Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

The World That Could Have Been

For a very brief (way too brief) time the world was a much better place. A very large publisher (Springer) probably inadvertently decided to sell all their books online for the low price of $0. Silly me, I actually believed this was some kind of masterstroke of try-before-you-buy marketing, where only after you read the book you would decide whether or not you wanted to own the paper version. I imagined myself reading for the next year or so with complete abandon on all the subjects that interest me, and then ordering those books that I felt would stand the test of time. Given that books now compete with the fountain of content that is the internet and that the quality there is a bit lower but not so low that it is useless one can read to indigestion of the mind if so desired.

And so the announcement that Springer was giving away a very large part of their catalog did not seem all that outrageous to me, how better to compete with ‘free’ than to slash the price to one that can’t be beat.

On Hacker News two threads appeared and people wiser and smarter than me observed that this was probably a mistake. I figured that an entity the size of Springer would surely not expose their catalog like this and that there must be some master plan. Still, the ‘no announcement in sight’ made it a bit more strange but who knows, the Christmas Spirit might have infected some Springer executives with a sudden flash of insight into what would be the best way in which the Springer corporation could positively affect mankind. From there it would have been a short meeting with the relevant minions in order to effect the incredible reach of the company onto the devices of pretty much every earthling with even a passing interest in science and at least one common language with the publications.

The name Springer would overnight be synonymous with ‘Good’, ‘Charitable’, ‘Favorite Company’ and so on.

But there is a small chance it would also be linked to ‘bankrupt’. And that’s why, not all that long after opening up the floodgates for voracious readers the gates were closed again and we were back to $175 for a decades old text book in pdf format.

Oh well, at least for a little while we got to live in the future where information critical for our development would be accessible to everybody with an internet connection, and I’ll definitely buy a copy of the book about Ted Nelson that I downloaded while the gods of copyright were still smiling on us.

Happy 2016 to all of you reading this!

Cloudy With a Chance of Lock-In

re lots of products that came to market in the recent past and that will come to market in the near future that use some kind of cloud hosted component. In many cases these products rightly use some kind of off-device service in order to provide you with features that would otherwise not be possible. Sometimes these features are so much part of the core product that the whole idea would be dead in the water without it. Facebook or Twitter without connectivity wouldn’t amount to much so there clearly are cases where it makes sense to have a service that extends onto the device where the device acts as a terminal and a large part or even all of the product lives on someone else’s servers.

But there are also many products for which it makes very little or even no sense at all to have a cloud based component. In many of these cases if you look a bit more closely at what is being sold you’ll realize that these are just instances of a business-model that was grafted on as an afterthought onto something that would have worked really well stand-alone but where the creators weren’t happy with a one-time fee from potential buyers. They needed a way to turn a one-shot product into a repeat business and the easiest way to do that is to split a product up into a data portion and a terminal portion and to keep all the data and processing on a central server. Come up with some good excuse to set things up this way and there is a good chance that you can get away with it.

The last couple of years have seen ever more blatant abuses of this kind of trick to the point where even the most close study of the applications has not been able to reveal a reason why the ‘cloud’ should even be a factor in the design of the product. Some examples: internet-of-things applications that come with a mandatory subscription to get your own data back, televisions that require you to sign up with an online service in order to be able to use the TV’s built in browser, navigation devices or apps that contain all the bits and pieces required to work except that they somehow also require you to sign up with a service before the device will function. The list is absolutely endless.

I hate these clouds-grafted-on devices and applications with a passion. There are only a few things more certain than death and taxes and one of those is that the device I own will outlive the required service component so sooner or later (and plenty of times sooner) I’ll end up with an expensive door-stop or presse papier. Besides that I really don’t see the need for all these services to get their grubby little hands on my data and as a rule they don’t provide an option to use local storage or make the subscription component optional. In the case of the TV the service component wasn’t even mentioned at all until well after installing the bloody thing (I don’t actually watch the TV as a TV but it is a nice big screen and the ability to use it as a browser would have saved me to have to set up a computer next to it, fortunately a raspberry pi is both cheap and will happily solve this problem but it’s kind of non-sensical since all the required hardware was already present and hooked up). If the product would have been better without the service component that’s a sure sign someone has been busy pulling the wool over your eyes. Graceful degradation without connectivity or an account created for the device isn’t even an option for that situation because then absolutely nobody would sign up for the service, so instead of dropping the requirement they make it mandatory instead! (All this of course to ‘better serve you’ and ‘for your convenience’, those two sentence fragments are like little alarm bells that you’re about to be screwed.)

