Friday, December 30, 2011

Peer reviewing

Peer ReveiwOne of the foundations of the scientific method is publication of results so that they can be assessed and reproduced by the wider community of researchers.  Peer review is the first step in that publication process, voluntary, anonymous review of work by experts in the field, with comments returned to the author so that the paper can be improved prior to publication.

I serve as a peer reviewer for several journals and probably get requests about twice a month to comment on a paper.  Generally it takes about an hour to understand the work, to assess whether it is correct, clear, open to alternative interpretation,and properly positioned within the relevant landscape of background literature. I try to write balanced comments, praising a clear hypothesis, a well-reasoned discussion, while perhaps suggesting where figures could be more clear or an alternative method might yield better results.  The revised paper comes back the next month and I generally pass it if the author has replied to my points (whether or not those result in changes).

Occasionally I run into situations where I struggle.  I received one where the author had copied an earlier paper, word for word, yet not cited it. I talked with my editor (the lead author was fairly senior) and we recommended that he include the citation: it was enough to alert him that we’d found the earlier work.   Another was proposing pages of dense calculation for an obscure visualization technique that, in the end,m didn’t reveal anything new in the data.  I think that, in six revisions, we did everything but rewrite the paper for him.

Last month, I received a work that was analyzing structure in short-and long-term heart rate changes.  It’s a tricky analysis, since it’s statistical rather than deterministic, and the author had calculated some crude ratios to support his hypothesis.  Worse, his underlying technique destroyed the very ordering among data points that he based his hypothesis on.  I pointed out that the results weren’t supported by the method, suggested some alternative approaches fo analysis, and worked out an example to illustrate my point.  Throughout I was constructive and respectful (I though), allowing that I might have missed his point, but didn’t follow the logic.

The authors absolutely blistered me in their reply.

…there are many comments made by the Reviewers with which we disagree, comments which we consider unhelpful and comments which are just wrong…we strongly believe that the Reviewers should be aware of the fact that, even though they are anonymous, they should put time and effort in reading and reviewing the papers. We are frequent reviewers for a number of peer-reviewed journals,and we always try to helpful for the Authors and never write from the position of someone who, by definition, knows better.

Most of my comments were subsequently dismissed with this is an opinion and there is nothing we can do about it, except state that we disagree.  Fair enough: I went back through my analysis and still cannot link their conclusions with their data using their method.  I had to just recuse myself after that: while we might have solved the disagreements over a beer and a whiteboard, their reaction was so strong and their comments so dismissive, that there just weren’t actually any explanations to discuss.

I felt badly about the comments and about the outcome: I do take the job seriously and give every paper a good read.  I know how much work it takes to do research and to write it up.  In the end, if they are right, they should be able to refute the counter argument and to say why.  If they are wrong, they need to make corrections.

And, fundamentally, I disagree with them that Reviewers are there to serve the Authors. 

Reviewers are present to serve Readers.

If, as a first reader, I think that a paper is wrong, I have a responsibility to (nicely) say so, suggest why, and present alternatives.  Maybe it’s a real mistake, maybe I just don’t understand, maybe the Methods contain omissions or ambiguities.  But honest and differing perspectives should be addressed openly.

We might argue that every author is entitled to his view and the Readers will sort things out. Eventually, yes.   But errors enter indexed literature, then pop up on searches, news reports, and blogs.

The Letters to the Editor don’t have much impact, and are presented as a debate that obscures rather than resolves issues.  It can take years before the truth is sorted by Readers, years of contradictions and misinterpretations in which true facts have been undermined and genuine debates get muddied. 

The argument presented by these Authors, that Reviewers should only check for clarity of language and labels on graphs, is wrong.  The peer review process is intended to engage experts as surrogate Readers, not as supplemental Editors.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The long tail of travel

DSC07845I was riding the airport escalator, lost in thought, the aspirational airport ads gliding by.  Island resorts that I’ll never visit; books I’ll never read; restaurants I’ll never frequent; shows I’ll never attend.  It’s like an airline magazine brought to life.

Then an HSBC poster caught my eye – one of the many “ways of seeing” ads that they post on jetways worldwide.  This one made me smile, though.

