Saturday, April 4, 2009

Pushing a big boat through a little bridge

DSC07212 With warmer weather arriving, pleasure boats have appeared among the working barges on the Maas.  Jet skis and motorboats are popular so far, with the occasional sailboat and fishing barge.

A few days back, I was surprised by an *enormous* barge that suddenly appeared one morning.

Bridge boat 2

No way this was fitting under the bridge, especially with a tall pilot house.  Yet…the alarm didn’t sound, and the bridge didn’t open.

Bridge boat 3






 Bridge boat 4

Certain disaster, and I was there with my camera ready to record it for CNN / BBC.

But, watch closely, the pilot house retracted as it approached the bridge, lowering into the boat to pass beneath the bridge, then popping up on the far side.

Bridge boat 5 Bridge boat 7







I love the ingenuity of mariners.  Especially when things go completely wrong…

Friday, April 3, 2009

Partitioning life into compartments


During a recent visit to the US, a friend asked what it felt like to come back after having lived abroad for so long.  It’s a difficult question: my closest answer is that it feels most like the feeling that I used to have when I went back to visit my parents.

I always have a sense of deep familiarity for people and settings when I go back: this is where I worked on projects, raised a family, sailed boats.  At the same time, my memories are now frozen in the past, so I notice all of the little things that have changed; a tree that fell over the winter, a new store in town, the way that the kids next door have grown. It’s odd to wave to neighbors once a quarter, catching up with their gradual changes in single, occasional jumps.

Similarly, people ask how I cope with the travel, do I get disoriented by the time changes, do I miss having a big house, how do I stay on the correct side of the road in England.

I think that I adapt by doing a lot of partitioning. 

When I am in the Netherlands, my life here is the most real to me.  I have work, an apartment, Dutch shopping habits that are unique to this location.  Dropping into the US, I have a different house, car, and friends.  In the UK, things change again: I drive on the left and drink Guinness in the college bar and make familiar plans to attend Evensong.

For me, at these times, each of these settings is a simple, immediate reality. Just as I change my wallet to have local currency and credit cards, or pack clothes appropriate for local weather and customs, I also connect directly to the local place and people, disconnecting from distant alternatives.

MaatrichtIt’s hard to describe; I tried to sort it through last night. I was sitting by the river last night watching the familiar flow of traffic and boats against the accustomed shops and restaurants of Maastricht.  Six months ago it was sp foreign; now it’s just ‘everyday’.  I’ve made a holistic mental transition that makes this city familiar and comfortable to me, assimilating places and peoples, rituals and routines.  Maybe frequent travel speeds up that process; I don’t hold onto familiar places as tightly, or assimilate new environments more quickly.

On the down side,  there’s certainly a disconnection from calling any single place “home”.  I don’t ‘nest’ after selecting housing, and I’ve grown used scattering my 14 boxes of possessions across furniture that isn’t mine. There are pictures on my walls of people that I don’t know, smiling together in places I’ve never been.

I just compartmentalize them out.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Revising Twitter and updating my web presence

This will be a geeky aside, sorry:

I continue to experiment with integrating Twitter feeds into this blog, and with better managing my personal web presence.

A few fellow bloggers have done a really nice job of making their content Twitter-compatible and separating their business and personal presences.  Martyn Postle at Cambridge Healthcare and Biotech is a great example: I appreciate his business philosophies about how to use web sites and Twitter feeds to manage client relationships, avoiding emailed spam and push-marketing.  I also really like his crisp and aesthetic web layouts. 

Since this blog has evolved into a series of personal essays, I think that two changes make sense to adapt to Twitter.  First, I want to make it easy to Tweet a link to the blog, and second, I want to incorporate a feed from my Twitter stream into the sidebar.  I don’t think that I want to tweet the arrival of each blog post, though: that happens on Plaxo and it feels like it could be intrusive?

So, I’ve added code to create a button beneath individual posts: I appreciate the code suggestions from Blogger Buster.

I’ve also added code for the sidebar, again with core code lifted from Blogger Buster, modified with some CSS style specs to get size, background, and border right.

It all seems to be running properly, but there will be tweaks along the way as I try to get the aesthetics right.  I managed to break a few things that had to be set right (my beloved weather map stopped working): it’s a good lesson in making template backups before beginning to reprogram things.

Once I finished here, I went out to check the links to the rest of myweb presence.  It’s frightening.

Managing these links cannot consume my life, so I only deal with a fraction of the available channels, really.  Still, it seems like i have take a day every six months to keep things aligned and current.

I still am relying on my personal web page as a hub that links out to the various facets of my social network:

  • Blogger and Twitter for narrative
  • Facebook, Linkedin, and Skype for networking
  • Netvibes and Ziepod for feed aggregating
  • Flickr, YouTube, and Tripadvisor for photo sharing.

