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Yeri "tuinslak" Tiete has been contacted by Belgian ICT minister Vincent Van Quickenborne -- on Twitter. The minister has invited Tielte to come discuss the NMBS/iRail issue with him, and states that "NMBS should be happy with your initiative."

As a recent expat I'm still learning my way around the complexities of Belgian politics, but it's very nice to see this kind of rapid, personal response -- especially from a prominent member of a party as large as Open VLD (who have slipped in power in the last few years, placing fourth among Flemish parties in the recent elections, but are still very much a going concern). I don't know how much influence Van Quickenborne has in his party, but if he can convince Open VLD as a whole to support open access to public data -- which fits in well with the party's emphasis on encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship -- that could very well lead to increased support at the polls. I'm looking forward to seeing how this continues to unfold.
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...but getting that across to NMBS is taking some doing.

Let me explain. Here in Belgium we have a public railway service in the technical sense of the term: the National Railway Company of Belgium (abbreviated NMBS in Flemish, SNCB in French) is wholly owned and operated by the government. It's an "autonomous government company", a bit like Ma Bell in the old days, but crucially, it is a nationalised system.

Up until fairly recently, an enterprising young student, who goes by the handle tuinslak, operated a site called It was a rather popular mobile site which offered transit and routing information formatted for mobile phones, and did a far better job in that space than NMBS' own routeplanner (which has never been usable on mobile phones, and up until very recently was a crash-prone Web 1.0 monstrosity; it's much nicer on a regular computer now, but still not great). tuinslak informed NMBS back in 2008 that he was putting together a routeplanner for mobile users; they ignored his email until about a week ago, when they sent him a cease-and-desist order.

What burns me up is the claimed basis for the C&D. NMBS claims (translated) that i-rail "reuses the data of NMBS. This violates [NMBS'] intellectual property rights, as well as copyright and database rights."

So let me get this straight -- a nationalised company, which is to say, a company owned part and parcel by the citizens of Belgium, is claiming that a Belgian citizen's use of data generated by NMBS is in violation of intellectual property rights? By virtue of being a Belgian citizen, tuinslak has those rights himself. Whose intellectual property rights is he violating? His own?

I'm looking forward to seeing this one go before the courts. I'm not sure if tuinslak is planning on fighting it (though I'm going to contact him and find out); it's clearly something that the EFF should be interested in, and if he doesn't have a legal defense fund in place then I want to get one started.

Relatedly, Lorin Parys has an op-ed in De Standaard, calling for NMBS to put effort into a developers' API for its public information and to quit wasting time and taxpayers' money on an in-house replacement for a third-party mobile routeplanner site that clearly made a lot of people happy. I particularly liked this bit of rhetoric (again, translated):
If we can make non-personally-identifiable information from government and businesses public, we can unlock a stream of creativity and entrepreneurship. The government must lead the way, not lock the door.


Jun. 7th, 2010 12:15 am
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It is a quarter past midnight, and one of my neighbours across the street is blasting Dolly Parton out the window for the rest of the street to hear. No, I don't know why.
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Horse-chestnut flowers from the trees near school, an early birthday present from [ profile] enochsmiles.
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Woke up late-ish-morning yesterday and found out that one of [personal profile] enochsmiles' colleagues was defending his thesis in a couple of hours, so we grumbled out of bed, dressed up, and made our way over to the Kasteelpark Arenberg engineering campus. It gets its name from the castle in the middle of it, which used to be an aristocratic hunting lodge but is now about 70% administration offices and 30% lecture halls for people presenting their dissertations. Markulf gave a fine presentation, and after a short roast by Bart, is now Dr. Kohlweiss. We hung around for a little of the reception, enjoying acceptably good wine and little sashimi-on-toast appetizers, then picked up two copies of the dissertation (I need to read the location-based privacy parts of it fairly soonish) and bugged out early to do some errands.

Said errands included picking up several packages that had accumulated at the post office, including presents from my mom for [personal profile] enochsmiles' and my upcoming birthdays. Nothing was actually labeled, so we divided them up according to who liked what best. I am now the proud owner of a wool-lined tan trenchcoat that is ever so slightly shiny and sheds rain like whoa -- a useful addition to my enormous collection of trenchcoats, particularly with the frequency of rain here -- and [personal profile] enochsmiles has a rain/warmup jacket that shines iridescent greenish-bluish-purple, like the carapace of a beetle. Neat stuff.

