Saturday, April 16, 2011

Among friends

DSC_0095I enjoyed a rare visit from friends in the US this week, passing through the Netherlands on their way to visit their daughter studying abroad for a semester.  The arrangements came together at the last minute, as these things often do, so it was a quick toss to match events with interests and to plan a few outings, weather permitting.  Fortunately, their interest was in seeing everyday life in the Netherlands, my specialty.

It was a really good visit: we laughed about whether the three-day rule applies to friends who’ve known each other for years as their children grew up together (and it doesn’t).  We enjoyed a few days exploring Amsterdam and visiting the Keukenhof, then a couple in Maastricht enjoying the café’s and the countryside.

‘A few discoveries in hindsight.

The focus on ‘everyday life’:  I don’t know history as well as I should, so there are (too many) carved lentils who’s symbolism (indeed, whose existence) goes past me.  I’m also rubbish at explaining how sin works – I know where the girls and pot are kept but no clue as to how it all works.DSC_0134  But I am a killer in shops (esp. Blokkers and the chocolatier), on transport (where to sit on trains and how to work the trams), and over menu’s (embracing zuurvlees and avoiding haring).

Mingling with the locals:  I inoculated them against Dutch manners early, so when the tram-clerk yelled that they were swiping the card wrong, standing in the wrong space, leaving through the wrong door (all in three minutes: this was a new low for tram-clerks), they could laugh about it later (mostly).   On the plus side, a visit with my Dutch friends was appreciated on both sides: it’s fascinating to (later) have the dual discussions of how each has heard the other.

Adopting the British style:  The UK school of hostelry recommends that everyone be treated like family rather than guests, so fill the fridge, make up the beds, and exchange keys. This works well on many levels, providing room for enjoying both the cultural differences and one’s familiar routines whilst t’huis.  I appreciated the time to make calls and they really didn’t need to be escorted everywhere.  One (unexpectedly) nice thing is that DSC_0209they found bits of local color that I missed (jazz next door on Thursdays) that turned out to be great (don’t ask how I overlooked music next door).

My favorite places are pretty cool. An lunch outing to Muiden, a bike ride along the Albert Canal, dinner in Haesje Claes, pointing out Random Road Art, slurping Luna Rosa, were nice experiences to share. They tended to be uncrowded, have a local flavor, and are pretty authentic (and I really enjoy visiting them).  And the adventures (exploding bicycle tires, developing instincts for crossing the street in one piece, shopkeepers who hoard apples, and one too many refurbished cathedrals) will be fodder for many single-malt’s to come.

Taking our time:  I let go of the usual timed-to-the-minute schedules and let the days unfold – it took a lot of pressure off everyone and we all had a vacation.  It was much better to spontaneously stop in a café, share a biertje, or watch boats go up and down in the locks than to worry about castle openings and museum closings.  The GVB card in Amsterdam, and rental bicycles (each around 7 euro per day) give a DSC03777lot of freedom and spontaneity.  And restaurants are made for lingering: the traditional 3-hour dinner on a warm evening is a perfect way to end the day.

I felt bad when I dropped them off at the Koln airport and it was all over: the apartment feels empty and quiet and work is waiting.  I suppose that’s the measure, though: whether we all felt the time was too short for everything we would have wanted to do (fondant and a wafel next time, I promise).

Friday, April 15, 2011

The age advantage

ArmageddonI always tell my classes at Cambridge that they have all of the knowledge and ability to succeed with their business ideas.  Their lack of self-confidence sometimes surprises me: a year of consulting, perhaps, or an internship to learn how things work, but then they never get back to taking a chance with their own ideas.  They have the energy, enthusiasm, ideas, and creativity to make it on their own, now.

Still, entrepreneurship is an unforgiving career choice, and many fall by the wayside (over 90% within two years).   While some fail because they are under-funded, too focused on the product instead of the need, or fail to gather the right organization.  Others might question whether age is a factor: mature workers lack the energy and flexibility, are unwilling to make the sacrifices, that it takes to succeed.

To which I counter, Bruce Willis.

I’m thinking most of his incarnation in Armageddon or RED, where Willis gathers his old gang together and saves the day.  The Age Advantage is that he knows people and, together, they know how to get things done.

Some call it cunning, but I think it’s just experience: true in real-life as in film-life.

