Saturday, March 7, 2009

A day’s visit to Mons, Belgium

It’s a rainy day in Maastricht: time for sorting pictures and stories while watching the river lazily flow past.  A week ago, the scene was of Mons, Belgium, south of Brussels. DSC06467 Stitch

Mons is a fortified city of the Middle Ages with a lovely town square (the Grand Place) overlooked by an ornate city hall.  During our visit, there was a children’s party being held in the upstairs banquet hall of the building, which allowed us to follow the children up to inner rooms and balconies that probably aren’t open public spaces.  The vaulted brickwork, in particular, was striking, and it was fun to be on the terrace overlooking the square.

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Outside the city hall is a small brass statue of a monkey: it’s said to bring good luck if you rub its head with your left hand (okay, so I did, science be damned: I can use it).  The origins of the statue are unknown: none of the city’s historical documents don’t refer to it and it seems to have just appeared one night.DSC06476 DSC06500

Nearby is the Belfry, a world heritage site currently being reconstructed. More ornate (and straighter) than the Belfry in Ghent, it has a cluster of turrets and spires above the clocks that accent the dark, twisting hill of the medieval streets leading up to it.

Mons has submitted a bid to be the Capital of European Culture in 2015: they’ve kicked off with a delegation of young people exhibiting their work in the town center.  Their theme will be “Mons, where technology meets culture” and their bid will feature symbolic works that link the town’s medieval past with it’s technologic future.  Their bid promises to “reduce the gap between baroque music and Google, Renaissance painting and Numediart, symbolist poetry and Microsoft”.  ‘should be fascinating to see how they do it.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday, winding down, reading

Its late on a Friday afternoon and I’m catching up on some reading, looking forward to a quiet weekend.  Bits and pieces of interesting reading keep surfacing, so I’ll pass along a few to enjoy with your weekend coffee.  (Next weekend is the big Maastricht Tefaf Art and Antiques Exhibition, so I’ll be browsing the Old Masters).

  -- image There was some actual civil unrest in Maastricht last weekend.  I was out of town, but was really surprised when the first reports showed up.  Left- and right-wing demonstrators were in town to protest and counter-protest the presence of coffee shops in town, but I think it was more of an excuse to rumble.  Police limited them to the two banks of the Maas River and barricaded the bridge at 1992 Plein (De Hoge Brug) that separated them.  You can see some pictures (above) and video on the Crossroads blog.

The bridge is about a two minute walk up the river from where I live, visible from the window.  Its always jarring to se violent events superimposed onto familiar landscapes.  My first reaction is to look for people I know.  Although the police asked everyone to stay away from the area until Tuesday, it was all over before I realized it had happened.

  -- I’ve been Twittering for a week now, tied into about a dozen people.  So far, I like the little stream of contacts.  Unfortunately, Twitter doesn’t feed to Dutch numbers, so I’ve set up an RSS that pops up periodically with new news.  The service fills a niche in the continuum of shared narratives, but I’m still trying to figure out how best to use it.

Everyone seems to do something different.  Some people use it like Facebook status, others to make announcements and send links to pictures. I’d like to use it for sharing insights or observations, like yesterday’s ramble on Dunbar’s Number, but haven’t figured out how to do that in 140 characters yet.  It’s also not clear when to reply, or how they are handled in RSS loops.

  -- image I can be a perfectionist when I take on a task, so it’s always good to remind myself that sometimes ‘good’ is good enough.  A 500-word homework essay on “Which class topic should be applied where you work, but isn’t”  is meant to be an opportunity to connect the dots, not to win a Nobel Prize.  In that spirit, I like the “Cult of Done Manifesto”.   With insights like “Accept that everything is a draft.” and “Laugh at perfection. It's boring and keeps you from being done.”, it’s a good tonic for days when I take work too seriously.

Still, I hear my mother saying “Accept work at a ‘B’ level and you will find yourself getting a ‘C’ “.

  -- And some good news to send you into the weekend: Forbes has posted research suggesting that moderate drinkers tend to be healthier, richer, happier, and more charitable than non-drinkers.  The benefits fall off steeply beyond a couple of glasses a day, though, so excess still lurks as the devil beneath the halo.

As someone who enjoys an evening glass of red wine, I toast the finding.  Twice.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The intimacy of groups

DSC06444 What is the optimal number of people to have in a group; what is the upper limit?

The answer would seem to be circumstantial.  For traveling companions, one to four is often enough.  My intimate circle of friends probably numbers only half a dozen.  Still, when someone asks, I validate myself as having 131 Facebook friendships and 411 Linkedin connections.

Clearly, I can’t manage that many close, personal friends.  So what is happening here?

On reflection, I think that I have various levels of affinity.  Family and close friends probably number less than a dozen: these are people that I stay in touch with regularly, see face to face if I’m in the area, and send regular cards and emails.

Beyond this lie my neighborhoods and workgroups.  They probably number about 20 each, and there are three or four of them  These are active circles of people that I correspond with or talk with regularly, but in the context of works, school, neighbors, and people who I share some special interest with.

Continuing outward, there is a ring of perhaps a hundred people who I correspond with occasionally and would recognize if I met them.  This is my ‘Christmas Card list’: almost all are members of former neighborhoods and workgroups.  My Facebook group has a lot of these characteristics, and I see how I tend to accumulate this group of colleagues and associates throughout life.

There is a periphery of casual acquaintances that are one-time contacts or friends-of-friends that seem to pile up on LinkedIn.  There are a lot of people in there that I don’t know well and never hear from.

