27 Jun

Dutch Transport

Virtually every city, town and village in Holland is connected by some form of public transport. Lots of Dutch people, tourists and expatriates use the many trains, trams, taxis, buses, metros, water taxis and ferries to travel around the country every day. Since I don’t have a car (and have not driven in nine years) I also use public transport quite a lot for travelling to and from work. In the mornings I spend a groggy train journey trying to wake up before getting crammed into a tram with everyone else.

In general the Dutch public transport is a lot better then the public transport in England. The trains and buses are cleaner, there are fewer delays, fewer strikes and fewer mistakes. However, there are still a few things travellers need to be aware of as they travel around the country.

A common way to pay for travel between zones on buses, trams and metro lines is with a strippenkaart (Strip Card). Every time a strippenkaart is used it has to be stamped in one of its free spaces. The amount of zones being travelled reflects how many of the free spaces should to be used (plus one). If you are ever lucky enough to completely fill a Strippenkaart don’t forget to shout ‘full house’ and claim your prize from the driver.

When travelling by train it is always important to keep your wits about you. This is because the NS (Dutch rail company) employees enjoy playing mind games with commuters. One of the train operators’ favourite games to play just before departure is to close all the doors apart from one at the far end of the train. They do this to give last second late arrivals hope. The conductor can often be seen leaning out of the last door so they can watch panicked commuters run in desperation. Then, just as the victim arrives at the door it is closed and the train starts to move away, leaving them cursing and out of breath on the platform.

Train announcers don’t miss out on the fun either and will often wait until the last moment to announce platform changes. They might have a score system with extra points given for the amount of suitcases a tourist has to drag behind them or they may just enjoy watching commuters run back and forth.

The trains themselves usually have more first class compartments then are actually needed. First class tickets might cost a lot of money and entitle their users to a certain level of luxury but one carriage per first class passenger seems a bit over the top.

Commuters may be the victims on the trains but by the time they reach the trams the shoe is on the other foot. Maybe it is because of the frustration they have suffered at the hands of the train operators that they treat the trams with such aggression. There are several rules of engagement when attempting to successfully board a tram.

– There is no such thing as a queue for a tram only a mass of people all trying to get on at once.
– Elbows determine who gets on first.
– Exit Only and Entrance Only signs on tram doors are there to be ignored.
– When the tram operator tries to close the doors to leave it is customary to simply force them open again.
– There is always room for more people even if passengers are already hanging out of the windows.
– The best time to push passed a fellow passenger is as the tram takes a sharp corner at speed.

Despite having no power over the actions of commuters tram operators stay quite cheery and will often try to make the journey more interesting for their tormentors by singing out the names of stops. Dam Square might suddenly become “D-du-du-da-dam Squareeeeeeee” or Spui might become “Spu.. spu.. spuiiiiiiiiiiii.” To my knowledge there has not been a tram sing-a-long but it might happen one day.

Tram operators sometimes help tourists as well by announcing near by attractions when arriving at a stop. If there is a group of loud English lads on the tram the operator makes a point to announce Dam Square as the stop for the Red Light District. This might seem like it is playing on an unfair stereotype but you’d be surprised the amount of times one in the group will shout to his friends, “This is our stop.”

21 Jun

I first drew the cartoons I use for this blog about three years ago. The look of the characters has not changed much but the way I draw them has evolved a lot as I’ve learnt more about PhotoShop. I’ve always enjoyed playing with the program and it has been fun drawing the cartoons again. The complements I have received from different people have made both myself and my ego very happy. I’ve started giving serous thoughts to doing something more with the cartoons (as some of you have suggested) but no promises yet. However, since I’ve had a few requests to divulge how I draw them I thought it might be fun to make this post and show how I put them together.

I have a few tricks I use now for making the cartoons quicker but I’ll start at the beginning and come back to those tricks later.

I start by scanning the original hand drawn cartoon into the computer and tracing over it with the Pen Tool. It’s a great tool for drawing smooth curved lines by placing Anchor Points were curves should begin and end. After the Anchor Points have been placed the line between them can be adjusted with the handles to create a curve. Once I have a curve I am happy with I use the Stroke option to draw the line. Each body parts is created on a separate layer. I’ll come back to the reason for that later.

Then I create new layers behind each body part and use them to colour the image. I colour in behind the lines so I can get right up to the edge. Eventually I merge the lines and colour together but keep each body part on a different layer.

Next comes the shadows. This is also done on another layer (for each body part) but this time on top of all the other layers. I colour the areas where I want shadows with black and then set the opacity of the layer to 20%. This lets the colour and lines underneath shows through creating the look of shadows. The layers are then merged again per body part. This creates the finished character.

Now I’ll go back to those tricks I mentioned and the reason why I create each body part on a different layer. If you have a weak stomach and do not wish to see a cartoon character pulled limb from limb look away now.

Having each body part separate makes it possible to create new images quickly by moving the parts around or re-drawing just one part. Each time I create a new part for a cartoon I add it to my library of parts in case it can be adapted for use again later.

I’ve put together a video to show how this all works. The first part is a quick demonstration of how I can use this process to make facial expressions. The second part shows how I turned my template image in to the cartoon used for today’s post. Click here to watch.

18 Jun

This morning I sat down at my computer ready to write (what I hope would be) another informative and funny post about life in Holland. I had a few ideas going around in my head but nothing fully formed yet. It was a sea of possibilities, time to turn my thoughts into text on a computer screen. Everything was set. I was ready to begin. I put my fingers to keyboard but then something happened. ‘It’ attacked.