A company called me to build a medical software component.  I understood the problem; I’ve built similar things a few times before.  Time was tight, so I called up some ex-colleagues to ask for help, they brought data, algorithms, and papers.  Everyone knows one another from prior job, so roles and communications are well established.  The design and regulatory frameworks are familiar; computer languages and research skills ingrained.

We shook hands; we got down to work.

Red MovieThere is tremendous power in having that knowledge and network, the declarative and procedural skills that come with long experience together.  Similarly in starting a business: I know when an accountant is giving me a line and which lab might do a quick experiment.  It moves a job ahead quickly and confidently and, although things may get done rough, things get done right.

How relevant, then, are my war stories for young people starting out?  I’m wondering whether  I did it; you can do it! advice is completely wrong-headed.  I’m backed by decades of practical experience, well-placed connections, and a fat severance check.  They have naïve energy, enthusiasm, ideas, creativity.  Who’s more likely to succeed?

Maybe the right solution is in partnership – include a few grey-hairs in the team. It’s not enough to enlist them as Board non-exec’s, they need them as operational resources.

They need to get the gang together and get the job done.

They need ‘Bruce.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Buckets of happyness

DSC_0265Are you happy?

The question is sometimes anxious, sometimes curious, but it always seems to come up as a coda to conversations about about my footloose, entrepreneurial, expat lifestyle.  I think that it stems from several impulses.  Sometimes friends see all of the hard work and occasional discouragement and hope that, in the end, it’s all worthwhile: Is this making you happy?.  Sometimes it's rooted in the differences of living outside the United States: Does this make you happy? (accompanied by a broad sweep of the arm around a narrow apartment or grocery).  It may be a presumed rejection of things I left behind: Are you happy now?

Sometimes the simple answer is good; other times the subtext needs to be addressed.  But the closing note is always the same: Yes, I’m happy with the opportunities, the life balance, the friends.

Yet, it’s seldom so deliberate or final.

No question that I find myself in happy moments or settings: moments that I sit in a café plotting strategy or lean against a terrace railing looking across a lake at distant mountains and am DSC_0281delightedly so.  But those aren’t planned, lasting, or necessarily repeatable, they’re simple encountered coming around a trail’s bend.

Other times I’m happy to have achieved a difficult goal: we raised  funding after a year of work, I see my kids being confident and poised. Some people think of this as their bucket list of things-to-do-before-you-die.  I’ve never been so deliberate.  But when a difficult goal is finally achieved, I feel deep pride and satisfaction,  stepping off the path to admire the view.

Sometimes, there is happiness in how life has been arranged, that I’ve established material, financial and intellectual resources, emotional connections, insight and understanding.  Life has value:  I’m content and satisfied, avoiding loneliness or impoverishment, surrounded by important people and things.  This is the hardest to come by as an expat and probably causes the most self-doubt:  I dress for the weather, but can never be sure that I have everything I need.

DSC_0314All of these forms of happiness come along life’s course, and leave me believing that happiness is both evolutionary and transient.  I set goals, work hard, journey far, and stay optimistic. Are you happy?  Honestly, not so much so lately, but I’ve made good choices and will get there.

Or, more likely, find happiness in the journey.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hangin’ at the ‘hof

I have visitors in from the US, avid gardeners, and it’s (almost) the height of tulip season in the Netherlands.  So, where better than the Keukenhof Gardens, outside Lisse.  I’ve visited a couple of times, once in May when the grounds were bare and the beds were brown, and once in April when the blooms washed throughout the grounds and painted into every corner.  I hoped for a sunny day and a favorable timing this year.

Although short of it’s height, the Gardens were spectacular.  We had good morning sun and were ahead of the tourist busses, so the flowers showed well along the sightlines and among the sculptures.  I was surprised at how many statues and beds rotated to new displays, and the blooms and arrangements were very well done.  More pix will be on my Flickr site shortly.

Beat the crowds by going early, but beat a path to the Keukenhof.  Open through May, but it’s probably at it’s height for the next two weeks.



Monday, April 11, 2011

Back in the Netherlands

Our first Board Meeting, a crush of last minute phone calls, a quick trip down to Stansted Airport – and a 4 pm EasyJet back to the Low Countries.   Simon Calder wrote about the six degrees of Stansted Security Hell over the weekend; I arrived to find that they had actually made it worse.