It’s still a bit daunting how much there can be to manage, even though I try to do it as lightly as possible.  Real life, especially in the magnolia-scented springtime, is far more appealing.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The economic Pandora’s Box

pandora box In Greek mythology, Pandora’s Box was a large jar given to her by Zeus, along with instructions to keep it closed.  However, because Zeus had also endowed her with curiosity, she opened the box, releasing misfortune, disease, and burdensome labor into the world where it had not previously been known.  At the bottom of the box, though, was hope: belief that, in the end and despite adversity, what is wanted can be had and that events will turn out for the best.

This is the earliest instance of a recurring belief that, when curiosity couples with ignorance, mankind can inadvertently release evil into the world.  Thus, there are ‘forbidden secrets of nature’ that, if tampered with, can escape control to destroy their human creator and wreck havoc on the world. 

The popular worry remains that scientists will release mutants through gene manipulation or create black holes in accelerators.  However, there aren’t any actual scientific antecedents, just apocryphal stories like Shelly’s Frankenstein, Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Rather, to find a real-world example of Pandora’s Box, one has to look to the free markets.

I have been reading My Life as a Quant, an autobiography by physicist Emanuel Derman describing his work at Goldman Sachs to create financial models used to value options and predict derivative prices.

imageIt’s all very empirical.  He created statistical models of past trends, rationalized assumptions about  underlying factors that might drive trading psychology, and validated on limited independent samples.  There’s never a deep understanding of the equations beyond the fact that they correlate well with his data sets.

Despite this lack of understanding, Goldman rushed to capitalize on the equations and other firms built on the work.  It became a self-reinforcing delusion that they had insight and control over their creations. 

Sutton (2007) points out that social science theories become more accurate as they become more accepted because people act as though they are true.  Black Sholes pricing models didn’t predict options prices well at first, but as the theory became widely adopted, it fit people’s behavior better and better.

imageIt’s ironic that conservatives waged war on scientists and tried to limit work that they saw as potentially dangerous, yet gave the financial markets unlimited freedom to tamper.  Scientists self-censored, limiting research into genetic modification until experimental safeguards were created, but free-market capitalists set no limits or safeguards around their work.

The G-20 are now recognizing that there are “Pandora’s Box” risks associated with the economic sciences.  They are talking about regulations to set limits and to increase oversight, much as the Bush White House did with stem cells and climate change monitoring.

In truth, as natural scientists, we often pause to ask whether, just because we can do something, should we do it.

And, in truth, the financial scientists never did.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Group membership and speaking Dutch


On a recent episode of the BBC Radio podcast From Our Own Correspondent (Oct 31 2008), Henri Astier discussed the tensions between Dutch and French speakers in the Flemish region surrounding Brussels.  Its a short segment and worth a listen if you’ve ever wondered how the whole language partition / cooperation thing works in Belgium.    Honestly, it sounds like the answer is “Not too well”.

Mr. Astier also commented on the almost supernatural gift that the Dutch seem to have with speaking other languages.  He notes that there is nowhere else on earth where a group of people will switch out of their native tongue in order to accommodate the only non-fluent speaker in the room. It can be a bit eerie: the Dutch will effortlessly switch languages in mid-conversation, swinging as a group into Dutch for a sidebar or a joke that won’t translate, then, without any apparent cue, back into English again.

I think this is extraordinarily polite, and I’ve always appreciated the courtesy.  Even though my colleagues rationalize that few people speak Dutch, that Dutch is hard to learn, or that they’ve had to learn English to get along in the world, it’s not something that they have to do in their own country.  Most people in other countries don’t.

There may also be secondary advantages for the native Dutch.  The limited scope for the language cements the Dutch community together, promoting a Netherlands heritage and building an identity. It gives them a way to talk more familiarly and privately in mixed groups.  It serves to instantly distinguish visitors from native- and permanent-residents.  Sometimes I wonder if the maxim that “Dutch is hard to learn” is partly a canard, a way to discourage casual membership in the Netherlands group.

Of course, on the days that I’m actually working to learn Dutch, I am a true believer that it is, indeed, hard.

Image credit

Monday, March 30, 2009

The eels of Harderwijk

It was a sunny, if cold day on Sunday, perfect for getting out into the countryside and exploring a new village.  I’m not sure that Harderwijk made the list of 50 Mooieste Dorpen, but it seems like a particularly good family destination.

Harderwijk NL 34 Harderwijk is an old port city along the Veluwemeer, the broad river-like extension of the Ijsselmeer extending east from Amsterdam and separating Gelderland from the Flevoland polder.  The map, left, is from the local Admiraal restaurant: south is, artistically, towards the top.  The city is surrounded by the Veluwe, wide rolling pine forests popular with bikers and campers.  It’s a beautiful drive on a nice day, as trees extend for miles to give the area a very different character than the traditional flat, open fields and rivers that are common across the Dutch landscape.

