Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wrapping up the holidays (and the moles)

It’s been a good holiday in the Pacific NW, time with family, friends, and merchants.  I think I got everything done on my list, the suitcase will be bulging with sundries, hard-to-find seasonings, and books.  Not much to carry on, though.  The airline is advising to take as little as possible: one sack, plan to leave it in the overhead storage during the first and last hour.

I had a brainstorm to expand my recipe file back in Maastricht.  King County’s library system is fantastic at finding and delivering books to the local branch, so I put them on the hunt for Dutch cookbooks.  They came up with three good ones, pictured, and I copied a couple of dozen traditional recipes.  The theory is that these will make good use of Dutch ingredients and cooking methods.  I’ll post the outcome.

‘making my daughter some gehakt balls tonight: there’s a dish OI can do with confidence.

The returns are done and the sales are spent.  The washer in my apartment is hard on clothes, and I need to recycle a number of shirts and pants.  The outlet stores had 60% off sales, so I stocked up on replacement bits to see me through the winter.  It’s still amazing how much wreckage the hoards do to a store: shelves in disarray, merchandise on the floor, discarded clothes filling the fitting rooms.

The warm weather has brought moles back into the yard, raising mounds beneath the winter moss.  I tried traps years ago, but have had better luck with trying to stink them out.  It’s a simple four-step process:

1)  Use a bulb planter to take the core out of the mound.

2) Feel around the walls to find the holes that lead in and out of the mound.  Stuff paper towel into the holes.

3)  Pour a quarter cup of gasoline into the hole, soaking the paper towel.

4)  Quickly cover up the hole and press the dirt flat with a heel.

Repeat on every mound and for a few days in a row.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reflections on the NWA bomb attempt

Jasper Schuringa The news here is filled with emerging details of the attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253.  It’s unsettling to watch: I’ve taken that flight lots of times, working my way from Amsterdam towards Minneapolis or Seattle.   It sounds like it all happened extremely quickly; I always wonder how fast or how correctly I would react in that sort of situation.  Hopefully it never comes to a test.

It’s hard for me to imagine how the bomber got through security at Schiphol. The airport has security screenings at each gate, so even transfer passengers would have gone through an interview, a metal detector, and a baggage screening before boarding.  Pat-downs aren't unusual, and the news reports from Amsterdam say that all security procedures were followed. 

merry-crisis I’m sure that this incident is going to make a mess of flying for months to come. Security will ratchet up, screenings will slow down, there will be new carry-on restrictions.  I’ve already received notice from Air Canada to arrive an hour earlier and to limit myself to only one carry-on bag (excess checked baggage fees arte being waived).  Whole-body scanner / sniffers are a likely part of the future.

I also remember the mix of people typically on that flight, a plane often filled with tall, fit Dutch students and businessmen. I have little doubt that at least a dozen people would have been more than a match for the  bomber.  The Sunday morning interview programs are featuring interviews with Jasper Schuringa, the young film director who apparently leaped all the way across the cabin (20J to 19A) as the incident began.  His description of putting a hammerlock on the bomber sounds like a case example of Dutch directness.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas eve, 2009

Dave and Laura Xmas 2

Our very best wishes for a warm and happy Christmas, and for a new year that exceeds all expectations.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Scenes around Seattle

There’s always a lot of racing around town before Christmas finally arrived: shopping for food, visiting friends, picking out presents.  But I also enjoy the chance to revisit the familiar landmarks:

The Space Needle.

The floating bridge over Lake Washington.

A sort-of Christmas Market replica at the local shopping mall.

A local food store for homesick British expats (Puddings, but no hard sauce!).

 

Our village, Woodinville, is experimenting with roundabouts to speed traffic flows.  These are still rare in the US, so it takes a lot of signage and barriers to coax people into going the right direction, and a wide apron in case they stray. 

Sadly, though, no road art.

I think that there is a contradiction that US drivers will struggle with.  Normally, I yield to drivers on the right at a 4-way stop.  But here, I yield to the upstream driver, the one on the left.

However, I was pleased to find the familiar “Teeth in the Road”, all the way from the Netherlands, reminding me to yield before entering the circle…

Monday, December 21, 2009

Musing on the Dutch Antilles

I was reading two articles today that got me thinking about the Caribbean.  One was Expatica’s accounts of the winter snows and freezing temperatures across the Netherlands, the facts behind the photos from Maastricht and stories from friends.  The other continuing story of Laura Dekker, the 14-year old sailor who fled to St Maarten last week.