New machines automatically circulate and dispense security trays, and the staff asks everyone ti wait in line before calling them forward one at a time to place belongings in the tray.  People have to be individually instructed to take off shoes, belts, and show liquids and laptops before the next can be called  forward, slowing lines by 1/3.  It’s maddening and pointless.

Otherwise, it was a smooth flight and train ride back down to Maastricht.  It’s been a few weeks since I was last here, the apartment is intact, the Stone Bridge is under repair, and Maastricht is looking a little tired after a long winter.

Still, a little shopping, some TLC for the plants, an hour clearing mail, and a biertje at the local makes for a nice bit of familiar nesting.  No word from the Dutch Language test, otherwise, things seem to be under control.  And my parents sent a box of Cheez-Its for my birthday, surviving both the journey and the wait intact. 

Life is good.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

In my element

I have always lived in the future.

When I was young, I read Tom Swift books and imagined the things I could invent, the adventures I could have.  I avidly followed ‘hard’ science fiction, especially Clarke and Wells.  In elementary and high school, I took on a special science curriculum in fourth grade (Optimum conditions for growing brine shrimp as a prelude to establishing a salt water aquarium), assisted in the computer lab in high school (a PDP-8/S that I programmed in FOCAL), and hacked the school’s timeshare system in the Guidance office.  I fell out of love with Physics and into affection with medical signals (and the campus radio station) in college, then on for advanced engineering and medical degrees.  ‘never much good with hardware, I had a knack for programming signal interpretation, and that defined my passions and career path for decades to come.

I visited the London Science Museum last Tuesday – it was coming home for me. Where I go through gardens, bird refuges, and natural history exhibits, I fall out of the ‘naming games’ that the British are so good at.  But in halls of machines, I could name them all, knew their purpose, principles, and inventors.  I was among familiar friends.

The purpose of the visit was to hear Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist who invented scanners, reading machines, music synthesizers.  Lately, he’s been promoting the idea that all technologies grow exponentially, and that we would soon be facing a singular moment when machines become smarter than humans.  At that point, they would become capable of advancing their own evolution, with uncertain consequences for humans left behind.  Philosophers debate the consequences, engineers speculate how machines can be harnessed, but it seems clear to me that human dominance and self-determination would be at an end.

The talk itself was a bit of a let-down: Prof Kurzweil has created a movie promoting his ideas and the MIT Forum meeting turned out to be a screening, preceded by some introductory remarks.  I had to leave half-way through to catch the late train back to Cambridge, but absorbed the self-promotional thrust before leaving.  I would have preferred to hear his ideas instead of his story, our future instead of his past.

I hurried past the rows of silent machines: future vision can always be turned towards Cyberpunk-horror or Trek-utopianism.  The debate has been going on for centuries, yet man always finds his way past the supposed end-times, yet never arriving at Ecotopia.  I’m  optimistic: machines ultimately serve human ends.

Yet, what if this time was different?

I’m reminded of another MIT scientist Edward Fredkin.  I heard him speak in a radio interview, starting with a simple question.  Throw a ball: imagine it stopped at an instant of time, mid—flight. Advance a moment, and the ball moves ahead in a straight line.  Why does it do that?

To Friedkin, the ball must somehow remember where it has been to know where to go next.  Or, perhaps, the space the ball is in remembers how it entered and has rules for where it should go next.  Perhaps, then, the whole of space and time is made up of cells with programmed rules, much like John Conway’s Game of Life.

According to Friedkin, the universe is a computer, unwinding the future step by step according to local rules of “digital physics”.  It’s a fascinating notion, yet one that comes up again and again.  Thermodynamics, for example, has intimate links to information theory via entropy.

If  space and time are quantized and the laws of physics reflect  local rules coded into that cellular automata, then information is more fundamental than matter or energy.  The physical universe and consciousness could simply be a solipsistic epiphenomena of this underling reality

So, Matrix-like, the Singularity could be the latest evolutionary refinement in how the Universe conceives Itself.

I smiled, headed toward the all-too-physical Tube with all-too-little Time.  It would have made a better talk: be courageous with the idea that computing is fundamental and see where it takes you into the Future.