Saturday, May 7, 2011

Color my world

A Slate commentator recently remarked that the test of a good novel is whether it colors the way that you see the world.  When you put the book down, do the perceptions and feeling carry on into real life, for good or bad?

I think that the same thing follows from our connections: when people are doing well, it gives a lift to all aspects of life.   When people are having troubles, it tints other events as well.

I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days because I’ve been in a bit of a funk for no good reason.  Our funding is committed (although still trickling into the bank) for the two businesses, and I’m starting to shift the balance of my activity from lawyers and accountancy back to scientists and project management.  With two years of hard work behind me, defining the business and raising the money, things are starting to take on a form and substance that they haven’t had before.

So, what’s the problem?

I’ve been finishing Super Sad True Love Story, a dystopian novel filled with dysfunctional lives dependent on overbearing government and technology (By reading this sign you have denied its existence of this object and imply consent for this policy).  Amazon files it under Humour, but cyberpunk novels always leave me empty and depressed. I keep hoping that the characters will chip out of the sand trap that New York has become for them, but it’s not looking good. 

Real world events don’t offer much change either.  One friend is trying to sort through long-term visa options here in the UK while wishing that there was someplace less intrusive that they could tuck into.  Another seems unable to come to terms with the imminent dispersion of his company after ten years of building it; a third is unable to face the reality of their being fired from a career they loved.  I got a call from the Netherlands saying that unless I paid three month security deposit on a garage space (unfurnished), I would have to give up the spot. Really! Shove it: but it feels like cutting a cord to the Netherlands at the same time.  Paying the bills has depleted the accounts again, as it does every month, and I promise myself that the pending deals will close in a week or two and fix the situation, as I do every month.

So, I would conclude that everyday stories can affect life’s prism as much as any fictional novel.  And the only solution I know is step back and get a grip, sometimes with a good airing out in open places, or a close talk with friends.  And so it is, writing a bit today:

…it’s nice to have absolute control over the product and the business, to see things grow when I apply effort to them, to get good people gathered around a worthwhile project, and to keep what I (hopefully, someday) win. Days tend to be busy and full: I think that I will forever take on more than I can keep up with (teaching, writing a book chapter), and I wish that I had more time (and money) for leisure travel.  But, with a pretty clear vision of where I’m going and what I hope things can become in another year, this is the time to really dive in and make it all happen.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Banking across borders

Global money transfersFirst of the month means flooding liquidity through the system. With the business having a footprint in three countries, income can come from any direction.  Bills and taxes, however, must be paid in every jurisdiction, so funds received have to be redistributed across the whole.  And soon I needed to be an expert at cross-border exchanges.

These can’t be done lightly.  There are recent letters to the editor from distraught depositors, saying that account numbers were mis-entered, cash went astray, how do they reverse the transfers?  When the newspapers enquire, the banks maintain that they have faithfully carried out the instructions provided and are under no obligation to retrieve the wayward cash.  The editor silently tsk’s and advises the petitioner to take more care the next time.

Three business accounts (NL, UK, US), two personal (NL, US): here’s how I’ve set up the exchange paths.

First, business and personal funds cannot be co-mingled: it’s easy to cross lines where personal checks are cashed in the business (money-laundering) or personal expenses are withdrawn from the business (embezzlement).  So I set up very limited and defined same-country paths between business and personal accounts that I use to pay salary and expenses.

Domestic transfers require different information, depending on the country involved.

In Europe, Netherlands transfers only require an account number, containing both bank identifier and individual information. The UK requires a six-digit Sort Code for the bank and an account code for the individual. 

In the US, domestic transfers are made using a Routing Transfer (ABA) Code. These were devised by the American Bankers Association in 1910 for moving federal funds, and are the first 9 digits on your checks; the remainder is your account number. Unfortunately, my bank still has to issue a paper payment check.

International transfers within the EU can best be done through the SEPA (Single Euro Payments Area) system.  This network, operating only in Euros, harmonizes payment structures and processors to increase competition and decrease costs. There will be ‘universal’ debit and credit cards tied to it next year that should similarly lower the fees associated with using a Dutch card in another EU country.  The only downside is that transfers take about three days to complete: the upside is that fees are less than half of what an urgent (same day) transfer would cost.

More generally, cross-border transfers are based on SWIFT codes (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, also known as a BIC or Business Identifier Code).  SWIFT is an 8- or 11-character code: the first 4 letters give the institution, the next two the country, and the last two a location code.  The final three are optional and designate a branch.

