Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year’s visions

Out with the old…

         THE-PLACEBO-PALACE

…and ready for some ‘new.

THE-JUNK-HAS-ARRIVED-AT-LON

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wishing you a 2009 to (happily) remember !

Art by Mark Kostabi

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Triangulating the glass ceiling

Orr - glass ceiling As I talk about my future career alternatives with friends and colleagues, the potential for a “glass ceiling” emerges repeatedly.  Am I aspiring to positions beyond my reach?  Will I be considered for positions where I’m qualified?

I’ve always been a positivist: believing that the ceiling is just the natural upper bound of a career’s trajectory, the limit of advancement defined by talent, time, and circumstance, unaided by fortune or ambition.

But it’s been an interesting conversation.  Some disagree with me, holding that there is an arbitrary limit for anyone that results from simple discrimination trumping hard work and merit.

What form might the glass ceiling take?

Princeton describes it as “an attitudinal or organizational bias that prevents women from advancing to leadership positions”.  To me, this seems archaic: I have worked comfortably with, and for, women throughout my career.  In my experience, people earn respect and advancement based on their competency, skills, and congeniality.  Still, it is very real to women I talk with, and it may be that I’ve missed it by working primarily in research and project teams in my career.

House-MD Others have generalized the term to include “situations where the advancement of a qualified person within the hierarchy of an organization is stopped at a lower level because of any form of discrimination”.  This one hits closer to home, because I can think of any number of highly qualified people who have been shuttled into the career ghettos.  Their ceiling lies at the public boundary: at the top of the hierarchy, leaders are chosen to reinforce the image that the company wants to project to customers, the media, and investors.  The ability to communicate clearly and to inspire confidence may be the only necessary qualities.  “House” need not apply.

Intriguingly, I also found this definition: “The glass ceiling is the seemingly unattainable 1st page ranking in a search engine, particularly for very competitive keywords. Sites and pages remain on the 1st page and are hard to displace because they are given really high rankings and have extremely high link popularity.”  Extrapolated, it suggests that those above the glass ceiling form a self-reinforcing club: those at the top accumulate perceptions and credibility that keep them at the top.  I suspect that there is a lot of truth in this.

All of these definition have the common quality that a person’s potential for advancement may be limited by bias and circumstance, rather than by drive and accomplishment.  It’s not the way I treat others nor how I think about my own opportunities.  But, as I seek my next position, I sometimes find myself wondering whether perceptions of age or disability, personality or nationality, might, in fact, limit my aspirations.

And, more to the point, how to recognize and counter it.

Photo credit: Judith Orr

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The melt is on…

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Maybe Mother Nature needed to be appeased, satisfied when Governor Gregoire  declared a snow emergency.  Or maybe the Fates demanded acknowledgement from thoroughly snarled Christmas travel and shopping throughout the Northwest.  Or, perhaps, it was just a last jab from the dismal spirit behind 2008.

Whatever the reason, the temperatures finally began to rise today and skies began to drizzle familiar rain.  The snow softened; cars literally sank into the snowpack covering the roads.  I could drive along the streets hands-free, the wheels steering themselves along the deep ruts. The gullies filled with icy slurry on the hills, and cars began to accumulate along the side streets, unable to climb home.

DSC04724 The plows finally appeared this morning, and the roads have become passable enough that mail (absent for days), package delivery (absent a week), and garbage collection (absent since the 11th) can resume.  Predictions are that life will return towards normal by next weekend, just in time for my departure for the Netherlands.

Despite it all, this has been one of the least stressful holiday periods in recent memory.  The cards got out, the presents were shipped, the decorating and baking got done as always.  But the usual sense of being pressed and rushed was almost entirely absent.

I’m not sure why. It’s the first Christmas where the children haven’t all been here, but I can’t imagine that would have an impact. Maybe everyone got philosophical about only expecting things to be done when, and if, they could be done.  But it’s been a nice change.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Naughty and nice in the oil markets

It’s an iconic scene, playing out in many movies from Trading Places and Wall Street to A Good Year (below).

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Wily traders manipulate the commodity markets by placing a sudden flood of “Sell” orders.  The index plunges, panicked traders curse their luck and follow suit.  At the bottom, the traders buy it all back on the cheap, catching their rivals out and reaping tens of millions of dollars.

In the real world, regulators claim that speculators don’t drive markets.  Supply and demand are the primary determinants of prices, moving in response to spikes in consumption or kinks in production.  Short-term volatility can generally be traced to secondary factors, including weather, government policies, transport risks, the global economy, and prevailing sentiment.

