Saturday, June 1, 2013

Onder A2, Maastricht

Today was the Dag van de Bouw in the Netherlands.  Construction sites are opened all across the country to let people see what the builders have been up to.  And, in Maastricht, there is no bigger project than the sinking of the A2.

The A2 is the main North/South highway through the Netherlands, connecting Maastricht with Amsterdam.  It cuts through the center of Maastricht, dividing the city as decisively as the Maas river.  It was dotted with traffic  lights, and was a notoriously slow passage, lined with ugly apartments and gritty sound barriers.


For years, there have been plans to move the highway underground, with a lid and a park over it, and ground was broken last year.  Today, the public was invited to see the progress.


First impressions are of dirt and water.  The holes are huge and filled with rubble from the broken-up apartment blocks.   The water table from the river lie above the two levels of the tunnels, so there’s a big effort involved in holding the walls and the river back.


Of course, anything that involves water attracts scrutiny.


The men prefer examining the equipment; the children pose on it.  My neighbor told the television crew that she came with her husband so that he could explain everything to her (hoping to get on the news by being outrageously non-PC…)


The tunnels are huge, gently curving spaces, dotted with exhibits by companies explaining their part in the project.


There are impressive walls of scaffolding and braces everywhere.


And the traffic jams have already begun…


Friday, May 31, 2013

Weekend reading

The headphones are off as the last call ends; I’ve pushed back from the table and started to think about the weekend.  The sun is shining across the Maas into unsettled skies, and the streets are filling with people looking for a bite and a biertje.

It’s been a good day.

I read an article today that asked, rhetorically, What is the second most useful language? taal Globalists would make the case for Chinese or Arabic, romanticists might prefer French or Japanese.  But for most people, “None” is the right answer: if you speak English, you don’t need anything else.

The author argues that the right answer is “Any language”.   So that you know what your colleagues, fellow conference delegates and negotiators are going through, how tiring their working days are and how impressive their linguistic accomplishment is. 

I agree with the sentiment: the Dutch make languages look deceptively easy and I’ll speed up thoughtlessly if I’m not sensitive to their effort.  Similarly, forced encounters with immigration services drives appreciation of the difficulties of the process and the bad feelings it evokes.  Immersion in a liberal (or xenophobic)  politics, in austere (or socialist) economies, teaches concrete lessons of human costs and benefits that no commentator conveys.

But I don’t agree with the article’s rationale.  There is an intrinsic value in being able to directly appreciate how natives capture a thought or express a feeling,what words and metaphors they choose.  Fluency means membership in the community, access to goods and services, awareness of what’s going on around me.  Language skills are important.

OefeningWhat does it take to learn a language, or cultural norms, and social skills?  Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice?  Josh Kaufman argues in The First 20 Hours that a level of proficiency can be achieved in far less time.

Nobody can become an expert in a few days, but the point is that you can become good enough to enjoy a new skill.  It takes “Deliberate practice”: a plan and a focus.  He suggests choosing a project you love; focusing your energy on just one skill at a time; making time for practice; and emphasizing quality over speed.

For my Dutch, the structure comes from a workbook or an online course: I can see real improvement when I do it regularly without distraction, and then force myself to use what I learned in public.   I’m a great believer in ‘giving things a go’, in the honor of trying even when your performance isn’t very good.

Europeans don’t tend to work that way.  A Dutch farmer once told me that he doesn’t ski at all because he didn’t have the time to master it.  If you can’t learn it properly, don’t learn it half-way.  A British neighbor told me over tea that she gave up foreign travel because going to new places without time to read up on the country and culture, without having time to spend immersed and expatriate, was just too superficial and frustrating.

It seems to me that you miss a lot of life that way.

blijft zittenI went to Dutch today with a clipping to read and discuss out loud.  Paulien Cornelisse writes a Friday column for NRC-Next on the peculiarities of language, and Dutch in particular.  Today’s writing explored the simple, subtle word Zitten.  “Do we overuse the word ‘sit’ because our culture does so much of it,” she asks, “Do Brazilians overuse ‘dance’?”  I wonder.

Yet its interesting how many of her apologetic examples parallel (US) English usage.  Its fun to be able to debate with my Dutch teacher whether there is a difference between something that sticks to the wall (an action) and something that sits on it (a result).

And it’s good to find that the statement “Jongedame, niet aan de knopjes van het fornuis zitten!” has no blushing subtext, that iets sjieks means “something fancy”, not “something sexy”.

It’s a good weekend, therefore, to go out and read something.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Sunrise, sunset: What’s in a day?

Mornings get off to a a quiet start for me.

At least, they have that appearance.  I think that I look silent and drifting, disengaged and preoccupied, sometimes pausing as I come from the shower to trap an elusive thought or word before it escapes.  I tend to jot points onto a blank sheet of paper, things to do, things to think about, people to call, dates to remember, disconnected plans and priorities across  portfolio of projects.

But in the morning, I am just thinking about things broadly, skimming the fields, netting ideas. 

The prior evening’s movie “Another Year” featured an appealing 50-ish loving  couple that were anchors for the damaged souls around them. But, on morning reflection, they seem like smug dominants, destroying those who turned to them for help. ‘Off to the Guardian for a look at the review:

A division of opinion has emerged among audiences about its two lead characters. Some think they are simply what they seem: sane, nice people, and we could and should simply admire them. But there is an alternative view: namely, that Gerri and Tom are not all that admirable, but subtly complacent and self-satisfied, and we are misunderstanding their parasitism

Intellectual vindication.