So, my East-West Bank code is EWBK US66, my Barclay's is BARC UK33.  In general, call the bank to get the right code, then check it by putting it into an online directory to see that your bank correctly comes back.  Both a SWIFT code and account number are needed to make a transfer.

Closely related is the IBAN (International Bank Account Number) that combine the national, SWIFT, and account information all in one country-specific formatted code.  For example, the Dutch IBAN format is: NLkk BBBB CCCC CCCC CC, where NL is the country, BBBB is the BIC code, C’s are the account number, and kk is the checksum generated from the rest of the characters.  I seldom find banks that offer this method of identification, although every bank seems to have a code for me when I ask.  As with SWIFT codes, there are online validators that you can use to check a code before you use it.

It’s also good to check the exchange rates so that you know how closely your bank is matching the fair trade value.  I like for spot rates.  I usually end up paying about 30 (dollars, pounds, euros) additional in fees on each transaction, adding charges imposed by both the sending and receiving banks.

Finally, I initially make only a small transaction to assure that I have a valid connection: that money leaving one account arrives in the other.  Then I can transfer larger amounts confidently using the stored information for the connection between the banks.

And, as banks fail and merge, all of this information changes, even if the bank name doesn’t.  ING, for example, changed all of it’s codes after the PostBank merger.  So be sure to update your information periodically.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


1“The coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” exulted University of British Columbia students.  “Pretty close to flash mobs,” advised my ever-cool daughter, while the Independent labeled it  “A phenomenon”.

LipDub videos are now on the radar.

I’m a bit embarrassed that it took this long for me to catch up with the phrase, although I’d known the concept for years: Pick a song, then film a five-minute lip-sync video in one swooping take through mobs of students singing along.  The earlier versions that I knew of featured original works, I remember 2006’s “Cambridge Facebook Song” (referred to as “The Facebook” throughout, betraying it’s origins in pre-Sean Parker days).  Then there was the “That’s why I chose Yale” sing-a-thon last year (and the memorable Harvard response).

LipDub is now a almost a competitive inter-campus sport.  Students are picking up sponsorships, recruiting ever-larger squads of syncers and dancers, adding production tricks and  “Making of…” supplements.   “To get them right takes a level of planning, dedication and perfectionism that is probably only achievable by 20-year-olds looking for something to do instead of 2an 1,800-word essay on city planning,” is the Independent’s take, while other papers feature casting calls for ongoing projects.

It was a slow evening last night, and I ended up brewing a bit of tea and chaining through YouTube for a couple of hours before turning in.  Among the ‘best of breed’ I found:

2009 Universite Laval –  “Livin’ on a Prayer” – a surprisingly good narrative framework, and nice use of the school football players.

2009 Université du Québec à Montréal – “I Gotta Feeling” – lots of good individual performances and costumes give this more of a street festival feel.  Extra points for their “One year later” mashup of international press clippings.

2010 University of St. Andrews – You Get What You Give” – somewhat spare and restrained by current standards, but this gives the Highlanders effort some charm as well.  Probably the coldest setting; lots of mittens in evidence.

2009 Boston University – “I Want You Back” – This one get’s the geographic stretch award as it lurches through numerous campus 3buildings and courtyards.  There is a lot of faceless concrete throughout the BU campus: I guess I got spoiled at Cambridge.

2010 Maastricht University School for Business and Economics – of course the Dutch do this too, and with a bit of zombie flair.  Nice for the familiar backgrounds and the inevitable musical choice of Queen.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Follow my blog

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I am updating my registrations with various expat blog indexing services, so please excuse the rare bit of external content, above, necessary to demonstrate that I am who I say I am, cementing my claims to own this blog.

I’ll also take this opportunity to repeat a few ground rules and to convey a heartfelt “thank-you”.

First, this is not a commercial blog and I do not accept advertising, guest writers, or link exchanges.  I’m flattered that you would ask, but all such requests will be politely declined. I do appreciate the occasional link in from folks who comment on my writings, but do not seek sponsorships or endorsements.  Check my Terms of Use or write me with questions.

Neither do I make a big fanfare of new posts, apart from routine notifications via RSS, FriendFeed, or Twitter.  I’m not cross-posted to Facebook or NaBlaPoMo; and my content is not (nor should it be be) reposted elsewhere. Check my Creative Commons license if you have questions.

I do register with the major directories, and especially favor the expat groups listed above.  They do solid work for the expatriate community, and I’ve long supported the people behind them.  Check my links to their sites along the right column.

