Saturday, July 24, 2010

Optimizing ferry fares

DSC01157 I’m shuttling back and forth between Cambridge and Barrington, getting the rhythm and momentum of having one foot on either side of the channel.  I still favor the Dutch side of the arrangement, but like the city mouse / country mouse contrast.  There’s also opportunities to alternate busy meeting periods, where I scheme and deliver, with quiet times where I to get into my flow and get things done.
I’m doing the crossings on the ferries, a leg with the car costs between 35 and 50 gbp if I book a bit ahead a week and am flexible about when I travel.  Some periods get messed up: this weekend, for example, the Brits left for vacation and the fares DSC01233soared to 125 gbp on Saturday.
Yike!  and for crowding like this on the Dover Calais crossing.
A friend suggested that I look into ticket-books for multiple crossings.  I talked with the ferry crew and dug around the website – they don’t make this easy to find.  But the savings are huge, the tickets are transferable, and they last for a long time.
Norfolkline:  Multi-trip tickets, these are transferable among family and friends, open passage (don’t have to specify travel dates in advance), and fixed-fee regardless of time and day.  You can’t travel on peak blackout dates and must be fore return bookings.  You you buy a Silver pass, for example, you get 5-8 return trips for 24 GBP each way.  Travel must be completed by mid-December.
P&O Ferry:  Season Tickets, sold in packages of 9 return tickets from 27 gbp each way.  Prices may be higher depending on pass duration and number of return crossings, they don’t mention blackout dates or transferability.
Seafrance: Multi-ticket Carnet for 30 gbp each way if you buy 5-6 return tickets.  Valid for a year, supplemental charges for peak time crossings, and they are only available to UK residents.  But they do give complimentary coffee on the first crossing.
In all cases, purchase must be by phone (Norfolkline crews said that their offices also sell them, but no sales on the boats). 
Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any ferry company and am not paid for this advice: I buy all of my own tickets at retail prices.
PS: It’s also worth remembering to check for discount codes by searching before booking.  Sites like MyVoucherCodes have regularly saved me 10-30% on fares and stay pretty up to date with current codes.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The four-day work week

4-day work week

I’ve long been accused of ‘living to work’.  Nonetheless, I am a strong believer in value of having a 4-day workweek: I’ve lived it, and I (still) miss it.

In the late 1980’s, I went to work for Physio-Control, a Redmond WA medical device company, then recognized as one of the nation’s 100 Best Places to Work.  Led by W. Hunter Simpson, they had adopted a number of innovative workplace policies that made it a congenial and productive place to be.

There were flexible hours, parental leave, continuing education benefits, and (my favorite) free coffee.   The company was one of the first to have a suburban campus (pix below), although one supplier once compared us unfavorably to the cows grazing peacefully in the valley below.

Information about company performance and problems were openly shared and widely discussed.  Quarterly kickoffs and the year-end rush to ship product were all-company events; the University of Washington band might appear if it was an especially good performance.

Production was on the top floor of the plant, reminding people that the company depended on it’s product.  There were no ID badges.

The fiscal year ended on Valentines Day (fitting for a company developing cardiac therapy); the senior managers came to each Team Members office to thank them and to had them a bonus check personally. (The first time that happened, I thought I was about to be fired).

They kept an ‘open-stock’ area where engineers could get parts for their projects without filling out paperwork. There was a full model shop on premises because Hunter thought that the company should always have people who could build real things using lathes and drill presses.

And they had a 4-day work week.

It was still a 40-hour workweek, but arranged as 4 / 10’s, Monday through Thursday. We had to be around for “core hours’, 9 to 4, but could arrange the whole eight however suited us best as individuals and departments.

I typically stay late anyway, so working eight to six it wasn’t a huge adjustment for me. It encouraged putting sustained effort into a project, invaluable when long periods of sustained focus and thought is needed (I was doing programming, data analysis, and research experiments at the time).