It captured the contradictions of expat psychology so well.  It’s a Jason Bourne / Jeremiah Johnson archetype, of being more comfortable with environments than with people.  Of being lone hunters rather than communal gatherers.

It reminded me of an October 2011 graphic in Wired Magazine, reproduced below.   They surveyed everyone’s passports in the office an counted up the countries visited.  The results produced an long-tail distribution, with some countries being visited by almost everyone and others by only a few.

Long Tail

As with the HSBC poster, I can recognize myself within this picture, placed about a third of the way from the left.  That places me in the top 7% or so among the most travelled Wired staffers. 

I’m torn as to whether this tells me that I travel too much or that others should travel more.

And there’s an aspirational aspect to the statistics.  I’m instinctively looking right to find my next destination: prescriptively I should be visiting Brazil, Egypt, Norway, and perhaps delaying Albania and Sudan.

And no sign of when the time is right to start exploring the ‘Stan countries – I may leave that to my son, reporting in from Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Piddling with the plumbing

Home ownership comes with as many jobs as joys.  I don’t mind most, from yard work to wiring, but plumbing has always held a special challenge for me.  Technically, it’s no more difficult than electricity or ventilation: follow the flows, remove the blockages, replace the fittings, clean the connections.  I’ve developed a special relationship with my local hardware stores, Ernst, Home Depot, McLendon’s, who always seem to be able to supply a diagnosis, a part, and a smile that puts me on track to getting the lights on and the heat through.

Not so with plumbing.

Innumerable times, I have replaced fittings, tightened connections, and turned on the water to get results varying from drips to geysers.  Water is relentless in finding gaps and flaws.  Then it all has to be taken apart, cleaned, reassembled, two times, three, before either finally working or triggering a call to a neighbor or plumber.  There’s always a temptation to solve problems with plumbers tape and bathtub caulk.

Toilet seals (simple instructions lead to dire consequences: seat the bowl over the wax ring and press down firmly; flush once), faucets  (filled with tiny springs and valves), and underground pipes (a favorite of moles and tree roots) hold special dangers.  Even today’s simple task, “Please replace the four leaky shutoff valves”, revealed unexpected complications.

Like compression rings.

Our fixtures are old and out of date, corroded and dripping, original to the house.  The shutoff valves are the likely culprit, so I bought four at the local Home Depot, turned off the main water (provoking howls from the daughter) and attacked the process of disassembling the pipes.

And quickly ran into the day’s challenges.

Lesson 1:  Turning off the main shutoff doesn’t disconnect internal reservoirs, such as the hot water tank.  I got caught full in the face by a geyser of (fortunately warm) water as the valve popped off the pipe.

Lesson 2:  Compression rings may turn but they don’t pull.  The ring slipped easily off the first pipe, with difficulty from the second, and refused to budge from the next two.  No amount of twisting and tugging set it free, yet the corroded wall plate and worn threads of the sealing nut meant it had to come loose.  Cutting off the pipe behind it was not an option: the Internet suggested a hacksaw (but don’t nick the underlying pipe).

Compress Ring PullerLesson 3:  Compression ring pullers.  Yes, it’s $20 for something I’ll seldom use (and probably lose), but it got the job done.  Insert the tip into the pipe, the collar around the ring, turn the handle, and it pulls the ring right off the pipe.  Lovely.

Lesson 4:  The value of a box of old plumbing parts.  The job was done, and I was reassembling the drain pipes.  The main one of the bottom of the sink wouldn’t attach, in fact, it looked like it had never attached.  I took pictures up to the hardware store (third trip of the day) and they said that the old ring had literally fallen apart. They gave me a new one, but that just slipped over the threads, refusing to pull the pipe and sink together.  Rummaging through an old box of pipe parts, Karen came up with a plastic fitting that happened to fit perfectly.  I’m a skeptic about holding onto useless boxes of miscellaneous hardware, but this one saved the day.

By late evening, double the estimated time for the job, the work was done and the water was back on.   Simple, really: just unscrew the old valves and replace them with new ones.

Except when it’s plumbing.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Day

‘wishing everyone a very warm and happy Christmas with family, friends, and traditions.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The European straw man

euro_ripIt’s always interesting to immerse back into the turbulence of US media after months away.  The economy is Topic One on the news and talk shows, television and radio, money or politics.  And, whether looking behind for reasons or ahead for alternatives, the next sentence is always the same.

