Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cambridge celebrates 800 years

DSC04929 This weekend, the University of Cambridge is kicking off the celebration of it’s eight hundredth anniversary as an educational institution.  The signs are everywhere, and there will be a symphony of bells rung in colleges and churches across the city this evening. The administrative center of the University, Senate House, is being used as a screen for historical projections of famous scholars and discoveries through history.  (YouTube has views of the event)

DSC04944 DSC04939DSC04972 DSC04968

DSC04975 A new piece of public art has been erected in the city center, the Corpus Chronophage clock, radically different from all of the sundials that grace the college and academic buildings.  It has a golden face with rotating lights to tell the time: a red-eyed grasshopper forms the escarpment.  It’s fascinating to watch it move and flash, and there is a constant stream of tourists and photographers watching

DSC04949 800 years of unbroken continuity; what an amazing thing in this world.  It’s a longevity beyond the lifespan of trees and tortoises, literally inviting geological comparisons.  But, more than stone walls, the University is a living thing, scholars weaving the unbroken golden braid of knowledge and the fabric of culture and passing it down the centuries.  I always felt the close presence of the great scientists, philosophers, poets, and engineers during my stays here, and have become alert to the wider influence of the University’s graduates in public and industrial life.

For all of that, the University is a self-effacing community: people talk about their work more than than they do their achievements,  and are always a bit concerned about whether Cambridge is still relevant and competitive in today’s world.  I think the whole mix is stimulating and endearing: it will always be a touchstone.

And, if house prices drop enough, I know where I want to live…

DSC04984 Stitch

Friday, January 16, 2009

Premiering my first Panto


‘Going to see ‘Pantomime.

Cool, I said, filling with visions of Marcel’s striped shirt and flowered hat.  Back in grad school, I took a pantomime course and loved it, even though it left me with a permanent tic for gesturing to make points.

No, no: Panto.  A Christmas Show.

A Christmas Story?

No, “Jack & the Beanstalk”.


It’s a traditional British family event.  There is a story, but lots of topical comedy thrown in, some slapstick.  The audience shouts at the performers when signature lines are presented.  And men play the women, and women play the men.

I wouldn’t miss it….

Just be sure to do some serious drinking before you go…


And so, it was off to the Eagle Pub and then off to the Cambridge Arts Theater.  Panto is a children’s event; a family tradition across generations.  Yet, there is no way to know what to expect: people’s descriptions suggest the low broad humor of Benny Hill or the cross-gender antics of Rocky Horror. 

DSC04926Jack & the Beanstalk turned out to be, instead,  light vaudeville.  The connecting  background story was a well staged fable, with an impressive vine and lumbering Giant, surrounded by lots of sunny characters bouncing through pop-musical numbers to accelerate the story. Between narrative episodes, various characters drop through for audience interaction.  The green-faced villan makes threats and is roundly hissed.  The farm hand, “Silly Billy” cheerleads his signature greeting.  The matron of the show, a heavily made-up actor, presides over the audience like Carol Burnett playing Auntie Mame.  The winks, nods, and wriggles keep things engaging and everyone participates.

The kids love the fable, waving lighted sparkling wands and swords; their whoop at the inside jokes and sly asides.  Everyone eats up the slapstick skits.  The humor, less ribald than I expected, reminds me of how Sesame Street (moreso, the companion reading show The Electric Company) managed to operate on both the child and adult levels at once.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening without a good parallel in US theater entertainment, Have a drink, take the kids, and lose yourself in it if you get the chance.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Obama’s citizen briefing book


The Obama Campaign was praised for the way that they used the internet during the campaign to recruit support, raise money, communicate from the center to the edges, and coordinate messages.  The most famous example was the decision to SMS the vice-presidential choice to all of the campaign workers at the same time that the media was informed.

There has been speculation that when it came time for governing, all of the Web 2.0 soft-social collaboration would be abandoned for the real (and secretive) business of making policy.

Thus, I was interested to get the following email today:

The Citizen's Briefing Book is an online forum where you can share your ideas, and rate or offer comments on the ideas of others.  The best-rated ones will rise to the top, and after the Inauguration, we'll print them out and gather them into a binder like the ones the President receives every day from experts and advisors. If you participate, your idea could be included in the Citizen's Briefing Book to be delivered to President Obama.

This sounds like fluffy blue hype, so I spent a bit of time trolling through the site this evening.  It’s actually sort of intriguing: I read suggestions in a couple of policy areas that I care about (Healthcare, Education) sorting by the Most Popular entries.

The ideas were to-the-point and fairly well written, covering a variety of views with a smattering of related comments.  There’s a button for voting an idea up or down, a bit like Digg.  The whole site is encouraging, but I hope that they are actual ‘citizen suggestions’.  It would be very effective on a local level, but with a national audience, someone is monitoring this pretty closely to keep it clean. 

I don’t know if this will reach the new president or make any difference, but it’s civilized enough to be an attractive alternative to starting an initiative drive or calling talk radio stations.  The Obama administration may not live up to the idealistic hype, but they are taking some interesting first steps.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The worst CEO

O'Dell In 1999, Wally O’Dell became the Chief Executive Officer of Diebold Systems, a $1.2 billion manufacturer of ATM and Security systems. The 2000 election gave the company a significant growth opportunity, as the Florida presidential recount highlighted vote-counting issues caused by paper ballots. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, mandating replacement of punch card and lever machines with new voting technology and providing $3.9 billion to help states meet the requirements. O’Dell later observed “The country had a crisis and we could help; it would be an opportunity to serve, and it would be a good business.''