Software as a service to many people is the way to convert what used to be licensed software into a repeat revenue stream and in principle there is nothing wrong with that if done properly (Adobe almost gets it right). But if the internet connection is down and your software no longer works, if the data you painstakingly built up over years goes missing because a service dies or because your account gets terminated for no apparent reason and without any recourse you might come to the same conclusion that I came to: if it requires an online service and is not actually an online product I can do just fine without it.

Volkwagen and the Blame The Engineer Game

Volkwagen is a house in deep trouble. The dieselgate scandal just doesn’t seem to go away and even though the company is now under new management it seems that things are getting worse and worse as time goes by. What I really don’t get is this: Does Volkswagen actually believe the nonsense that they put out in order to try to do damage control?

A nice sample of The VW reality distortion field at work is here. The central element of that article is that VW engineers decided to cheat because they could not find a way to comply with the high standards of the United States when it came to diesel emissions.

But that argument holds no water at all. Let me try to explain why: In any large organization that has to comply with external standards and regulation there is such a thing as a compliance department. The whole reason this department exists in the first place is to make sure that the products manufacturered by the company and indeed, the company itself and its papertrail all adhere to the law in order to protect the company from liability (number of products sold * maximum fine can be an existential threat even for an entity as large as a car manufacturer). This can be quite an undertaking for a company the size of VW and because it is such an important thing companies this size are super careful to make sure that the people in charge of compliance are not the same people that are in charge of engineering and that the people doing the compliance verification are not the same people that designed the stuff in the first place.

All manner of methods are employed to make sure that the company products are compliant, including periodical checks on specific products, independent review using independent laboratories (outsiders) where possible and so on. So it is patently un-thinkable that VW engineers by their lonesome could come up with a way to cheat on the United States emissions testing and that this would happen (1) without express orders to do so from above, (2) without managerial insight into this decision and (3) without the compliance department and all outside verification labs being in cahoots.

The practical upshot of the above - to me - is that apparently even the current management of VW can still not be trusted to speak the truth on this issue. The only alternative explanation (and one that is even more worrisome) is that the entire compliance department and the entire management of VW were so dangerously incompetent that they allowed a situation like this to come into being, exist for several years and required an outside party to bring to light. Brands are all about trust, and VW seems to have decided that the trust in its brand is worth less than the reputation of the former managers that must have known that this was going on. There is no way both engineering and compliance are so clever that they can do an end-run around management to pretend to comply with a bunch of laws they have no reason to circumvent in the first place. They simply don’t have any incentive to do so (and in the case of the compliance department a dis-incentive, it’s their job to be rigid in situations like these). And for those unfamiliar with German corporate culture: it is also just about unthinkable that the compliance department would allow itself to be pressured without orders ‘from on high’.

Blame the engineers might seem like a good idea in a boardroom far removed from reality but engineers have no financial stake in cheating, to them writing software that works and writing software that cheats is all the same and an engineer that you present with an impossible job is just going to return the job and say ‘this is impossible’, knowing full well that if they cheat the compliance department will catch them anyway. So the only way this ‘cheat’ would have worked is if someone right from the top would have bludgeoned the compliance department into submission about turning a blind eye when it came to their own in house verification that the engines produced indeed met the standards. And if it would have been ‘too close to call’ that might have been believable but we’re talking orders of magnitude more emissions than those allowed. The company claims that 450 people were involved in the dieselgate affair but somehow management never got wind of this, nobody of those 450 people decided to tip them off that this was going down and management was entirely blindsided by the announcement. I find that extremely hard to believe, there is no way that a company this size engages in such levels of deception without orders straight from the top.

Until the moment VW admits to either gross incompetence or managerial involvement I’m not going to believe another word they say on this whole affair, they’ve lost each and every bit of credibility they had.

