Published on: 05 April 2018
Written by: Bram van Asseldonk
Once again it’s time for a new AI* interview, this time I had the honour to sit down with the one and only Nick Stracke. Before we start the interview, we talk a bit about what music we enjoy. I ask Nick what song is his favourite and put it on in the background. Accompanied by tunes of ‘Seeds of Change’ by Dawn Wall we begin.
We have the music, so let’s begin. Can you tell us something about yourself?
I never really think about how to describe myself. Let’s just start with my age. I’m 21 years old. I’m born in Menden, which is at the top of Sauerland. People might know the Sauerland from the Winterberg. I live really at the beginning of Sauerland. So much that the neighbouring city is located in the Ruhrgebiet. It’s about half an hour away from Dortmund and it’s like two hours away from Nijmegen by car.
You’ve lived there all your life and then moved to Nijmegen?
Maybe I should mention for the interview, I spent a year in Canada after high school. I did work and travel. After high school I had no idea what to study and I didn’t want to be someone who just studies something for the sake of studying something. I felt like traveling, but you can’t work and travel everywhere, so I looked up countries. I wanted to go with a friend initially. Just so I wasn’t alone. He wanted to go to new Zealand. I wanted to go to Canada. When we looked it up how easy it was to get work in those countries, it seemed like a lot of people go to New Zealand. It’s kind of mainstream, so then we decided to go to Canada.
So you spend a year in Canada?
Almost. I think it was a bit more than 11 months.
And then you travelled crisscross Canada, or did you stay at one city?
I Landed in Vancouver, which is like in British Colombia, on the west side near the pacific. I stayed there for the first month and then moved to Vancouver island, which is like a small island before it. The idea was to eventually find work, because I had only so much money and I actually had to work, cause I didn’t have enough money to be able to travel and not work for an entire year.
So first I did woofing. With woofing you work for someone for cost and a place to stay. They feed you and you can sleep there. We ended up at some small farm where others could also sleep. Kind of like a farm and B&B. We went there in the fall. I arrived in late summer, but first stayed in Vancouver for a bit. So it was around fall when I ended up on the farm.
What I did there was basically just cut wood all day and have fun. It was really cool. They had a chainsaw and the owner taught us how to use it. They also had a big tractor with a shovel on the front. The owner was the biggest stoner ever. He was super chill and just gave us the keys to the truck. So we drove with the biggest truck through the forest, looking for fallen trees, cause we were not allowed to cut any growing trees. Once we had found one, we would put steel cables around it and pull it out of the woods to cut it up. Cutting wood was one of the best things to do. It was almost like meditation. And it really helps growing muscles as well. You would think using a chainsaw makes things easy, but you really need quite some strength to handle the chainsaw. It’s heavy and you stand in awkward positions.
So to continue, we stayed there for the fall, during the winter we stayed at a ski resort as dishwashers. One thing that bothered me was that I never went skiing with my family and I had always wanted to learn how to snowboard. So when I found a job at the ski resort, by working there you would get a free ski pass. There I learned how to snowboard. I ended up staying there throughout the entire winter and a bit of spring. By then I had saved enough money to buy a car.
Wait, you bought a car?
Yeah, I actually bought a car. With that car I travelled from coast to coast and back. I did it partially on my own and partially with strangers. I would just put up a message in a Facebook group stating when I would leave and from where and then strangers could join. It was really cool. My dad also visited me for a few weeks. We travelled together. And my cousin visited for a while as well. I transformed my van to a sleeping van. I build a frame with a mattress on top so I could store stuff under it. Then I took out the backseats and placed the frame in the car. I was so proud when I build that. And it made traveling so cheap. I only had to pay for gas and food. That’s all you need.
Initially you wanted to go with your friend right?
Yeah, so what happened was, we both started working at the ski resort. Only he didn’t really like it much and I was having a blast. From the start we had agreed that we would both do what we liked doing and if that wasn’t the same, we wouldn’t hate each other for it. We could have diverging interests. So he did his own thing and I did mine. It wasn’t a problem, once we were both back, we were still friends. He ended up buying his own car as well, but he came back about a month earlier.