Evening’s, I’ve been reading Gleick’s Genius, a biography of physicist Richard Feynman.  At one level, as a physics major in the 70’s who struggled with the math and visualization before finally turning to signal processing, it’s a revelatory discourse on what I missed.  On another, I try to understand the nature of Feynman genius.  He had both a unique way of looking at problems and a fearsome ability to solve integrals.

In the morning, I’m off to read articles on Principles of Least Action, reflecting on the smartest people and places I’ve known.  Is Feynman’s practiced ability with mathematics, in fact, intuitive genius?  To what extent did the intellectual hothouse of 1940’s Los Alamos  create him, as Cambridge, Bell Labs, or the Media Lab both inspire and challenge others?

I skim, alight on Feynman’s appendix to the Challenger report: For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.  Lovely, saved to Pocket  or should I be making a FlipBoard magazine of these? Scratch a note about “curated media”.)

Maasricht eveningEvenings conclude with a burst of activity for me.

At least, they have that appearance.  I take books to the cafĂ©, order beer, and study Dutch vocabulary or read technical works.  I hunch over the computer and bang out a review, analysis, blog post, or report.  The telephone rarely falls silent before 9 pm.

The company documents that we need from Stone Bridge Biomedical:  Articles of Incorporation, Certificate of Good Standing.

Dutch corporation ( a”BV” in the local language), registered through the Kamer van Koophandel (KvK). Their official record of incorporation is call a Uittreksel, and I went to their offices to pay for a copy today…

What do the documents now say about voting requirements? What if they make an offer that three of us like, but xxx refuses. Can he unilaterally block this deal?

Unanimous means unanimous: Let the games begin...

How do you think you could enrich our diverse and inclusive community, and what are your hopes for your college experience?

I’d suggest that you joined the Air Force five years ago for the opportunity to learn hands-on technical skills in a real-world setting, to develop leadership and team skills, and to get a broader perspective on global cultures and societies.

I have just been informed that the PS493 was shipped from the US yesterday and delivery is expected tomorrow.

Let’s confirm a call to confirm which stabilization method we treat the samples with, how many of the coated (stabilized, functionalized, coated), uncoated (stabilized, functionalized) and untreated samples need to be made, and final supplies and shipping instructions.  Dial-in instructions to follow.

What do you suggest?      Wat stel je voor?

What would you suggest?   Wat zou je voorstellen?

I give up.     Ik geef het op.

I know that my mind evolves from general to specific over the day, and my energy is highest mid-morning, late afternoon, early evening.   I move to a natural rhythm; I don’t feel like I get enough done.  I need more time for people and for thinking.

What is the right balance of necessity and aspiration?

Is a proportionate day the same as a balanced one?

How, how much, and when comes the human connection?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Fluffy pancakes and other useful advice

Okay, I have my pancakes back on track.  The recipe came from America’s Test Kitchen:

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup milk (plus an extra tablespoon or so if batter is too thick)
1 large egg , separated
2 tablespoons unsalted butter , melted
vegetable oil (for brushing griddle)

1. Mix dry ingredients in medium bowl. Pour buttermilk and milk into 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup. Whisk in egg white; mix yolk with melted butter, then stir into milk mixture. Dump wet ingredients into dry ingredients all at once; whisk until just mixed.

2. Meanwhile, heat griddle or large skillet over strong medium-high heat. Brush griddle generously with oil. When water splashed on surface confidently sizzles, pour batter, about 1/4 cup at a time, onto griddle, making sure not to overcrowd. When pancake bottoms are brown and top surface starts to bubble, 2 to 3 minutes, flip cakes and cook until remaining side has browned, 1 to 2 minutes longer.


The Limburg Kamer van Koophandel (KvK) has moved again, and will once more at year’s end.  The glass offices in Sittard have been exchanged for modest (under construction) digs up the road , and are soon to be exchanged for a new location further north in Roermond.

It fits a general trend of offices closing in the south and hubs moving north towards Eindhoven.  It’s happened with the KvK and Expat Center, EU 2018various friend’s workplaces, and more generally with Rockstart.  What are we doing wrong in the south (even as we strive to be Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2018.


At some point, remember to back up your blog.  The XML file is surprisingly small; the peace of mind is huge.


The FT has an essay on “The benefits of business with no fixed abode” , detailing the virtues of working from public spaces.  As someone who is as likely to operate from a Starbucks or BTWireless hotspot as from St. Johns or the bioIncubator2, I can see both the advantages and disadvantages.  I do tend to squeeze work into life’s corners and like being able to be productive anywhere, anytime.  Still, an  office drives interactions and focus that are difficult to replicate on the road.  I’m hitting ore of a balance these days, half in-office, half-out, that gives me the contact and flexibility I need to cover life’s portfolio.

The biggest productivity tip, really, is to avoid travel as much as possible.  It eats time and its almost impossible to do work on a train or plane.

FlipBoardI’m experimenting with publishing expat entrepreneurial content (with a Netherlands focus) to a FlipBoard magazine (along with another, more general one with expat literature relevant to those living in the Netherlands). They are best accessed through FlipBoard Search: I’m still figuring out how to connect my Pocket as the curated content (feed, archive, or notification), but will keep it maintained.


I’ve been noticing that I tend to compose my photographs with the focus to the right, subject to the left.  Flipping through travel magazines, it seems to be the dominant composition there as well (although there is a bias in how things are arranged within and across pages as well).

I took a look at whether on orientation feels more “right” than the other by flipping a magazine ad:


I definitely have a feel tat one is more comfortable, less artificial than the other, but I doubt that it’s universal.  I’ll try to mix up my perspectives in any case, right/left, just like I do sky/ground.