Another day in the Summer of Antwerp

Antwerp is… just wow.

I know Europe sounds like a smorgasbord of Paris, Barcelona and London, but it is not.
Paris, and I should know, can not offer you… experiences. It offers sights, and moments of ‘oh my god I’m in Paris’, but you will always be mere spectator. Paris does not need you and it lets you know it, even as you’re stepping on your last metro to the airport, it will say ‘Attention a la marche’ mechanically for what is not not only the umpteenth time, but once more in an infinite series of times to come. Paris, in short, makes for great pictures of places half the planet has visited before you, and will do so long after you’re gone. (and Barcelona is really just a souvenir shop of tapas and… did I say tapas already?)

Antwerp, on the other hand, is made of you, and me, and it will call for your participation on a daily basis. Zomer van Antwerpen (Summer of Antwerp) does not lay out iron towers for you to wait in line and climb. It builds hippie communes in the woods right outside the centre, and says ‘Hey guys, we sort of patched together these hammocks, wooden platforms, benches and a bar out of re-used scrap. And, we thought you might be hungry too, so we’ve got this little volunteer kitchen going with world food at prices even your mom can’t compete with. And you know what would make it even cooler? If you’d bring some picnic cloth or wine or mainly, yourself and your friends’. And so we do. Every summer. We, heart-feltly cool people of Antwerp, show up to enjoy each other’s company. It just so happens the city of Antwerp built us a few circus tents and fireplaces and trade-as-you-wish book shelves.

The rest… is familiar.
Raph shows up at my door. I jump in his car. I throw his USB stick somewhere to the back of the car and plug in my iPhone. Today, Frightened Rabbits – The Modern Leper, so loud we couldn’t even hear ourselves honk. Park the car on the river side where every year, the Cirque du Soleil swings by for chocolate and giggles. We go into town.

We open random travel guides at random pages at the Fnac, and discuss the merits of Cuzco over Hanoi. We toy around with speakers on demo and comment a Philip Roth book or two. We’ll grab a sandwich at Panos and mention, for the 100th time, that we really should find an even cooler place to lunch, ever since the too-good-to-be-true Vapiano chain closed its Antwerp branch, for reasons beyond our comprehension; it was always packed with kindred souls.

We’ll walk down the antiquaries street and today, discovered an art gallery slash french cuisine slash limited fashion store slash music shop slash we’re-psyched-you-love-it-but-please,-no-pictures-locale. We nod in complicity and ambulate around the place in childlike wonder. Raph or I or both will shout across the store once more that Antwerp just doesn’t compare, and 8 minutes of hopping later, Raph will say ‘On bouge mec?’, and I’ll say ‘yep, let’s roll’, and onwards we go. Enter the Diesel store, even though even their armbands are beyond our budget and joke about how making you feel inferior is part of the clerk’s job description. We’ll still flip a price tag or two just to fuel our jokes. On and on, we’ll explore our own city in a non-stop mixture of familiarity and incomprehensible surprise. Either the walls move when we’re not looking, or this city is just alive in ways we can’t keep up with. Three stores later, Raph correctly points out we’re not in a buying mood at all, sales or no sales. I’ll say ‘okay sure, let’s hit Zomerbar, but first I need to get my glasses tended to’.

We’ll march over to Theo, the Belgian brand of glasses deluxe, where, though I didn’t buy mine at their store nor did the previous glassmaker fit my lenses particularly well into the frame (or so Theo’s friendly clerk will point out, with a sigh reserved for the love of craftsmanship and the pain of lack thereof) they will happily fix me up. The lady will first look at me, front and back, to determine just how well my glasses currently fit me. Then she’ll remove them from my head (a sensory experience I only otherwise experience when a girl takes them off from me in bed), and head back behind the counter where she will minutiously proceed to shape them back to perfection like the gentlest of chiropractors. She will charge me nothing for it. Why would she. We’ve just collectively made the realm of designerly glasses a better place. It’s a win-win-win situation, an outcome embedded in the blueprint of this town’s psyche. On to the Zomerbar.

