1) What has been your favorite job?
I really like the one I have right now, actually.

2) What did you like about it?
Of course there are things that I don’t like about it (it’s a job after all, I do it because I need the money), but there are a lot of things I like about it. Doing product work is a really nice way to have a lot of impact with what you’re doing: every user of the product will use whatever you decide to do. If your product is used by a wide variety of people (or organisations, if you’re doing boring business software like I am), then you will hear lots of different viewpoints and have to weigh them.
The company I work for now is also much, much more people-oriented than the one I used to work for, so that has certainly also helped with my motivation.

3) How can a kid become like you when they grow up?
The best advice I can give is: “Stay curious”. Try to find out why things are like they are — very few things are so because of the laws of nature. Often, someone thought this thing should be done in a certain way — but if the right people can be convinced it should be different, it can be changed just as easy. This is the ‘hidden truth of the world’, and it applies to things like economics, politics, but also to boring business processes. Get to the bottom of things, and ask yourself if there are better alternatives.

4) What safeguards do you use to avoid mistakes?
The most important one is: do not take a decision when you’re under pressure. That not only applies to

5) What’s changed in the world that you’ve had a hard time keeping up with?
I find myself ill-equipped to deal with the global rise of fascism. I thought we’d know better by now, and I find it hard to adjust to the idea that lots of people are now openly fascist.

Love marriage

At work, we have a substantial team in India. The rather unique thing is that the people in the Netherlands and those in India are really a single team, with a lot of interaction and cooperation. (Quite different from what I’ve seen elsewhere!) As a way to foster mutual understanding, there is a ‘coffee break chat’ every week where someone from the Netherlands gets paired up with someone from India, and they talk about whatever subject they want. I always make sure to participate, if I have the time.

So I was chatting with one of our testers in India, and we talked about our career so far and things like that. Of course the topic of our respective living arrangements came up too, and I told him about I live together with my partner close to the office, no kids, two cats, etc. I was not really prepared for his follow-up question: “Do you have a love marriage or an arranged marriage?”
Turns out that most of the media portrayal of marriage is of love marriages, so in his mind the fact that all ‘western’ media portrays love marriages doesn’t mean they don’t do arranged marriages too!

I used to have a colleague from India who was looking forward to his arranged marriage. His reasoning was that his parents know him the best, and so they could make the right choice in partner for him. And while in the Netherlands we don’t do it like that, I have to admit that having your parents approve of your choice of partner sure makes some things a lot easier in a relationship.
And while I’m glad it apparently worked out well for my former colleague, I’m glad I was able to make my own choice.

A power interruption. We had gotten a letter from the company that manages the power lines that they’d be working on the infrastructure on Monday, from 08:00 to 12:00. That’s quite a long time, and no power means no heating, no hot water and no internet. I had reserved a spot at the office, but on Sunday I really didn’t feel like going — who would want to sit alone in an enormous empty office while being forced to drink the horrible tea there? So I cancelled the reservation — I could always use my phone as a hotspot, and if everything else failed I’d just take that time off.
We made sure to have all of our electronics charged, as well as the powerbank and all laptops. We got up extra early so that Klik could take a shower and I cranked the heating up so that the house would get a bit warm. I also made coffee and tea and put it in a thermos to keep it warm. And sure enough, at 08:09, the power went out.
…and it turned on again at 08:28. And stayed on. As usual, we were overprepared, but we’re not complaining. And I was glad I had resolved to stay home, because the trip to the office would have almost taken longer than the actual power cut.

My car got a new battery. Last Friday, my car refused to open with the keyless entry, and when Klik had opened it up with the key, it refused to start. (I had already left in her car to do the grocery shopping.) I had road-side assistance from Toyota, which I called on Tuesday. Within an hour a guy with a tow truck showed up, and he quickly determined that it was the (small) starting battery that didn’t have any charge left. We started the car with an external battery pack, and I drove to the garage. They took some measurements and the battery said it was OK, but it’s getting on in age… So I decided to have them put in a fresh battery.

I pickled some red onions. Super easy recipe, but quite delicious. I like to put them on my salad.

Some local friends started playing Dauntless too. I know these people from the local Pokemon Go scene, and they own a Switch too. We are in some communal chat groups, and on Saturday they sent me a chat asking if I played too. It’s been a lot of fun to team up with them and to show them the ropes. But they’re quite hard-core and have been playing through all 50 levels of the hunt pass in less than a week!
I am a member of a guild, but most of the players there live in Australia, so I often don’t have anyone to team up with when I play in the evenings. And while it can be fun to team up with a group of random players, that is really “hit or miss”. So having people to go around the islands with and helping each other is a lot of fun. It’s what makes co-op gaming so fun.