With the Eurozone teetering on the brink of collapse…

Although I think it’s a comfort for Americans to believe that they are weathering a storm gusting in from across the ocean, it seems like more myth and distraction than cause-and-effect.

The worst outcomes of the Eurozone crisis leads to some form of restructuring or abandonment of the euro as a common currency, not the bankruptcy of Europe as a whole or the fall of its sovereign nations.  There will still be European production, consumers, financial centers, and governments.  euro-zone-debt-27-1Border controls may re-emerge, economic buffers proliferate, and local regulators re-assert, but it’s more likely to be a painful adjustment than a total collapse.

And, despite the scenes of riots against imposed austerity programs and the rotation of prime ministers throughout the southern margins of the Union, no country is descending into anarchy or civil war.  The trains still run (perhaps a bit more grimy and irregular), the banks are all open (although quick to impose a new fee at every turn), and the grocers and shops are filled with goods (and shoppers who are buying them).  There’s  frustration and apprehension, but not widespread privation.

a consequence of socialist economic policies…

At home, politicians have developed a shorthand that links Europe Collapse to Socialism to Obama.  The links are forged from stimulus spending, healthcare reform, and bank bailouts, all policies demonstrated to have failed on the Continent.

Only they haven’t.  Bank breakups in the Netherlands have eliminated “Too Big To Fail” institutions without harming competitiveness.  Universal mandates and cost controls result in my paying$150 per month for Dutch health insurance (In the US I pay $2500 per month, more than my daughter’s college bill).  Interest rates on Dutch bonds is 2.1%, Germany 1.8%; unemployment is 5%, and they retain their AAA bond rating.

Still, Europe remains a favorite target this campaign season.

“We have a choice in America to be remaining a merit-based opportunity society that follows the Constitution, or to follow the path of Europe. And I'm the guy who believes in the former. I believe America got it right. I believe Europe got it wrong. I believe America must remain the leader of the world. . . . I am absolutely committed to an American century. I see this as an American century."  -- Mitt Romney,  WSJ, 24/12/11

I think that if the US were to simply acknowledge and address both our problems and potential honestly, we could accomplish far more. “What cathedrals will our generation build?” asked one commentator: Where has American confidence gone, our willingness to come together as a nation to take on a task larger than ourselves?  In science, art, infrastructure, economics, production, the US has always been outward looking, optimistic, free to take the best and adapt the rest from global cultures, giving back products and ideas that change the world, and ultimately to create a virtuous circle of success.

illuminati_round_table_geopolitical_chartReturning home, I see a surly shifting of blame, loss of confidence in institutions, hoarding of resources, and division of people by class, geography, and party.  There are an astounding number of unchallenged untruths being told. 

And how stupid is that?  Very.

Pundits and politicians erect simple straw men as convenient rationalizations for genuine hardships and inequalities.  But the world isn’t really anything like the one they depict.

As a start, don’t believe any of the straw men illustrated on this page.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Three cookie recipes

Bourbon Balls

  • 1/4 c Bourbon whisky
  • 1C Vanilla wafer crumbs
  • 1.5T Corn Syrup
  • 2T Cocoa powder
  • 1C finely chopped pecans
  • 1C Powdered sugar

Combine bourbon and syrup, set aside. Combine crumbs, pecans, cocoa.  Add bourbon mixture, shape into balls, roll in powdered sugar.

 

Cutout Cookies

Bowl 1: Cut 4 – 4.5 cups flour into one cup oleo / butter.

Bowl 2: Beat together 2 eggs and 1 cup granulated sugar.

Bowl 3: Mix together 5 tsp whole milk, 1 tsp vanilla, 1.5 tsp nutmeg, and 1 tsp baking soda.

Add bowl 2 and 3 to bowl 1.  Roll out very thin, cut shapes. Bake at 375F until just barely tan on the bottom.  Frost or sugar when cool.

 

Rugelach

  • 1 C Butter
  • 2 C Flour
  • 1 Egg yolk
  • 3/4 C Sour cream
  • 3/4 C Granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 C Chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 C butter, melted

Cut butter into flour.  In a separate bowl beat egg yolk and sour cream well, then add to flour mixture. Mix until blended.  Cover with plastic and refrigerate at least 3 hours.  Prepare filling from sugar, cinnamon, and walnuts.  Preset oven to 375F.