So did you meet a lot of people on your travels?
Yes! And I still have contact with some of them. I’m actually thinking about doing something similar in a different country. It can be scary though, since you’re all on your own. Especially since there is no guarantee that you will find a job. Or it can be really hard to find accommodation since you’re a stranger from another country and you have no ties to that country. So why would anyone give you a room?
Did you have troubles with that?
No, for me everything worked out fine. But it’s like, people in Canada are super nice. At the very beginning I was hitchhiking with my friend and it was around 4 p.m. in the afternoon. A mother picked us up with her daughter, who was a couple of years younger than us. While she was driving, she asked us if we had a place to stay for the night yet. So we said we hadn’t. She then proceeded to ask us if we wanted to stay at her place! So of course we said yes. And it was really cool, because this happened at Vancouver Island, which is an island, but she lived on a very small island near Vancouver Island. Only like a hundred people live on that island. So we took the ferry to her island and she bought some nice fish and cooked it for us. It still feels so weird, you don’t know the person and you just spend the night there. I mean, I usually trust people, maybe more than I should. But people in Canada do it too, they let strangers sleep in their house. They don’t even check on your or anything, they just trust you.
So do you feel that this experience has changed who you are as a person?
I’ve asked myself this question, but I’m not sure actually. I probably have become more self-sufficient. You know how to handle so many things when you come back. You feel you don’t need anyone anymore because you figured everything out for yourself. That’s why living alone in Nijmegen wasn’t hard for me. It was pretty much what I was used to anyways. But I don’t feel like it changed my perspective on the world or how I look at the people around me.
And then after your year in Canada you just decided you wanted to study AI?
So, often what happens when you travel, is that you spend a lot of time alone. You don’t have all your close friends around you, no family, and that leaves you with a lot of time for yourself. That sometimes can be boring, so you better have something to do. That’s why I started to look up study programmes. It just happened to be so that I was reading a lot about AI anyways. It just popped up on my newsfeed. I’ve always liked computers and I always have liked programming. So I was like, yeah, that’s cool. Then I started researching, started looking, is it actually possible to study this? Are there any study programmes for this? Because I had never heard of it. You can’t do a bachelor AI in Germany. No university offered it at that point in time. So I quickly found universities in the Netherlands. And then I found Nijmegen because it was closest to my home. I think the only two that I found and liked were Groningen and Nijmegen, but Groningen was just so f*cking far away. And that’s coming from me, someone who at the time just came back from Canada. Maybe it was because of that. I already spend quite some time far away, maybe it was good to just stay a bit closer for a while. Also because practicalities like moving are always easier when it’s closer.
So did you not find any other countries with AI programmes then? Or did you just not want to go to those countries?
Good question. I’m not sure. I think that because I also wanted an English programme I found almost only Dutch universities. But maybe that was also partly because I didn’t want to move too far away. So I didn’t really look at other countries. And then there’s also the cost. Because university in Germany is literally for free. Once you go to a different country you have to pay tuition fees. So people already look weird at you when you tell them you want to study abroad. Here in the Netherlands I pay the same as a Dutch student, but if I wanted to go to the US for example, I would pay much more.
So you found out you wanted to do AI and you found out you wanted to study it in Nijmegen?
I didn’t mention it, but for me it was either AI or physics/engineering, that kind of stuff. In high school I did my major in physics and maths. I was really good at physics and I liked it, so I thought, maybe this is something I want to study. So what I did was, I applied in Nijmegen and to other German universities. One was some sort of physics degree, and another was more of an engineering degree. And in the Netherlands they start a month before the German schools start, which meant the orientation is also earlier. So when I got to the orientation week I still hadn’t made up my mind. I thought, maybe I’ll go to Germany, maybe I’ll stay here, I’ll just see how I like it during this week. And I happened to like it. I never ended up visiting either of the other studies anymore. I liked it here, I found friends and I got super lucky finding a room.
You got super lucky finding a room?