But  recent swings in oil prices just seem to defy academic logic:

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The microeconomic drivers behind these recent price movements aren’t very evident:

Oil v - p

So, is the heavy hand of wily traders behind the oil-price spike?

Time Magazine argues that hedging, rather than speculation, is at fault.  Refiner SemGroup overinvested in oil futures, amassing an 11% position by last summer.  When forced to liquidate it’s holdings, it stimulated a drop in prices just as markets were debating whether oil had reached their peak.  This, in turn, prompted a wider dash for liquidity, leading to further price declines just as the world financial crisis started putting pressure on global markets:

The price of oil began to fall, and speculators had to put up more money for margin, but their other investments were simultaneously declining (due to the collapse of credit and equity markets). Thus, they were forced to close out their long positions and sell oil. As everything spun out of control, everyone wanted out: a full liquidation. Even diversified investors tend to hold long positions in commodities as inflation hedges. Losses in stocks forced these long speculators to liquidate their positions in all commodities.

One thing that I didn’t realize is that the price of oil reported in the news is not actually the raw material price of the commodity.  It is, instead, the futures price.  The current price of $37.71 / bbl is really the asking price for oil that will be delivered in February 2009.  Further, the volume of oil contracts being  traded to set this price are a small fraction of the total volume of oil bought and sold on the world’s markets.

Two Stanford students have recently argued that these two characteristics may combine to make oil prices vulnerable to manipulation. An investment of less than 10 billion dollars could enable a speculator acquire a position in the  limited futures market that effectively drives prices throughout the larger world market, and then downstream into gasoline and heating oil prices.

They propose that limiting the size of positions or revealing the identities of large stakeholders would close the flaw.

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It’s an interesting theory, and suggests how far market structures and forces have diverged from our simple cinematic understanding of them.  It’s likely that our system is riddled with similarly subtle, systemic flaws that will need to be corrected if a recurrence of our current financial crisis is to be prevented.

Some feel that the whole collapse was engineered to precipitate a consolidation and reorganization of markets.  But I think that our actions have simply grown beyond our understanding. The ad hoc financial networks that developed over the past two decades harbor many hidden correlations and vulnerabilities that are not captured in classical models of discrete and transparent markets.

We now have abundant data to help illuminate the previously hidden factors and relationships that drive pricing and valuation.  We need to set better minds and models to understand the roots of our market failures if we are going to formulate effective policy actions and regulatory solutions.

It’s not going to be enough to send Russell Crowe to prison for market manipulation: we need to, in effect, better fence the playfield against excess, and assure rapid access to information and transparency to actions.

Ref: US Department of Energy

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Knocking snow off the rhodies

a-Rhodie_snow 5 Everyone jumped when there were a series of thumps and thuds next to the house this morning.  One of the rhododendron trees had fallen over under the weight of the snow, now sprawled across the rear door. 

This kicks off the quintessential Pacific Northwest winter task, knocking snow off the landscaping.  The magnolia tree and the rhododendron bushes suffer more than the evergreens.  The taller trees tend to just droop, finally allowing the snow to slide off.  The bushes wither in the cold, but try to stay erect.  Eventually the branches break off.

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The only solution is to take a broom and wade into the snow, whacking up from the bottom or out from the trunk.  Unfortunately, there’s no way to relieve the upper branches except to get in and shake the tree, dropping about a foot of snow down on myself.

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a-Rhodie_snow 8And, of course, by morning, it all has to be done again…

The governor has declared a winter emergency as we break the snow records here in the lowlands…everyone is starting to look a bit weary from the weather.  My favorite was the dilapidated state of the tent at the local Christmas Tree seller.a-weary xmas

For myself, I’ve broken out the eggnog and the rum and have settled in for a warm and comfortable Christmas Eve.  Best wishes for a warm and happy holiday to everyone!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Two cookie recipes and one for cranberry relish

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Holiday’s are always a time for preparing favorite dishes and festive treats.  I have several recipes that get dusted off at this time of year, and I spent most of the day with the daughter making cookies and cranberries.  The cookies are simply family favorites: the cranberry recipe comes form an out-of-print HP microwave cookbook, but has always been ‘can’t miss’ for jelling into relish at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I managed to fill the kitchen with smoke making Dutch Speculaas cookies, baking at 375 instead of 350 <sigh>.  Part of the problem is that I mistook the Speculaas dough for the Molasses dough, making balls and rolling them in sugar.  In the end, I had golf-ball sized round windmill cookies.  I dipped them in frosting and turned them into festive little spice buttons…people are talking about making them a tradition now.  I think I’m just losing my touch in the kitchen…’glad I got a daughter to help!

