Saturday, May 11, 2013

Three C’s across my mobile devices

Lptop tablet phoneI’ve been living in a new-tech matrix since the holidays.  I replaced my old Vaio (now sadly consigned to a corner running Windows 8) with a slim, nimble Sony netbook.  I’ve picked up a Nexus 7 to (hopefully) replace the satchel of books and equipment that keeps me leaning permanently to one side.  And I swapped a Lumia 720 Windows phone for my aging, ailing Nokia X6.

Change has been good.

All have access to a vast array of apps, and I’ve been pulling things down and experimenting.

I’ve found that there are some tasks that I want to share across all of my devices, and have the same app everywhere: Dropbox for files, Evernote for outlines, Pocket for webpages. 

I’ve also found that cheap connectivity is vital on all devices: they are hugely limited without the Internet.  WiFi is not (yet) universal, so a good 3G data chip is essential.  I started with a universal SIM chip from Roamline, but the bills grew rapidly with modest use.  I’ve taken a plan with  Dutch, a British, and a US carrier for separate monthly data plans that total up to about 35 euro per month, half the universal charge.

Cross-talk is the worst issue.  The device compete to see who can get email first, and CamStent’s Dotster server erases messages after the first pickup.  When a Skype call comes in, everything rings and all to the devices try to pick up at once.

Laptop Tablet Phone 2At the same time, I’ve found that there are things that each device is good at, and it makes sense not to push the boundary. 

The phone is good for keeping in touch.   It’s best for voice and messaging, for getting quick notices in “live-tile” apps for weather, exchange rates, and Facebook.  I like getting notifications and alerts, it’s  handy for walking-navigation and location-based searches.  It’s small, light, handy.

The tablet is good for media.  I like it for reading books and magazines, movies or TV (on WiFi), browsing mail, and en-route travel support (tickets and schedules).  I like the navigation  in-car and being able to check-in when I’m on-grid ad reaching out. And for playing Ingress (everyone needs a vice as they travel).  It works nicely with responsive touch, and the display is a good size and crisply bright for the bus, train, or exercise bike.  And for bed: it’s a nice reader/browser at night, and I can do a quick email check when I get up in the morning.  That maneuver, in particular, saves me  

The computer is good for getting work done.  If I need to write a  paper, analyze data, blog, do research,  or hold a  conference, I need a keyboard, horsepower, and disk space.  I still like to command a computer (I miss Unix BSD, actually) and touch desktops just mask and distract from what I want to get done.

I haven’t figured out a single source for Podcasts, Calendar, or Contacts yet, and so still carry my MP3 player and Diary.  None replaces my camera.

So, I’ve made a mental division between a device which Communicates, one which is for Consumption, and one for Creative work.  I know what to install on each of them, I know which to take along for a particular task, and I’m increasingly comfortable with dividing the day along those lines.  If I know I’m going to be on the bus and in meetings, the tablet is all I need: I can be productive with reading and email.  If I need to do heavy browsing and spreadsheets, I’ll pack the computer and leave the tablet home (charging).

I know people who watch videos on phones, email on tablets, ad don’t even own a keyboard.  I may get there, especially if I get comfortable with voice transcription (which will need a headset). But for now, it’s feeling like my mobile tech is really coming together nicely.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Cross-cultural manners

SorryI went to a local pub the other night for some conversation, away from thoughts of work.  My companion ordered a drink and dessert.  The hostess glanced at me, then turned, and prepared the bill.  I was surprised not to be asked what I wanted, but pulled out my debit card.  She admonished me for offering a card as payment since there was a minimum purchase required, then said she’d take it “this once”.  Finally, transaction completed, she said ‘Oh, did you want something too?”

Swallowing simple irritation, I considered the proper response.  Ignore it and order?   Make an issue about it? 

Fundamentally, Was I being treated rudely on purpose?  And, given that one or the other of us was in the wrong, what was the right response?

As an expat,I try to be sensitive both to having manners (to fit in) and to not expect my manners in others (to be tolerant).  Americans are not the most mannered people in the world to begin with, and my go-go life is more likely to result in negligent impatience than observant adherence to local mores.  My parents were always careful to insist that we learned and practiced manners though.  Business etiquette was pressed on me by salesmen in my early career (although they never managed to slow down my eating).  I try to be on time and respectful; I’m not as good about having clean shoes and remembering names.

