of. I don't think I've seen Blue Stilton anywhere in Germany, and they had several loafs of it in the store! My taste in cheese is not as exotic though, so I just bought some young Gouda with cumin in it, yum!

What probably surprised me most, however, was the huge choice of ready-made meals available here. Back home in Germany, frozen pizza, cup noodles and maybe some ready-made salads are all you can find, but here microwave meals contain lots of fresh veggies, come in all shapes and sizes (family-sized!) and cover most popular cuisines (dutch, italian, indian, asian,...).

Ubiquitous Maggi...

Logical consequence: microwaves in the supermarket

In order to provide only the best entertainment to my dearest readers I have selflessly made myself available as a test subject and purchased, analysed, prepared and eaten two of these instant meals:

Candidate 1:
A luxury version of cup noodles, peanut noodle soup. Price: around 3€. Fresh vegetables, chicken, noodles, peanut sauce. Just add boiling water and stir thoroughly. Fast, uncomplicated, delicious, good value for money. Will buy again!

Candidate 2:
Tandoori chicken with veggies and rice. Price: around 5€. Unlike the microwave meals I've had so far, there's no need to prick the package with a fork, it had a built-in valve. 6 minutes in the microwave and I had a steaming pseudo-indian meal that was quite okay in taste, but still tasted like microwave food and could have used some more spices. But then again you don't get proper takeout here for 5€ and for not having to do anything it was quite okay I guess.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Fiets: check!

I think I already bothered everyone I talked to in person during the past couple of weeks with this fact but: The dutch language is sometimes onomatopoetic in a simply adorable way and this shows especially in the words for bike and motorbike:
A bike is fiets in Dutch. And a motorbike is a bromfiets!
(You might have to read this one out loud..)

So, one of the basic clichés about the Netherlands is not only a cliché: Really everyone here is going everywhere by bike in probably every kind of weather and I was told some people even move house by bike. And, having left my faithful old bike back in Karlsruhe, I needed one, too!

Fortunately one of the activities during the Introduction Week hosted by the university was the Expedition Hashtag, a sort of scavenger hunt through Amsterdam. On three different locations, we were given several hints according to which we had to find small cards with a hashtag sign. The first 5 people for each location to find one of these cards won a customized university bike, as easy as that.

My subconscious seems to have been quite eager to win something, as it presented me the night before the Expedition with a classic nightmare that ended with me missing the expedition since I was late and didn't have the shirt we had to wear. Yay.

I was quite relieved when in reality everything went well for me: I was on time at the meeting point behind the main station, did not drown when we took the ferry and managed to find one of the first cards at our first location in Amsterdam Noord. Hello new bike!
The other locations where we had to hunt were Jordaan and the beautiful Vondelpark - both were not so pretty in the cold, cold rain. Once we were done (apparently we were the fastest group they had had, probably due to the rain) we went to a belgian pub, to warm ourselves from the inside with a beer or two.


Today I could pick up my new means of transportation and was provided with the best possible weather to take my little beauty for a first ride! Since we had to collect the bikes at the VU campus down south in Uilenstede, my way home took me along the Amstel river, past Amstel park, and through some rural areas with sheep, cattle, ponies and lots of flowers. And I saw my first windmill!

On a side note: as it might be possible to glimpse from the photos, the bike, as most bikes around here, does not have any gears and no hand brake. I'll definitely have to get used to that.