Markets in Leeuwarden

Having lived in Leeuwarden for a few months now, it’s interesting to compare the availability of shops and markets in Leeuwarden to what we’ve been used to in Groningen. It’s a sharp contrast, I can tell you. I already knew that Groningen had more variety in shops available, and more specific shops for certain things than Leeuwarden, so we were prepared for that lack when we moved over here. A thing we absolutely weren’t prepared for, however, was the lack of quality in the market.

Let me start off by saying that the market in the Vismarkt in Groningen on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays is absolutely wonderful. We did so much of our shopping there, and it was a source of high-quality, low-cost groceries. The potato stall is great, the chicken stall offers cheap chicken that are almost always pan-ready, and the various vegetable stalls always have good deals ready. In fact, the fish stalls were the only stalls we were a little hesitant about.

So, to us, that set the standard for market shopping, and it’s what we expected from the market in Leeuwarden. Now, we knew that it would be a smaller market for a smaller region, but given how much focus on agrarian business Friesland has, we did have some expectations. Oddly enough, despite the pride the locals have in Frisia, the quality is not what we expected at all. There’s a lot of marketing of local and organic products, with Frisian flags proudly displayed as a mark of quality, but oddly enough we end up paying much more for much less quality than we received in Groningen. Even the organic, local chicken stall (the only one in the market!) sells small fillets that need a lot of trimming for almost 1.5–2 times the price of the regular chicken stall in Groningen.

Now, we haven’t checked all the vegetable stalls in the market yet, but again many market themselves as local and organic, which mostly seems like a way to just up the price. The large stall we go to has decent prices, but the quality of their vegetables often doesn’t compare to what we had in Groningen. As an example, pretty much every single time, the bell peppers have rot in them, and we have to spend some time fishing out bell peppers without it. Now, to be fair, their pricing is good, and they do have good deals every week. One of our favorite things in that stall is that they sell red chillis by the bag for hardly anything.

A bizarre lack in the market is a butcher’s—there is just no meat stall at all. Now, there’s sausage stalls, and there’s a lunch meat stall, but no full-on butchers. Most people will refer you to a butcher shop down the street, which again fits the theme: high-priced meats marketed as local and organic, yet the quality isn’t outstanding (i.e. doesn’t seem the match the pricing). As a small side-note, we do also miss the potato stall from the Groningen market, but that did seem like a bit of a luxury.

To be fair, one thing that the Leeuwarden market does excel at is the cheeses. I’m not big on cheese, but my wife is; so we do end up buying a lot of cheese. And to be fair, the quality of cheese here is high, the price is quite nice, and the variety of cheeses is good too.

Now, having said this about the market offers, I do have to mention that the service for each of these is very friendly. We’ve always been welcomed, and the stall workers try their best to establish rapport and to build relationships. We suspect that the reason for the pricing is that there’s just less competition here. In Groningen, there were multiple stalls for every single product, so if they wanted to draw you in as a customer, they just had to offer to good service. Over here, what other choice do you have? Buy at stall X, or go to the supermarket. So, there’s no incentive to improve the wares.

To leave you with a good recommendation, though: look for Hassan’s Feinkost at the corner of the market. It’s run by a German fellow who offers good Turkish foods for decent prices, and his service is top-notch.

Excel is not a database

At work, I constantly see people use Excel for things other than spreadsheets. In fact, it’s main use at my job is as a database program; there’s lists of students, lists of grades, group lists, staff addresses, and even tables of standard e-mail responses. One annual task of the committee I chair is that we formally appoint staff members as examiners (giving them the legal right to issue grades to students), and—I kid you not—the standard format for that is a Word .docx file. A list in Word of over 150 colleagues, listing a limited and standardized set of data.

This habit, in my opinion, is a typical example of the saying “to a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” In this case, people know Excel, and have used it before, so that’s what they use to keep these lists. Now, in the previous academies I’ve worked for, this approach was serviceable. Don’t get me wrong: you can absolutely make Excel do this for you. You can adjust formats, and with a little coding or clever use of Excel validation and HLOOKUP/VLOOKUP functions you can get quite a bit done. However, I see many of my colleagues who have limited knowledge of Excel (and why should they? Often, they don’t need anything beyond a table), so without using this workarounds to have Excel function as a database, I frequently see lots of copy-pasting, manual re-entry of data, or manual formatting to reach the desired result. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen people copy pasting Excel data from one workbook to another, so that they can manually reformat the data to fit something that they wanted to print.

I myself have worked like this as well. When I just started working as an English lecturer during my MA degree, I saw that my fellow lecturers were all sending grades in a different way to the coordinator. One was making an Excel list using period a comma for the decimal marker (the correct way in Dutch number formatting), while others used commas periods. Yet another just mailed a little list to the coordinator, based on the grades they’d scribbled down on a piece of paper. You can imagine how many mistakes would be made transcribing one to the other, not to mention the work the coordinator had manually reformatting this. So, I made a simple spreadsheet that everybody could access, which had some basic data validation to ensure everybody filled in their grades in the same way. It also solved another issue, because it required everybody to fill in the points students scored, so we weren’t having the usual issue where people rounded grades differently, or changed the way they applied guess corrections for multiple choice, and so on.