We’ll order fresh mint tee, then fancy the day’s penne dish with salmon sauce, then I’ll ask for a plate with just bread and humus, though neither figure on the day’s menu, and get charged ridiculously symbolic prices for it, then come back for a coconut lemongrass curry as I strike up a conversation with the guy that I mistook for last night’s guy, but no, apparently ‘tapas guy’ only comes in at 21.00.

Then back to the hammocks for more semi-siestas, in between hilarious statements (not unlike our facebook statuses) and barely audible music from my iPhone that I craftily got to hold steady on a randomly cut tree trunk. It is not a chair. It is not a table either. It is, along with the cushion-filled potatoe bag currently serving as a nearby kid’s toy, a something-something that the city of Antwerp and the organizers of Zomerbar must have considered ‘perhaps fun to have lying around’, for purposes later to be defined by the people of Antwerp themselves. In Paris, such potato bag would come labeled as ‘Ceci n’est pas fait pour s’asseoir dessus’, whereas in Antwerp, the chief commander of potato bag utilization is a 6 year old with endearing ADHD, otherwise referred to as ‘Kids who like to play extra long’ here where I grew up.

We’ll stay long enough to be part of the regular crowd, agree that the dreadlocked bartender is cute as fuck, comment once more that was makes this place truly magical, is the fact that people age 65 or 15 show up and find each other’s presence ‘cool’. And remember how last night, we stroke up a conversation with this 50-something teacher who overheard our french and toasted hers and her husband + friends couple mojitos to our youth, and how we wondered just how much of our outspoken sexual and depraved chat she just understood. Ponder that for a minute, then pick up the conversation again right where we left it, on the subject of male jealousy and the scenario’s in which breaking a barstool on somebody’s back is a respectful act of communication, really. Then too, we might feel like moving ventures, and at my request, Raph will scout the internet on his blackberry (which I christened ‘the fat poo of a nigger’ for its black ugliness), and conclude that there doesn’t seem to be much playing at the cinemas tonight. But we’re in doubt.

And we do feel like being entertained. So we’ll drive right back up in the car and drive home so he could grab his macbook so we could go online so we could watch trailers of movies to watch. 20 minutes later, all in his car, Natasha, we’ll watch an episode of The Office, the one where Dwight gives a Mussolini-like speech to an audience of salesmen. Then we’ll lie comatose in his car some more, to the soundtrack of Mumford and Sons. Then hunger will strike, and I’ll explain that I’m in dire need of Red Bulls (plural), because my last night’s experiment of sleeping in his car so as not to wake up my mom did not afford me much sleep (though fantastic dreams).

Another ten more minutes of comatose staring at the dashboard windows and we’ll make a snap decision. We should eat healthy, dismissing the Quick hamburger joint nearby. We used to hang there all the time, the perfect meeting point at walking distance from his and my house. Sometimes bring a guitar, sometimes just for girl talk. But hey, we’re hungry for healthy stuff, and it doesn’t take long to happily admit that, again, no one will better cater to our needs than the Zomerbar.

Drive back up there, park the car, walk inside, wait in line, get the evening’s dish, canteen style, join more strangers at a table, get called up by his parents, they’re here too, near the bar. Come by, say hi, they came with his little cousin, who Raph swears she’ll soon break hearts, and I think ‘wow, three generations at one table’. And as if to drive the point further, his father laughingly announces that Raph’s grandma, age 96, recently decided she’d like to find herself a new lover. (I am not making this up). Off we go. To the Dansing Chocolate, our favourite cafe.