Yeah, because during the orientation week I didn’t have my own room yet. I looked at SSHN and registered, but my waiting time was way too short. So I was like, no this is never going to happen, I subscribed way too late. So instead I kept stalking Facebook whenever I could. I kept making posts and reacting whenever someone posted they had a room. So at one point a girl had just made a post. It was literally only one or two minutes old. So I thought to myself, this is my chance. I immediately texted her with my information and she immediately replied if I would like to come check out the room later that evening. So I went there and only one other girl showed up. I ended up getting that room. I’m still in that room. I know I got extremely lucky.
So you found your room during the orientation, and then moved in the week after?
Well actually no. I didn’t move in until the week after that. The week in between I stayed at Tommies place. He was my mentor and Daniel and I got to stay there until we could move into our own rooms. That was super chill.
So now we know how you ended up at AI. Can I just ask what during the orientation made you think “Yes, this is it!”?
First of all, I thought the programme was really cool. So I thought, if I like everything there, I’m just going to study there, because the programme seems cool. I really liked the city. You have the Waal and the Waal beaches and that stuff. That’s kind of cool. I found friends. I think it was mostly an overall nice experience, so I was like, might as well stay here. And during that time I was just really hyped for AI. I still thought physics was cool, but I really wanted to program stuff. During high school I taught myself how to program.
You taught yourself?
Yeah, we didn’t really have a course for it. I started quite early. There was no way to get it in a course, so I was like f*ck it, I’ll teach myself. I started out with some simple games. A friend of mine who is really smart started out with me. We were just going to see how far we could get by ourselves. Do you know Visual Basic? That’s how we started out, because it’s really easy to make a visual interface.
It would just start off with programmes where you press a button and then something happens. We would also program stupid viruses. Stuff that would keep shutting down your computer in .bat files. And then we would share those files on a chat programme similar to msn. Back then we were young, nobody knew what .bat files were so everyone just clicked it and all of a sudden half of your friend list was offline.
But we also did some more serious stuff. I even bought a book on C++, but at the time that was just too abstract for me. I did build a website. At the time my friends and I were into this MMORPG Metin2. It was a really shitty MMORPG, but we had a clan on there. So I created a website for our clan so we could communicate and that kind of stuff. It wasn’t anything fancy. Back then I didn’t know about databases, so all user information, when you logged in, would be stored in a simple text file. It wasn’t anything too complex or sophisticated.
And then during my last two years in high school I actually got to program for a course, but since I already knew a lot, it was kind of boring for me.
So we know about why you chose AI and why you chose Nijmegen. What I still miss, is something about your family situation.
Okay, so I’ve got a younger sister who is 19 years old, she will turn 20 on the 27th of February. And then I have an older sister, but she’s waaay older. That’s why I always have trouble remembering her age. She’s like 33 or something. Technically she is my half-sister. She always had to take care of us when we were younger and probably was annoyed by us.
We also used to have a cat, but we gave her to our grandparents. My parents are divorced and the cat used to stay at my dads place, since my mom wasn’t allowed to have pets in her apartment. So my dad and I took care of the cat. When he was at work and I came back from school, I would feed the cat and let her in and play with her, that kind of stuff. But when I was gone, and my dad still at work during the day, we couldn’t really take care of the cat anymore. Luckily my grandparents were really keen on her, so they were excited to take care of her for us. They still have her and are happy with her and feed her way to much. She’s gotten really spoiled.
Then I have another question, growing up, who was your hero?
Growing up I always thought spiderman was really cool. But I didn’t really have a real life hero. It might be a bit cheesy to say, but I am inspired by Elon Musk. I actually learned about Tesla really early on. I even read Elons biography. Nowadays he’s really well known, especially with the Falcon X. Back then that was less so. When they started production on their first electric car, I thought that was really cool. But when I shared it with my friends, they all thought it wouldn’t be successful. Still, I wouldn’t go as far as saying he is my hero. I don’t really think I ever had a real life person that I wanted to be. I think that most people had an idol that was an athlete, like a soccer player or something. But I never watched soccer. I played it, but that was just because I found it fun to do. I didn’t really watch it. So maybe that’s why I never really had a hero?
So you played soccer, do you still do any sports?
I used to work out a lot, before I broke my wrist. I used to go like three times a week. Then Dan introduced me to climbing. We have a climbing course every week that we join. Daniel goes bouldering quite often and occasionally I join him. But that’s still kind of new for me.
