Another dot in the blogosphere?

The quintessentially Dutch #bicycle. Spotted near the #annefrankhouse #amsterdam

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Like jet lag, some takeaways from my recent trip to Amsterdam only just hit me.

Take trash days for instance. I opted to stay in someone’s entire apartment and we had to take bagged trash out to the street every Tuesday and Friday. There were no trash bins on the road, but everyone seemed to understand the importance of preparing and arranging the trash responsibly.

The instructions to use the washing machine in the apartment were in Dutch. This was despite the assurance I got from owner that they would be in English. Thanks to a speedy Internet connection and phones, we got translations on the fly.

Collectively, these reminded me that some of the best ways to learn are by embedded experience, close observation, and just-in-time information.

Coffee sign.

Before my trip, I read about the differences between coffee houses vs cafés. If I wanted actual coffee, I had to visit a café. Marijuana was sold at coffee houses.

Lesson? It is one thing to read or hear about coffee houses vs cafés, it is entirely another see — and smell — the differences in person.

Bonus factoids and still open questions:

  • During my trip, I was told by a guide that Amsterdam had the highest per capita coffee drinkers. I took that as fact. Now I realise that I should have asked him which plant was involved.
  • I also discovered that quite a few cafés and eateries play reggae music. I do not know if this is a homage to pot culture.


Video source

If I had to teach the concept of affordances in 10 minutes, I would use this video.

Most people use Excel to create spreadsheets and graphs. This Japanese retiree’s use of Excel to paint is an unexpected use of the program. The former is a designed or intended use. The latter is a perceived or negotiated use.

In education, we also speak of technical, social, and pedagogical affordances. These take longer than 10 minutes to teach and might require a lifetime to master.

Is there a master Japanese artist who might illustrate these affordances by accident?

When I travel overseas, I try to visit a local library. This might be a tiny one in Vietnam, a traditional one in a university, or a modern one in Amsterdam.

Why do this on vacation? I find that what people stand or wish for translates into the design of such a public space.

A trend that seems to have consumed progressive libraries and librarians is the mantra that the modern library is not just a place but also a space. This statement leaves room for interpretation. Mine is that a library should not just be a place to read or borrow books; it is space to work, chill, collaborate, get inspired, or learn in less restrictive and self-directed ways.

Some libraries slap old and new together and expect them to meld. Others integrate the two seamlessly or relegate the redundant pragmatically. My recent visit to the Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam (OBA) — the Public Library of Amsterdam — was a perfect example of what I think a library should be.

The OBA was not a gem to admire on the outside, but once inside you might find it hard to describe why it is so welcoming and different. Note: Several Instagram embeds to follow.
 

Descending the escalator & listening to impromptu piano playing at the Public Library of Amsterdam #oba #amsterdam

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Near the entrance was the kids’ section and a piano. I recorded this video while a pianist provided an impromptu soundtrack.

Function meets form: Provide a piano in a prominent place and someone will play it.
 

Absolutely love the main Public Library of Amsterdam #oba #amsterdam

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The kids’ section dominated the entrance on the left. The unusually shaped lights reminded me of ball-and-stick chemical molecules or some diatoms underneath a microscope. The section was predominantly white with bright splashes of colour from the toys, furniture, and displays that strategically littered the space.

Function meets form: Provide a welcoming and curious place to explore and kids will learn by play.
 

I noticed at least two displays: One was a comic exhibition that ran along three walls; the other was a three-metre high Mouse Mansion. The comics were as thought-provoking as the mansion was fascinatingly detailed.

Function meets form: Provoke with dissonance and detail, and people will learn by critique and observation.

I forgot to photograph the space to the right of the entrance. Other than elevators and a service desk, that side was dominated with self-help kiosks for membership, buying wifi time (for non-members), returning books, borrowing books.

The book system was particularly impressive. It sported a modern, brushed metal interaction front, and a robotic complex of tubes and arms behind plexiglass in the back.

Function meets form: Provide minimal instructions and slick but compelling tools, and people will learn to use them.
 

Computers for the public to use at the Public Library of Amsterdam #oba #amsterdam

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The ceilings were high and the place well-lit either by large windows or bright white light.

OBA upper floor.

The library had a basement and six upper levels. I explored them all and discovered a common theme despite each floor having is own character. There were relatively few bookshelves and books. The mid-level floors featured reading and display areas that might look like a Barnes and Noble or part of a modern museum.
 

The spaces seemed to be designed with people and creature comforts in mind, not silent reading or maintaining order. The strange thing about giving people what they wanted was that they respected the place with a hush that would make a mouse blush.

Function meets form: Provide variations on a human-centric theme and people will do what comes naturally.

Not cubicles.

Definitely not cubicles.

There were several seating configurations. I only managed to discreetly photograph the café-like arrangement. There were also comfortable single seats, sofas, glass-walled cubicles and meeting rooms, and computer terminals that ringed the central atrium on almost all floors.

Function meets form: Recreate what people are already familiar with and they will transfer behaviours or learn new ones with minimal barriers.
 