Three day weekends were also wonderful.  There was time to shop and do appointments on Friday, rather than squeezing them into breaks from work, and more trips around the Pacific Northwest were possible.  Sunday actually became the intended ‘day of relaxation’ because everything else was done. Life felt more balanced in all respects.

‘Downside was that if I didn’t put a definite finish to things on Thursday, I’d have completely lost the thread of work by the following Monday.  It was hard to schedule meetings outside of core hours, and lunch felt like it came too late (the day really needed two breaks, not one).

But I loved it.

It came to an end in the mid-90’s as new management rotated the whole company back onto the five-eights schedule. It was ostensibly done to ‘better serve our customers’, who couldn’t understand why there was nobody there on Fridays.  In reality, it felt like a country-club to Bain Capital, who bought us from Lilly.

Whatever: it had several immediate effects.

First, the day felt more crammed: what I used to do in ten hours, I now had to do in eight.  The weekend felt more crowded, as I had to do in two days what I used to do in three.  Meetings took up a larger percentage of the workday; doctors and school appointments shifted to lunches and breaks.  Life felt more crowded and compressed, and there was the nagging sense of management taking something away that people resented

As communities and companies try to deal with budget issues, reduce traffic volumes, raise productivity, save energy, reduce turnover, and give workers intangible benefits, the 4-day workweek idea is making a comeback.  North Carolina and Utah are experimenting with it, along with some schools and companies.  It’s not for everyone, for  every job, or for all industries.  But I think it makes sense for knowledge workers and, like telecommuting and flexible hours, should be part of how we configure our workplaces.

along with free coffee.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Painting into the corners

“You know, this won’t work for much longer…”, said the border control agent, riffling my passport pages.  “Scarcely room for another visa stamp.”

Even with the borderless advantage of the modern EU, passports seem to fill up quickly.  A business trip a month, a vacation every quarter, regular trips to the UK, the pages get used up within a year or so.  Fortunately, the embassy can add pages without issuing a new passport (or you can order your passport in “book form”, with extra pages to begin with).

But, for me, it’s time to get the extra pages inserted.

So, I book an appointment with the US Embassy web site for Amsterdam for Monday, 10:15.  In hindsight, Brussels is closer to Maastricht, but I’d already bought the train ticket.  Two immediate problems surfaced: my new OV chipcard and ubiquitous rail maintenance.

I was two days late in paying my yearly OV Kaart renewal, so NS had to issue an entirely new one.  It seems like the discount would just suspend until I paid to re-activate it, especially since I still use the card for train / tram fare.  I have 29 euros on the old card, which can’t be transferred to the new one without paying 2.50 euro.

Being more cheap than frustrated, I now use one OV card for payments, the other for discounts.

The discount doesn’t work until 9 am anyway, the hours from 6 am to 9 am considered ‘peak travel’ for Dutch commuters.  Canny commuters will, no joke, buy the full fare to wherever the train stops at 9 am, then get off the train and buy the discount fare for the remainder of the journey.

Rail Maintenance is a summer fact of life, and the odds of encountering an interruption increase the farther I travel.  Today, the system was cut between 's-Hertogenbosch and Utrecht, DSC01153 forcing me off the train and onto the (not so) snelbus. This is a well-meaning innovation for motoring passengers around the construction, but relies on motorways being clear and drivers that know the route.  Morning traffic on the A2 and ‘first trip of the day’ for new drivers is a bad combination: it takes 90 minutes to hop between stations.  I pass the time taking pictures of road art.

I made it to Amsterdam at 9:45, and sorted out a tram to the Museum Park where the embassy is located. Unfortunately, Amsterdam no longer accepts strippenkaart: the driver waved   me back out the door.  It took some time at the station sorting out which card had the money, (noting that the driver would have accepted money even if he didn’t take a strippekaart).  By 10am, I was ready for a second go at Tram 5.

AMS trammap 1906 I used to say that it was a mark of evolution as an expat to move from taking a car to Schiphol to taking the train to taking a bike.  Trams were always the highest challenge: which to board, how to pay, where to stand.  Now, its second nature.