Roll 1/3 of dough into a circle 1/8” thick.  Brush with melted butter and spread 1/3 of filling over top.  Cut into circle into 16 wedges and roll each up towards the point.  Bake on ungreased cookie sheet for 15 minutes until lightly browned.

 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On the move at Christmas

Sunset over the Wasatch Range alongside Salt Lake City.  both the lake and the city are buries beneath a layer of low clouds, lapping against the foothills.  Really a beautiful evening.

We’re all on the move this season.  I’m off from Cambridge to Boulder, visiting my parents for a long weekend ahead of heading back to Seattle for two weeks.  Shopping is high on the list, both for Christmas gifts and reprovisioning.  My battle gear is getting badly worn, from my suit to my shoulder bag, from the watch lost at Schiphol security to the MP3 player flooded at Dover.  Reading glasses, med refills, a few books and spices requested by friends: the bag will be going back full.

William KabulMy son is moving this Christmas as well.  He was deployed to Afghanistan where he’ll be flying aerial recon assignments in support of coalition ground troops.  His wife and their puppy stay behind in Alaska; our hope is that 10,000 feet provides sufficient buffer to keep him save for the next 8 months.  He’s excited about the assignment, doing great work and optimistic about where it leads.

I saw ex-National Security Advisor Rice being asked how she felt about the sacrifice in lives and injuries over the past ten years after she jumped us into a war on mistaken pretense.  She smiled broadly and said that nothing worthwhile comes without sacrifice.

Lovely.

My daughter is coming back from college for a couple of weeks of work at Nordstrom before returning to finish her last semester.  She’s exploring a European rotation at one of the fashion houses alongside possibilities here in the States.  It’s not an area that I can help with (except for providing an apartment), but she seems to have it all well in hand: knowledgeable, motivated, optimistic.

Couldn’t ask for more, from either of them.

A lot of families cluster close all year around, not just at Christmas.  Mine scatters across the globe year- around, gathering improbably at reunions and Christmas.  Some folks ask whether that is a failure in our parenting, but I’ve always believed that the goal is to raise happy, confident, independent adults.

Not without a few bumps, to be sure, but they’ve both turned out as we hoped.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Research management

research groupsBefore I became an expat, I was a research director with Physio-Control, a Redmond WA company, the world leader in resuscitation techno0logy.  It was a great job, we had 20 talented people, a $3 million annual budget, and a dozen projects and studies ongoing that each had potential to directly save lives.  It was a great job.

At the time, though, I didn’t pay enough attention to the context of the job.  I was good at managing projects and people but missed the context of my department: someone was paying the bills and expected something in return.  I thought that performance alone mad us immune to budget cuts and office politics; I was wrong.

I met the current research director for dinner shortly after I returned to Seattle this week, and we talked about managing scientists and expectations. 

Research Mgt

It seems to me that there are two dimensions involved:  the balance between creating insight and technologies (ideas vs. innovations) and the balance between internal and external focus (on Customers or on the Corporation).  In classic b-school partitioning, this creates four styles of research management. 

For those with an idea orientation, research produces some combination of white papers for the marketing folks, bolstering the company’s offerings through focused studies, or conducting blue-sky investigations alongside (or in place of) university labs.  

If innovation is more the style, then you create some combination of components for project teams or try to start entirely new businesses.

Intrinsically, all are valid: I leaned towards creating startups, the current director is a solid idea guy: both work.

But politically, the department can’t survive if the model doesn’t align with senior management’s conception of what research is for. 

Despite lip service about organic growth and open innovation, the company didn’t really want an intrapreneurial group challenging established projects.  In the end, I was out and the group was disbanded in favor of a more consultative model.  The current director plans the politics better than I ever did, and the group; has greater stability and is able to take on longer-term projects.

It’s not just about positioning and performance.  Awareness and alignment also matter.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Work-Life Balance

DSC07752Wrapping things up in London prior to heading to the US – the Board has set a price for our next offering (£25/share, up from £15/share last spring, pegging our valuation at just shy of £2 million), our experimental plan is in place with the Universities, my syllabus for the new term is almost ready, my outline for the Poland Business Education grant is complete.  Most importantly, my bags are stuffed with goodies and gifts from the far flung corners of my travels.  I’ll scatter them along the way as I fly back, first to see my parents in Boulder, than on to family in Seattle.  A bit of St. Nick, almost (I don’t think a flying sled fits Dutch tradition).