We then went home and did a bunch of dishes, since we'd made plans for D and his girlfriend S to come over and play poker later that night, briefly forgetting that we were also planning to put in an appearance at Markulf's post-defense party. So, around 9:30 we texted D and asked them to meet us at Metafoor instead of coming straight to our place; they were running a bit late anyway, so that worked out just fine. Many old colleagues had come to town for the defense, and we spent much of the party hanging out with [personal profile] enochsmiles' friend Lothar, a German now working in Norway at a research foundation that does a lot with both privacy and geophysical imaging. I'm not sure what the two have in common, but [personal profile] enochsmiles has been invited to come give a seminar, so we will probably go visit Norway in the next couple of months.

I think talking to Markulf has given [personal profile] enochsmiles some new perspective on his own dissertation. Markulf is one of those guys who seems perpetually organised and on track, but apparently he spent the last four years having a lot of the same misgivings about the quality and value of his research that [personal profile] enochsmiles has had. It's one of those things that is true for every graduate student, but it helps to be reminded that other people have the same uncertainties and still make it through.

Eventually D and S rolled up, and we made our way back home to break out the cards. D had forgotten the poker chips, so after I poured the beers I poked around to find a suitable substitute; we settled on different values of capacitors. It was both [personal profile] enochsmiles' and my first experience playing Texas hold 'em. He is an amazingly good bluffer (go figure!), whereas I play more cautiously and mathematically (but need to learn the probabilities of various hands better). D is quite a good coach, and I look forward to playing with them some more.

They finally took off around 2, and we retired to bed to watch some of Carlito's Way, the first half of which is really good, but I was too sleepy to make it through all of it. So, today I'm going to clean up the after-hangout mess on the dining room table, noodle around some more on the Drupal project I'm working on, and at some point watch the rest of the movie before D's brother's blues-rock band plays at the Machine tonight.

I'm so glad it's finally spring.
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I basically skipped out on the Internet for most of last week. This was mainly because last year's router decided it was no longer interested in putting out a consistent enough signal for my WLAN interface to stay stapled to it long enough to do things like, oh, open a webpage. I am happy when things consistently work, I can troubleshoot them when they consistently don't work, but intermittent functionality interspersed with HA HA ONLY KIDDING makes me want to break stuff. Last year's router is now no more broken than it got to be on its own, but it has been replaced with 2007's never-used router, which was picked up at a Fry's in Vegas for something like $15, preemptively disassembled in case we needed it for a project we were working on that Defcon, and put back in its box still in pieces with a few extra bits attached. All the solder points are neatly covered in electrical tape, and it has red and black wires soldered to the pins of the 5V jack; I guess if we have a power outage we can run it off batteries. Also it works, which is always nice to discover when you put something back together. Clearwire, I take back most of the bad things I ever said about you; you are actually rather fast and reliable when used with non-gimpy hardware. Perhaps this summer we will share the internet on the beach at Oostende after all, with the help of the battery-powered router.

The router needs a name. For the last few years our naming convention has been "places that do not exist" -- thus far Arcadia and Erehwon. I am leaning toward Ruritania or possibly Latveria, though I note that Uncyclopedia's list of nonexistent places includes Belgium. The humour is hit or miss, but I cannot deny the truth of the following excerpt:
Belgium is the worst place to live during a Zombie Apocalypse due to the fact that there's more dead soldiers buried there than people.
I mean, if you're in Colma when the zombie apocalypse happens, the odds are stacked against you, but you'll be up against zombie hippies and dotcommers. I suppose our only hope will be if the zombie French and Germans hate each other more than they want to eat the brains of living Belgians.

The other cool discovery, in addition to Working!Router, was the SMT tweezers that I apparently also picked up during that Fry's expedition. These are no ordinary tweezers; they are large and sturdy with a business end that comes to needle tips, suitable for performing reconstructive surgery on fruit flies. I suppose I should really get round to converting a toaster oven into a reflow oven, since I now have most of the other tools I need to do serious tiny-circuitry work. The local hardware store even sells ferric chloride, though not in the handy solution form that Radio Shack dispenses -- no, here it comes in foul-smelling rusty orange lumps and must be weighed out by the gram. I can also obtain a wide assortment of useful acids, bases, and salts, in addition to the standard sodium hydroxide and 30% hydrochloric acid that they sell in the grocery store to clear out drains. I feel like I'm living back in Thomas Edison's day, when you could get kicked off a train for having your chemistry set accidentally set a boxcar on fire.