The embassy is it’s usual fortress-like self: raspy box, multiple layers of security, no electronics past the gate, emptying every pocket at the inner office inspection.

“You know this costs $82 now?” asked the clerk.  I sighed.  “’Shoulda come last week; it was bound to happen sometime.”  He shook his head.  “Come back between 3 and 4 to pick it up.”

The day began at 5 am, and early dash to the train, diversion on the bus, confusion with cards, a new charge for embassy service.  I wondered if I wasn’t painting myself into too many corners.

But, with four hours to kill and a glorious summer day in a fantastic city, maybe it was time to paint into the corners instead, taking advantage of the time and the setting.

So, I had a leisurely lunch along the canals.  I took a picture of the mimes in Dam Square for my daughter.  I shopped a bookstore.  I walked the Vondelpark and read a book.

I had a thoroughly nice, relaxed day.

  And, at 3 pm,

  • I traversed embassy security again, emptying my pockets into the shoulder bag ahead of time,
  • retrieved my thick, mangled passport, good for years more adventure,
  • slapped the right OV Kaart at the tram sensor, which flashed an approving green and made a cheerful beep,
  • bought a discount train ticket, because there are no peak commuting hours after 9 am in the Netherlands,
  • slept on the snelbus, where the seats are comfortable when motionless on the A2,
  • and still arrived home in Maastricht by 8 pm.

  If I paint myself into corners, at least I can doodle in the white spaces once I’m there.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Riding the Albert Canal


Sunday we rode around the Albert Canal, following the blue loop south of Maastricht outlined on the map above.  We passed locks and had lunch in the little town of Kanne.  It was a lovely afternoon.

But the brief version ‘doesn’t really do justice  to the day.  Accurate enough, but needs some colour and narrative…one more try.


DSC01064 This is what Sunday afternoon looks like from south of Maastricht, looking north along the canals paralleling the meandering Maas river.  The Albert Canal curves through the cut to the left, while the Sluis van Lanaya flows right beneath the broad grey building marking the locks.

The Sluis is a simple ship canal arrowing straight into the center of Maastricht.  It starts with a lock that drops the river barges down 35 feet to the level of the Maas River, then an 11-meter deep channel into the main river.  The locks are a popular family picnic destination: people bike out just to spend an afternoon watching the boats go up and down.  Nobody seems to go fishing.


The Albert Canal was built in the 1930s to connect Antwerp and Liege, and drills northwest through a ridge before circling around the Belgian side of Maastricht.  The grooves left by blasting and scraping the rock faces are visible all along the face of the gorge, and there are remains of a fort along the south bank.


There’s a nice footpath along the waters edge, technically closed because of frequent rockslides. Practically, the locals have created paths around the gates and the trails are full of risk-skeptical walkers and bikers.

Albert Canal Loop 09The route turns north at the village of Kannes, where there are some small fietscafe’s with excellent ice cream and beer.  It’s surprising to see so much French being spoken so close to the border (and so many prominent Catholic icons).

Albert Canal Loop 11Albert Canal Loop 14

The bike route back to Maastricht follows a road past the Castle of Neercanne (of course), with it’s strange little sculpture garden.  The red steeple of the Vrijthof is visible over the trees, yet there are cows and sheep and fields of corn. It’s amazing to find things are this rural within 10 minutes of the city center.

Albert Canal Loop 17Albert Canal Loop 19


Okay, so that was‘better, but still fails to capture the simple warmth of the day or the cooling wind, the smells of the water and the countryside.  Or how couples and families filled the paths, enjoying the clear blue skies and laughing together in the restaurants.

Or the attitude: there wasn’t any reason to be anywhere particularly, so our ride lingered along the shorelines and cornfields, with time to stop and talk, opportunities to take a hill twice if the breeze felt right

It was, indeed, one of those days when I re-discover the lure of Europe, still accessible within just a half hour of home.

  It was a lovely afternoon.


More pix on flickr or facebook.

And a ‘graph for the day that illustrates the language differences in Flanders and Wallonia (credit: Skills in Belgium