Still, writers need readers, although world-dominating readership has never been my goal.  I am pleased to have a small community of around 100 family, friends, expat bloggers (catalogued at NetVibes, Blogger, and Google Reader), and curious onlookers who keep track of my writings and offer comments and suggestions.  My thanks: I really appreciate your continued interest and participation.  Check with me when you visit Maastricht; I’ll always buy the first round of beers.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Under a yellow cloud

The fields are bright yellow between green hedgerows, beneath a blue sky.  It’s the driest April on record here in East Anglia, with less than 10% of the usual rainfall.  The yellow rapeseed pollen (the plant is used to make canola oil) has lingered in the summer air, a haze on the horizon, a tickle in the throat.

I’m curled over a book chapter that I’m trying to finish, jumping out for the occasional meeting.  It’s been a slow week: the Brits are winding up an 11-day holiday, stretching from Easter through the Royal Wedding through one of the inexplicable Bank Holidays.   Everyone has taken advantage of the string of events to leave for a week or more – lawyers, accountants, angel investors, and professors have all stopped posted holiday greetings through early May.

The resulting quiet has been good for reading (super sad true love story), learning (pivot tables), writing (my nonfiction book chapter, which will take on fictional elements soon just to get it done), and cooking (egg-white omelets).

obamaI was amused by this e-mailed picture, and with conservatives bending over backwards to try to pat George Bush on the back.


I’ve taken a passing interest in trying to figure out what “Cultural Complexity” means.

I’ve been less successful at exercise, shopping, banking, and programming, but those activities always tend to suffer when weather gets hot.

I’m trying (again) to make sense of Twitter.  Maybe it’s in who I follow.  I had a great ideas to follow my Facebook friends, but Twitter is unable to find them automagically.  Strange gap in the connected world: I’ve started writing my inner circle to find out their usernames. I’m drhamptn.

I’ve started getting really lame e-mails from Obama’s campaign staff trying to recruit me as an organizer for 2012.

Finally, my British friends have told me that the usual American habit of stepping into an introduction is way too intimate for local tastes.  We’ve always been taught to step forward, smile, make eye contact, shake hands, repeat the name, project warmth, and make a bit of small talk when meeting someone.  Use the title in first instance, then first names afterwards. It’s partly social positioning and partly a memory trick to help cement the contact.  But the British feel it’s way too familiar and embracing – I’ve only just met you and you already presume we have a connection?

And I, in turn, am put off by the habit of lining up business cards in front of you after the traditional exchange.  As I talk, I can see you scrutinizing the title, degree, company for clues about my credibility, background, and affiliations.  Pushing it away with a fingernail to signal that the meeting is over, then leaving it behind on the table as you leave is also bad form.

‘back to the book chapter…

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dutch events in the US

PassportI wanted to step back from expat experiences today to share a few links to Dutch events that are coming up in the US.

There’s an active cultural exchange between the Netherlands and America, so a taste of Dutch culture doesn’t just have to come from visits to Holland MI or the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. Both are good, but other sources to keep an eye on include:

Orange Alert: The Cultural Department of the Dutch Embassy in New York maintains a blog with announcements of artists, architects, and designers presenting work throughout the US.

SICA:  A joint project of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Stichting Internationale Culturele Activiteiten organization lists cultural event.  Art SICAThese include art installations, theater performances, concerts, and events featuring Dutch artists and themes. Embassies also keep track of local events.

Bicycling events:  Inevitably, the Dutch embassies also sponsor biking events across the US, often in association with Queen’s Day.

Dutch Performing Arts Events: This blog tracks theater and dance groups from the Netherlands that are making US tours.

CODART: An international network for museum curators of Dutch and Flanders artworks, their site highlights events and installations worldwide.

Dutch Days festivals:  These are ethnic festivals in communities claiming strong Dutch heritage: besides Holland MI, examples can be found in Fulton IL (probably the best known except for Holland MI), Denver CODutch Days FultonLynden WA (and many communities throughout Washington and Oregon), and Burlington ON (celebrating Canadian Netherlands Friendship days).

Local Dutch Expat groups:  An up-to-date list of Dutch-in-America groups, with links to their various regional websites.  This can often lead to one-off events (or to opportunities to mingle with native speakers for an evening).  And, yes, several are having Queens Day celebrations this weekend (although likely without the rafts of drinking singers).  Dutch in America also has a Facebook group that updates regularly.

And, for folks in (or visiting) the Netherlands, the ‘home Dutch’ festival list is here.

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any of these organizations or events, and have neither been asked nor compensated to list these links.