We still haven’t seen the end of Knocked Up (the movie we started watching last night in his car until I dozed off and told him to just leave me on the backseat with his car’s keys, and we’ll meet again in the morning.) We show up at the cafe after I grabbed a Red Bull at the Pakistani shop and search for table nearby an electricity plug. Open up the MacBook, let Raph order a beer and start the movie again. Watch it some more until a deliriously hot girl enters the cafe. It is God’s obscene tease. Raph tires of the movie and I say ‘then let’s move cuz I’m cold at this table’ and sit ourselves down so that I could afford a better view. Another round of mint thee and we talk of women. Drinks were had. I saw panties. Had to drink my mint thee with my eyes covered so as not to stare. They left. We stayed some more. I’d accentuate the often hilarious punchlines we nailed by slamming my fist on the table. Then go get another handful of M&M’s from the counter. Off we go.

Back to the car. Another round of The Modern Leper, so loud… so good. We’re almost home. I quickly tune in The Killer’s – Read my mind. We arrive home but I insist Raph parks a bit further away so as not to make my dog bark as I segue into the When you were young. We shout the lyrics at the top of our lungs and agree to meet at 10 AM at the tram stop tomorrow morning. We’re taking the same train to Delft. He’s visiting Monique, my former accomplice in lingerie and sex talk, and now Raph’s. As for me… another day, another town. I’ve got stuff to do in every European country anyway. And I come online to find Gilberto on Gchat, my mexican hombre who got a grant to study in NYC. I’ll come visit. Right now, I need to sleep. It’s just another day Antwerp.

3.53 AM.

—Originally posted on Facebook on the 18th of July 2010


Tal’s latest longreads

How Google builds its maps—and what it means for the future of everything.
An exclusive look inside Ground Truth, the secretive program to build the world’s best accurate maps. (via Alberto Romero)

How Apple and Amazon security flaws led to my epic hacking
A writer loses everything on his iPhone, his iPad and his Mac—including all of the photos from the first year and a half of his daughter’s life—after a hacker infiltrates his Amazon, Apple, Gmail and Twitter accounts.

A man walks into a bank
Patrick Combs deposits a junk-mail cheque for $95,000 – for a joke. The bank actually cashes it.

Global copycats: the sincerest form of flattery
A profile of Oliver Samwer and his web copycat factory in Berlin, which specializes in building knockoff websites inspired by growing American startups—then, sometimes, selling them back to the original company

What’s so bad about a boy who wants to wear a dress?
On gender-variant kids, and their parents.

The Disappeared
How the fatwa changed the life of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses.

What Happened to Diaspora, the ‘Facebook Killer’?
It’s Complicated.

The kindness of beasts
Are animals capable of moral behaviour?

Crushing Debt Drove Me to Kosovo — And Then to Iraq
A man with $90,000 in debt makes some hard decisions about his life—starting with a trip to Kosovo for an IT job.

Obama’s Way
Lewis follows the president for six months—joining him for basketball pickup games, a trip on Air Force One, and inside a decision on how to handle Libya.

How Much Tech Can One City Take?
San Francisco struggles for its soul.

Reinsurers and the God clause
On the insurer’s insurer and calculating the risk of modern catastrophe.

Tal’s latest longreads

Professors Without Borders
How Udacity, Coursera and other online universities are changing the way we learn—and changing who has access to higher education.

I Used to Love Her, But I Had to Flee Her
The psychic benefits of leaving New York city.

Hearing the Voice of God
A look at anthropologist Tanya Lurhmann, and on how it is possible for people to experience the voice of a higher being.

The Audition
On a percussionist’s nerve-wracking audition for the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Into the light
After losing his sight at age 3, Michael May went on to become the first blind CIA agent, set a world record for downhill skiing, and start a successful Silicon Valley company. Then he got the chance to see again.

Our Billionaire Philanthropists
Bill Gates and George Soros are handing out billions, but there are downsides to foundation giving.

On Seeing a Sex Surrogate
The story of a man with polio dealing with his sexual desire and his perceieved physical and romantic inadequacy.

Vanishing Voices
There are roughly 7,000 languages in the world, but 78 percent of the world’s population only speaks the 85 largest languages. Thousands of languages are on the edge of disappearing.