Update: HN user PeterStuer presented this document from 1998 detailing test cycle detection and circumvention on the transportenvironment.org website. Given that this information has been out in the wild for 17 whole years it is absolutely impossible that VW did this without knowing that it was happening. Any car manufacturer should have standing orders to their tech staff including programmers and other people involved in product development that test detection software is absolutely un-acceptable and the code produced should be audited to make sure that such software is not shipped in vehicles intended for testing by regulators or products shipped to consumers.

A Critique of Makani, the Google X Kite Based Power Project

My credentials in the wind industry are just about ‘0’, the only reason I’m writing this is because I’ve been a life-long wind power enthusiast, I’ve built (a prototype 2.5 KW 5 meter wind turbine and have a basic understanding of how wind power works and what the limitations and engineering elements are that go into a typical wind power setup. I also live in a country that has a very long history when it comes to using wind power and have a pretty good understanding of the kind of obstacles wind power deployments tend to run into. Makani is anything but typical, I’ve been following their saga as closely as the limited information allows and this is my view of the project, the website and the challenges they are dealing with.

Google has put quite a bit of money into a remarkable new renewable energy project that aims to power from a concept dubbed the energy kite.

The basic idea is that there is a small stub tower with a spool containing a very high strength tether that keeps a kite anchored to the ground and that is also used to transfer the power generated by the rotors mounted on the kite to the ground for further distribution. The kite continuously flies circles and the stub tower tracks the kite with every revolution.

It’s an impressive project for many reasons, for one, in defiance of the golden rule of alternative wind power projects it actually has a chance of working, for another, they’re building and testing their device at a relatively large scale (they mention that they have a 600 KW unit now).

The company claims that their machines are much lighter, can be sited in many places where conventional machines can not be sited (for instance because there are no roads) and that they generate 50% more power than conventional machines. All in all a pretty compelling story.

Wind Energy Power Generation Primer

Wind is moving air, and air has mass. When you interrupt that flow of air you can extract a certain percentage of energy from that moving air (this limit is called Betz’ law). A typical wind turbine has to deal with all kinds of real world limitations and so does not manage to extract more than 75 to 80% of the energy that is available in theory. When you look at the area of the rotor of a typical wind turbine the outer one third of the of rotor generates the bulk of the energy. The rest of the rotor is sort of along for the ride it merely exists to keep that outer third in place and to transfer the momentum from the outer portion to the hub. A bit like the spokes of a bicylcle wheel but a lot more resistant to torsion. Another annoying element is the fact that three times per revolution (in a 3 bladed rotor arrangement, which is not the most efficient but for many reasons the most practical compromise between efficiency and various other engineering parameters) the blades move in front of the relatively close tower that supports the Nacelle and thus indirectly the rotor itself, interrupting the flow of air and negatively impacting efficiency as well as stressing the rotor and the tower. Because of this and another factor called wind shear rotors are typically angled backwards a bit. This has the effect of reducing the advantage the top blade has over the lower one(s), it also increases the space between the tower and the rotor which reduces the chances of a tower strike and a phenomenon called ‘tower thump’ where the air between the blade and the tower is compressed as the blade passes in front of the tower forcing the blade outwards (in the direction of the wind).

Enter Makani, a (very!) clever solution to a whole bunch of limitations that these conventional wind turbines have. Because Makani does not have a tower beyond a small stub to attach the tether to they have a number of advantages: Tower thump is eliminated, there is no tower (though there is the equivalent of tower thump in that the smaller turbines still have to move in front of the kite leading edge these are higher frequency, the risk of impact with the kite is significantly reduced because the blades are much shorter). Wind shear is much less of an issue because the kites fly fairly high above the terrain in comparison with the height of a conventional turbine.

Wind power goes up as the cube of the speed of the wind. For one the energy in the moving mass of air is higher because of the increased speed (e=mv^2), but there is also more air moving through the turbine so you get another doubling for a total of a factor of 8 for a doubling of the wind speed.