The Netherlands Antilles comprise five islands, three north (including St Maarten) and two south.   They were colonized for the Dutch East India Company in the early 1600’s, and were joined together in 1845.  They became semi-autonomous in 1945, but are in the process of dismantling the confederation to become regular Dutch States or Special Municipalities.   North Holland has offered to adopt the Municipalities as part of their province.  The process is due to be completed on October 10, 2010.

Thus, the islands become a little bit of Europe in the Caribbean.  The residents are citizens of the EU and will vote in Dutch and EU elections.  The islands will share judicial and diplomatic functions with the Netherlands, governed by the Dutch constitution. However, as Overseas Country or Territory administered by the Netherlands, they are not fully part of the EU:  they will retain their local currency and some may have their status reviewed to become Outermost Territories after 2014. 

It raises some interesting questions about the status of my residency / work permit: I suspect that I could relocate the company or myself if I wanted to. 

Years ago, I took a 7-day Royal Caribbean cruise around the Lesser Antilles, sailing from San Juan through the northern, Leewar Islands down to Barbados, then back north through the Windward Islands.  The ship is a mobile hotel opening onto a new venue each morning, warm waters, beautiful sunsets, each island with it’s own personality to discover.  Sint Maarten was a particular favorite: I crewed on an America’s Cup boat (12-meter challenge) and enjoyed their Guavaberry liqueur in all its forms.

The memory came back while I was in Switzerland for a checkup last October.  My surgeon suggested time in the islands: salt water, sand to walk in, physical activity and relaxation for my foot.  He offered to write a prescription for a month in Philipsburg (but how to get Blue Cross to cover it?)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Feeling the contrasts

‘back in Seattle for the holidays, plunging into a whirlwind of  shopping, shipping, and socializing.  It’s not without adjustment.

I’m finding that I’ve adopted a more “voluntary simplistic” way of life in Maastricht, not quite Thoreau, but still walking to local shops, taking the train on longer trips, living without a car, trying to get a better balance between working and leisure time, making time to read and write (drawing is on the New Year’s list).

DSC09419 Okay, I still fly like a demon, so my carbon footprint is still immense.  And I now live in three different countries: the exciting news of the past day is that my UK work visa was granted in just 12 hours (!), clearing the way for me to start my research project and to teach at Cambridge starting next month.

Even so, the plunge back into a US style and pace of life has been bracing.

The holiday traffic is dense and aggressive, especially around the major shopping areas, and it’s taking more time and energy to make the rounds than I remember.

DSC09420 Once inside the malls, the crowds are thick and salespeople feel pushy.  A lot of venerable stores are closing forever and there are 40-60% discount signs in every window.  There aren’t a lot of shoppers carrying bags of purchases, so I think it’s making the shopowners more desperate on this last weekend before Christmas.

A lot of familiar procedures seem to have become more complicated as well. For example, the post office has set up a package shipping center, all touch screens and sequenced instructions to weigh, pay, stamp, and drop boxes down a big slot. Not to sound old or Luddite, but now I have to figure out what to do while a line waits, find out I can't do half of what I want, then wonder if it's been done right in the end.  I still prefer to stand in the (shorter) line to the counter, let the clerk tell me my options, then buy stamps and a money order at the same time.

The local talk radio station had a contest to find the most irritating people or things of 2009: the new light rail system and various bits of pubic art topped the list. A lot seems driven by small government / free market people who want to limit public investment in things that they won’t use or don’t like.  But I don’t know how to leave a regional rail system to wholly private initiative, its the sort of infrastructure investment that becomes useful only when it’s fully functional.

When it’s done, they’ll love it.  And ride it.

It’s all leaving me a bit homesick for my road art and NS Rail, walking to shops and joining friends for Quiz Night.  I’m sure that I’ll take up the slack in a day or so and it will be like I was never away, but the transition has been sharp-edged.