It’s been a busy few weeks, and looks worse going forward.  A course to teach, clinical trials coming up in the US in February and March, fundraising across the UK in January and February, development and experiments to finish by first of March.  And Dutch classes to catch up with.

So, I read with interest an article in Business Traveller about re-establishing work-life balance.  They catalog not listening, becoming aggressive, losing your humor, and decoupling from social activity as key warning signs.  DSC07753I would add sleep disruption, irregular eating, lack of exercise, and nagging guilt over missing personal and business commitments as a few more.  It doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of stress: I find that it’s just a pervasive feeling that I can’t catch up, flailing through tasks but always extending the list faster than I can cross them off.

So, the five solutions:

Designate time to your personal life.  This varies from just scheduling guilt-free evenings off to planning events you can’t back out of.  Or take Matt Cutts’ “Try something new for 30 days” challenge.  The temptation for me would be to assign it to Dutch practice, but in the spirit of “New”, I’d probably learn a new cooking technique each day.

Take care of your body:  Get regular sleep, regular meals, regular exercise.  I am pretty good on the first, a bit lax on the second, progressively worse on the third.  That’s especially worrisome because my genes have handed me a “Use them or lose them” deal with my muscles, and regular exercise is important to strength, flexibility, and endurance.  For many years, I took a mid-day break to go exercise, and need to get back into the habit.

Consider workshifting: “Work remotely to achieve a more productive day”.  In a virtual business, flung across three countries, that’s pretty much my life anyway.  Where I do fall down, though, is in travelling too much, losing a few days every month to air and train travel between three base locations.  Even cutting that by one would make a huge difference.

Turn off technology:  When we were young, our family took vacations in the Northwoods, by canoe, so that my father could escape the phone and the office.  DSC07754Today, communications are even more pervasive, breaking down barriers to segmenting any part of life away from the others.  Think about how you take doctor’s calls in the grocery, work calls on vacation, and (apparently if you’re female, none of my male-friends do it) taking friend’s calls in the bathroom (tub or toilet).  I’d seriously like to take one week-long hike or sail in the new year, with the mobile and computer unavailable except for family emergencies.

Find time to do nothing:  When I’m in the Netherlands, I take one night a week for recreation at the local bars, jazz music, quiz night, poetry. I’m searching out the same sort of venues in Britain (harder because there’s no WeekIn/WeekUit in Cambridge!).  It’s relaxation; so it taking a pleasure book to a pub or café or hottub for a read, or the bike into the countryside.  It’s a bit of “sit still and breath” turn-your-mind-to-idle relaxation time that I probably need to do daily, but don’t.

I’d add taking time to celebrate your successes (give yourself small rewards), keeping in touch with friends (I periodically pick out an old friend that I haven’t heard from in a while and write them a note), finding something to laugh about (and share with someone else each day), and taking a reflective moment each day to keep it all in perspective.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Two Thursday thoughts

IdealismI called a friend “Idealistic” today.  I meant it as a compliment; he took it worse.  It seems odd.

Idealistic, for me, meant that he had vision for a better way of doing things and a passion for making it happen.  I knew a research manager who carried a brick around for a year, saying that a defibrillator should never be any larger than that.  He built a working defibrillator out of watch batteries once to show it could be done.  A very tall stack of batteries, to be sure.  I’m not sure how to describe someone like that other than idealistic – a characteristic we admired around the research table.

I consulted the authorities. Someone guided more by ideals than by practical considerations, declares one dictionary.  Thinking of things as ideal forms rather than as they really are, accuses another.  Having high ideals that are usually unrealizable or at odds with practical life, sniffs a third.

I see the point.  But if not an idealist, what?  Some of the most delightful people I know are people who don’t believe their ideas are impossible.  More than dreamers, they go on to demonstrate that they are right.

====================

Brain drain reverses course, flows away from America.

