Options

This is good. With hybrid working becoming increasingly established, the Belgian trains are introducing new (and, hopefully cheaper) season tickets to reflect this reality.

I am one of the 60% of season ticket holders commuting fewer than five days a week and, although the season ticket is (just) worth it, I am paying for journeys I don’t take. One of the proposed options is for 120 days travel a year, and this is more than enough for me, and I will certainly look into this when renewal time comes around.

Hybrid working has become the norm for many people and, when it works, it works well. It is nice to see that the national infrastructure is now also adjusting to this reality.

The Joy of Parking

Since the Covid restrictions were lifted, I have been going into Brussels two days a week. This commute involves driving into a nearby town and catching a train. The train station has plenty of parking and, once I’m in Brussels, the walk to the office only takes five minutes, so it’s a pretty easy commute overall.

Although the station parking has long been free, it’s been clear for a while that this is going to change. There has been a lot of construction work going on over the past year or so, this involves converting car park into a lager area for buses, closing off most of the entrances to the car park and putting a payment barrier on the remaining one.

And on Wednesday they activated the barrier.

The barrier was down and there was a man standing next to it to tell me that I needed to take a ticket now and pay when I left, of I could buy a season ticket at the station office which would work out a lot cheaper. So I took the ticket as directed, parked and walked into the station office.

I had four minutes until my train was due, and there was a queue of about eight people, all clutching their parking tickets, and clearly wanting to buy a season ticket. So I decided that I would sort this out once I returned from work.

I’m quite glad that I did this because it meant that I was able to look up the parking prices and options during the day and establish that, not only does the season ticket work out a lot cheaper, but I could also get a discount for being a train user. And having done this meant that I wasn’t particularly flustered when I returned to the station to discover that manned ticket desk had closed for the day.

So, to the ticket machine where I discovered that, because I have a MoBIB card (essentially a credit card type thing on which I can store train and other transport tickets), I was able to buy a three month parking subscription (only three months because that’s when my season ticket for the train expires) which was loaded directly onto the card.

After that, it was just a case of waving my card at the parking barrier and I don’t need to do anything more until April.

People often complain about Belgium being a very bureaucratic country, and it is. It is also a very integrated country in terms of digitally accessing various services. But the thing is, the bureaucracy works. As long as you are willing to take a few minutes to understand the process — and this information is generally very easy to find — things tend move along very smoothly indeed.

Back to School

The school summer holiday in Belgium runs from 1st July to 31st August, regardless of what days those dates fall on. This is why all the kids are going back to school today, even though it’s a Thursday. The first day back is a bit of an easy one: the kids don’t have a full day and will be mainly receiving timetables, directions and other essentials.

There are big changes for us this year. The twins have now graduated from primary school, so all three boys will be cycling into the next town for their schooling. The twins were accompanied by their mum today (just to make sure they have the route correctly memorised), but they will be on their own from tomorrow.

I am still working from home at present and, after having the boys at home with me, the house feels awfully quiet today.

Camp

It’s that time of year when the boys all head off for their annual summer camp. And this year, they are now all old enough to both cycle there and enjoy the full ten days. We saw them off yesterday morning and spent much of the rest of the day getting used to how quiet the house has suddenly become.

Traditionally the younger kids are dropped off on Sunday, which is generally quite a big event including food, drinks and an chance for parents to catch up on how things are going so far. This social part has been cancelled over the last couple of years because of COVID, but this year it’s back. No barbecue, but I am assured that there will be plenty of food and drink for all.

Of course, with an empty house to ourselves, Eve and I will need to figure out what to do with ourselves.

I’m sure we’ll manage.

End of an Era

The schools broke up yesterday and two months of Summer vacation starts today for all three of the boys. And big changes are ahead for us because the twins have now graduated from primary school and will be embarking on their secondary school careers in September.

While attending their graduation ceremony on Tuesday, it struck me that I will never again need to return to the local school, and nor will any of them be able to walk to school. From here on in, all of three boys will be traveling to the next town for their education.

We have much to prepare, but today we shall enjoy the first day of the Summer holiday.

FD Computers and the Joy of Linux

With William and Alexandre going up a school in September, we found ourselves in the market for two new laptops. They have both been using Ubuntu for quite some time and, given how stable and reliable it has proven to be, I was keen to keep them on the same OS. I was also quite keen on the idea of having everything pre-installed for them, mainly because I’m lazy.

When we were looking for a new laptop for Macsen, Dell were selling Inspirons with Ubuntu pre-installed. They appear to have stopped doing this now, for Belgium anyway. You can still buy Ubuntu laptops from Dell, but only if you want to shell out for a very powerful and incredibly expensive Data Science Workstation. So that was off the table.

Looking around, however, I discovered that there’s a shop in Belgium, FD Computers, who not only sells laptops with the Linux distro of your choice pre-installed, but also has a webshop. After a short phone call to availability and delivery times, we placed an order.

The laptops turned up exactly when promised and we are very happy with them.