I’m even missing George (smiling, left, in the London Underground, but absent, right, at the Nespresso counter at Macy’s), but can always go see him in the Up In The Air movie if I need a fix.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dutch or not Dutch

Douwe_Egberts_koffie_kop Every morning, I start my day with a steaming cup of rich, dark Douwe Egberts coffee, made in a battered press coffeepot. (Or, as my Italian friend puts it, that coffee-flavored tea that the Dutch seem to prefer).   I take small bags as gifts back to the US with me, along with stroopwafel and chocolate, it’s the bit of the Netherlands that people in the US seem to enjoy most.

On this trip back to the US, I sat next to an auditor with the Sara Lee corporation.  The company is a giant in baked goods headquartered where I grew up in Deerfield IL.  Talk turned to the Netherlands, it turns out that they have their European HQ outside Utrecht, and we talked a bit about the Vecht area nearby.

I wondered how Sara Lee prospered given Dutch tastes in baked goods; everyone heads around the corner the the bakkerij rather than to the frozen food section of the local AH.  He admitted that Sara Lee can’t sell baked goods in the Netherlands, instead they concentrate on beverages and personal care items.

Such as Douwe Egberts.

Oh, yes, he continued, we’ve owned it for years.  The only other place we’ve had success with coffee is in supplying Dunkin’ Donuts in the US.

Worse and worse: my beloved Douwe Egberts is really Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in a red bag?

No, no, we kept the local blend and there’s no crossover between the two.  The Dutch coffee is still the local, if not completely traditional, blend.

It turns out that Sara Lee manages a surprising number of products that I would have thought where wholly Dutch: Senseo coffee (I thought it was Philips), Pickwick teas (I thought were British), Sanex lotions.

I’m feeling very conglometerized today…

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Having, and getting, the proper papers

Security:    Boarding pass and identification please.

My passport is gone, left with my UK Tier 1 Visa application back in the Chicago.  No matter, I smile and hand the agent my Dutch residency card.  It’s all in being confident, as though I did this every day.

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Reflecting back, the final act of the application process was anticlimatic: I never even visited British embassy at the white Wrigley Building along the Chicago River.  Rather, I visited a well secured immigration facility on South Pulaski, amidst rail yards and warehouses, to have my biometrics taken by the US government.  Then a short hop to meet the expeditor, A.Briggs, on Jackson St; he thumbed through the exhibits and pronounced it complete.

The UK visa application process is an exercise in avoiding mistakes rather than in doing things right.  I can’t imagine getting it right without help, and First Migration’s stamp has the added benefit that someone the examiner knows and trusts has already done the hard work.  Hopefully, he has confidence passing me through the process when he has a recognized firm’s imprint, adherence to a standard format, and a cover presentation indexed to regulations.

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Te agent Security turns over the card slowly, squints at the baby-pink plastic.

Security:    What is this?

The Netherlands, government-issued residency card.

The agent shines a UV lamp on it, creating a lovely purple glow, but revealing nothing.

Security:    This card expired November 1 .

True, IND hasn’t given me the new card yet although my application has been approved.  

I smile and give a copy of my US Drivers License, made before the Dutch exchanged.

Security:    I need a supervisor.

It’s dawning on me that I no longer have Government-Issued ID of any sort.

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The UK application process cost significantly more than the equivalent Dutch process.  In the Netherlands, I paid €1000 for the support person, €400 for the application fee (it’s recently been raised to €700 now, and about €100 for document fees: €1500 total.  The UK permit was £550 for the preparation, $200 for the expeditor, $1200 for the application fee, and about €400 euro for document preparation fees from accountants and banks: maybe €2000 in all.

On the other hand, the UK permit is good for 3 years and the Dutch must be renewed annually, so the lifetime costs may be closer.

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A truly huge agent ambles over and sorts through my array of worthless government-issue cards and copies.

Security:    Major credit card?

I hand over my American Express Gold with Delta SkyMiles benefit but no photo

Security:    All set, thank you.

I slink though, feeling like a player in one of the old Amex commercials, “Do you know me?”

Nobody knows me until they seen The Card.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sights around the town

  The days are turning colder, –4C in Brussels last night, snow expected around Maastricht. 
  It’s a festive time to be out, even though it’s with hands shoved deep into pockets and chin tucked beneath a scarf .  Shop owners are opting for edgier window displays this year: it certainly grabs attention even when I can’t be sure what they are selling.
My favorite is the New Year’s woman, unwrapped like a bottle of fine champagne complete with twist-tie at the back of the dress, and her weird albino-lingerie harem.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

…and the Brussels Christmas Market

The flight from Brussels departs at 10 am, not enough time to take the express in from Maastricht, even with the new high-speed link.  One of the big downtown hotels was having a special, though, so I slipped over the night before.  I arrived in time to take a quick walk through the central Market, unique in it’s way as all of the others before it.