Rugelach

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ¾ cup sour cream
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ cup chopped walnuts (optional)
  • ¼ cup butter, melted

Cut butter into flour using two knives as if making a pie crust. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolk and sour cream well, then add to flour mixture. Mix until blended. Divide dough into three parts. Cover with plastic and refrigerate at least 3 hours.

Prepare filling by combining sugar, cinnamon, and (optional ) walnuts. Pre-heat oven to 375 deg F.

Working with one portion at a time, roll dough into circle 1/8” thick.  Brush each circle lightly with melted butter and spread one third of the filling on each.  Cut each circle into 16 wedges, like a pizza. Starting from the large end of each wedge, roll up toward point, jelly-roll fashion.  Place cookies on ungreased cookie sheets and bake 15 minutes or until lightly browned.  Cool on racks and store in covered tins.

Yield: About 4 dozen.

Cranberry Sauce

  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ cup cranberry liqueur, brandy, or mixture
  • 2 cups cranberries

In a deep 2-qt casserole dish, combine sugar, water, and liqueur.  Microwave, uncovered, at full power for 4 to 5 minutes, until boiling, stirring once or twice to dissolve sugar.  Syrup should be clear.  Stir in cranberries and cover loosely with waxed paper.  Microwave at full power for 5 minutes or until the skins on the cranberries pop, stirring once.  Uncover and microwave at 30% for 15 minutes or until thickened to the desired consistency, stirring once.  Cover and refrigerate.

Yield: 2 cups

Molasses Cookies

  • ¾ cup shortening
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup molasses

  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp cloves
  • ½ tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp salt

Melt shortening in a 3-4 quart bowl.  Add sugar, molasses, and egg, beat well.  Sift together the dry ingredients and add to the liquid.  Mix well, chill for 1 ½ hour.  Roll into 1” balls, and roll each in sugar.  Pre-heat over to 375 degrees F.  Bake on a greased cookie sheet, 2” apart (do not flatten the dough) for 5-6 minutes.

Monday, December 22, 2008

And still it comes….

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The snow just keeps falling here, dominating the days to a much greater degree than Christmas shopping or tree-trimming.  Seattle, like the Netherlands, is a maritime climate, and an inch in the lowlands is unusual and usually dissipates within a day.

Not this year…

Shoveling out the drive- and walk-ways has become a daily task as new snow falls each night, adding to accumulations already over a foot deep everywhere.  My daughter’s car got stuck twice, once sunk into a drift alongside a road (scatter kitty litter, then shovel it out), and once perched hazardously on an icy hillside (block the road, then spin it out). 

Fortunately, the van just keeps chewing ahead, come snow or ice.  But things really gets hazardous in late evening, when the only people on the road are kids with trucks.

A few pictures of the beautiful mess…

My back yard and front yard (note the beautiful shoveling of the driveway!):

DSC04528 Stitch DSC04541 StitchSnowfall house

My neighborhood:

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Driving around my town:

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My Christmas tree:

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Some photo credits to my co-pilot daughter.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

2008 Lists and New Year’s resolutions

I think that Tyler Brule needs to take a break from travel.

Winter Sunrise With a noticeable dip in blog traffic over the holidays, I’m broadening my early-morning reading to take in recent columns by some of my favorite essayists.  This morning, I logged in to the FT Weekend to catch up with Fast Lane columnist Tyler Brule, writing about “Top tips to stay travel slick”.

I have to admit that the whole concept of “travel slick” is a bit of a mystery: I guessed that it had something to do with grooming or efficiency.

Instead, it was a list of his top travel recommendations.

Well and good, I always like to find new places to visit and special things to see or do.  But his list focused, instead, on the process of travel: which airlines and hotels offered good amenities or little extras.

It’s a bit sobering.  When a vagabond’s life contracts to keeping a small-minded catalog of airlines offering fluted glasses and remodeled hotel gift shops, it turns the whole pleasure of travel on its head.  Isn’t the delight supposed to be in the places you go and the people you meet, not the appointments of an airline lounge?  What sort of people would envy, let alone emulate, Tyler’s experiences this year?

I’m not the only one questioning this: the Economist recently asked whether Tyler’s focus on judging hotels by the quality of their club sandwich isn’t stretching things a bit.

With a sigh, I put it down.  I can’t wait to see his New Year’s resolutions…

In fact, reflecting on that thought, doesn’t the type and quality of our lists say a lot about our interests and priorities in life?

If I take time to write about “10 worst business books of the year” or “12 memorable sunsets”, “6 can’t-miss sailing anchorages” or “5 great presentations”, that is a mirror of what I’ve sought and done over the past year.  Not just about the breadth of my experiences or whether I was paying attention, but more about the things I think about and care about in my life.

