Saturday, July 28, 2012

Revisiting the Opening Ceremonies

The 2012 Olympics got underway last night – we all gathered around the tube to watch the 4-hour spectacular until well past midnight.  I liked it a lot (even better on reruns when you could see a bit more of the detail in it): It was very quirky British fare,  good humored and self-important at the same time (juxtaposing The Tempest and Mr. Bean for a baffled worldwide audience).

The entire show can be seen on the BBC iPlayer and the Guardian has a good highlight reel.  Unfortunately they only work from within the UK so if you’re outside the country a proxy connection is cheap and worthwhile.

Okay, my favorite moments:2

The initial flyover / animation down the Thames from origin to park was a nice orientation to it all, followed by the bursting balloons countdown over the clusters of children waiting for the bang.


Pastoral Britain was a bit Hobbit-like, until someone noted that it’s basically a duplicate of my base in Barrington – right down to the top hats and country skirts.  The emergence of the chimneys recalled the cement works outside of town, too.5


I really liked the industrial revolution sequence that led up to the forging of the rings: Very Tolkien.  The music, choreography, lighting was really the highlight of the opening ceremonies, apart from the athletes themselves.

8 13

14 7

15Bond, Queen, Corgi’s was a nice smaller moment, and the helicopter was a calculated crowd-pleaser.  She really does need to smile, just a bit?




I was lost during the tribute to the NHS: it didn’t feel like it paid tribute to the Service or the children, veering off into weird scariness.  And is Rowlings really the greatest living UK author (I know she won a magazine poll, but…)18

I felt similarly adrift during the music and media section – I did perk up at seeing Tim Berners-Lee, though.




I’m a pushover for torch relay highlights, though, and the close with Beckham grinning maniacally at the helm of the speedboat was fun.  I hope it wasn’t CGI though.22 24

The Athletes Parade went on and on (and sometimes seemed to contain few athletes), but I enjoy the national uniforms, the tiny countries, and the enthusiasm of the participants. 25

The torch itself and the hillside of flags were both nicely done




…and the butterflies and the final running off the torch were good caps for the ending.30 28

All in all, a nice evening start to finish, and, by the end, I could even understand the mysterious logo that has looked like some puzzle assembly of the London neighborhoods (squint and you’ll see the 2-0-1-2)

29  2012

olympic-mascots-london-2012Now if I could just figure out the mascots, nowhere seen during the ceremonies…

Captures from BBC iPlayer

Friday, July 27, 2012

Pre-Olympic calm

London - Olympic day 36“How about a meeting on Friday?”, suggested the physician I was recruiting for our advisory group.  Absolutely: I’ll be there at 3, I affirmed, ignoring the small ‘o’ I’d put in the margin of my datebook.

Olympic Day: Do Not Enter London For Any Reason.  That was what I’d meant it to signify.  Unfortunately, now it meant leaving early and taking my chances at London Bridge a few hours ahead of the Opening Ceremonies.

I was very pleasantly surprised.

The trains ran on time, and at the usual times.  There were seats.

The Tube stations were only moderately filled, and even then with mostly families with small children and suitcases.  The floors of the stations and rail cars were immaculate, the walls had been scrubbed.  There were pink-trimmed signs and pink-cheeked guides everywhere.


There were a few signs of final trim still being put into place, but the Jubilee Walkway along the Thames was only modestly full.  A few lost bicyclists scattered a few pedestrians; children posed with the mascots.  Reporters posed with the Bridge.

London - Olympic day 08  

There was even a bit of sunshine.

Romney OlympicsI think it all bodes well for the Games. 

It was embarrassing to have to explain Mitt Romney’s disquiet: why should he parachute in to assess London’s readiness?  At best, it was a distraction from fretting about how well things might go, and gave politicians a sound bite (Cameron’s putdown was particularly delightful).

I don’t know what demon seized Mitt: I think he’s been in negative mode against the government at home for so long, he forgotten how to be a gracious guest here.

It’s Basic Expat 101, you’d think: Don’t boast how much better things are back home

Now he’s being called the American Borat.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Managing outside the book

GapingVoid - EntrepreneurshipI was off the computer and working with associates and contractors this week, building my businesses.  It’s arguably what I should be doing more of: planning, communicating, coordinating, motivating.  But since both companies are very dispersed, virtual organizations, a “stroll around the bridge” becomes a circuit of the country.  Maybe hours of driving isn’t the best use of my time, but I get space to think, listen to some podcasts,  catch up on some calls. 

It’s not what my classes said to do.  But, here, now, for me, so far… it works.

In part, it’s because I’m working within a well defined process and towards a very clear goal.

Then it's almost just a matter of resources: populating the roles and funding the work.  Once the wheels are spinning, it comes down to assure that milestones are met, transferring results quickly, noticing problems early, and dealing with them effectively.

And, for the rest, it’s because I can rely on really good people.

This is where management feels unconventional.  As a virtual company staffed by contract, our high-performers have to work both independently of and collaboratively with other contractors that they never meet.   So, I end up fitting people together like a puzzle rather than as a network:  have to specify and mediate all of the boundaries since they are each making bind transfers.

It’s not what the books recommend.