Swiftly, this spreadsheet started being used for more things. Random colors started appearing as people marked status changes for students, and comments would start appearing after columns. Also, the spreadsheat kept breaking—colleagues would want to manually adjust this or that, because “it wasn’t calculating the average correctly”, or they would insert columns or new students (despite the groups being generated from those students registered correctly). In short, I learned through experience what people trained in software development already know: your design works until its first encounter with a user. So, I learned about locking cells and password protecting sheets. The last important lesson I learned from that sheet, was that I couldn’t assume people were willing to learn. I’d set it up with the intention that this was a relatively simple sheet, that with around thirty minutes of looking it through could be used and maintained by anybody; after all, it was just a little Excel sheet—not so difficult, right? That’s when I learned that making the sheet had made me into the admin of it, year after year. My colleagues weren’t particularly interested in learning how to better use the programs they were using, because they could already get the output they needed from it. Plus, the urgent matters of the day were so distracting, that they didn’t feel like they could spend the time to learn a new skill, despite that new skill potentially saving them hours and hours down the line.

Now, in some of my old positions, using Excel in ways it was not designed to be used didn’t cause that many issues (nor does it do to this day). A person typing up a quick list in Excel still reaches their end goal. An administrative support worker copy-pasting things from one list to another to edit something doesn’t spend too much time if the whole program has only around 500 students. My new academy, however, has over 3000 students, and when I review the Excel files that people use as databases, it’s just slow. Scrolling down it takes time, and with that number of students, it’s also not handy trying to filter out certain things.

So, fortunately, being the Chair of my committee (and a stubborn one at that), I’m moving us over to an actual database for registration. Much like Excel, when I was a starting lecturer, I don’t actually know how to use Access right now. To me, that’s a good thing—I just love learning, and this is a good opportunity to learn a new thing that will have a practical and positive effect on work. I’m also excited to implement this change, and to help my colleagues save time. I’m convinced this will make processes move more quickly, and I can’t wait to measure the improvement.

Linux Milestone?

I feel like I’ve passed some kind of Linux milestone today. I was reading up on i3wm configurations, and the unique situation that I have where I want to share a single configuration between a desktop environment with two screens, and a laptop which may be plugged into an external screen. I’ve been meaning to further configure this situation, and make it a little more flexible. I managed to get that working in an XMonad install, since you program that in Haskell and so have some more flexibility than i3wm’s configuration gives you, but doing the same in i3wm is still a little tricky.

The key difference is that i3wm is configured via its own configuration syntax. That makes it easier to configure for somebody who isn’t familiar or comfortable with programming, so it becomes more accessible. The natural trade-off, however, is that it becomes less flexible in what it can do for the user. XMonad, however, essentially is just a framework for a window manager, and you, the user, have to code everything you want in Haskell. Great for customization, but not so good for accessibility for new users. This is also the main reason I didn’t go far in it, because I also don’t know how to program in Haskell!

In any case, in XMonad I managed to get a simple script working that scanned what my setup was—how many monitors, what resolutions, and so on—and adjusted window sizes based on that. In i3wm, however, that information is loaded up when i3wm starts, and so it’s not a thing you can easily do on the fly. So, I’m searching on DuckDuckGo to see if anybody’s solved this problem (after all, why reinvent the wheel here?). I found a post where somebody hacked together a Python 3 script to edit his configurations (sound familiar?) and I had An Opinion. Before, I tended to read and absorb, assuming that the poster would have a good idea. Now, though, I realized I had solved the problem in a way that I felt was more efficient.

To me, that’s always been a good sign of learning something: realizing that you’ve solved something; recognising a moment where you can help somebody else make things better. I’ve never considered myself a very technical person (a consequence, I believe, of knowing people who work in IT professions, and comparing myself to what they know and can do), but this was the first time I felt like an amateur versus a person just hoping not to screw up their install whenever they do something.

Linux Upskill Challenge

A week ago, I started with something called the Linux Upskill Challenge. It’s a monthly set of lessons posted by /u/snori74 (as far as I am aware, not the Icelandic poet come back to life with a passion for Linux). The set of lessons are to teach you about being the administration of a Linux server, with practical challenges. You start off by getting a server online (as suggested by /u/snori74, I chose a $5 server package), and weekday-by-weekday, there are short lessons on how commandline administration of the server.

I figure that, by now, I can call myself an average Linux user: I know enough to solve quite a few problems by myself and I know enough to search for the right solutions to my issues; however, I’m also clearly not to the level of the Linux users who will program their own widget to create an alternative to this or that program that they have an issue with. This program has really worked for me so far. I know enough to easily progress through the first couple of lessons, and yet each had really new information for me in the extensions.

I can really recommend it to anyone that wants to learn a little more about Linux.