Saturday, January 8, 2011

Along the Maas


Last week       //        This week

The river continued to rise last night: no danger of it spilling over it’s banks, but the noise and the spray through the St. Servatius Bridge are even more impressive today.  The river is noticeably wider, with spillover areas filling, ponds joining the river, and estuaries backing up.  It’s all a pretty impressive demonstration of water management, something that the Dutch excel at like no others.

DSC02074  DSC02068

Still, people are coming down to line the bridge and the banks and to study it for themselves (above).  In part, I think that this is just natural curiosity during a rare and impressive event.  But part of me still believes that the Dutch still like to check on things for themselves when it comes to water.


Shipping seems to have stopped; I doubt that the barges and tankers can get under the bridges any more.  A Belgian LPG tanker discovered this (almost) too late.  He swerved across the river, belching smoke and spray, less than 100 m from the Stone Bridge on Friday – he is still tied up at a tour boat pier east of town.

I’m curious what is happening at the locks up by the Albert Canal: are they open, closed, slightly ajar to relieve the pressure.  It may be worth a ride up tomorrow to see what it looks like.  In the meantime, the apartment sounds like the beachfront rather than the riverfront: a roar of water like waves on the beach as the snowpack makes its way to the Channel.


Yes, it’s small excitement, but it’s our excitement.

Friday, January 7, 2011

With a roar and a whoosh

The water levels began rising overnight on the Maas, becoming a roar beneath the Stone Bridge by sunrise this morning.  It is sluicing through the arches, backwashing beyond the bridge, washing lots of mud and debris up from the south.

Rapid snowmelt in the Ardennes is blamed, and it should crest tomorrow without causing any damage.  Still, it’s been a good show today (especially as a tanker got crossways in the current and started sliding towards the bridge).

High water on the Maas

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Creating better circles

Or, as the British Ministry of Defense calls them, Multi-Source Intelligence Working Environment.

The problem is, they aren’t working very well, and there’s hard money on offer if you can figure out a way to make things better.

I came across this opportunity while looking for a way to get a clinical study funded.  The Ministry of Defense gets lots of data, information from satellites and intercepts, intelligence from informants and spies.  The problem is how to make sense of it all, connecting the dots.

Grant money is being offered for methods to understand how teams collaboratively interact and reason over information, make decisions and derive intelligence.

There is a need for innovative, multi-disciplinary research on team sense-making concepts and cognitive processes, together with applications and services which offer support to those processes. We seek novel concepts and solutions that make the most of emerging technology and/or optimise combinations of existing technologies. In particular, we would welcome multi-disciplinary proposals from outside the computer science domain (including but not limited to psychology, sociology, business intelligence, mathematics and statistics) where there is an opportunity for solutions, methodologies or theories from other areas to be used for intelligence collaboration for the first time.

I think this is a fascinating opportunity: if you can think of a way for people to work together more effectively, then you can get up to £50,000 to spend 100 days demonstrating the feasibility of your idea.  The details can be found here, and proposals are due by January 25.

Genius doesn’t work alone, so part of the solution may be in how groups are composed.  Chris Anderson recently wrote that innovative groups (crowds, tribes) trend-spotters, evangelists, networkers, and skeptics in addition to creative innovators.  There must be a links, ways for each member’s work to be visible to the others, and there must be motivating rewards (perhaps only recognition within the group).

I remember a team-building exercise where we were to select items from a plane crash that would be useful in the arctic.  They scored our choices against what an arctic expert would choose.  Then they asked us to make a new list, deciding as a group.  How would the consensual answer compare to the average of individual scores?

The group did worse than the best of it’s individuals, and slightly worse than the individual average.  It bothered me that the best ideas were not the ones that got heard and adopted, or that the group couldn’t pick the best ideas from each of its members.

Every day, in many ways, we fail to make the most of people’s knowledge and insights when we try to solve a problem as a group.  If you’ve got a good idea for tools, methods, or organizations that can improve the situation, the MoD wants to hear from you.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What’s right; what’s fair

FairnessI’m convinced that no business deal closes until each of the participants exhibit all of the seven deadly sins.    Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy all make an appearance; it usually takes an expensive dinner with fine wine (gluttony) to hammer out the final details.

Bad behavior usually manifests as co-mingled pronouncements of what is ‘right’ and what is ‘fair’.  Making sense of a negotiation requires pulling them back apart: they aren’t the same things.

What’s “right” is to conform to justice, law, or morality in individual actions.  Thus, when my landlord arrives to request back electricity payments that were my responsibility in the lease, he is right.

However, when he asks a penalty because the realtor failed to set up the auto-debit, or for payments going back to February on the basis that the apartment wasn’t used until I arrived in May, it fails to be “fair”: free from favoritism, self-interest, bias or deception.  Fairness involves the relative advantage between people; whether everyone is treated equally or proportionately.