Diebold’s Election Systems (ES) division acquired Global Election Systems for $24 million, giving it a 66% combined market share that O’Dell said could generate $1.5 - $2 billion in revenue by 2007. In reality, 2007 was the year that Diebold tried to divest the business. ES revenues peaked at $230 million before falling over 70% (Diebold annual reports). Their products were criticized as badly designed, insecure, and easily manipulated; media coverage turned sharply negative. Lawsuits multiplied as state commissions decertified Diebold’s machines. The Board finally dismissed O’Dell in 2005 after the stock dropped 30%, earning him my (paper) vote for Worst CEO.

Wally O’Dell believed that his job, as leader, was simply to capture demand, “offering the best touch-screen voting stations and providing software, services, and training to support them”. He failed to recognize the wider need for favorable relationships beyond local election officials, including politicians and advocacy groups sensitized by allegations of vote rigging. Reasonable proposals for paper backups, source code inspection, and independent validation were initially resisted. He later submitted systems to independent testing with the provision that the detailed results be kept secret. The trust of groups publicly committed to ensuring the fairness of the electoral system was lost.

O’Dell’s public advocacy for Diebold’s products was further undercut by technical failures. Voting screens froze, requiring replacement of 4700 system boards in Maryland; a software glitch caused machines to spontaneously reboot statewide on election day. Rather than take responsibility and assume control of the situation, Diebold blamed local officials for inadequate training and improper maintenance. When challenged, O’Dell claimed that no votes had been lost, but audits showed inconsistencies in vote totals that could have tipped close elections.

Most damaging, O’Dell signed an invitation to a 2003 fund-raising event, declaring ''I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year”. While he had no direct control over the outcome, the public believed that he was proposing to directly manipulate the vote. Later, O’Dell admitted that he’d made a ''huge mistake” as the company’s leader. He promised, belatedly, that the company would recognize its public issues and responsibilities, and would work to address its computer security problems and build voter confidence in its products.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Santa Ana winds blow in

After a week of snow and ice and sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures, the wind picked up out of the south this morning, darkening the river with wavelets and scattering the gulls.  The snow icing the roofs melted in hours, sheeting water over the eaves.  The cobblestones emerged from their cloak of ice, and the streets became dry and firm.

DSC04866 DSC04921

The walk upriver to the fitness center was a cardiac exercise in itself, as a warm stiff breeze pushed along the Ceramique and whistled through the new bridge.  By afternoon, the scene was almost springlike, green grass and leafy evergreens against the red brick walkways and apartments.

I’m worrying about the impact of the warming on the ice up north: the newspaper de Telegraaf had a wonderful pull-out section on the 11th celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Elfstedentocht this year.  It would be great to see a run.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A sucker for Quiz Night

Pub Quiz Trivial Pursuit was an obsession among my friends twenty years ago.  Everyone wanted to be the one person who could shout out answers to “How many rings make up an arm on a Michelin Man?”, or “Who once warned: ‘Never eat more than you can lift’?”.

I didn’t see the point. Success turned on having a good memory for pop-culture banter and sports records.  I could hold my own on geography and kill at science, but was regularly railroaded by those who’d read Harry Potter or watched Celebrity Gossip.

Then I wandered into a weekly Pub Quiz in the UK.

Quiz Night is an extended test of knowledge, part College Bowl (University Challenge if you are British), and part Pictionary.  It’s held weekly at a local pub: people pay a 2 euro entry fee and sort themselves into teams of about 4-6 people.  A picture round is usually handed out as a warm-up, with ten icons (e.g.: monuments, flags, sports fields) to identify.  Questions in subsequent rounds are read in groups of ten, answers are collected, intermediate scores are tabulated, and the cycle continues for eight rounds.  There’s usually an audio round for song title and artist.  ‘Best score wins prizes and acclaim.

Questions are of this sort, usually grouped in themes:

  • What is a colour and the name for a runaway slave in 17th and 18th century West Indies.
  • In which five US states has the USA tested atom bombs?
  • What does a woman raise and hold up in a Pabana?
  • In Rudyard Kipling's book Jungle Book,  what kind of animal was 'Mang'?  

DSC04922 It’s a fun three hour evening of drinking and socializing, heads together suggesting answers and trying to keep other teams from overhearing (or reading lips).  Choosing a team name is an early test of group harmony, and there’s always an effort to recruit a few outliers who might know current songs or 60’s films.

I was a perennial second place player at Cambridge, winning the chocolate instead of the wine.  I lost the habit after graduating, but was delighted to find an active pub around the corner in the Wyck.  We came in 13th out of 22 teams the first time out, behind by 17 points, but in 8 rounds, that’s only two more questions per round that need to be right to take the prize…piece of cake, as Americans say. 

Answers (in order):  Four, Miss Piggy, maroon, (New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska and Mississippi), her skirt, and a bat.

Freequizzes provides rules and quizzes if you want to try it: they supply our local pub as well.