I find this delightful.  6.3 million Americans are studying or working abroad, the highest number ever.  Over 5% of all Americans 25 to 34 are actively planning to relocate outside of the US; 40% of those 18-24 express an interest.

Reasons vary, but “There's a feeling among more entrepreneurial Americans that if you really want to get anything done, you have to get out of country.” 

brainmappingIt wasn’t always that way.  In the 80’s, Europe was conservative and traditional, suspicious of innovation and hostile to invention.  I remember bringing a new brainmapping device over to show to British colleagues.  “How have you calibrated it?”, they sniffed.  The Japanese, meanwhile, took turns hooking one another up and joined in speculation about what the images might mean.

Now the situation is reversed.  There is a lot of creative technical talent to hire and strong university research centers to collaborate with.  Clinical studies are easier to do; regulatory hurdles are lower: I can get innovation to patients faster and cheaper than in the US.  The EU is a common market with as many consumers as the United States: the spending isn’t as high, but opportunities have been growing.  I feel like I can get more done here, despite the euro-crisis.

I’m happy with my choices and the opportunities that they’ve provided; others are discovering the same differences.  I suppose that the main question remaining is What is the best country to relocate to (probably varies by age and profession)?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

And on the boat back…

Once again gales were predicted for the Channel; once again the clouds darkened during the drove across Belgium.  After the German glow of Christmas lights and gluhwijn, the beating rain and deepening cold of northern France felt more unpleasant than usual – it would be good to get off the road and back into Cambridge to a warm night’s sleep, gathering thoughts ahead of the year-end board meetings.

4:00: pulled into the docks a half hour ahead of departure, only to find the back end of a ferry pulling out against a wall of clouds to the west.  Schedules were already disrupted, and the attendants warned that the 5 pm ferry would be at least an hour late.   I’m suspecting that NorfolkLine runs any schedule they want, dropping a boat or two along the way, when the weather gives them an opening.  Then there’s the grim alternative: an empty concrete cafeteria that never seems to open.  I bundled up and hunkered down.

A boat pulled in at 5:30, not the usual cruiser, but an old ship glowing faintly along tiny windows cut along high steel sides.  We were waved back to our cars and herded on board.  The upper decks were closed; Seating was strictly airline-style – ‘not a good sign.  The captain warned of a rough and slow crossing on a crackling intercom as we launched towards sunset.

I kept at my work, pecking at the computer as the ship bounced and heaved across the Channel.  Occasional ferries emerged from the rain, spray blown from the bows over the upper decks, then passed on into the night.   People slept or glumly focused on an imaginary horizon.  We reached Dover by 8pm, but found the tugs  busy and the slips full.  We circled the outer seawall, nautical equivalent of a holding pattern, and waited.  9 pm: out turn finally came and we dropped out of sequence and jostled into place, tumbled our cars off the boat.

I looped into Dover, freed, looking for a faster route towards the M25.  Focused ahead, I missed the road debris, maybe a stray curb, that blocked my path.  The car lurched, shuddered, pulled hard to the left.  A horrible noise pounded out of the left front wheel well.  ‘Not much doubt that I’d blown a tire, but where to land and fix it?  I punched the Tom Tom, looking for a restaurant:  MacDonald's glowed a quarter mile off to the right.  Around the roundabout, thumping up a hill, through the entry, and park – in a MacDonald’s undergoing full refurbishment.  We apologize for the inconvenience: Brit-slang for not being very sorry at all.

I popped the trunk to look for a spare, but found only a package shaped like a spare with a tire inflator inside.  Not much help for a shredded wheel. Time to think things over, preferably over a sandwich.  I stood in the queue of cars passing the drive-up window.  A Little Person leered.  We cannot serve anyone who isn’t in their car: I explained that my slumped conveyance wasn’t going to make the 20-yard run: could they make an exception?  The manager was summoned, who glared and began to apologize for the inconvenience. But then, moved by the spirit of Christmas, said he’d make a limited offering in exchange for cash. Deal.

Back in the car, I started phoning into the Netherlands, first ANWB, who bounced me to the lease company, who skipped me to Mondial, my insurance group.  Can you please find the following numbers on your tire: diameter, manufacturer, an odd code number, all black script against a black rim in the darkness.  I squatted in the gale and tried to read them by the light of my phone.  Eventually, as though exchanging nuclear codes, we agreed on the values and they disappeared to consult.  I waited, cleaning up from where the wind had knocked the Coke over in my console, flooding a camera and MP3 player (both old, but still a loss).