Do you have any other hobbies?
Yes! I got absolutely obsessed with cryptocurrencies last year. I even invested in it and it’s going quite well. I find it really nice to just learn about them though. I spend way to much time every day reading about what’s new and what’s going on. It’s really complicated, so it takes a lot of time. I always search for cryptocurrencies that I think are cool and just hope that other people will find it cool as well a few months later. Because then it becomes appreciated and it’s value rises, so that when I sell them, I make money. It just takes a lot of time.
We go a bit more into detail and have a laugh about dogecoin and garlicoin. I find out that Nick has invested in various different cryptocurrencies and really knows his stuff. But as much as we enjoy our dabbles about cryptocurrencies, it’s time to move on.
So Nick, how did you end up at CognAC?
I don’t think I have a very spectacular story for this. I joined after the CognAC board had a small talk during one of our first lectures. I already knew I wanted to do something next to my studies. I don’t think it’s a good idea to only focus on your studies. You should do something that makes you special, that helps you stand out, because in the end everybody is going to have a bachelor in AI. I thought CognAC would be a good way to do something extra, and that’s why I joined.
Were you familiar with the concept of a study association then? Because apparently it’s quite a Dutch concept.
It’s kind of weird, because we do have student associations, but I don’t know if we have anything like a study association. I always try to find something similar to it, but I’m not sure how to relate it to be honest. I know that my cousin who studies in Germany also has people that sell the books or collect old exams and stuff, but I don’t know if it’s a study association. So the answer to your question is probably “no” actually. But during the orientation you already get a bit of a feeling for it, and it’s not that expensive, so why wouldn’t you join? Even if it’s just for the books.
So I can imagine you mainly joined activities in your first year then? Given that you weren’t really familiar with the concept of a study association?
No, I immediately joined committees actually. I joined the study committee and the external committee in my first year. Unofficially I was also in the website committee, but back then the WebC was a bit dead. Originally I hadn’t signed up, since I already had signed up for two committees and I wasn’t sure how much time those were going to take up. But after a while I did want to be part of it. That’s when I texted Ysbrand who was the chair at the time. He added me to the group and everything. He also told my I should tell Djamari, but I never did end up telling Djamari. And then for this year I thought, okay now I want to join officially.
So what committees are you in this year?
This year I’m in the same committees, but I’m the chair of the SC. I was wondering, CognAC people seem to be really social, which is why we have all kinds of cool social activities, but why don’t we have more study related activities? As I already mentioned, I think it’s good to do stuff next to your studies. I’m always really impressed by people who have their own project they work on next to their studies. Especially if it’s because people just think it’s fun. So I decided that the SC would be my project. I really like that we had the GIT workshop. Sadly our LaTeX workshop was cancelled, but that will take place at some later point in time. I would love to do even more of these kinds of activities, especially because you can really help people with them. If you look at the first years programming workshops for example, people seem to really appreciate those.
So you are expanding the list of SC activities, what else are you working on?
Last year I actually created the study drive. I found it rather weird that that didn’t exist yet. My image of a study association was that it helped with the ordering of books and helped with finding old exams and stuff. But when I looked for it, I couldn’t find any old exams anywhere. There was nothing! So then I created the drive and it has already paid off, because last exam period I had some exams for which there were summaries in the drive. So I’m glad I created it.
With the WebC I’m working on the new frontend. Some of it you can already see, but I still want to update it. We also updated the framework and the security, but that meant that some systems had to be repaired. So I recently fixed the forgot password function. And I’m working on a system that allows the board to create new users.
With the XC I’m mainly focussing on the DotJ. We’re trying to build a website for that as well. We also had the idea of stickers and sticking those everywhere. So I just ordered those.
Oh, and one thing that has to go in the interview is the programming contest with Thalia! I just had a meeting with someone from Thalia this Monday and we were both really excited. It’s probably going to be in Mercator, because we can drink there. The guy of Thalia really stressed that there should be beer, which wasn’t what I originally had in mind. But then he explained what they usually do, which is build bots for games and drink every time your code doesn’t compile.