This weekend was also [ profile] enochsmiles' and my third wedding anniversary, which would have been great had I not woken up with some gastrointestinal weirdness that forced me to instead spend the day puking myself stupid. (If you find that resultative construction unusual, I defy you to maintain any kind of intelligence while lurching to the sink every half hour to retch bile.) We are planning to celebrate this weekend instead; it will also be my little sister [ profile] briaer's birthday, so that's two reasons to celebrate.

Finally, in the last bit of router-related news, now there are router botnets. This should surprise approximately no one -- "I bet I can put Linux on that" metamorphosed into "I bet I can drop a botnet on that" some time back, for values of "that" which can connect to the Internet -- but seriously, people, password your fucking routers already.
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Here in Belgium we have a health care system whose operations are prima facie remarkably similar to what has been proposed in the US -- with one major difference. See if you can spot it.

In Belgium, it is mandatory for all individuals to carry health insurance. There are several major insurance nonprofit corporations to choose from. Working people have their premiums covered at least in part by their employer; family members are covered this way as well; the unemployed, people on old age pensions, and people on disability have their insurance paid for by the government.

If you caught the word "nonprofit" in there, you get a cookie. Christelijke Mutualiteit, Socialistische Mutualiteit, and the other mutualities are very big businesses indeed -- but they have no stockholders. This means that the financial incentives for the mutualities are completely different from those of the publicly held US insurers, who are ultimately governed by their stockholders.

Okay, there are a couple of other differences. Insurance premiums are fixed at a specific percentage of one's salary, and it's the same percentage for everyone (I'm not sure how that works for the unemployed), so health insurance is essentially a flat income tax of 7.35%. (The computation isn't quite so direct for self-employed people, as social insurance contributions are tiered based on income and health coverage comes out of that -- so there ends up being an incentive to keep one's income at the top end of an income tier in order to minimise the percentage of one's income that goes to social insurance.) Costs for medical services and medications are also fixed by federal mandate, so there isn't this business of having to deal with different insurers maintaining different lists of what they will and won't cover.

Another interesting note is that insurance here doesn't cover all of one's medical costs -- just a very large percentage. A doctor visit costs me a net of 2 euros (22 up front, and I get 20 back from the mutuality); my blood pressure meds cost 8 euros for a six-week supply; [ profile] enochsmiles' chemo, which goes for $10,000 per dose in the US, sets us back roughly a hundred euros every two months. I suspect this acts as a disincentive against the "frivolous use of the system" that US conservatives are whining about, as a larger up-front cost, even if reimbursed, is perceptually more of a burden than if one were to pay the net cost up front.

Now, I'm not thrilled that health coverage in Belgium is literally a command economy. I've been affected indirectly by some of the dumber top-down decisions (mostly having to do with changing up the pharmaceutical formulary), and I do think the system stifles innovation. However, I also think the country has done a pretty impressive job into turning a negative good (health insurance) into a net benefit for the population while keeping individual disutility (the cost of premiums and out-of-pocket medical expenses) low. Compare this to 22% of household income for American middle-income families with individual coverage, and I definitely think it's worth looking under the hood of the Belgian system to see how they pulled it off.
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One of the cooler things about living in Belgium is that it is basically impossible to live in a reasonably-sized town and not be within a couple of blocks of a bakery. (We're a block from one, and within four blocks of two more.) This has had a really positive impact on my life in terms of breakfast. Every morning, post-caffeine, I hike over to our nearest bakery, which is also a candy shop, and pick up a bunch of fresh pastries to start [ profile] enochsmiles' and my day.

This morning, the baker -- a short, apple-cheeked woman who in thirty years will look like every cartoon Mrs. Claus you've ever seen -- was laying out a tray of Santa-shaped chocolates as I walked in. "Oh, Sinterklaas?" I asked. "Nee," said the baker. "Kerstman!" This threw me, since I knew that the English "Santa Claus" is a borrowing of the Dutch "Sinterklaas", which of course is a contraction of "Sint-Nicolaas" (St. Nicholas). Come to find out, after Anglophone culture borrowed Sinterklaas and morphed him into Santa Claus, Dutch (and, by extension, Belgian) culture borrowed him right back as Kerstman ("Christmas man"). So now we have two St. Nicholases (Nicholi?), one who brings presents on December 5th, one who brings presents on December 25th.


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