This has some rather unfortunate consequences for wanna-be wind power generators: you have to take into account that the wind will per given amount of time for the most part be below the ‘rated’ speed of your turbine. That’s ok, you are simply generating (much) less power. Then, there are times when the wind speeds are higher than the rated wind speed of your machine. In those cases you can reduce the amount of energy extracted from the wind using a technique called furling. Depending on the design of the machine the rotor is angled out of the wind, or alternatively (and this is the most common method for large turbines) the blades are rotated around their long axis to a position of lower efficiency (that’s called ‘variable pitch’). All this to make sure that the rotor does not exceed the maximum RPM at which the machine would be damaged (to get a bit more technical: you really don’t want the rotortips to go supersonic and you want to maintain a rotorspeed where the centrifugal forces acting on the blade roots are not going to destroy the attachments or overheat the main bearing). And then there are those unfortunate times when the wind speeds are so high that the machine - in spite of being furled completely - would still overspeed. In these cases the best one can do is to shut down the machine and to ride out the storm. If that process does not work then the machine will fail, and this can be quite a spectacle and is one of the reasons you won’t see windmills in the middle of a town. (Technically you probably don’t want to live within throwing distance of one of the blades, which is rather more than you’d probably expect, a windmill blade travels 200+ kilometers per hour at the tip and weighs several tons).

Makani has a clear advantage here, they can - because of how their system works - vary the rotor diameter by making the kite fly tighter circles, and if the winds get too high for safe operation, simply reel the whole thing in and stow it until the storm passes. This probably gives Makani an edge when it comes to riding out storms.

So, in principle this is a very neat concept which has some clear advantages over a conventional tower based 3 bladed rotor.

The challenges Makani faces are pretty formidable. As you can see from the above the power in the wind is phenomenal. Makani’s 600 KW unit has an operational altitude of 140 to 310 meters and a circling radius of 145 meter.

Diameter of the rotor

For comparison, an Enercon E-126, the largest ground based turbine that is currently in regular production generates 7.6 MW out of a rotor diameter of 126 meters (slightly smaller than the Makani device) from a generator sitting in a nacelle at 135 meters. The total height of the machine does not go above 200 meters (up close that’s still a very impressive machine).

If the Makani would deliver on the promise of being able to extract more energy from a given amount of wind it would have to do about 12 times better than it does today to compete with a machine that is technically smaller (the rotor diameter is the key number).

Or you need 12 of them but this would require a very large amount of ground surface compared to an equivalent power ground based turbine.

So I fail to see how Makani can claim to generate ‘50% more energy’, if they did this would be a 15 MW machine, not a 600 KW machine. Maybe they mean this figure to be interpreted over the lifetime of the device but if that’s the case it is definitely not clear from their documentation.

Many more points of failure

The Makani device has a large number of ways in which it could fail because it is a far more complex setup than a regular wind turbine. The tether is an obvious weak point, ditto for the tether attachment points and the frequent movements of the tower. Material fatigue over the projected operating life-span of the machine will be a major challenge here. The movements are relatively frequent, highly variable and un-controlled compared to the steady movements associated with a regular wind turbine. This will stress the tether, the tower bearings and the frame of the kite repeatedly which may result in a reduced operating life compared to a machine that for the most part just sits there and has a much lower number of moving parts. The Enercon again deserves special mention here, it doesn’t even have a gear box (it is a direct drive concept). Simplicity is a very important element in wind turbine design, the simpler a device the longer its operating life and the more reliable it will be. The Makani concept is anything but simple and it is possible that they have a tether and associated hardware which will be able to go through 25 years of continuous abuse as shown in the video but the proof of the pudding is very much in the eating here. Wind technologies that need regular service or replacement of critical parts are pretty much a non-starter, it would increase the cost of operation tremendously offsetting advantages gained by having less material in the first place.

Because of the length of the tether if the tether should break the potentially affected area is much larger than with a regular turbine, the kite has a much higher starting point and is capable of much longer flight time than a broken off piece of a conventional machine. The good news is that the individual pieces will be lighter.

Wind is a fickle mistress

Conventional wind turbines have one very large disadvantage over every other power generation method: wind is fickle. It comes and goes and sometimes it comes and goes rather rapidly. The grid is not set up for such unstable power generation and dealing with these power surges from wind parks is a very complex problem that we’re making only slow headway with. Especially with older grids the possibillity of damage is very real (and this has been a long standing problem between Germany on the one and hand the Czech republic and Poland on the other where the power surges from the German windparks have caused damage to the older infrastructure on the other side of the border). The best techniques available revolve around superconducting coils functioning in the role of sources and sinks to reduce the variability in the output of a wind turbine (or even a whole park).