Callback: 2 1/2 hours to get a tire out from London.  I bundled up and hunkered down.  The car swayed in the wind, the rain sheeted over the windshield and spilled down the back.  I think I dozed a bit.  The MacDonald’s closed as the trickle of customers ended.  A bit after midnight, headlights shown through the windows: a yellow-slicked mechanic knocked and waved me to the van.  “Almost blew over three times,” he shook his head.  “Would have cost at least £250 to pay for the call.”  He grinned.  “All you need to pay for is the new tire.”  Deal.  £53 and ten minutes later, I had a new wheel and was back on the road.

The drive north was long but uneventful, the roads empty and fast at 1 am after a storm.  Home by 2:30, bed by 3, meetings at 9: I’m starting to feel used to it.  Its making the Eurostar and RyanAir look better and better.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Traditions maintained: The Koln Markets

My disappointment with Maastricht’s Christmas markets this year led to a quest for cities where spirit and tradition still thrived…and it led to Koln.

Koln has always had a sprawling market presence – at least six markets are dropped into city parks and along the rivers – I favor the crowds gathered among brightly lit stalls beneath the enormous brooding central church.  an hour’s drive from Maastricht, it’s an easy afternoon excursion, and the festive spirit still overwhelms the high prices charged for eierpunsch, stollen, foil ornaments and beanbag toys.  It’s enough to just wander and take it all in without buying lots.

 

DSC00874 Stitch 

DSC00856 Stitch

It seems ironic that the better markets are being fielded by the sometimes parsimonious and dour Germans, but maybe it follows their emphasis on local over central institutions and a different sense of civil / commercial balance.

More pix at my Flickr site

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Kerst af de Maas–Maastricht Markets

I look forward to the Christmas markets each year: they flower across major cities in Europe in lights, foods, music, and drink.  The gluhwijn flows, the skaters crow the ice, the Skywheels twirl.  It’s good fun in the weeks leading up to Christmas and on through New Year’s.

Last year, Maastricht put on a  spectacular show, with venues spread out across the town.  Kerst aan de Maas was held outside my windows, convenient for hot krakauer sausages and fragrant mulled wine.  I pushed things in England to get back to Maastricht ahead of the holidays so that I could enjoy the festival again this year.  But this year, the apron along the river was dark except for an avant-garde piece of street art, a movie showing black and white prison scenes with a howling operatic accompaniment.

‘no joke.

 

The Christmas Market, such as it was, filled half the Vrijthof square – in earlier years it filled the area.  The Skywheel still glowed against the churches, but the Christmas shop was gone; the stands still served potato cakes and oliebollen but the rides and crowds were gone.  The SMS Christmas tree, changing colors with a text message, was still in the Mossae Center, but sponsored by MacDnalds.   The whole effect was shrunken and spare, not too well attended and missing the noise and laughter of earlier years.

 

I’m not sure what happened to the festival.  Merchants shrugged and blamed high prices; friends shrugged and said that the prior year’s venues had been excessive.  Who really needs two ice rinks?  The recession, the euro crises, the moves to cut taxes, balance budgets, and shrink services may be biting even here.

 

Still, it’s unfortunate.  The small-government anti-tax folks are quick to aim at municipal excess, and fireworks displays, libraries, Christmas festivals, and park maintenance is the obvious place to cut.  But it also cuts to a communities pride and cohesion, the communal traditions and shared services that gather people together and mark the seasons.

Their loss diminishes us.

In much of North America and Europe, the holiday retail experience has become one that is devoid of imagination or any sense of giving back to the consumer.  It smacks of miserliness and spending freezes…its more about Merry Cuts-mas than Happy Christmas.   -- Tyler Brule for the FT

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A bit of a rough crossing

Work done in England, it was time to catch up with end-of-year work in the Netherlands, drop in on language classes, and take a break at the Christmas Markets.  The bags were packed, appointments in place, the car fully fueled.  At 6:30 am, I pulled out from Cambridge to catch the early ferry.  BBC4 was starting to sound warnings about a major windstorm battering Scotland that could spread to the Channel by mid-afternoon, but I sounded like I could beat it.