‘Back, then, to the resolution thing.  Rather than making a list of things I want to change or accomplish in the coming year, I’d like to create the titles for the top-10 lists that I want to publish at year’s end.

I’ve got a week to think about it, and the whole world and spectrum of potential experiences to choose among.  I like the exercise, it fits my philosophy of always looking for new ways to live in the world rather than to retreat from it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A cool idea for next Christmas’ wish list…

In the ‘wish I’d thought of that’ category…

T-Mobile's Cameo digital picture frameT-Mobile has introduced a new type of digital picture frame, the Cameo.  It has internet-enabled wireless networking built in, able to not only accept pictures that you beam in from your computer or camera, but also pictures that others e-mail to the frame.  Friends and family can now update the photo collection with their own snapshots, and you get an ever-changing display of everyone’s updated pictures.

This is such a natural idea, especially for grandparents, vagabonds, and families like mine who are scattered everywhere as a result of maturation and my assignment.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the frame is assigned it’s own e-mail address that you give to people who you want to get pictures from.  When it receives photos for the first time, it asks for confirmation of whether you want to continue to accept photos from this source.  After that, it just updates the rotation when people send new pictures.

The gadget is competitively priced at $99 (most frames seem to be in the $70 –$ 150 range…still too high for my taste), and requires a special subscription fee of $9.99 / month.

This is the deal-breaker for me: that seems really steep for access to an e-mail server.  But I’m sure that prices will come down as more providers offer the service.  Hopefully, by next Christmas, this will be the norm for digital frames.

I enjoy looking through the postings on my blog aggregator each morning, and the notion of getting a photo aggregation is really appealing.  Can video messaging be far behind?

 

Disclaimer: I don’t own this product, and have no connection with T-Mobile.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Sending out the Christmas cards

As the snow continues to fall here in Seattle…Snowy streetSnowy Street 2

USA Today noted this week that 56% of all Americans have never lived outside of their home state.  The main reasons given for staying in their hometown were the tug of family ties and friends, and a feeling of belonging.  I would guess that they have a lifetime of friends and partners close at hand.

The other half of us end up leaving a contrail of friends and colleagues behind our life’s trajectories as we change jobs, residences, and countries countries.  The advent of Facebook and LinkedIn has brought me back into contact with many folks I’ve separated from over the years, and there’s no question that the ease and immediacy of he Internet has strengthened old ties.

But I still hold to the tradition of sending out Christmas cards to keep in touch at the holidays.

I liked getting cards from old friends, year by year, reading about the changes in their jobs, the arrival of children, the family vacations, the loss of relatives.  I never minded getting the copy of a generic Christmas note as long as it was accompanied by a few penned sentences of a personal sentiment. I try to keep my annual note upbeat, add contact information, print it on nice paper.  My write-to-return ration is probably 3:1, but I still enjoy getting a card and seldom take anyone off my list.

My problem is managing the address list.

It seems silly in this day of cloud databases and shared contact lists, but I still manage my Christmas addresses with a little hard-cover book with inserts for each contact. I’ve had it since college, and every year, I go through it to copy the addresses onto the envelopes, then update the little paper slips with new information as each card arrives.

Last year, I made a significant effort to update the overall list, adding addresses from school and work that have started to drift since I became expatriate.  People are much more reticent to give out home addresses than e-mail addresses and phone numbers when I ask for contact information, but I think that the list is pretty good now.

Still, it all depends on a little book filled with alphabetized slips of paper.

I’ve made a resolution to move it all to an electronic database, but it’s proving to be a very difficult task.  Outlook only allows one database, and mine is filled with business contacts.  Windows Live Contacts wants to import and notify people, but doesn’t have facilities for simply cataloguing them.  Yahoo and Google are tailored for email, not for physical addresses.

It seems that there is a broader issue with physical files that we all accumulated before laptop computers: address lists, recipe files, research notebooks.  There is just no simple way to move them all into the electronic world, and I keep maintaining ever more battered legacy pages using ever deteriorating handwriting skills.

I really want to update my records, probably into something like Windows Live, but can’t find instructions, templates, or tools that help me to use the application for this purpose.  ‘anyone have any favorites?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It’s winter everywhere…

Seattle Shuttle 04 I’ve arrived back in Seattle for the holidays: the cold weather in Minneapolis was a prelude to deep snow and cold greeting me in the Pacific Northwest. Like the Netherlands, Seattle has a maritime climate that rarely get’s snow. When a small amount does come down, usually briefly, it brings life to a hard stop.