The Makani devices have a disadvantage here. Because they need to stay aloft if the wind should rapidly change either direction or intensity they switch the rotors from power generation to power consumption if the need arises. This will be worse than a regular wind turbine because those only generate more or less power, they don’t suddenly go and consume power. This increased instability will be a major factor against Makani when it comes to connecting to the grid. Another disadvantage is that because of the reduced weight of the rotating portion the Makani device has much less energy stored in the device itself which means the output can vary much more rapidly.

The state of the art

The Makani website lists a number of figures that are not representative of the state of the art in conventional wind turbines, for instance on their ‘challenge’ page they state that “Conventional turbines have grown taller, heavier, and more expensive in order to generate more power. ” which is true at first reading, but the effect of this development is that the price per KWh generated by these machines has gone down. So the total cost of power generated over the lifetime of these machines has gone down, their operational costs have gone down and total power has gone up tremendously (15% further than where the graphic on that page ends).

Just like a Makani device producing 6 MW (if such a device can be constructed in the first place, it would be a very large machine) would be heavier, more expensive and would have to fly higher in order to generate more power.

When the first 3MW machines were presented everybody thought that ‘this was as big as they were going to get’ and now we’re looking at 7.6MW machines with - compared to the Makani technology - a relatively modest footprint.

The environmental aspects

Getting a wind power park sited is a very long exercise in dealing with the general public. Especially in the developed world people don’t like wind power plants and there is a large amount of ‘NIMBY’ (not-in-my-backyard) behavior. Everybody would like to have green power and even better if it’s cheap but nobody wants a wind turbine in their backyard. There are visual aspects, there is noise pollution, there are shading effects when the rotor blades are intersecting the image of the sun and so on.

Makani has an uphill battle here because all of these aspects are considerably worse for their technology at a similar power level. The kites fly higher, are much more of an eye sore and occupy a much larger disc compared to a ground based turbine. And given the amount of backlash ground based machines get the Makani will likely not fare much better and probably worse. The noise from the many smaller turbines is an unknown factor but if my experience is any guide here the Makani device will produce quite a bit of it and from higher up which means the area the noise is radiated to will be larger. Turbines tend to generate noise at the tips and large turbines tend to be much more quiet than small ones.

Ground is expensive

Even though the footprint of the Makani base station is relatively small the total volume occupied by an operating unit is a very large multiple of what you’d need for a regular wind turbine. The volume a regular turbine occupies is a cylinder with a radius of one blade centered on the tower and with the maximum height of the blade tip at the apex as the height. You can truncate that cylinder at the top with a half sphere.

In contrast, the volume occupied by the Makani device is a half sphere with a radius determined by the maximum length of the tether + half the size of the kite. That’s a much larger volume, which translates into more complex siting arrangements and a much larger spacing between devices in a park than are required for regular turbines.

Because of the impact here and the fact that the size of the base stations is not that much different from the size of a ground based turbine and the variety of angles at which the tether can exit the stub tower it would be a fair assumption that a Makani setup would incur a premium for a given amount of power generated compared to a more conventional setup.

It's all economy

Wind power is not so much about which solution is more clever or generates more power than another. In the end it is all about economy: the total cost of a machine including all operational, maintenance, land, purchase and other costs divided by the total number of KWh generated over the life of that machine.

Makani has some clear advantages when it comes to raw material costs, their 600 KW unit (assuming it really does produce that 600 KW) looks decidely more efficient when just looking at the materials. But over the life-span of a machine (a typical wind power setup is designed with a 25 or 30 year life-span in mind) the initial materials cost is a relatively small fraction (in spite of the huge capital costs involved) of the total.

So the only interesting question is what the cost per KWh is when taking into account all the costs associated with a machine and this information is not yet available for the Makani project and it will take many years of operating a relatively large number of these units before we can begin to put a figure on this.

Conclusion

Makani is a super interesting concept, it is - unlike many other revolutionary wind technologies - not vapourware but there are tremendous technical, engineering, economical and environmental issues that they will need to overcome if this is to be a mainstream success. Depending on the niche they want to deploy to they will have an easier time with some of these challenges but conventional wind turbines will likely be hard to compete with in the niche in which they are already established.