At this point I ask Nick if he has ever heard of the Ballmer peak. Nick looks puzzled, so I show him this: https://xkcd.com/323/. After a short laugh Nick continues.
Sadly they get their games from a site where they already have done most of them. So I had this farfetched idea of creating a command line RPG, where you would get a part of a story and then would get a short assignment, like implement a short piece of code. But we might try one of the games they haven’t done yet. Either way, it’s going to be cool. There’ll be beer, pizza and coding, what else could you want?
You’ve got a lot going on then. Any ideas as to why we chose you as an AI*?
I don’t know. You told me during the CognAC evening. But I had no idea. I was really surprised that I was the AI*. Nobody told me beforehand. I guess it’s because I’m a chair, that probably helps. And maybe because I’m in the DOTj subcommittee, where we were all super hyped for. And because of the WebC? I spent so much time on the website, it’s ridiculous. My girlfriend was getting mad at me for spending so much time on it. When I was working on the layout, it was my first time doing an entire layout. It was all new for me. So I was pretty slow and it took a lot of time. So during the evenings I would always spend my time thinking of how I could make it look nice. And my girlfriend would get mad at me, telling me to come to bed already and stop working on the website.
Hahaha, okay, that part we did not know about. But we did know you worked very hard on the website. Lennart praised you for your work in the DOTj, and Sanne joined in the hype because of everything you do with the SC. So once more, keep up the good work Nick!
At this point we have been talking for a little over an hour, so it’s time to quickly move on to a final round of more arbitrary questions.
Let’s start this round off with a dilemma on Tuesday. Given that you’re not originally from the Netherlands, would you rather spend the rest of your life in the Netherlands and not be allowed to visit other countries, or would you rather never be allowed back into the Netherlands?
I feel like I will let people down if I choose to never return to the Netherlands, but I would like to be able to travel everywhere else. I’m afraid that is going to be my choice. I just like traveling. The world is so big, I don’t want to stay at a single place. I’m not even sure if I want to do my masters here. People do things differently in different countries. It’s nice to experience that.
So do you also want to go abroad for half a year then?
At first I was really hyped to go to Japan for half a year. But then I talked to Remi about it and she said she really couldn’t advise it for a bachelor student. They just don’t have many courses in English. So then I kinda forgot about it for a while, and then at some point I was like, maybe I should look into this again. I also considered going to China, but this was after the deadline had passed. So I e-mailed Remi again and she gave me the e-mail address of a Patrick of social sciences. He keeps the list of spots that are still open. So he told me there was one spot left for a Chinese university, but I didn’t like that university at all. The only option I have left is to go to England somewhere. So maybe the university of Sussex or something. But the deadline is at the end of this month, so I have to decide soon.
Cool! To continue this round of arbitrary questions, do you have any guilty pleasures?
I looooove chocolate. I literally eat a bar of it every day. Other than that… I am behind my computer too much, but I don’t know if that counts? Because it’s pleasure for me, but I don’t know if it’s guilty. But that’s about it I guess.
Do you have any fun facts about yourself?
I once climbed a church when I was drunk. That was scary. That was really scary.
I’m not sure if I should tell anyone this, but I also used to get drunk in high school, like in ninth grade or something. It was completely weird. During the lunchbreak my friends and I would drink beer. Keep in mind, we were fourteen or something, so nobody expected us to be drunk, so no one ever noticed. Once, one of my friends even fell from his chair because he was so drunk, but nobody noticed! We had the most retarded teachers. Or maybe they just didn’t care.
If CognAC were to get a pet, what do you think the pet should be?
Hmmm, maybe like a snake? Imagine a big ass snake. Because snakes are such weird animals. But do you think it would be easy to take care of a snake?
Haha, probably not… I think they need special heat lamps and have a very specific diet. You also probably need to get a licence to get a pet snake.
So maybe it wouldn’t be the most practical pet then.
Nick looks a bit sad to hear this. Sorry Nick! Let’s quickly move on to the last question.
Finally, are there any people you want to give a shout out?
I have to give a shout out to the DotJ committee and the website committee of course. That has to happen. And a shout out to Lennart. I look forward to baking cookies with him.