Two of these numbers seem particularly universal.

The first is 10.  DSC06457Lots of management theory regarding the optimal size of workgroups or the number of direct reports that one manager should have conclude that 8 to 15 members is best.  I suspect that the same holds for active friendships; it is about the limit of time, detail, and energy that we can give at that level to maintaining a social relationship.  (I find that I also have about 10 to 20 blogs or tweeters that I follow, and regular readers of my blog and my tweetees number that size in return).

This idea was famously captured in the Mythical Man-Month: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.  In flat organizational structures larger than 20, communications and coordination start to overwhelm productivity and execution.

In my experience, many organizations go through cultural change at similar power-of-ten growth thresholds.  Each time a company goes through the barrier of 100 or 1000 employees, it adjusts by adding a layer of management.  This, in turn, causes social dislocations as people’s reporting  relationships get broken and reattached, and as distances between power centers increase.

 DSC06458 StitchThe second is 150.  This is Dunbar's number: the theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.  A tribe or neighborhood can be cohesive up to that size, but requires restricted rules, laws, and enforced norms to function on a larger scale.

The Economist had an intriguing article this week that applies this concept to social networking, finding that “friend lists” generally grow to include about 120 people.   Interestingly, though, people still tend to interact more frequently with a much smaller circle of friends: no surprise that it’s in the range of 10 to 20.

I’m intrigued by the counterintuitive tendency for social groups to consolidate as they grow, though. Villages become 100,000 person cities rather than spawning more villages;  companies become corporations with 10,000 employees instead of spinning-out smaller divisions.  I wonder if over-optimal size is the cause of a lot of the rule-driven pathologies that seem to infect these larger social structures?  Do smaller 150-person neighborhoods and tribes form within them?  In town, I suppose I have my neighborhood of people and shops that I know; I’m not sure what the analogous company structure is.

Finally, I wonder how this applies to my current work on remote patient monitoring.  If a single center tries to keep track of the health status of 1000 people, is that too large a group to understand no matter how well organized the summary reports are?

Traveling companions are a corner case; four is the comfortable limit for a car, hotel room, or airline budget.  Sometimes, though, even one can too, too many for a solitary morning walk or reflecting over an evening’s sunset.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Approaching the fork in the road

Fork in the road

The request for me to make an early repatriation to the US arrived over the weekend.  Its not entirely unexpected: with the closure of the facility in Arnhem and the current global economic challenges, corporations are universally looking for ways to cut costs and to improve productivity.  Expatriate agreements are expensive and will continue to face scrutiny in a tough economic climate.

For the past six months, I’ve been weighing options and laying groundwork for this possibility.  In the past, I and others have discussed the absolute necessity for any expatriate to understand their “Plan B”: What will you do if the justifications for staying overseas were to evaporate?  From withdrawal of support to loss of a spouse, unexpected events can occur which suddenly put you into 90-day visitor status.  Under those circumstances, what are the necessary actions that you must put into execution to shift to local contracts, repatriate, or immigrate?

For myself, the notice just starts the clock running on executing the contingency plans.  So far, there’s nothing unexpected beyond the sudden timing of the announcement, so my options continue to be valid.  The start of a new adventure is now 90 days away: really a scary / exciting time.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Battlefields in Belgium

DSC06540 Four countries, three wars, two days, one Amazing Race…

We spent the late-winter weekend touring  famous battlefield sites across southeast Belgium.  The weather was nice, the conversations were good: its always fun to tour with someone who knows their history, carries the books, and can place all of the events and people into their proper context.  I only know the large events of these wars, and it was interesting to focus on the personal narrative histories of the soldiers, especially for World War I.  I know that I’ll need to sit down with a good ‘trench-level’ account or novel from the period when things settle down a bit.

One thing that always strikes me about famous battlefields is the overwhelming ordinariness of the places.  DSC06373Waterloo, Bourgogne, Mons, Arnhem: all are pivotal points of great campaigns where tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of men fought. But today they all seem peaceful, empty, wholly nondescript.  Standing on hillsides listening to the breeze mingled with the stories being read from the books, I would never know it for looking at it.  Some places are just rolling fields, dotted with trees and distant roads.  it.  Others are simply a bridge along a river, houses nearby with traffic rumbling overhead. Rolling fields, dotted with trees, a river or a road to divide the territory.

DSC06521 The maps point out boundaries and junctions, local centers of supplies that made them important at the time.  Others places are more circumstantial, places where troops camped or armies crossed.  Today, though, there’s little to mark their significance beyond the stones, flags, and stories.

‘listening to the narratives of conflict and hardship, understanding the ‘who and the ‘where, I’m still always lift with the nagging question ‘why?’.

The buzz becomes particularly acute when visiting cemeteries.  I do feel a bit of pride as the tales are told, hearing the heroism of my countrymen and their sacrifice for ideals that I still hold important today.  But I also feel a lot of sadness and loss: war to often forces young men to die in pointless skirmishes.  After the battles are over, both sides honor their dead together beneath white stone memorials: did there have to be a war at all to bring the two sides together again?

  I walk through the the stately rows of graves amidst the quiet grasses. All of those names, their individual character lost into the greater pageant, no hint of what we contributions they might have made had they lived.  Mortal combatants are now buried together, the reasons for their skirmishes largely forgotten.DSC06541 Stitch

I always feel these memorials as both inspiration and warning.  They serve their purpose of honoring and remembering.  But, for me, with a son in the service in a world quick to take offense and ready for a fight, its a worrysome reminder as well.