Highschool Reunion, Bulllies And Being A Nerdy Kid In The 70's And Early 80's

A while ago I received an invitation to a high-school reunion. I didn’t go and I probably will never go to a thing like that. I’m trying very hard to forget that period.

I love to learn, but it wasn’t always so.

As a small kid, up to the age of 12 I definitely did. During the summer holidays that I would spend with my paternal grandmother in Arnhem I’d eat my way through the public library technology section, and when I was done with that I made a deal with a second hand bookstore called ‘de Slegte’ that if I could read a book I bought in the morning before closing time I could trade it in for free on another book, and if I could read that one before morning I could do it again. So for the price of one book they allowed me to read their whole catalog, unless I wanted to keep a book, then I’d have to pay again (I kept plenty of them). I read a lot of books that way and inevitably some of the stuff I read stuck and interlocked with other bits and pieces that I already knew. Communications Satellites, computers, rockets, evolution, whatever was available, I’d lap it up ever hungry for more.

Grade school was misery, lots of bullying, lots of fighting, but there was the promise of getting into the VWO, the school where you could prepare yourself for a career in science. Provided you had good grades and provided you worked hard at it. One of my uncles, who had worked for Philips Electronics in Eindhoven taught me a bit of calculus and I loved it, this went way beyond the grade school arithmetic.

Finally, in 1977 I managed to leave grade school behind me and went to high school, a school with a Christian background (even though I did not believe in any god, my mom thought it wouldn’t hurt to send me to a school with kids from an environment like that). The introduction week was pretty harsh. I ended up cycling home on my own because of all the fights. Incredible, this was supposed to be the thing I’d been looking out for for so long. Prototypical nerd, I got into trouble from day one because I stood out in every way that you could to make you impopular. Small, scrawny kid, too clever for his age, not yet interested in girls or any of the other things all the other boys were going on about.

When I was 12 color televisions existed but not every household had one, VCR was about to break through and computers were for the most part locked up in large buildings with an army of priests and acolytes tending to their needs. In many houses the most prominent item in the living room was a gigantic column of hi-fi components hooked up to a pair of enormous speakers.

Even though computers were my long time ambition between the ripe old age of 8 and 15 or so I did the next best thing: tinker with electronics. The cold war was in full swing and there was quite a bit of propaganda intended to strike fear into the population with respect to our imminent annihilation and this affected me to the point that whenever I was at work in the basement of the house and a plane would fly over low I would sneak a peek to make sure that it wasn’t a long range bomber.

Being rather chronically short on pocket money (tools are expensive!) my method of acquiring parts was a bit unconventional, I would get up very early on Tuesdays and Fridays, race with my bike ahead of the garbage collection trucks and strip any and all electronic gear that I spotted near the kerbside of their circuit boards and stash the boards in my newspaper carrier bags. If something was either unknown, interesting or repairable then I’d take it home in one piece. Then I’d go home and dump the loot and off to school (I usually managed to get to school before the bell but not always and I’m pretty sure that Tuesdays and Fridays would stand out on my absentee reports for no apparent reason to the school officials).

The boards were stripped using a blowtorch and a water bucket (heat board in one go, slam down and all the parts drop straight into the water for instant cooling), it was pretty much a reverse-assembly line. Stacks of sorted parts lined the walls and a pretty crummy assortment of tools completed my arsenal. I had the most terrible soldering iron in the world, it leaked current like there was no tomorrow, one of those transformer based soldering guns. Very bad for soldering anything statically sensitive. They also tended to melt down with prolonged use, they were actually intended for very short bursts of activity.

On one evening every week there was a gathering at a local community house where more advanced electronics hobbyists would teach us newbies the magic of making your own circuit boards and doing some more advanced designs. For the first couple of years my career in electronics mostly consisted of ripping stuff apart and I was as surprised as anybody when I finally managed to actually repair something (iirc this was a radio cassette player owned by a girl in my high-school class that had blown up its transformer but was otherwise in good health judged by the fact that it would still work on batteries).