We’ve all encountered it. The dark force, the evil that creeps amongst us, the sinister entity, devoid of any morals, uncaring of who’s life it destroys. I’m talking about the darkness that is Writers Block.

Only moments after I had begun it started whispering in my ear, making me doubt the few words I had on the screen while at the same time making the backspace button look so inviting. I battled with it for a while in a violent dance of keystrokes and deletion but I was powerless. I had to give up and let it win.

I tried to get on with other things afterwards but its mocking laughter kept on ringing in my ears. It was then that I had an idea. Some thing so crazy that ‘it’ would never expect and would be unable to stop me. That idea was this post. I have embrace Writers Block and written about it. If Writers Block saps all inspiration out of a subject then what happens when Writers Block is the subject itself? It would either have to sap the power out of itself or retreat.

I have found a way to beat it this time but I have only won the battle, not the war. Writers block is still out there. It is pure evil and can never truly be stopped. It creeps through our written language, feeding on the doubt of writers every where. Its diabolical goal is to destroy the world of literacy forever but we can not let it win.

Since I doubt my idea of forming an elite force of writers from history (Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, J R Tolkin, etc) for the final battle against Writers Block will work why don’t you all share with us how you deal with Writers Block.

15 Jun

One of my early movie memories is from a scene in Superman 3. At the end of the movie Lex Luther builds a huge super computer with the help of Richard Prior in order to defeat superman. Of course his plan fails but not before the gigantic computer pulls one of Lex’s own people into itself (it also tries to do the same to Superman). It starts to take them over, wrapping wires around their body and fixing computer parts to their skin until they become a deadly robot under its control. I remember the sequence well because while the scene fascinated me it also scared the life out of me. The scene is probably quite tame compared to the horrific images I remember but at the time it was terrifying to think a computer could do such a thing.

As I grew older I realized the chances of this human body hijack actually happening in real life were quite low (as were my chances of ever meeting Superman) and computers would never be that advanced. Whenever I wanted to play Dig-Dug my Dad had to type in lines of code on the family Acorn computer. At the time I could never imagine a computer being as powerful as in the movie but of course technology got more advanced. A few years later I had to spend hours swapping floppy disks on my Amiga to play Maniac Mansion. Another couple of years later I had to twiddle my thumbs while my 58k modem connected to the servers to play Jedi Knight: Dark Forces. In a few years time maybe I’ll be downloading World of Warcraft directly into my brain but for now I have to settle for what I have… which is still a lot.

Between my flat mate and myself we have more bandwidth then the average Borg Cube, more processing power then the Death Star, more RAM then the Tradis and more Hard Drive space than The Matrix. Every device in the house is connected. All the computers, laptops, PSPs, PDAs and so on that we have are all connected via wire or wireless technology. If you can stream it, encrypt it, network it, transmit it, zip it, print it, code it I can now do it and more.

This also means I can access the internet and any of my files from almost any where. Last weekends post was written from the comfort of my balcony while enjoying the sun and streaming music from my computer inside the house. I can even log onto my home computer from work.

Of course this is all great but who knows what might happen with that amount of technology networked together. One day they might unexpectedly form a self aware conscience. Maybe it has already started. I might wake up one morning to find myself cocooned in wires like the scene from Superman 3 as the combined computer power puts its plan for world domination into motion. The Cybergeddon. The day humans become slaves to computers.

It’s probably best if I never download Superman 3 and give it ideas.

11 Jun

Forgetfulness always seems to strike at the worst time possible. I don’t mean the kind of memory black outs that come with a night of heavy drink that leave you confused and puzzled when you weak up in a tree with a cardboard cut out of Ann Robinson and no idea how you got there. I am talking about just plain, normal forgetfulness. I should probably point out that I have never woken up in a tree with a cardboard cut out of The Weakest Link host. Given some of the things I have written about so far in my blog I can understand why it might seem like I was listing a personal example.

I like to think I have a good memory. I can usually remember things very well but there are still some days when it seems like most gold fish have better recall. This Saturday for example my forgetfulness was due to a combination of sleep deprivation and a rather heavy hangover.

After an afternoon of being very useless and recovering on the sofa I was finally able to drag myself out of the house to do some shopping. Unfortunately I forgot to take my memory with me. After I came very close to locking myself out of the house I remembered it would probably be a good idea to take my keys with me. After all it would probably have been quite a shock for my flat mate to come home and find me dead and cooked on the doorstop by heat stroke.

After this near fatal forgetfulness I went to the local Albert Heijn (Dutch supermarket) to get supplies for the coming week. I ended up getting a lot. My basket was completely full and weighed quite a lot as I made my way towards the checkout. I had everything I needed but then my memory suddenly decided to make an appearance.

“Um… You might not want to hear this right now but I have something important to tell you.” It said sheepishly.

“Hu?” I asked.

“Well… You know how you need money to buy things. Like the stuff you have in your basket.”

“Oh no.” I sighed in realization.

“Yes. You left your wallet at the house. You might want to put everything back…. Sorry” And then it left me again to deal with the embarrassing situation.


I tried to look as normal as I could and hide my embarrassment as I started putting everything back on the shelves. I must have looked like I either had a phobia of checkout girls or I was on some kind of shopping trial run, checking if I could carry everything before committing myself to the actual purchasing process. When I got back home to retrieve my forgotten wallet I did not have enough time to go back before the shops closed. I’ll have to go back during the week but next time I’ll be sure to remember my wallet and my memory.

Anyway…. There was a point to this post but I forgot what it was.