The British make an absolute fetish of good behaviour.  In part, it’s long tradition, in part it’s the unspoken rules that keep everyone civil on a crowded island.  I’m convinced that it’s partly a competitive sport: one-upsmanship on a par with knowing the names of more species on a walk and doing well at Quiz Night. 

Theater critic Henry Hitchings considered the issue in his book “Sorry! The English and their Manners” (I heard him interviewed on the Monocle Weekly Podcast #16).  His thesis is that manners are a expression of class.  They allow the English to recognize one another within a class, and to know the skills that must be acquired to  become part of another.  They are social signifiers rather than social lubricants.

table settingI think that this affects how I perceive slights in the UK, different from elsewhere.

In the US, I expect friendliness instead of manners, and don’t read significance into social lapses unless they seem unfriendly.

In the Netherlands, I probably miss a lot of subtle thing because my language skills aren’t good enough to judge.  I’m just happy if a conversation produces an outcome anywhere close to what I intended.

But, among the British, forever correcting, I feel like I’m held to a standard.  Not a problem: I’m living in their country I will live by their expectations.

It’s probably further confused by the similarity in language: I understand just enough to think I understand it all.  And I do tend to read in: I’m certain that the British have two distinct phrasings of the word “Sorry”, one for expressing remorse and another for conveying “Who do you think you are?”

Still, my logic is that if the British know correct manners and take them seriously, then lapses in manners must be intentional.

Manners are hugely important for expats to get right, both to fit in and to understand. And I generally try not to take offense when someone seems rude.  I’ll get frustrated in private, but turn the other cheek in public.

And at the pub? 

I simply decided not to order anything more.  Their loss.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Rebranding the company

Stone Bridge Biomedical BV was founded in 2009 in Maastricht as a medical software developer for global markets.  I had some ideas for improving tools for remote patient monitoring, simplifying the task of aggregating, analyzing, and visualizing data from many patients.

My original business plan was to partner with a company making a sensing unit for cardiac problems, first aiding in fundraising and business development, then coming alongside to co-develop.

We pulled a $12 million deal together with a funding group, but it had too many conditions and took to long to complete, and so it died.  Fortunately, I had two other startup opportunities got funded in allied medical fields, so Stone Bridge became a hub to manage those ventures.

While the company has been successful and profitable, it drifted a bit, becoming a consultancy instead of a developer.  When Microsoft dumped the Stone Bridge web site last fall as they divested their small business unit, I used the website rewrite as a chance to redefine the business.

It’s hard to do.  What business am I in?  Who is my customer?  For what problems am I the best solution?  My web-site developer quickly grounded against the problem of writing content when I didn’t have a clear product or single vision. 

“Anything-for-a-buck, Inc” is not a business plan.

I was approached by a friend on Facebook, asking whether our businesses were looking for help with branding and messaging.   We’ve started a very fruitful collaboration that has enabled me to focus and direct my thinking about what I want to do and become, what messages the business has to project and to whom, what who values what I can bring.

  • We build bridges from concept to commercialization.
  • We understand the medical development process.
  • We tailor teams to solve problems, from components to companies.
  • We support European product development and market entry.
  • We are ready to execute on innovative device ideas.

As I was thinking  about how to define and represent my business, I found a link to a wonderful video about Microsoft’s “re-imagining” of their own business and brand.  This is a conference presentation by two of the key people behind the effort and shows a perspective and thought process for understanding and marketing a business.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It’s all in the telling

Storytelling 1One of our investors came by our offices recently, expecting the worst.  Communication had been sporadic and the company was definitely falling behind its milestones.  A planned fundraising was delayed; cash runway had been a concern for months.

Behind the scenes, though, really capable people had been beavering away on unexpected and difficult problems.  We had a few lucky breaks as experts came alongside with exactly the knowledge and connections that was needed.  A glimmer of a solution was starting to appear.

“So, I know the general outline – fill in some details for me?”

I’m proud of what’s been accomplished: we have a great story to tell. 

