Saturday, June 30, 2012

Saturday miscellany

It’s going to be a day of end-of-month and end-of-quarter bookkeeping.  But, before launching into a completely soul deadening abyss, let me share a few good links and short thoughts from the past week: two for business and two for expats.

  • “Entrepreneurship is the last refuge of the troublemaker”

Creating troubleOur department chair at Cambridge Biotech offered this thought during his remarks to the graduating Bioscience Enterprise class at the St. John’s dinner last week.  I like the idea: it captures both the organizationally rebellious and conceptually disruptive sides of entrepreneurship at its best.

The quote actually originates with Natalie Clifford Barney, a 19th century American expatriate and early feminist who hosted literary and political solons in Paris (she also said “Scandal is the best way to get rid of nuisances”.

The general “X is the last refuge of Y” construct is lovingly catalogued on the Internet, proving again that there is no topic too narrow that it doesn’t  attract someone’s passion and a web page dedicated to it.

  • “The healthcare industry is just not interested in or committed to innovation”

Healthcare innovationThis came from a salon –style discussion of “The Quest to Disrupt Healthcare”, reported in MedCity News.  The  regulatory and reimbursement gatekeepers, the ACA tax on medical device revenues, and the lack of seed funding all came in for criticism.  But the lack of customer adoption still looms largest.  We talk about recruiting thought leaders, storming Guidelines, and developing evidence portfolios, but in truth it’s nearly impossible to push a new idea to the tipping point where doctors start to notice.

I’ve been talking with friends, discouraged with BigCo cutbacks and restructuring,  who want to create a spinout from their canceled projects.  What’s the biggest block?  Not corporate resistance or seed funding.  It’s “How will I pay for health insurance?”

I pay (no joke) $2,500 per month for a family of three.  It comes off the top, out of my own pocket.  I could build a house, invest in new business, or grow my own more quickly.  No wonder we have 20% uninsured: few can pay those premiums.

Republicans who see health care reform as a job-killer have to propose some alternative to the present system.  The proposals to replace government insurance with a health debit-card are completely unworkable.

  • “France orders breathalyser for motorists”

ethylotestBBC reports that France is requiring every car to have two at all times so that motorists are more aware of the risks of drinking and driving.  Cars must also be equipped with reflective safety vest and triangle, or face an 11 euro fine.

I drive in France for 20 minutes twice a month, connecting to ferries at Dunkerque and Calais.  For that, I’ll need to find and buy specialized kit for my (Dutch) car.

This is the example that the Republicans should have used to attack the Individual Mandate instead of asparagus (Euope-bashing is t’s the individual mandate at the asparagus level.   They’re happiest bashing the Europeans anyway (remember “Freedom Fries”).

David Foster Wallace gave a wonderful commencement address in 2005 at Kenyon Collage.  His thesis was that, since “large parts of adult life involve boredom, routine, and petty frustration”, the only way out is to challenge your visceral reactions and “decide how you're going to try to see it: You consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.”

I am consciously deciding that the French don’t matter.

  • Wietpas measure to be rolled out nation-wide in January”

spliffMaastricht implemented the wietpas rules for coffeehouses on May 1.  I didn’t notice because I only go to koffiehouses and the action was not widely covered by my standard media of choice (airline magazines).

This is a problem because visitors always ask to be taken to a coffeehouse.  I asked a neighbor to take me for a dry run so that I would look less ignorant and embarrassed when the subject comes up.  Two folks are coming in July who have specifically telegraphed that this needs to be on their itinerary: I may have to ask if the red-light windows would be an acceptable alternative.

Ironic that this happens just as “medical marijuana” is becoming more common in the US.

And lest you think that the issue was covered by airline magazines and I just missed it…

A recent letter to the New England Journal of Medicine  analyzed the effect of commercial aircraft cabin conditions   It reported a 12% reduction in blood oxygen saturation, enough to affect awareness and cognition.  So I’ve adopted the argument that my failure to finish work during 8 hour airplane rides is a physical failing, not a moral one.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Awash in acronyms

scotus2and how about that Obamacare decision?