Wisdom dictates that high-performing teams should share a space and interact closely.  If you dole out component tasks to geographically dispersed vendors, you end up like early space shuttle projects.  NASA designers made work requests, then bolted the pieces together as they came back.  They turned on the finished system: there were, fortunately, only several small fires and no really damaging explosions.

I’m hoping that frequent physical contact and a good sequence of progressive testing will prevent too many problems.

GapingVoid - entrepreneur2Besides, these are *simple* projects: what could possibly happen?

Lots, of course: I keep the list handy:

  • Unrealistic or unarticulated project goals
  • Inaccurate estimates of needed resources
  • Badly defined system requirements
  • Poor reporting of the project's status
  • Unmanaged risks
  • Poor communication among customers, developers, and users
  • Use of immature technology
  • Inability to handle the project's complexity
  • Sloppy development practices
  • Poor project management
  • Commercial pressures
  • Stakeholder politics

That last one was a particular issue this week: addressing politics and underperformance.  It’s my least favorite part of the job. 

In one case, I’ve got a principle who is isolating his activities from the others, who are naturally concerned.  This comes down to policy:  We will all be respectful, open, and collaborative even while taking responsibility for our functional areas.  I try to engage with everyone’s suggestions (from Why can’t we do a clinical study first instead of last? to Why don’t we use an iPod as the device controller?) and they’ve resulted in changes that really improved the business (actually, only one of those two did).  Building silos will kill us.

In another, lack of specific knowledge is making an otherwise capable consultant slow and tentative (at $300 per hour).  I stopped him and framed up the specific, short-term questions that need to be solved.  I made a couple of calls and picked up some resource materials, then sent them to our consultant.  “I think I see what you are getting at,” he wrote back.  What do you recommend?  A day passed and then I got a really brilliant piece of interpretation and a plan for action.   He absolutely flowered just when I was thinking of replacing him: the challenge to raise his game brought out his best.

Gapinvoid - the_mountain_1So, that’s my week.  I travel from site to site, thinking of what I need on the way in, then how it fits on the way out.  At each stop, I draw pictures with circles and arrows; lay out the process and the connections.  After each visit, I stop at a Starbucks for a coffee and muffin, firing off emails while the ideas and enthusiasms are fresh. 

Yesterday it was a beer and a slice of chocolate cake: my meeting had gone particularly well.

It’s not what the books suggest.  But it’s worked, especially this week.

Cartoons credited to Hugh MacLeod:  I subscribe to his newsletter and enjoy his perspectives on entrepreneurship.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Brand identification

Wandering the Arts in Action festival this weekend, I got to musing about branding.  Art must make money; artists compete with one another for scarce revenue sources: commissions, sales, lessons, and patronage.

As such, they must build a strong identity: Their works must be both both recognizable and memorable.  I can pick out a Turner, a Chagall, a Picasso, along a crowded gallery wall.  Their style, subject, medium, and technique all help to both gather their works within a conceptual framework and to distinguish it from their peers and imitators.

So I could argue that establishing a personal brand is crucial to being a successful artist.

But walking the aisles, there were many who had devolved to ’one-hit wonders” – they found a signature tic that worked for them, commercially or competitively, and replicated it over and over.


The body of work may be  recognizable and distinguishable, but the individual uniqueness of each piece has disappeared into cookie-cutter variations on a single theme.  When the works start to look mass-produced, they diminish as art and, correspondingly, in value and demand.

The more successful displays were those where the technique defined the space, but the works spread within it.  They incorporated themes, but each work was distinct from others.


Branding requires balance. Having strong identification is important: otherwise artists neither distinguish themselves nor build audience. 

But to much uniformity risks becoming ‘fast food’, a commodity business that depends on volume sales.  That’s important if your reputation is build on familiarity, consistency, predictability, and price.  But, for an artist, or an emerging business, that can be both demanding and unrewarding.

More than just a niche strategy, successful brands at the show both defined and explored a space.  Works by these artists, these businesses, are unique, tailored, ultimately more valuable.  In best cases, they drive a market ecosystem (7 Days in the Art World) rather than just transactions.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Out amidst the artists

The annual Arts in Action show was held near Oxford this weekend: it highlights the visual arts with experts showing and creating their works.  I’m partial to the sculpture and painting, but the ceramic tent was particularly good this year.  There are mini workshops (a watercolour hour for 6 gbp) and tents with materials and foods.  With the sun finally out, it was a nice break in the  park from work and travel.

There were a few pieces that I particularly enjoyed: Graham Muir’s “Breaking light waveform” and Aimee Fischer’s “Wiggle”.  (The latter reflected the manta “I need my space”: is it personal space to contain my things, or exterior space holding society away?)



I also liked thumbing their sketchbooks of observations and ideas.


The highlight was the artists themselves, though.  It’s fascinating to watch hands and faces, intent on bringing a work out from blank media.  Bill Moyer’s “Language of Life” poetry series examined people who were very thoughtful and insightful about the world, but who viewed it through a much different prism than I did in math and sciences.  Similarly, here, artists spoke of hours contemplating a scene, analyzing why it caught their eye, what they wanted to convey about it, what feelings it should evoke in the viewer. 

And then they go and do it.