The laptops themselves are light but have quite a robust feel to them and they certainly look like they will handle being lugged around by a pair of teenagers. And having Ubuntu pre-installed, along with all of the applications they are likely to need, is a definite bonus.

I would certainly FD Computers and, possibly more tellingly, would quite happily go back to them when we are in the market for more hardware.

Having used several desktop operating systems over the years (DOS, Windows, OS/2, AmigaOS), I have to say that the Linux desktop really is the best of the best.

People like to say that Linux is difficult to use, but it really isn’t. Granted, some distributions are aimed at a more technical crowd, but you don’t have to make things difficult for yourself. Go with Ubuntu or something similarly user friendly and the experience is, if anything, better than using Windows.

You don’t even need to install it yourself these days. Plenty of retailers will do this for you, even if you don’t live in Belgium.

Compared to Windows and MacOS, Linux is much more secure, and a lot easier to manage. Installing applications, and even upgrading the OS, can all be done with a couple of clicks of a mouse. And the software is all free (gratis), and centrally managed — you don’t need to deal with ads or endless pop-ups telling you to upgrade to the paid version, just install the application and off you go.

Ultimately, with a Linux laptop, I can leave an eleven-year old in charge of his own computer without having to constantly be watching what he’s doing. This is not something I can say about Windows.

Back to Work

With the ongoing relaxation of COVID restrictions, the office is slowly reopening and I am now travelling to Brussels twice a week. I still have to wear a mask on the train, but the expectation is that this restriction will be lifted next week. Apart from that, it’s surprising just how normal everything feels.

While it is nice to see people again after a two-year absence, I can’t honestly say that I missed anyone. This, as a colleague suggested, may be an age thing — I have never had, nor wanted, a social life based around work and, living with a family of five makes it impossible to feel isolated. If I was still single and living alone, I may well have felt differently.

I didn’t miss the commute, though, and standing on a packed train while trying to avoid ending up with someone’s elbow in my nose reminded me just how much I didn’t miss commuting. Oddly, the journey home is always worse than the journey in.

There are, of course, some advantages to being in a shared office space, the main one being that it is a lot easier to resolve confusion and misunderstandings when you can wander over to someone’s desk and hold a face to face conversation.

It may be related to the fact that I work in corporate IT, but I do find it surprising just how much is simply not understood. The thing is, you never realise just how much people people didn’t understand until you are looking over their shoulder while they try to do what you have just explained.

That said, this is not something I need to do every day, and I really didn’t miss the commute.

I also didn’t miss the experience of discovering that the only coffee machine in the building has stopped working. This never happens at home.

Slightly better

A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian published an article on 100 ways to slightly improve your life without really trying, which is probably perfect for everyone who has already failed to keep up with their New Years resolutions, as well as the rest of us who didn’t even try.

The suggestions are all simple and very easy to implement. While not all of them will be appropriate for everyone, I was surprised at how many of these things I already do.

I particularly liked this one, though:

91 If in doubt, add cheese.

Lightly Seared in 2021

As the year draws to a close, now seems as good a time as any to look back over my most popular (more accurately: most read) post of the last twelve months. As ever, my most read posts overall are technical notes written the best part of a decade ago, but if people still find this stuff useful, it’s all to the good.

Of the posts that I actually wrote this year, the most popular (surprisingly enough) is COVID-related. Specifically, when I announced that I was fully jabbed. Of course, I’m even more jabbed now having recently received my booster.

Oddly enough, the second most popular post of the year is Jabbed: Part One, which goes back to when I received my first dose of Pfizer.

Brexit was mentioned on this blog a few times, even though it received a lot fewer mentions than in previous years. It seems fitting, therefore, that my third most popular post is also the last time I mentioned the B-word to mention that a crisis had been averted.

I am still watching the Brexit-related news but I find myself have much less to say. The reason, I think, is that even though a lot of stuff keeps happening, it’s the same stuff happening over and over again. There are only so many times that you can mention the sheer stupidity of leaving the EU, or the fact that now it’s done there’s no way back, without both feeling and sounding like a broken record.

On the subject of going around in circles, COVID. And in March, I mentioned that 2021 was starting to feel like 2020.

On a more positive note, we did take a step towards eating more sustainably with burgers for all. That’s insect burgers, which we can make using mealworm.

And I can’t go a year without mentioning the weather: Flooded. Fortunately, I wasn’t.

Way back in January, Donald Trump tried to organise a coup. In After the meltdown, the climbdown I made (or tried to make) the more general observation that authoritarian impulses exist everywhere — we all need to be paying attention.

Remember OS/2? I did: Digital Nostalgia

Then there is the ongoing discussion about green energy and why nuclear power plants are necessary. I still it’s insane that the Green parties in Belgium want to burn more gas in order to decommission the nuclear power stations we already have.

And last, but certainly not least, is what I said back in May: Don’t Panic!

And with that, all that remains is to wish everyone a Happy New Year and all the best for 2022.