My second D&D group is approaching the end of the scenario. They’re playing through The Forest Shrine, my second D&D scenario, and they’ve arrived at the ‘end fight’. The first time they attempted the fight, it almost ended in a Total Party Kill and the group had to beat a hasty retreat. Since then, I’ve talked to a few of the players about their character’s abilities and how that interlocks with the rest of the group. The second time around, their tactics were much better and they really coordinated their actions. It’s still an interesting fight, but they were never in the kind of danger they faced during their first try — even though the opposition is the same. D&D really rewards ‘system mastery’ in that way.
I already have an idea of a sequel, but I want to talk to the players first on what they would like to see more of.

Yuzu snaps

Yuzu doesn’t really sit still (unless she’s sleeping), and with her dark fur it’s especially hard to get a decent photo of her. Which is why I’m pretty pleased with these recent snaps I got of her. And since the internet is a device to transmit cat pictures, I thought I’d share them here too.

Misc

I guess a Friday Five is better than nothing.

1) What’s the best customer service experience you’ve ever had?
Being loaded up in the car of the innkeeper at Aso at 6 AM so that she could drive us around for the next three hours so we could get some views because there was such a dense fog the day before. That ranks pretty high.

2) What’s a very reliable item that you own?
I have some metal utility knives from Stanley that are pretty darn comfortable to use. We use the big one for board and tough papers, and the smaller one for paper (and packages). If they get even a tiny bit dull, we break off the top part of the knife to get another sharp edge.

3) What’s something that wore out, but you replaced it with the same thing?
When we renovated our extension (where our living room is), it was time to replace the four 80cm wide white Ikea bookcases with something else. We honestly looked at alternatives, but everything either did not meet our specifications or was overly expensive. So we replaced them with eight 40cm wide Ikea bookcases in oak foil. Best price/quality ratio.

4) Have you ever left an online review of something you bought?
Yes. I don’t bother much these days, unless is way above or below expectation.

5) What’s a book you’ve read more than once?
Probably The Lord of the Rings. It really holds up well with repeat reading, because you (re)discover details of the story with every new reading.

In other news, last Monday we had the two double doors in the back of the house replaced. While very decorative, we only used one of the doors, and they were of low quality. Yes, they had double glazing, but that doesn’t really help if there are cracks in between them — it was a full 1 degree colder in the living room. Now we have the same type of glazing as we do at the front of the house, and the house is so much more comfortable! Quite the investment, but worth it.

1. Are you crafty?
I like to think I am — I’m good enough at bookbinding to get paid for it.

2. Do you own a sewing machine and what brand is it? If you don’t sew, do you own a glue gun?
I don’t sew, but we do have a sewing machine and a lock machine. And of course we have a glue gun! I don’t regularly use it, though.

3. What is the bane of your sewing/crafting existence? I mean, is it button holes, zippers, or something else?
When applying glue to paper in order to paste it on a cover, the moisture from the glue can make the paper curl up. That’s always a stressful moment. Another one is to glue the book block (the pages) into the cover with end papers. You will only find out how well it went a day after — by which time it’ll be too late to repair any mistakes.

4. When and how did you learn to sew or craft?
I found that I was mostly living ‘in my head’ — in my work I’m always doing abstract stuff, and my hobbies were all abstracted too (gaming, reading, etc). So I wanted to do something that actually produced something. I don’t remember why I set my sights on bookbinding — I might have seen an ad for a course here in the city, and decided that I’d like to try it. I did three courses with that teacher and also did a few one-off workshops. Now I’m pretty sure I can reproduce a binding from the description.

5. What do you consider your sewing/crafting opus or is it still a work in progress?
There are a few things I’m really pleased with. If I have to choose one thing, then it would be the box to hold my pins, because I designed it by myself. Now my collection has vastly outgrown that box, but the concept was pretty solid.

If you’re on Twitter, you should follow the account OnThisDayShe, which highlights an (often overlooked) woman who helped shape our world. Many are the woman scientists who did all the work, only to have their male colleagues end up with a Nobel prize after appropriating their research…
Today’s post was about Karen Sparck Jones, one of the greats of the field of Information Retrieval.

Information Retrieval is separate from database retrieval: it’s about finding texts that match certain criteria. At the start of the field (somewhere late 1960’s, early 1970’s), this was mostly about bibliographical information, but as more and more text became digitally accessible (with the advent of the World Wide Web really opening the floodgates), it became more and more of a general problem. (One of the search engines I worked with was literally designed to search in museum catalogues!)
At the start of the career, in 1997, I worked on search engines. Nobody had heard of Google, and AltaVista ruled the roost for web search. Search engines were massive lumbering beasts that were little more than a glorified grep on web pages — in fact, the premier Dutch search engine started out as a script that did a ‘grep’! And yet there was already quite a body of academic literature on Information Retrieval. I read quite a few of those articles, to assess algorithms and design solutions, and many times these articles referenced the work of Karen Sparck Jones.
She invented the ‘inverse document frequency’: the number of documents in which a search term occurs. Still, ‘df/idf’ is a trusted technique to validate the importance of a term in a document: if it occurs many times in a document (the ‘document frequency’, df) but not in a great number of documents (the ‘inverse document frequency’, idf), then it is safe to say that the term is important for that particular document. You could use that for term weighting, which is what you use to determine which documents to return at the top of your result set. It is safe to say that every search engine uses her research!