The city dates back to the 13th century when it was a busy fishing port on the Zuider Zee, completely surrounded by a brick wall that protected it from man and sea. Cut off in 1932, that heritage is mainly captured today by the restaurants lining the waterfront and the Dolfinarium.  While reconstructed bits of the seawall remain, together with bits of the old city and the Grote Kerk, the overall impression is more of a New England seaside town, with colonial brick and white buildings and gas-lantern posts at the corners.

Harderwijk NL 36 Harderwijk NL 21

The inner harbor has a wonderful collection of Dutch barges and sailing boats framing a historic windmill, while the outer harbor is filled with sailboats and yachts framing the blue dome of the Dolfinarium.

Harderwijk NL 06Harderwijk NL 02 

The street vendors are advertising paling at every turn.  ‘Not related to the US variety (left), this is a local smoked eel (right).

sarah-palin-thumb Harderwijk NL 11

I didn’t have the courage to eat one off the cart, but the ample bones on the street suggest that the Dutch slurp them down much as they would a haring. The local restaurant served it sliced on bread, the smoked flavor was more delicate than I expected and the meat had a stronger texture .

Harderwijk NL 09Harderwijk NL 35

The town sounds popular with tourists in summer, and it looks like there are lots of opportunities for dingy sailing and racing, full of potential as a nice day trip from Amsterdam or Utrecht.

Harderwijk NL 30 Harderwijk NL 17

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Experimenting with personality tests

A few jobs back, my workgroup ran into a storm of trouble.  The group didn’t agree on goals or methods, respect for one another flagging, and communications had deteriorated to a point where people were withholding data, refusing to exchange ideas. The research director asked the company president, a scientist himself, to spend a few days with the group sorting through the issues.  His approach was pretty direct: Someone in this room is the source of the trouble, and we’re going to find it and solve it.

For the next week, we thrashed out the conflicts and, each day, someone would say that they couldn’t possibly be the source of the problem since they weren’t party to events.  As people left one by one, the group shrank, the remainder cowered, and the whole exercise began to resemble an extended game of musical chairs.  Finally, a friend called  around to warn us that he was going to recuse himself in the morning , prompting a final mass exodus as all of us did the same.

‘Feeling like this accomplished little, I took the initiative to visit a career counselor.  He gave me a Meyer-Briggs test, a form of personality assessment based in Jungian psychology that classifies people along four dimensions: Introvert/Extrovert, Sensing/ Intuitive, Thinking/Feeling,  and Judging/Perceiving.  You can take the test here for free.

I am an INTJ, a type described as “strong individualists who seek new angles or novel ways of looking at things. They enjoy coming to new understandings, tend to be insightful and mentally quick, and are determined people who trust their vision of the possibilities, regardless of what others think. They are comfortable working alone and have low tolerance for spin or rampant emotionalism. They are not susceptible to catchphrases and commonly do not recognize authority based on tradition, rank or title.”

Reviewing the results, the counselor told me that our problem was that I was part of a group that was entirely made up of people like myself.  It helped me to think about the role of personality in group interactions, and the importance of balancing various types to form an effective workgroup.

It came back to me a over the weekend as I listened to an interview with Dr. Helen Fisher.  She created a new personality inventory rooted in genetic research and neurochemistry: You can take it here.

I am an Explorer /Director, a type she describes as “a skywalker: You love adventure, both intellectual and physical. And you greet new challenges with passion and bravery. When you get interested in a project, you can become extremely focused on it, sometimes to the exclusion of all around you. You complete it carefully and thoroughly, often with great originality. And because you have a lot of energy and tend to be enthusiastic about your ideas, inventions, and projects, you can be very persuasive. You tend to like to collect things, experiences or ideas. And you are eager to make an impact on those around you, as well as the wider world. Although you enjoy people and can be charming and humorous, you are not very interested in routine social engagements or boring people. You are comfortable being by yourself, pursuing your own interests. People probably call you a non-conformist, an original. You like to have good conversations on important topics. People tend to admire you for your innovativeness. You make an exciting, though at times distant, companion.”

Good fun, and flattering.  While the results can feel like casting horoscopes, I do think that personality is a fundamental quality governing our  social interactions.and that understanding our own personality strengths and shortcomings is important to success in work and personal life.

A good interview with the slightly manic and sometimes annoying Dr Fisher can be heard here, but don’t listen until after you finish taking her test.

  P.S.: If you want to have your personality type determined through an analysis of your blog (yes, your blog), click here to connect to TypeAnalyzer.