I’ve been confronted with issues of “what’s right and what’s fair” three times today, and I keep having to circle back to these two definitions.  I’m sorry, but what’s right is what you were promised:  what’s fair is what you want.

Interestingly, a new client interviewed me today and put the issue into a different light:  If you are dealing with academics, you know that there are times when you’ll need to be flexible and open, and times that you’ll need to be firm and decisive.  Can you describe a situation appropriate for each?


I would be flexible on issues of fairness: what are the goals, how should they be accomplished, who does what, and how long will it take?

But I’d remain firm on issues of policy: what are the rules and how are they administered.  Firm on allocation of resources: when there is limited time or money, everyone can’t have everything.  And form on accountability: folks need to do what they say they will.

It gets tricky, or course, in cross-cultural settings where differing traditions of truth and morality muddy what’s perceived to be right; where fairness may not respect gender or age.  In fact, the interviewer followed up on exactly this point: how would you behave among the Dutch.  I fell back onto the old saw that I’d seek consensus, be consistent and transparent, and communicate, communicate, communicate.

I’ll see if I get the commission.

Of course, if I’d had more time, I’d have realized that the rational approach may work better with academics…

Fairness Equations

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The new Polder Model

PolderModelThe Dutch famously subscribe to a consensual decision-making process, the Polder Model, the philosophy of “Cooperation despite differences” that supposedly originated in the need to agree on polder maintenance back in the Middle Ages, otherwise adjacent villages would both be flooded. 

As it was explained to me when I first arrived in Arnhem to lead a business group, “It is better to discuss than to decide”, and over the years I have come to value to opportunity to openly share different points of view and to thrash out differences.  The advantage is that problems get a thorough airing, and execution then proceeds with full understanding and buy-in throughout the team.

This basis for establishing a common social understanding  took on new meaning as I read an essay by Clive Thompson in Wired discussing how the media landscape is evolving with the widespread adoption of social media.

In olden days (e.g.: the 80’s), daily events were first reported in the newspapers.  The weekly newsmagazines (Time, Newsweek, the Economist) would give more nuanced coverage of events, with greater detail and better understanding of causes and effects.  Finally, monthly magazines (The Atlantic) would provide perspective on what it all means.  Walter Cronkite, the evening news anchor on CBS, once remarked that nobody could be informed on an issue without reading all three sources.

Now, events are interpreted through personal media like Twitter and Facebook.  We fairly rapidly reach a consensus about how to think about an issue based on convergence of perspectives: think about how Sarah Palin’s characterization of US Health Care Reform as leading to ‘death panels’ crystallized opposition to it.  Mass media follows the lead of social media, especially echo factories like Fox or MSNBC, and through blogs and commentators who collate and amplify the themes.

So, driving through the frozen Northwest, it seems to me that the social discussion and consensual perspective is the new basis for ‘polder model’ decision making.  If everyone chirps their two cents (the value of 140 characters) worth about how they feel about an issue, the watches “What’s Trending” to see what everyone else thinks about it, a social consensus is being hammered out.

  Of course, the whole “consensual action” part is still missing, but the sporadic rallies generated by shared media might be a start.

Monday, January 3, 2011

End of Keerst aan de Maas

(with apologies to Margaret Wise Brown)


Goodbye skaters, goodbye fair,


Goodbye lights up in the air.


Goodbye red tree; goodbye blue,


Goodbye gluhwijn (amaretto too).

Goodbye Skywheel, goodbye’bolle,


Goodbye bands along the mall.

Goodnight stars and goodnight air:

Goodbye noises everywhere.


The End.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Enjoying Epiphany

In western Christian tradition, Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the wise men at the cradle of Jesus, His introduction to the gentiles.  Falling on the first Sunday between January 2 and 8 (or fixed to January 6), it marks the end of the Christmas season, the literal Twelfth Day of Christmas.


The Dutch treat it as a mix of spiritual and pre-Carnivale spectacle.  Maastricht’s Catholic community holds a parade to recreate the journey of the Drie Wijzen uit het Oosten.  A star is held up at the head of the parade, which everyone follows, singers, shepherds, bedouins, and kings.


Children dress up and join the procession, which winds around the town three times, finally returning to the Vrouweplein Basilica for the presentation of the gifts.


It’s a fun event to watch: the brightly dressed marchers mingle with sheep, horses, and donkeys, and the final (portly) King appears astride a (two-humped) camel.  This gets lots of ooh’s and ah’s from the kids as the animal sways along the narrow streets o the old city.

The celebration marks the end of the Christmas Markets, so there’s generally a scamper from the parade to the town squares for a last taste of Oliebollen, Reibekuchen, Bratwurst, and, of course, Gluhwijn.