Anomalous results on a routine test last fall alerted us that something unexpected was happening in the base silicone….Two hypotheses explain the measurements…the first, although easier to try, led nowhere – we lost two months…the second was delayed by access to catalysts and resins – suppliers didn’t know us, didn’t trust us…At the same time, we found an alternative material with the properties we needed…We finally acquired the materials… We finally acquired the rights…We lost two quarters…We’re back on track…

Our investor pushed back.  “Plan A still sounds like something we’d invest in… Plan B is confusing, I’ll need to study it more...We’ll have questions…overall direction…timing…focus…”  Then it was done; he was off.

We had a great story to tell.  Why didn’t that come across?

That same day, a friend happened to have sent me a link to an blog post at the Harvard Business Review by Kate Minshew.  Titled “Every Entrepreneur’s Least Favorite Question”, it outlines the proper response to the query “How are things going?”  

Her advice is:

  • Highlight two recent accomplishments,
  • Talk about one problem you’re working on,
  • Talk about what’s different than 3 or 6 months ago, and
  • Ask for advice.

The article is really an epiphany:  I had blown all four guidelines and, so, had failed to tell an understandable or compelling story.   What I wanted him to understand was that we had A, we were getting B, an that one or the other leads to the C that we promised: the team did a great job for the investors.  From my narrative, he likely understood that 1) we had problems, 2) the solution was hard, 3) we were casting about for a backup, and so 4) the original plan was toast.

Live and learn.

Expat storiesI think that this guidance also holds for expats, who face the inevitable question “How’s it going?” (or variants like “How do you like it here?”).

I’ve filed my visa renewal, after I found the new KvK offices up in Sittard.  With the nicer weather, I’ve take a couple of long cycles towards Spa.  Things are great:  I’ve passed the Dutch reading exam and am working to get the other three done in November.  I do have one question though: One of my creditors is a bit slow in paying, do you know who I might talk with who’s been through a similar situation?

Okay, I can’t write dialog…but I think it’s good to have talking pints in mind. I will for the next investor visit.

For more on storytelling, take a look at

Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling, and

This American Life’s Ira Glass on YouTube

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Drugs, data, and gnocchi

SBB logoMaastricht’s law enforcement authorities did swoop in on the re-opened drug shops, as promised, on Monday evening.  The cafĂ©’s promised to sell to tourists from outside the Netherlands, marking Liberation Day on Sunday, and the police predictably arrested three foreigners on-premises.  They were quickly released, but the city council is threatening the drug boat, Mississippi, with a three-month closure.

Mississippi is one of three boats moored along the river near Kesselskade, and the only one that I ever toured. It’s kind of  dark and seedy inside, disagreeably hazy, but the people were nice enough.  The owner gave one of my visitors a tour of the shops (but no cannabis), explaining the supply chain and business model; it put a human face on the whole thing.

I’ve never been too bothered by the trade through the shops: apart from the occasional youth asking me if I know where to find the boats (and do I look like the sort who would know?), they don’t seem to degrade the neighborhood.  It looks like most of Limburg will move towards “discretionary enforcement” of the ordinances, but I’m sure that the debate is not over.

BoulderThis week that I plan, no, I promise, to finish Big Jobs.  These are the perennial elephants squatting on my schedule, needing a day or two to complete and never rising through the smaller, quicker tasks that make the day feel accomplished.  Each has a constituency who is increasingly concerned about the delays, and that makes me feel guilty each evening when I relax for an hour instead of making an hour’s progress.

So, I’m determined to clear out the backlog.  Marking of 25 papers and presentations from my Cambridge Medical Device class assessment six weeks ago.  Compilation and analysis of 30 patient’s EMG data to support a presentation by one of my physicians in Japan at the end of this month.  Pulling in the background data from bank accounts and receipts to get the 2012 tax preparation rolling.  Completing 20 questions for a re-branding project for Stone Bridge Biomedical.

That which does not kill me….

Gnocchi 2I’ve been experimenting with recipes from Saveur magazine,  which has lots of intriguing ideas from around the world.  I’m focusing on the basics: a stuffed pork loin, a flaky pastry crust, gnocchi.