The Busy Trap
Almost everyone I know is busy. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this; it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

Girls Love Me
On the next Justin Bieber, 16-year-old Austin Mahone, and how pop stars are made.

The Battle Over Climate Science
Inside the increasingly hostile global warming debate. (MUST READ)

Inbox Zero Tactics

Was asked what my zero-inbox method is (from years of fine tuning).
Short story:
1. Auto-archive filter&label combo
2. Enable Send&Archive + Auto-advance to next email
3. Periodically archive those sticky unanswered emails at the bottom.

Detailed method below:

Ah, you want to tackle ye old gmail beast…
Basically, the aim is to make your inbox a) personal and b) a to-do list. None of that ‘automated confirmation mail’ crap that you neither care about nor can do much with.

Here’s my list of tactics:

1. Filter filter filter.
The most useful filter/label combo I use is called ‘Automated mails’. Everything from Amazon to iTunes to any sort of email update/newsletter goes there. Filter actions are ‘archive (skip the inbox) and label ‘automated mails’. Also, I make sure to put all my labels ‘below the fold’ (the little ‘more’ in the left column in gmail). Avoids unnecessary distraction.
—This principle can be expanded to other labels like ‘Travel stuff’ (ryanair-type itinerary emails), etc.

2. Archive archive archive
a) Enable ‘Send&Archive’ in your gmail labs settings.
This is the 2n biggest tactic. Everything in your inbox, you answer and archive at once. Even if you expect a reply. Let that reply take care of coming back to your inbox. Your job is to archive everything out of sight.
b) Enable ‘Auto-advance’ in labs and set to ‘next email’. That lets me start at the bottom of my inbox, reply, jump to next, reply, just to next, archiving my way to the top. By the time you’re done, everything’s gone

3. Once you’ve got these 2 steps down, you’ll notice there’s a kind of ‘sediment’ of mails that just stick at the bottom. Stuff you don’t quite get around answering but don’t wanna archive out of sight yet. That’s okay for a while (sometimes you’re just busy), but if you see they just stay there forever, take a deep breath and archive them too. Trust in your ability to search and find them back should you one day wake up at 3 AM with an urge to answer them after all.

That’s pretty much it. Start with zero-tolerance filters (until you only get emails in your inbox from people you care about) and use the send&archive button till kingdom comes.

Tal’s latest longreads

Guess What’s Cooking in the Garage
The next big breakthrough in synthetic biology just might come from an amateur scientist

What Facebook Knows
The company’s social scientists are hunting for insights about human behavior.

Welcome to America, Please Be On Time
What guide books tell foreign visitors to the U.S.

The Cult of Smartness
How Meritocracy Is Failing America

The Many Pivots Of
How a livecam show became home to video gaming superstars

Letter to Emily White at NPR: All Songs Considered
A professional musician calls for a rethinking of how we value (and pay) artists in the digital era.

How Many Stephen Colberts Are There?
There used to be just two Stephen Colberts, and they were hard enough to distinguish. The main difference was that one thought the other was an idiot.

Raph and Tal’s Choice – Best of Antwerp

St Anna tunnel
‘t Steen
Antwerp Zoo
Central Station
Hendrik Conscienceplein
MAS (Museum Aan de Stroom)
Cartoons cinema
Rubens huis
Cogels Osylei
Het Elfde Gebod

De Meir

Nul sterren pension
Enich Anders

Dansing Chocola
De Muze
Kaptein Zeppos
‘t Zeezicht
Cafe Stanley
Beni Falafel
Bar Italia
Momade cupcakes
Desiré de Lille
Grand Café Horta
Cafe internazionale
Patine wijnbistro
Civilta Del Bere

‘t Stad Leest
TseTse comics
Chocolatier Goossens


Selected Longreads

I can’t remember how I discovered but I fell in love.
Then came Instapaper, and, and before long, I started mailing my colleagues the best longreads I came across every few weeks.
I’ll start posting them here too, but let’s catch up first, shall we?