Meanwhile, in school things got a lot worse. I got the highest score for the test that separates grade school from high school, and I wasn’t about to start slacking. So I worked as hard as I could on the stuff they threw at us in that introductory year. The only subject I had trouble with was French, for the rest I pretty much aced it. Even though I did work hard it didn’t look like I was working all that hard. Not long after the nicknames started. Teachers pet, professor and so on. There was one other guy in that class that scored about as good as I did on most subjects, a kid called Cornelis. He had a buddy that looked at 12 like he was 16 or so and nobody dared to pick on him (good for him!), but unfortunately because I came from another part of town I had no friends at all right in the beginning of the new school year, which made me into a convenient target.

Tons of fights, mostly with a small group of kids that enjoyed disturbing the lessons and that were definitely not in this school to prepare themselves for anything in life, other than that their parents thought they should go there. Everything about me was wrong to them, from my taste in music to my clothing to the fact that I didn’t care about team sports (but I did love cycling and ping-pong), the fact that I actually enjoyed learning and so on.

I got through the first year with top marks but felt totally miserable. During the summer holidays I figured out (wrongly) that if I’m going to survive this school I’d have to somehow adopt some kind of camouflage. The easiest way to do this was to get bad grades. I stopped studying completely, all I took in where those things that I heard during the lessons in class, my books remained pretty much unopened that year. I flunked the year, French and now German were my weak points, I think I got a ‘1’ (the lowest mark possible, in nl marks were from 1 to 10 at that time) for it, to great anger of the teacher who saw that I was purposefully not doing anything to learn. (my German is passable these days so it all ended up well in the end).

Flunking the year was bad, but it had one silver lining, a reboot. New people, a bit younger so I wasn’t standing out as being all that scrawny anymore. The darker part of that cloud was that this particular class had a bunch of bullies that was much worse than the ones in the class that I left behind. More fighting, suspensions and other trouble because of that. But at least I finished the year because I already knew most of the material and even cracked a book every now and then. I actually liked the new classes (physics, chemistry) that that year brought and after doing the basics in terms of homework got pretty good grades for those.

On to the third year, this one went pretty good for the most part, I had found what the minimum of work was that I had to do to get the minimum grades I needed to ‘pass’. Teachers still hated me because it was pretty obvious that I could do better. I spent a lot of time in school designing electronics circuits, got a paper route and eventually bought my first real computer with it (a TRS-80 pocket computer made by Sharp, which looks like an oversized calculator). So plenty of distractions but not enough to make me fail another year.

The fourth year the bullying started again. This time it kept on escalating and it would not go away. One particular guy (who was always going on about his karate expertise) thought that it was fun to kick me out of sight of the teachers under the table during the lessons egging me on to do something about it. When I finally snapped after a couple of months of this and put him in hospital I was suspended for three months. So I failed that year as well. Right about this time my family situation detoriorated to the point where I had to leave the house I was living in to move in with my dad.

Him and his new wife did what they could to accomodate me but there was enough friction in the household that that didn’t last for more than a year (which I spent on a trade school for electronics called the ETS in Amsterdam, I recently met again with one guy I met there and it was quite an amazing meeting), and after that my mom split up with the guy she’d been with and I rejoined her and went to work for a big dutch bank and my formal education stopped. I still did a year of nightschool to try to get to equivalency but the work I did was so physically exhausting that I could barely walk home, let alone do a night of clear-headed studying.

From absolutely acing the tests to being a person without any formal qualifications in one smooth move, from loving to learn to hating to learn (fortunately I branched out into loving to learn about electronics and computers instead of the stuff I was supposed to be studying in school, which laid the groundwork for the rest of my career).

Highschool can be hell, especially when you’re looking forward to it.

To all the bullies that I encountered during that time (you know who you are): Thank you for hardening me in a way that serves me good to this day. I don’t blame you for me not finishing my education but it certainly did not help either. To all current bullies in highschool: you are damaging a lot more than you think you are, it’s not just fun and games. One of the people that found great pleasure in hounding me and a couple of other ‘nerds’ is still visiting a psychiatrist because of what he did back then according to an ex-girlfriend I met at a wedding. I’ve long ago forgiven him, but apparently he still hasn’t forgiven himself. Funny how life can turn around.

Highschool reunions are not for me, too many horrors and too good a memory are a bad recipe for rehashing old times.