Especially gnocchi

Most come out well after a couple of tries: the prosciutto/pork loin was wonderfully moist and flavorful after minor variation to the stuffing, a foil cover, and less cooking time.   My fondant potatoes are great (this BBC Recipe is a particular winner).  But gnocchi is persistantly touch, despite trying wildly varying directions from Saveur, BBC, and NYT cooks.

It’s easy enough in principle:

Thoroughly cook potatoes (boil or bake). 

Mash (rice) the potatoes, then cool

Add a bit of (plain, whole-wheat, superfine, semolina) flour to hold them together (and maybe an egg (yolk)).  Knead gently, don’t overwork it.

Roll out in 1-inch thick ropes, cut into 1-inch (4-inch) thick slices, (press with a fork). 

Gnocchi 1Drop into boiling water (both); when they rise to the surface, remove with a slotted spoon.  Splash in cold water (fry in butter) to firm the surface.

Keep warm, and serve with a sauce and parmesan.

Mine no longer come out like tiny fondant potatoes, heavy flour dumplings, or rock-hard little potato crisps.  But I don’t (yet) have the pillowy-light, slightly-chewy consistency of Italian restaurants.  I think that my current batches are still too wet going into the water.

The problem is that there are so many variables, and it takes a couple of hours to try any one experiment.  I think the answer is to talk with an Italian friend and just spend some time in the kitchen with their grandmother.

I’ll report back when I find success.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sunday catch-up

This message, projected on the wall of the train station in Eindhoven, gave me both pause and a smile. 

Pause, that such a philosophical idea would show up, randomly, in a train station.

A smile, that I could read it.

I had a perfectly awful Dutch session with my tutor yesterday.  I’ve been on the road too much, backsliding on both vocabulary and grammar. Dutch language I really hate the feeling when I arrive with a head full of ideas and a mouth full of rocks: I’ve become more diligent about starting to write and to speak with friends and pulling gut y list of irregular verb conjugation on the train.  I think that I need to  set a date for the test and work towards it.

I’m owed about a quarter-million euro by a vendor with a sudden cash flow problem. This blocks payments to my subcontractors which sets me thinking about whether I can seize and monetize the work I’ve done as collateral. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         In the US, it would require me to force an involuntary insolvency on my creditor, followed by bankruptcy proce3dings, finally an auction of assets, all taking about a year.  If, however, I file in the Netherlands, a court will issue a writ of summons pretty quickly, hold an expedited procedure, and issue a declaration that my debt is valid within 8 weeks.  Then a further month allows me to give notice of foreclosure and seize the asset, perhaps four months all told.  I likely couldn’t market the completed device in the US, but I could take investment to develop it for European customers.  Seek good help if you try this, but there are good guides to the basic process online.

No, this isn’t something I’d ever thought I’d have to learn <sigh>.  But I like the way the procedures work here.

Internet trainOn the way north to visit Advocaat Hans, I got a taste f the free WiFi service being offered in newer NS coaches.  It was really nice: like the St. Pancras service in London, it is free, fast, and reliable.  I don’t think that it dropped signal at all, even through the wilds of the Groene Hart.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a wistful comedy about a group of The-Best-Exotic-Marigold-HotelUK retirees who move to a villa in India.   It’s a good expatriate film with a stellar cast, and it says interesting things about expectations, struggles to adapt, and the process of fitting in.  I wish that the movie had the courage to finish the stories that it began, forcing the characters to find their life’s purpose, meaning in a foreign culture, and personal identity.  Instead, everyone reverts to their original nature just as they started to get comfortable with change.

smullen maarThere are words in Dutch (and English) that are untranslatable.  Gezellig is the classical example in Dutch; I struggle with “Engineer” or “Automobile Chassis” from English.  I came across a blog posting which I now, unhappily, can’t find that noted several more: smullen and pretoogjes.  I would credit the author but have lost the bookmark – his thoughts on how “invisible Dutch” words enriches thinking as well as vocabulary are interesting, both philosophically and culturally.

And we’re either setting up the new UK Missile Defense system outside of Cambridge, or the Bouncy Castle can’t be far behind…


Ah, and the Mondrian quote to ponder as you walk in the sunny countryside today:

Convention, a kind of memory, is the greatest obstacle to enjoying life and art.