The Dutch couldn’t resist stirring the pot over dinner.  My conservative friend and I each took a good gulp of wine, agreed that under our disagreements we probably could find common ground, and let it go at that.  Neither of us want costs shared unequally, payments going to support bureaucracy, nor lawyers profiting from honest mistakes. Neither of us has the answers.

Nonetheless, I support the ruling, as convoluted as the reasoning is.

My issue today is with the pervasive use of SCOTUS in announcing the decision.

dodI was offered a book of Dutch acronyms today: “Do you have to visit the IND, are your children doing VWO and do you live in a Vinex area? Can you recognise BN'ers and do you know BOB? Have you got a DigiD and are you paying OZB?”  Sadly, I recognize most of them, but moreso, I recognize the creeping disease of reducing everything to capitalized hash keys.

I think that it started innocently enough, a way of euphemizing  medical topics.  Who wouldn’t prefer friendly ED to the the cold diagnosis of Erectile Dysfunction?  It distinguished government departments during the New Deal; shielded military command and control structures during the wars.

But it’s lately become a form of political speech.  It was first carried to congressional races (Ny4), endowing them with quasi-combat designations   It has “dog-whistle” significance, as acronyms convey coded meaning that’s shared among among members of a scotusgroup.

But SCOTUS (The Supreme Court Of The United States) feels like something more.  It’s a scornful phrase, feeding on, then driving, people’s perceptions of the court as partisan and less deserving of respect.  The acronym isn’t shorter than “Supreme Court”. It’s simply another way to diminish institutions and individuals.

The world could do with a few less acronyms.  And with the thinking behind them.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Endings and beginnings

Mid-evening, jazz drifting through the windows along with the breeze, tables clattering as the ober closes the terrace cafĂ© across the street.  It’s starting to feel like summer along t‘skade.


The tapas place downstairs has closed after one year, it’s gone to bankruptcy court so there won’t be a replacement for some time.  Everything needs to stay as it was while affairs are settled, so the whole restaurant will sit empty and ready for the next day’s opening, dust collecting on tables and glasses.

Meanwhile the pole dancing place up the street has opened: bistro by day, girls all night.  The local shops and restaurants have been fighting it for a year, but it looks like the decision went against them.  I suspect this won’t be good, but time will tell.

I dropped the Fiesta off today, it’s been a good car for the past two years, formative for the businesses, impossible without it.  The agency made a big deal about a few minor scratches, but I know it’s theater.  The new one won’t be in for two more weeks, there;’s just no way to predict Dutch delivery schedules any closer than that.

I found a local Dutch woman willing to give lessons for €7.50 per hour.  So I’m going by a couple of times per week for tea and conversation, just getting comfortable with speaking and listening, correcting pronunciation and building vocabulary.  I think it’s what I’ve needed to get rolling with the lessons again, forcing some engagement and commitment to the project.

601294_10100297104716930_1907864136_nA group of students (and one professor) who helped to found CamStent with me five years ago met at the alumni dinner last week.  Everyone is off on new projects, all doing well.   Its fun to remember the enthusiasm and idealism of those early days, pat ourselves on the back at how far it’s come.  It’s not complete by a long way, but nice to toast the success so far.

I’ve met with several high-level research folks from BigCo where I used to work.  Everyone is feeling kind of dispirited: a new CEO with big ideas for change has closed many worthwhile projects and decimated people.  I don’t know I the b-schools really teach the consequences of losing momentum, talent, and networks in the rush to re-engineer the org-chart.  But I can see it in the plans that the best people are making to be Somewhere Else, soon.

The trumpet hits wailing high notes to scattered applause; the clock races towards midnight.  The the news chatters that health care reform was saved by SCOTUS.  Endings or Beginnings.

Or, as with all things, both.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Adding passport pages

With all of the recent travel (50,000 air miles already this year), it’s not surprising that the passport is getting a bit crowded.  I tried to get additional pages inserted while I was in the US, but they require me to send or drop off the passport for several days.  So I headed up to Amsterdam today to get things taken care of.