Stairs from the 6th level to the top floor of the Public Library of Amsterdam #oba #amsterdam

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The top floor was accessible only by this staircase or a set of elevators. If you ventured to this floor, you were rewarded with a restaurant and excellent views of Amsterdam.

View from the top floor of the OBA.

My family and I spent about four hours at the library. While I had my fix of photo-taking, my wife and son chilled at the top floor for much of the time. We had dinner there and relaxed some more.

Function meets form: Provide rewards that are not purely extrinsic or obvious. A room with a view is a room with a view.

Rising above all of this, I was reminded that there was no point rushing from point to point during a family vacation. The point was to relax and recharge, and in doing so, learn incidentally and accidentally. I knew about form meeting function, but I received informal lessons on function meeting form.

The principle of form meeting function applies in web design as much as it does in interior design. It is about putting human function first. But just as we shape our environments, our creations also shape what we do and how we do it. Function meeting form is a human-centric principle of recognising that this reverse and balance is also true.

Yesterday I shared some simple and general things I learnt from my visit to Amsterdam. Today I share what I learnt about the people I met and even those I did not meet in person.

The Dutch seem to possess a dry wit. I know this from the way street artists and window dressers expressed themselves.

In the windows and walls of #amsterdam #jordaan #funny #creative

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In the windows and walls of #amsterdam #jordaan #funny #creative

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The people I dealt with — from the public transport ticket agent to the sandwich lady to the SIM card guy — were very direct. Their mindset could be represented by this sign I saw at a knick-knack shop: Be nice, or go away.

Sign: Be nice, or go away!

I was nice, so I did not go away. But in being nice, I used phrases that did not work. For example, I revisited a sandwich shop that I chanced upon and discovered that the friendly old man was replaced by a seemingly uptight lady.

As I was there at opening time, I asked, “Are you open for businesses?” The lady replied, “Well, the door is open.”

Me: I mean… Are you ready to serve?

She: Let me wash my hands.

Me: (Waiting silently, looking at all corners of the store)

She: (At the sink area) You can order. I am not facing you, but I can hear you.

I made conversation about meeting the old man who told me that they were going to sell piccante, a spicy meat. I ordered two piccante sandwiches and my wife wanted two small slabs to bring home.

While the sandwiches heated up, the lady cut a few slices of piccante for us to nibble on.

I wager that these are the best dang bacon or sausage sandwiches in #amsterdam #jordaan

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I not only learnt where the best sandwiches in Amsterdam were, I also learnt how to be more direct with the Dutch.

The Dutch in the service industry were also prompt. Very much so.

I only exchanged emails with the host of my apartment. He said that he only had a landline, but I suspect that my emails to him were rerouted through an app on his phone or computer. Our email exchanges quick that they felt more like being on WhatsApp.

Montage of some screenshots of a display at the #vangoghmuseum #amsterdam

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I also emailed the Van Gogh Museum because I wanted to get tickets in advance. I had an I Amsterdam card that allowed me to get into the museum for free. However I noticed that:

  • There was an online time slot booking system
  • People queued to get tickets in one line
  • The same people queued again in another line to get in
  • Some people used their phones to skip the first line

I wanted to know if I could get a mobile-based ticket by choosing time slot online with my I Amsterdam card. I emailed the museum and got a reply. The bad news was that I had to queue twice. The good news was that the reply arrived within an hour.

Some folks here take pride in being efficient or productive. I challenge that notion with the museum example. I also provide evidence of how slovenly we can be by comparison.

Upon returning to Singapore, I learnt that my telco had disabled access to my account information. This was true for the mobile app and the web-based portal.

StarHub app access denied.

I emailed my telco three days ago and have not received a reply. Not even an acknowledgement.

In learning about others, we learn about ourselves. When we look in that mirror, do we like what we see? Do we do something positive about it?

I like travelling because it is an opportunity to get out of my comfort zones — physical, mental, cultural, etc. The dissonance makes me learn.

Here are some things I learnt from my trip to Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Several Instagram embeds to follow.
 

Signs that you are in #amsterdam

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I learnt that mobile tethering is not blocked in the Netherlands because of a law:

Due to the Dutch net neutrality law, VoIP and tethering will not be blocked and traffic will not be prioritized.

We are spoilt in Singapore as tethering is a given. However, even infrequent travel overseas has taught me that this practice is a rarity.

When we arrived at our apartment in Amsterdam, I got to try two new iOS features: 1) Using the camera to scan QR codes at the back a router, and 2) quickly sharing the gobbledygook wifi password with iOS and MacOS devices.
 
QR codes at the back of router.

This meant that just one person needed to scan the code to join the WiFi network. When others wished to join the same network, the first person would receive a prompt to tap on to help the rest join.
 

Stairs from the 6th level to the top floor of the Public Library of Amsterdam #oba #amsterdam

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We stayed in a four-storey apartment and climbed the famously steep Dutch stairs inside the apartment several times a day. (Side note: The photo above is not of our apartment stairs, but of the main Public Library of Amsterdam. My visit to this library deserves an entry of its own!)