How companies learn your secrets
The power of habits in guiding our behavior—and how companies like Target have used customer data to create new buying habits

Man as machine
The early days of robots. The Age of Enlightenment inspired inventors like Jacques de Vaucanson to create ever more realistic machines that mimicked human behavior

Quentin Rowan, a.k.a. Q. R. Markham, Plagiarism Addict
How Quentin Rowan went from aspiring writer to serial plagiarist—and how everything unraveled after the publication of his spy novel, Assassin of Secrets

The caging of America
Why do we lock up so many people?

The secret life of bees
The world’s leading expert on bee behavior discovers the secrets of decision-making in a swarm

Those fabulous confabs
Smart talk has never been such a valuable commodity. It’s spawned conferences like TED, Davos, and now a slew of upstart competitors.
It has made the eighteen‑minute TED lecture a viral online phenomenon. But are we running out of things to say?

Twitter, the startup that wouldn’t die
Inside CEO Dick Costolo’s efforts to perfect the company’s revenue model and compete with Google and Facebook for ad dollars

The zen of Woody Allen
The three N’s so often used to describe the public Allen are nebbishy, nervous and neurotic. But the contrast between the Woody character and the “real” Allen is never more in focus than when he’s on the set, directing.

How one response to a Reddit query became a big budget flick
James Erwin responded to a Reddit thread wondering what would happen if the U.S. Marines battled the Roman Empire.

Where’s _why?
What happened when one of the world’s most unusual, and beloved, computer programmers disappeared.

The grandmaster experiment 
How did one family produce three of the most successful female chess champions ever?

Lost in space
What really happened to Russia’s missing cosmonauts? An incredible tale of space hacking, espionage and death in the lonely reaches of space.

Six degrees of aggregation
How the Huffington Post ate the internet

Just one more game…
Angry Birds, Farmville And Other Hyperaddictive ‘Stupid Games’

World War 3.0
In the battles of SOPA and PIPA, who should control the Internet?

Future tech stars, step forward
What does it take to get a tech startup funded? Inside the competitive selection process for one incubator in New York.

Paintballing with Hezbollah
Four Western journalists and a former Army Ranger-turned-counterinsurgency expert arrange a paintball game with members of the Shiite militant group, with the hopes of learning more about what motivates them.

How Yahoo killed Flickr and lost the Internet
This is the story of Flickr. And how Yahoo bought it and murdered it and screwed itself out of relevance along the way.

‘I was there’: On Kurt Vonnegut
The incredible life and work of writer Kurt Vonnegut.

Get Rich University
There are no walls between Stanford and Silicon Valley. Should there be?

Can a better vibrator inspire an age of great American sex?
Sex toys have transformed into sophisticated and well-designed gadgets that take their inspiration from Apple not Hustler. But one company has a bigger hope: that a better machine could mean better sex for a repressed nation.

Not nice
Maurice Sendak and the perils of childhood

How Goldman Sachs blew the Facebook IPO
The inside story of the Facebook showdown reveals a lot about the relative status of Wall Street banks in Silicon Valley these days. And it also reveals a lot about Facebook.

An inside look at the surprisingly violent quidditch world cup
The Quidditch World Cup sounds dorky, and make no mistake: it is. But these sorcery-loving Harry Potter fans play pretty rough.

How geniuses think
How do geniuses come up with ideas? What is common to the thinking style that produced “Mona Lisa,” as well as the one that spawned the theory of relativity?

Machine Politics
George Hotz, the man who started the hacker wars. Where did our love go?
The partners behind a one-time “next big thing” go to South by Southwest to win back the adoration of the tech world–and figure out how to make their partnership work.

In Google’s moon race, teams and the X Prize Foundation face a reckoning
The future is way behind schedule.

The Maturation of the Billionaire Boy-Man
Incredibly, Mark Zuckerberg has grown up to become an ace CEO—one whose way of thinking might drive Wall Street nuts.