The winds were rising as I crested the hill and descended into Dover.  The check-in agent advised that boats were already running an hour late (at 10 in the morning), and that it would be a bit bouncy on the way over.  I gulped a Dramamine and joined the queue.

Our boat appeared  and turned, struggling to angle into the docks despite being inside the breakwalls. Tugs hustled around the enclosure to keep boats separated and to nudge them into place.  Even at dock, there was a perceptible sway to the deck.  Everyone found a table with a good view of the horizon and settled in: there were no queues for the café.

The pitching started in earnest as we cleared the harbor.  The captain angled well south so that the wind was a bit more head-on, minimizing the roll a bit.  Spray crested the bows and splashed over the third-story panoramic windows.  The crew closed the children’s play area.

We were well over two hours completing the run to Dunkirk – a bit better once we were into the lee of the northern French coast, but not a great crossing.  But they did complete the run: later boardings weren’t so lucky.

It’s hard to know the best means to get between England and the Netherlands at this time of year: fog closes airports, storms interrupt ferries, ice stops trains.  It’s just a time to schedule a bit loosely and stay flexible.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What were they thinking?

what-were-you-thinkingA long trip back from the US – lots of time to get some sleep, catch up with emails, do a little reading, maybe watch a movie.   The flight was direct Chicago – Heathrow, good in most respects except for having left from Gatwick. This required me to close the loop back to Terminal South on the only transport available, National Express.  £24 for the one-hour, one-way trip; preceded by a one hour delay in the all-concrete Heathrow Central Bus Station, complete with intermittent fire alarms.

What was I thinking when I booked that open loop (besides the few dollars saved)?

Actually, the same thought washed up on the plane during the in-flight-entertainments: Glee! Live! The Movie! 3D!  I’ve watched a few episodes of the show on other flights, and found them oscillating between tolerable social comedy and overwrought teen angst, compelling or unwatchable.  glee_3dUnfortunately, the movie veered towards the later: a cacophony of anthems to self confidence and set pieces highlighting cast members.  Entirely self-absorbed, overwhelmingly superficial.

The show features a disabled character, Artie, who competently  tooled through the concert sets in his wheelchair.  The “What were they thinking?” moment came in a dream sequence, when Artie aspired to be a dancer.  Rising from his wheelchair, he joined a troupe of dancers wheeling and shuffling across the stage.

This seems like a terrible idea on so many levels.  In a show that is so frankly aspirational, should the disabled character reveal that he is played by a fully functional actor?  That he aspires to be a dancer?  That he has failed to embrace his own inner Gleek?

It seems like a breach of the ‘fourth wall’ that has to be jarring to fans of the show.  If fans embrace the idea that everyone is beautiful (in their own way), does Artie’s artifice bring the whole construct into question?

I sank into a podcast, the 100th episode of This Week in Traveltravel-bloggerOrdinarily an entertaining compilation of travel stories and tips, this was a live broadcast from a travel convention, featuring an assortment of travel bloggers and podcasters.

The “What were they thinking?” theme was why marketing people didn’t treat travel bloggers with the same respect as “mommy bloggers”.   The ideal would be to travel the world, receiving payola from destination resorts, tour companies, and manufacturers of travel gear.  Yet the meme was slow to catch on with companies: what could be done?

The answer was publicity.  Travel bloggers needed to network better, sell themselves (and their products) more aggressively, track their performance more transparently.  It was all about endorsements, page hits, and publicity.  They shared tips on how to become a paid speaker at key conventions (“otherwise, why attend at all”), how to create a hook (“I can learn the language in 30 days!”), and how to find compelling products (“It purifies water no matter who’s been swimming in it.”).

I hadn’t realized how aggressively (and shamelessly) people run social media accounts simply to gather an audience and sell them something.  Years ago I saw a fascinating presentation by creative people from publicity firm Saatchi, describing how they created ads designed to demolish reputations of opposing politicians.  This struck me the same way, an ethics-free hour dedicated to deception.  Why would you want to publicize that?

In either case, I think it comes down to authenticity, whether asking you to root for Artie overcoming his handicap or an essayist telling about their journeys.  When the curtain is pulled back and the character is revealed to be an actor or salesman, isn’t trust lost?