Saturday, June 2, 2012

Above and below Maastricht


It’s a beautiful summer day in the city (as it seems to be, finally, across Europe). The café’s have filled along the riverside, racing spandex is back in fashion among cyclists, and every hand holds ice cream.  Football matches are underway at a beach recreated in Markt Square, while the real European Match is warming up in Amsterdam.  Orange flags and togs are appearing everywhere.


Alas, our local group of expats decided that this perfect day is better spent underground.

Actually the outing to the Maastricht Underground (Kazematten)had been planned for a while.  The city is surrounded by ancient tunnels and fortifications that form successive defensive rings, dating back hundreds of year.  During more recent wars, they were refuges from bombs and fallout.  Two thousand people could be accommodated.

The tunnels are long runs of brick arches, passages numbered and pitch black.  The history (explained throughout in Dutch) is fascinating: the city fathers tried to stay ahead of a growing population and successive losses to build ever stronger and wider protection, following the latest military thinking. Women worked alongside men to dig the trenches and cover the tunnels.

The civil defense sections are are white rooms filled with cold cots and rusting air-purifiers. It has a retro BioShock feel: faded civil cartoons on the walls amidst decontamination showers. Creepy: be sure to stay close to someone with a lantern.



Fittingly, today, it’s all a park and a museum.  The invaders finally left, the bombs never fell.  And so we picnic on the hills and lie in the sunshine.  It’s the best use that the builders could ever have envisioned.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Winding down Friday

This has been a busy week.

I think it was the intersection of lots-of-travel with end-of-the-month: all the tasks needed to pop out somewhere.  Or perhaps just having all of the Dutch acronyms (ABS, Finsens, IND, ING)deferred until I was in Holland that seemed to stack the to-do list.  but it’s been a 7 am until 10 pm grind for days.

Nice to have a Friday.

I went out to dinner with a good friend and caught up with events around town, his work, politics and culture, swap some stories and a few biertjes.  An inexplicable Dutch event filled the Vrijthof, vaguely covering the history of Maastricht through songs and costumes.  It might have been linked to a museum opening, perhaps to the start of June: it wasn’t clear to the natives or the visitors.  But it brought  food and drink together with a warm supper evening for a bit of county-fair neon-lit atmosphere, so who could complain?


volkskrant fietspadThe Volkskrant is (finally) running an article on the crowding on bike paths.  I’m constantly worrying about the sharp featured kids zooming past on their motorbikes, but the main hazard seems to be people over 65 on electric bikes.  A study is called for.

‘First of the month ledger is done; the engineering and legal groups are beavering ahead with their tasks.  Some irritating issues are successfully closed, and there was time to think about summer holidays upcoming without worrying about tomorrow’s conference calls and emails.

There’s a jazz weekend ahead and the Queen’s Jubilee beyond.  ‘tis really good to have a Friday.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The market ecosystem

CerberusI’ve been thinking about the Customer lately.  With my business fully funded and powering through a year of Development Stage work to product release, Requirements, Scenarios, Risks and Usability fill my day, and these require dialog with my end-user.  It’s not quite as simple as connecting with a buyer though. In MedTech the Customer is a three headed beast: the Patient/Physician/Payor.

Or maybe not.

Supply and demandFelix Salmon of Reuters was recently interviewed on the Slate Culture Gabfest about art market economics.  His thesis is that pricing doesn’t follow the usual rules of supply and demand, but is instead driven by emotional, psychological, and social factors.  That’s part of it, but I think that the other is that art exists in a market ecosystem rather than a supply chain, well described in Seven Days in the Art World and by the diagram below:


Artists sell in a context of schools, shows and critics who define what is Art, what is Hot, and who is Trending.   Their works circulate among galleries, collectors, and museums.  Any and all of these can be defined as the artist’s Customers.

In MedTech, we create products and services, manufactured as discrete units of commerce: these are also sold into ecosystems that also sell into an ecosystem.  There are Guidelines, regulators, standards groups, trade shows and influencers who judge and promote our works; distributors, hospitals, and exporters who trade in them.  They all interact in complex ways that can drive pricing and demand and, therefore, determine business success more than simple demonstrations of performance, safety, and value.