Today it’s snowing much harder than that: six inches fell in the suburbs where I live, for example. The roads quickly blocked with spinout cars and stranded buses. The shuttle services from the airport advised that half-hour trips would take hours, at best. I huddled under blankets in the departure garage with everyone else, watching the road reports go from red to black on the traffic maps.

Seattle Shuttle 02Seattle Shuttle 03

When we finally did get out, the snow was dense. Buses had jack-knifed on hills and cars were abandoned along the roadsides. The driver stayed creative with the GPS and aggressive on the hills and got us north by early afternoon.

Seattle Shuttle 06 Seattle Shuttle 08

Seattle Shuttle 10 Seattle Shuttle 07

Settling into the last of the holiday preparations now: my daughter still has to get in from Spokane (18 inches of snow today) so I need to get the studded tires on. Lots of notes from travels to catch up on in the coming days too: the early morning quiet will hopefully provide time for essays beyond the weather reports…

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Being -18 F in Minnesota

On the road for work, then onward for the holidays.  Even though it’s a mere week before Christmas, it feels easier this year.  I arrived with cards addressed (on the plane) and gifts purchased (Christmas Markets and de Bijenkorf store), and spent a focused hour with Kinko’s this morning to get things shipped.  There’s still the decorating and baking in Woodinville, but there’s a week to get all of that sorted.  ‘life is good.

The weather, unfortunately, is not.

wind_chill_chartMinneapolis is in the grip of a cold nap, accompanied by light snow.  Temperatures around the clock have varied between minus 18 F and minus 2 F (-28 C to –19 C).  The light snow makes for slippery conditions everywhere, from walkways to roads.  It’s just bitter.  ‘not much wind, thank goodness, even a little wind could really accentuate the effects of the cold (right).

I grew up in the Midwest, but we used to say that unless you experienced the onset of winter, your “blood didn’t thicken”, and you felt the cold more intensely.  This week, it feels like there’s some truth to that.

Minneapolis winter 08 Minneapolis winter 07

Fortunately, people here are used to the conditions and drive pretty sanely.  There are the occasional stalls and spinouts, but people are driving slowly, carefully, and respectfully.  The plows are out everywhere, salting as well, which helps on the highways.  Still, I’m doubling the likely time to get anywhere and leave early.

Minneapolis winter 06 I had to pick up some pants that had been taken in down at the Mall of America last night, but found myself having to make the trip through driving snow at rush hour across the city.  The half-hour trip took an hour and a half: I didn’t even see the skyscrapers as I went through.

Mall of America xmas The Mall was deserted, really surprising for the week before Christmas.  Everything was open late and expectant shopkeepers hovered near the doorways, but there were few customers.  ‘Lots of sales on, 20% in the stalls along the walkways; 50% and more at the clothes stores.  Prices didn’t seem especially cheap, I usually feel like I notice a big difference between Europe and the US, especially on electronics.  That differential seems to have almost  disappeared; only the plunging price of gasoline stands in contrast to what I’m used to.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Neighborhood life in the Wyck

The Wyck neighborhood was busy and fun this weekend: everyone was out to do their Christmas shopping and attend the markets.  This made for lots of crowds flowing through the streets and over the stone bridge to the Old City.

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A number of shops took advantage of the shoppers to set up hot wine (Gleuwijn) stations, handing out 3-oz cups of steaming mulled red wine. It gave a nice air to the Saturday morning, everyone standing around talking and sipping and people-watching.

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Most public stairways in the Netherlands have small gutters running through the center or along one side.  The first temptation is to think that these are a microscopic example of the Dutch tendency to control the flow of water wherever it lies.

It’s actually a very practical adaptation to getting bicycles up and over the stairs.

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My apartment, like many in the Netherlands, is centered in a row of older buildings, a mixture of residences, shops, and restaurants.  It’s a different scene than in the US, where homes are typically detached and mixed-use zoning is rare in the suburbs. 

Lying in bed, looking at the aging wood in the dormer of the next building, I had a thought for fire safety.  While the incidence of fires is probably rare, apartments don’t seem to routinely come with smoke detectors, and I think it’s worth a thought to take precautions.

I have installed smoke detectors, keep a flashlight by the bed, and have a small extinguishers in the kitchen. I’ve checked the exits and leave the keys in the front door lock.  Peace of mind, I suppose, but it’s good to be practical and foresighted about these things, while hoping there’s never a need.

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And, finally, a quick tip / link for the day from WikiHow about how to blend in and avoid looking like a tourist when traveling and living in Europe.  A lot of it is common sense but it’s a good collection.