November 26, 2017

Man and machine

We all experience moments when it seems like the whole world is out to get you.

You can issue and return books from the public library in Amsterdam without interacting with a single human. This evening when I placed the books on the conveyor belt at the returns section, it took the books in but didn’t mark one of them as returned. I went to the library help desk and they asked me the title of the book I had just deposited and the number of the conveyor belt that had processed it. They went inside the sorting room, fetched the book out, took my library card and removed the loan from against my account.

In the five years that the wife and I have used the library, this is the first time this has happened.

Our next stop this evening was the grocery store. This is the chain we’ve been shopping at since we set our foot in this country. Things are priced reasonably, the shelves are usually fully stocked (in fact sometimes they’d stock them just as you put the last item in your shopping basket) and their cashiers process things with a speed that surprises us till date. Most things are sold pre-labeled but for vegetables that need to be weighed, the cashiers have a weighing scale built right into their checkout counter. Most other stores in Amsterdam make you weigh and label things yourself. While you could still do that here, we’ve never felt the need.

Of late this chain has been embracing self-checkout counters, especially at their newer branches. If we choose to use them, the onus of weighing and labeling falls on us. Even vegetables that are sold by count need to be labeled with the bar code sticker that the weighing scale print outs (the scale asks you for a count that needs to be input on the touch-screen manually).

The prices that the weighing scale printed at the branch we were shopping at this evening were wrong. The label at the shelf said that the aubergines were priced at 0.89 Euro cents but the sticker the scale printed said 0.99 Euro cents. The same happened with courgettes (shelf - 0.79, sticker - 0.99). We dismissed it as a problem with the weighing scale and queued up for a good old-fashioned human-assisted checkout. After checkout, we asked for a printed receipt just to be sure. The prices were wrong again. A trip to their help desk followed by a trip with a person from the said help desk to the aisle where the vegetables were kept quickly rectified the error. No apologies were issued but we were curtly told that we were right and a refund of 20 cents was quickly provided. This of course was 10 cents too short. Mentioning this got us exasperated looks and 10 cents.

30 cents are not worth the time and energy it took but then we were doing it on principle and not for the money1.

On the walk back home, this got me thinking about the gradual but ever increasing automation around us. The scenarios this evening weren’t quite what the characters in a dystopian Philip K. Dick science fiction novel find themselves in, but they still made me uneasy. What happens when this class of jobs completely disappear from our libraries and our grocery stores. In situations like these, I am relieved when I get quick redressal and delighted if it comes with fake or genuine empathy. Unless the automatons taking over these jobs are programmed dramatically differently from the current state-of-the-art, I am sure we would get neither.

Thanks to a larger-than-usual serving of coffee in the evening, I couldn’t sleep last night. I lay in the bed thinking about how I would’ve reacted had the machines erred in my favour.

The answer for the first scenario came to me quite clearly. Had the system at the library claimed that I had returned a book while I still had it, I would’ve simply gone to the help desk and returned it.

For the second scenario, I am a bit more uncertain. The answer I arrived at bothers me a little. In all likelihood I would’ve assumed that the prices printed by the machine were more current and the people labeling the items in the aisle were simply lagging behind. That is, I would’ve accepted the windfall without any of the righteous indignation that arose when I was (literally) short-changed.

  1. Incidentally, at the prevailing interest rates in Europe, that’s also about the amount that a large sum of principal for a long duration of of time earns you.

November 4, 2017

The photos in the corridor

The corridor of our apartment floor would sometimes feels a bit gloomy. Except for a large black and white photograph - taken from the North Exit of the Amsterdam Centraal Station in the 60s - that hangs at the entrance of the corridor, the walls were bare. At the annual New Year’s get together, the neighbours decided to remedy this by agreeing to put up some art. However, there was no consensus on what sort of art it should be. An enterprising neighbour asked everyone to email their pictures from around the general area of our apartment building and organised voting. Two of my pictures made the cut and now adorn the corridor walls.


The first one was taken during Sail 2015 - a rather unique event that happens every 5 years in Amsterdam during which thousands of ships visit the Ij lake. I am a bit surprised that I didn’t post anything on this blog about it. Probably because we left for Iceland soon after and so that trip dominated my thoughts. I was sincerely hoping that this one would win just to be able to see how it’d look when printed on a large glass pane:

Winner 1

The second one was a somewhat lazy shot from our window and I wasn’t sure if it’d make it but it seems to have struck a chord:

Winner 2

Heres a couple that I sent but didn’t make it:

Nomination 1

Nomination 2

And finally, here are ones I shortlisted but never sent because even by the standards of a small city like Amsterdam, they were stretching the definition of around the general area of our apartment’ a bit:

Shortlist 1

Shortlist 2

Shortlist 3

Shortlist 4

Shortlist 5

Shortlist 6

At some point in our lives, we’ll leave this apartment but the photos will be left behind. Will they outlast my time on this planet as well?

October 16, 2017

Spoke too soon?

Me a week ago:

We packed away the fan last weekend and I’d be surprised (and worried) if it needs to be assembled again before May.

The Netherlands this week:

The temperature at De Bilt was measured at 21.5C at 12.40pm, beating the old record of 21.2C. Forecasters say the south of the country could exceed the 25-degree mark, which has only happened twice before in the second half of October.

While not quite need-to-assemble-a-fan-hot, this is very warm for this time of the year.

October 8, 2017

Summer is over

Summer is over. Second week of October is pretty late in the year to be saying this, but I wanted to be sure. We packed away the fan last weekend and I’d be surprised (and worried) if it needs to be assembled again before May. Overall, we got a cool and wet summer this year. The sort of summer even I can get behind, look back fondly on etc:

Goodbye Summer

Goodbye Summer

October 1, 2017


Despite years of wearing jackets with full-length zippers, the wife and I found ourselves struggling with zipping and unzipping while trying on new jackets at shops in the US. The wife pointed out that the Pull Tab and Slider were mounted on the right Chain while the jackets we’ve been wearing for the past few years in Amsterdam, have had them on the left.


While both countries drive on the right side of the road, the Americans went with the side of the road they drive on, whereas the Europeans chose the side where the steering wheel is. Why the two are different never made sense to me.

I still can’t believe that this simple change caused us to struggle with something we do hundreds of times a year.

The list of parts of a zipper on Wikipedia is fascinating:

September 26, 2017

My top three favourite movies

Some movies manage to become the staple of in-flight entertainment. I discovered Edge of Tomorrow on a flight and it became an instant favourite of mine. I watched it a second time a year later on another flight (quite fitting for a movie with a time-loop narrative). A transatlantic flight last week - in a plane whose idea of in-flight entertainment system was tiny screens per 10 or so rows suspended from the roof of the plane - managed to slot it in between two runs of the latest Pirates of The Caribbean sequel. Perhaps because the movie came on when I was in that twilight between wakefulness and fitful airline sleep, it got me thinking about my other favourite movies and if they shared something in common with Edge of Tomorrow. The top three came down to:

  1. Arrival
  2. Edge of Tomorrow
  3. The Matrix

Turns out they do have something in common - the protagonist(s) in all of them are up against highly intelligent alien or artificial life forms. They also play with time as a plot device (ok The Matrix not so much unless you count Bullet Time).

Movie Montage