Within this ecosystem there are leverage points: key intermediaries that drive awareness and shape perceptions.  I’ve seen marketing people try to unfold this in chains and pyramids that govern launch strategies for new products.

ZinC SoC Pyramid

But I think that you have to treat it as a living system, with perceptions and motivations rather than just cash and product flows.  As such, it can’t be dissected.  Rather, you learn about it by observing it’s behaviour, trying small experiments to see how it responds.  It’s a process that should begin far ahead of the product launch, working your way into the gears rather than giving them one definitive kick.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Growing beneath a plastic sky

vine-ripened-tomatoesWhen you shop for vegetables, what do you look for?  I have to admit that when I go to the Albert Heijn, I tend towards the vine-ripened ones: the stems suggest a fresher product and a more organic origin.

Tomato harvestIf I thought about it, the tomatoes can’t be picked by hand on some small Italian farm: there are just too many outlets for them, the price is too low, and they are available all year around.  My second guess would be a greenhouse in California, or it’s European equivalent.

Which I discovered on a recent swing through Andalucia.

The area looks a lot like California at first glance, perhaps more like Baja:  Dry brown mountains, scrub desert, brilliant white sunshine.  There’s a line of white development across the base of the hills almost everywhere you look.

On inspection, these are huge plastic tents, stained brown by the blowing dust.  They have screened sides to circulate air and seem absolutely deserted.



Silent RunningIt reminds me of the science fiction scenes where colonists on desert planets set up fragile food factories and favor them with careful rations of water.

The reality is similar: marching rows of tomatoes, ripening beneath the glowing white ceilings.



Driving along the coast, the scene enlarges and repeats itself.  Huge tents march up the slopes of the hills, nestle between buildings in towns, and sprawl across the narrow coastal plains to the water.  They absolutely cover the landscape.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen arming this intense or widespread.  Wikipedia says that 15% of the world’s cultivated tomatoes are grown here, using this method, and the extent of the tents is growing at double digits per year.  There is a vast system of irrigation, originally drawing from aquifers and now from desalinization, that nurtures the crop, and an enormous army of people who pick and pack the harvest.

800px-NASA_photo_of_plasticulture,_Campo_de_Dalías,_SpainIn photos from space,  above right, the white plastic tents blanket the countryside south of Almeria, completely obscuring the ground beneath.

I have mixed feelings about this: I like the miracle of having tomatoes throughout the year at my local store at reasonable prices.  But it is based on a system that, on the artificiality and scale of it, feels forced and unsustainable.  I’m reading to learn more about the ecologic and social impacts of the process, but it was a wholly unexpected and thought-provoking truth behind the simple grocery stand.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hier, daar, en overal

It’s been a week of sampling a little of life here, there, and everywhere…

Midweek was Medtec UK, where I  was invited to give a talk on “What little companies can learn from big ones”.  Setting cynicism aside, I recognize their ability to execute a process through to a regulatory-compliant conclusion, so gave a talk on development processes.  Not natural ground for a product guy – I’m sure that my former managers were rolling their eyes.


Late week was the Cambridge Beer Festival, a much-beloved annual event (well, by me).  The evening weather was perfect, so (with designated driver in tow) I gave a sampling to a collection of craft beers (favoring the dark and hazy).  And somehow ended up with a 2011 commemorative glass…



Sunday was a visit to the Search for Immortality exhibit at the Fitzwilliam museum.  This is a display of artifacts from two large tombs of the Han Dynasty, buried at about the time of Christ when the Silk Road was in full flower between eastern and western civilizations. 

I think that it means more when I’ve seen the actual tombs near Xi’an: the size of the burial mounds gives more credit to the narrative that the designers were recreating the royal household after death.  The artifacts then have both practical and symbolic value, and so many really haven’t changed much over the millennia (the square blocks, for example, are an ancient toilet.  Identical).



Then on to the Eurostar and back to Maastricht.  Summer (in the 80’s F) remains dominant on both sides of the Channel.  Finally…