I had heard about the steep apartment stairs, but not experienced them first hand. The stairs are more like spiral or near-vertical ladders. With the equally famous commute-by-cycling, it is no wonder that the locals looked fit!
 

#amsterdam looking good while still on #windows8 operating system #prisengracht

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I also noticed that most of the apartments and offices had no curtains. We were able to admire the interiors of homes and offices from the streets and canals. We were able to look right through our immediate neighbour’s apartment to the next building which also had naked windows.

The large windows let the natural light in and this probably helps with warming the place and keeping the mood up. The openness also allows people show off their interior design and/or keep their rooms neat.
 

Exterior of the #rembrandthousemuseum #rembrandthouse #rembranthuis #amsterdam

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Most museums in Amsterdam offer audio devices as guides. The Rembrandt House Museum not only offered multiple languages, it also had a kids version. It was storytelling at its best and I wonder why they even bother with the adult version.
 

This bike was the bright spot on my cold, dreary morning walk. #jordaan #amsterdam #canal

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I already know that Google Maps is the best friend of the independent traveller. I discovered that Amsterdam is one of the rare cities where the shortest travel time often is by bike or on foot, then tram or bus, and finally by car.

Tomorrow I share some things I learnt about the Dutch people.

I am adding to my irregular “getting connected” series where I share my processes and thoughts on getting prepaid SIMs when travelling overseas.

I recently travelled to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and did my homework first on how to stay connected. In the past, I shared how I either sought prepaid SIMs once I arrived or rented a travel router (mifi device) with SIM from Changi Airport. I skipped the rented travel router as I had my own and the rental unit was not worth the cost.

This time around, I also had to factor in my telco’s own offering of 4G roaming data. It has taken local telcos several years to partner foreign telcos to offer seamless roaming data. However, I quickly rejected my telco’s offering because the convenience did not outweigh the cost. I had to pay SGD40 for 2GB of data in one bundle or SGD50 for 3GB of data for another (see DataTravel Global).

I found one service at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands, Airport Telecom*, that offered 7GB of data for 35 euros (about SGD56). While this cost more than my telco’s offerings, it had more benefits because I:

  1. Got my new local phone number in advance by email
  2. Planned to use the prepaid SIM in either a spare phone or mifi device to tether the data
  3. Wanted to share the data with my family members

*Side note: This store was located in Arrival Area 2 and located in a tight triangle of the I Amsterdam store and AKO bookstore. The former was useful for information and collecting my pre-ordered I Amsterdam card (GVB travel and museum entry); the latter was where I picked up other travel cards (GVB and train.)

Lyca mobile prepaid SIM package.

Getting a local phone number in advance was convenient for making calls while in Amsterdam. It lowered barriers if local contacts wished to call or text me. The image above was the package I collected– it had my name and number on it.

I initially planned on using a spare phone as a travel router by tethering data, but I also brought a mifi device along for the ride. The latter had a long-lasting battery, better range, and more security options. I could not make calls on it, but I found out how prompt the Dutch were via email.

I also found out that Dutch law enforces tethering to maintain competition between the telcos there. The sales representative was also very knowledgeable and helpful in setting up the connection.

I initially used the spare phone for setting up and transferred the SIM to the mifi device. The sales rep had ready-made slips of paper with APN settings for Lyca mobile:

  • APN: data.lycamobile.nl
  • Username: lmnl
  • Password: plus
  • Note: Turn on data roaming

In hindsight, I was glad I took the Lyca prepaid SIM and mifi option.

I was in Amsterdam for a week and on the second-last day I received a text notification that my family had used 80% of our data. If I had gone with either of my telco’s plans, I would have run out of data and started paying per MB roaming prices.

We were able to quickly get directions, translations, and information on the go. What modern traveller does not need to do this? While most places we visited offered free wifi, those connections were never as reliable as the mifi.

If I could do something different it would have been to order a local SIM and have it sent to a local address. Why? This cost even less and I already had the address of the apartment I was staying at.

I found out via a wiki that free prepaid SIMs are typically mailed to local addresses. I calculated that the equivalent of my 7GB data plan could have cost just 25 euros (SGD40) instead of 35 euros if I had done this. The cons of doing this are not having a prepaid SIM enroute to the apartment and having to set everything up myself. The extra 10 euros I paid was a convenience and comfort fee!

There is much and varied planning that must happen before going on a trip. My telco tried to simplify one component, but a bit of homework about local offerings saved me money and helped me learn more about the way other systems do things. I got to travel before I travelled.

I am recreating some of my favourite image quotes I created some time ago. This time I use Pablo by Buffer and indicate attribution and CC license.

If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow. -- John Dewey

Dewey’s quote has been my mantra. As a teacher educator, I am acutely aware that teachers tend to teach the way they are taught.

If I do not model alternative and progressive ways to not just teach but also educate, they are not as likely to do differently for the good of our learners.

Note: I am on vacation with my family. However, I am keeping up my blog-reflection-a-day habit by scheduling a thought a day. I hope this shows that reflections do not have to be arduous to provoke thought or seed learning.

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