The Brussels Market weaves across the city center, neither confined to a public square, nor distributed across venues. The path through the market is highlighted with street decorations, so it’s easy to find the way along it.

The main venues are the Town Hall and the Ice Rink, capping the two ends of the street walk.  The Town Hall display is a wonder: a continuous light show synchronized to opera and rock music piped over the square.City Hall Christmas The Ice Rink has most of the vendor’s stalls and the skywheel, several blocks of light and color.

 

The main differences in Brussels are that the food is higher class (foie gras, truffles, cured sausage. and escargot) and there are more causes (lots of political organizations and, strangely, a venue celebrating Mongolian culture).

The fun continues everywhere until January 2, and more pictures are posted at Facebook and on my Flickr site.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The 10% Rule

One of the most famous aphorisms in projects is the 80-20 rule (Pareto’s Principle): it says that the last 20% of any project will take 80% of the time and effort.  Getting things right and complete is hard, and there are legendary “Death Marches” to product release that engineering veterans tell over hot drinks on cold nights.

A related maxim is knowing when 80% is good enough.  Many times, in brainstorming, feature definitions, or negotiations if you get 80% of what’s there to get, 80% agreement among participants, you should be satisfied and not waste increasing effort and resources on diminishing returns.

I’m putting together a fireside talk for business students in Cambridge: they’ve asked me to recount some real-world experiences and advice for those moving beyond the business plan to actually implement their funded ideas.  It should be fun, a chance to reflect on what’s happened the past year as well as to get some ideas of how I might have done things better.

As I make my notes, I’m surprised at how often 10%, not 80%, recurs.  Maybe it’s the magic number for researchers and entrepreneurs.

  • In budgeting, always leave “10% for the arts”, slack in the budget for creative product / process improvement.
  • In market planning, there  needs to be at least a 10% diagnostic incidence or therapeutic improvement to make the project worth doing.
  • Set aside 10% of your time for training: keeping up with your field and learning new techniques.
  • In almost all medical capital equipment businesses, 10% of revenues flow to the bottom line.
  • 10% of customers will be early adopters of any new product idea.
  • Pay yourself 10% of every paycheck, first.
  • Exceptional performers perform among the top 10% of all employees or students.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Aachen Christmas Market

Aachen Chrsitmas Market 01

I was going to make my annual trip to the Koln Christmas Markets this weekend: my parents wanted some German stollen, the kids collect the Gluhwein cups, and it was a good excuse to enjoy the city at it’s most festive.  But a friend suggested that I could get all of the same benefits closer to home by giving the Aachen Market a try, 20 minutes drive rather than an hour away from Maastricht.

Aachen Chrsitmas Market 06Aachen Chrsitmas Market 12

The Market did, indeed, turn out to be wonderful, about twice as large as Maastricht’s and with more of the traditional German booths for crafts, foods, and gifts.  The thundering big gingerbread men are a bit intimidating and the crowds are dense in spots, but it is a proper Market with lots to enjoy.

The Market occupies the squares on both sides of the Town Hall, curling around the building right and left.  There’s free parking about 10 minutes walk away, and a 2-euro shuttle bus if your feet give out (or you have too much eierpunsch). The nearby streets are festive as well, and offer quieter places sit and talk. 

The Market was happily bustling and easy to navigate if I was willing to stroll a bit.  Compared to Koln, there were more sausage vendors and stalls for the city’s unique cookies and liqueurs, which gave a nice regional flavor to things. Aachen Chrsitmas Market 07 I was especially charmed by a warm goat’s milk (Eifelmilch) with honey liqueur (Bear Fang?) that would be perfect before nodding off to bed on a winter’s night.

I picked up a couple of 2 kg stollen logs, lovely with powdered sugar and fruits, some of the  traditional cookies made with anise. 

Aachen Chrsitmas Market 09Aachen Chrsitmas Market 10DSC09312DSC09266DSC09270DSC09276 DSC09295DSC09299