The Amsterdam embassy is one of the most unfriendliest places on the planet.  Not because of the building, a rambling Dutch mansion at the corner of Museumplien across from the van Gogh museum.  Nor because of (most of) the staff, who are unfailingly polite.  The problem is the procedures, which far surpass anything that the TSA dreamed up for airports.

It begins with the website.  Nobody is admitted without an appointment, which must be made online.  the instructions (page after page) say to follow links for getting a new passport in order to add pages, leading to totally inappropriate forms.  Scheduling is tight, it’s best to book at least a week in advance.  All appointment confirmations and forms  must  be printed prior to arriving at the embassy.

People without appointments or documents are turned away.  Those arriving late may be turned away.

embassyThe entry is being reconstructed, so the temporary gate is around the park-side of the building: a massive automatic gate with a raspy intercom.  The guard asked everyone to show their cell phones, turn them on, turn them off, disassemble them, and let him swab each one.  Then they were confiscated. 

And that was only the first step.

After dealing with TSA monthly, I' know the drill.  I put everything into a bag that I left with the gate guard, everyone else had bags searched and anything suspicious being confiscated.  As a rule, don’t take any electronics with you.  The guard said he wished there were more like me – I’ll take it as a compliment although he might have been doing an irony check.

There are two more layers of security to pass through before being admitted to the embassy, where there’s another line to the windows.  I ran into trouble immediately.

The web site has the forms: if you don’t bring one you risk losing your slot and delaying others, the clerk chided, giving me a form and sending me to the back of the line.  Honestly, of five people asking for new pages, nobody had located the form on the web site, so we all circulated.

That will be 86 dollars or 60 euros.  I beamed, having remembered to bring cash.

We don’t give change: didn’t you read the web site?  We take US credit cards; no debit cards.

It’s only 9:30 am: I can only imagine how she feels by noon.

Another line has formed at the exit: the guard is nowhere to be seen and the call buttons are disconnected.  People trying to get to work are starting to panic.  The same single-file, one-at a time procession operates in reverse to leave, first through the gatehouse, then at the gate.  Only full-body scanners are missing.

Back again at 2:30 to pick up the finished product – more of the same procedure: getting in, sorting things at the window, exiting.  The car parked at the Q-Park is accumulating time at 5 euros per hour.

Still, I seemed to be doing better than the folks who had lost passports (desperation) and those waiting to get documents notarized (resignation).  $50 a page for notary services (and bring two witnesses)!

The embassy, heavily fenced, decorated with cameras, ringed with guards, feels and acts like it’s under siege – kind of sad that the country puts that face towards the rest of the world.

Their product is a bit haphazard too…

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Meanwhile, in Cambridge…

Andre Maastricht 2012

In Maastricht, Andre Rieu returned home for his summer concert in the Vrijthof.  He fills the plaza, as always, with an immense stage, a vast troupe of singers, rich orchestral stylings, and, of course, participatory Viennese waltzes.  The weather looks awful, but it never seems to dampen the crowd’s spirits.

The weather is windy and rainy in our little village outside of Cambridge as well, but it similarly fails to dampen the enthusiasm of Barrington’s residents for their annual Village Open Gardens Weekend. Over 20 houses have readied their back yards for tea, cakes, and hours strolling among the roses and foxglove.  These refuges are expertly conceived and lovingly executed: English cottage gardens, Mediterranean dry gardens, pond gardens, and natural gardens.   Each is attended by a homeowner armed with guidebooks and advice, generally bent in conversation with attendees seeking information and tips.  Cakes are donated by village residents, with the money going to repair the church.


It’s nice to be out meeting the neighbors, understanding the various styles and combinations and appreciating all the work that goes into the displays. I hadn’t realized the number of artists and musicians living in the village among the retired teachers and engineers.  Their original sculptures accent many of the gardens, catching the light or highlighting a bed. Some have posted their personal story or objectives in creating the garden, sometimes how plants originated from their travels.

‘More pictures at my Flickr site.

Aside: when the clouds start to move in, there’s often a sudden light shift in breeze and drop in temperature.  It never fails to catch the attention of British gardeners, who look skyward in unison and murmur about how the weather is about to change.  I attribute it to their maritime heritage, a sailor’s acute sense of  conditions.  But it is unique.