I had the opportunity to attend the ACM SIGIR conferences in 1998 (in Melbourne) and 1999 (in Berkley). It was a bit intimidating to attend a scientific event as a newbie — by then I had already given up on becoming a scientist because I had recognized that I was better suited as an engineer, and these were scientists. These people had been in the field for decades, and what did I know? Especially the ‘social’ events were hard on me, because I didn’t know anybody and I’m not the type of person to just walk up to somebody random and start a conversation. One of the advantages I had in 1998 was the presence of Prof. Kees Koster, my erstwhile boss with whom I had made an article that got accepted as part of the proceedings, so I could amble up and introduce myself to the people he was speaking to.
But that, too, was intimidating because these people knew each other from many previous conferences, and I had little to contribute to the discussion. But I do remember them speaking of Karen Sparck Jones in hushed tones, half-joking and half reverential. She was described as the ‘Grand Dame of Information Retrieval’ — and with reason.

Looking back at how search engines progressed since then, the gains are enormous. With all kinds of information readily available, we do not need to spend hours searching through libraries and encyclopedias — if those were available at all! Instead of spending all that time to get the information, we have more time to act on it, giving us tremendous gains in productivity.
So today, I think about Karen Sparck Jones, the Grand Dame of Information Retrieval. Without her research, our world would look very different indeed.

Friday Five

1) What act of kindness have you witnessed (or done yourself) recently?
I was happy to point out to others that the Croatian Red Cross has a donation page for support for the victims of the earthquakes in Croatia when people were looking for a way to ease the suffering. And of course I tried it out by making a donation myself.

2) What is your favorite memory?
Being gifted with two cups and saucers of the local stoneware by the grandma running a simple eatery in her front room because we were just married, with her best wishes. It was super special and humbling.

3) What activity always seems to energize you?
Reading, gaming, talking about RPGs.

4) Did you do something recently that made you laugh at yourself? What was it?
I don’t tend to take myself too seriously in the first place.

5) What is your favorite inspirational quote?
I really like the ones by Ursula LeGuin: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” We do not have to accept our society being the way it is, we can change it and do better. Society was designed, and we can re-design it if we want.
It is especially apt because I realised this fact after reading through her novel “The Dispossessed” at an impressionable age.

In the early stages of 2020, I released my scenario The Secret of Cedar Peak, a scenario for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. I had a sequel in the works throughout the year, but with everything going on, I just wasn’t in the right mindspace to write. But after playing through it with both my local group and the group of (now former) colleagues, I somehow became “unstuck” these past few weeks. I’ve done a lot of work tightening up the text, mostly based on the recommendation from two feedback readers.
On Thursday evening, while Klik was working (streaming her meditation lesson from our bedroom…) I put the final touches to the PDF, made sure it was all bookmarked correctly and created a black-and-white high contrast version that also uses the Atkins Hyper Legible font for readers with visibility issues. Today, I uploaded to Itch and released The Forest Shrine, my second scenario! I also made a bundle with the two scenarios, with the first one at 50% off. I called it the Kingshold Bundle, since that’s the name of the city that is the starting point for both scenarios.
It’s a sequel to Cedar Peak. I have some ideas for a third scenario and my two groups would be more than willing to play through that. But first, as some kind of proof-of-concept, I want to see if I can write a variant of Cedar Peak that is totally non-violent. D&D has violence as one of its core values, and I have gotten a bit bored of it. I want to see if I can take the same concept in a different direction. It wouldn’t work for D&D, but it could work really well for Ryuutama.

What was the best thing about 2020?
Undoubtedly my new job. The circumstances were ideal, and it’s very inspiring and rewarding.

What lessons from 2020 will you carry into 2021?
There is a structural rot in the way our society enables the wealthy to extract value from others, and that needs to change. I am reminded by the wise words of Ursula LeGuin: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
(She had a lot of wise words, by the way.)

How did you spend your New Year’s Eve?
Together with klik on our couch, mostly gaming. Just before midnight I opened our island on Animal Crossing for visitors, and our friend Len came over for the final countdown of 2020.

Legend says what you did at midnight on New Year’s Eve/Day is what you’ll do all year. So what did you do?
Play Animal Crossing. So far, I haven’t skipped a single day in maintaining our island and doing the rounds, and I think I’ll keep that up for a while to come. So it’s not really wrong.

What are you most looking forward to in 2021?
Releasing my second module, “The Forest Shrine”. I released “The Secret of Cedar Peak” on Jan 2 2020, and I want to pick up the pace. I also want to diversify from D&D into Ryuutama and Against the Darkmaster — mostly by making variants of the D&D modules. I also have a scenario for The Sprawl kicking around. There’s enough to write, and I hope that I will be in a better mental state so that I can actually create stuff.