Saturday, July 6, 2013

Portfolio living

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece here on Portfolio Entrepreneurship, arguing that the chances of having a successful startup were increased if you ran several of them at once.  All of the business insights, investor and service networks and learning experiences mutually supported the whole.  The overall risk would decrease by virtue of having options if one business failed; rewards would come more quickly if time was compressed.

I’ve thought about that essay a lot since writing it, and think that I’ve both over-applied it in life and underestimated it’s impact. 

In short, I was wrong.

Starting a new business is punishingly hard, risky, and time consuming.  Starting three is a recipe for 8-day workweeks and sleepless nights.

Living as an expatriate is a 24/7 challenge, learning a new culture, language, and social script.  Living in three countries leads is expensive, exhausting, and disorienting.

Rebuilding a relationship is tricky at best; giving support and creating connection requires presence and time.   Compressing  it into life’s corners is unfair and corrosive.

And all of this is apart from the travel, stress, and isolation required to thread everything together.

I’ve been the poster child for extreme living, building a portfolio where there are always options, never commitment.  Where the risks become multiplied rather than diminished, where I’m always adding braces and building firewalls to keep  the structure whole.

Its getting to where my hands are shaking too much to pour my coffee.

Friday, July 5, 2013

How do we know what we know?

In Nederlands, there are two words for knowledge.  One is to know by direct experience (Denken) and the other is to know by indirect reports (Weten). 

Denken is overwhelmingly more valid but necessarily limited in scope.  I can only explore limited time and space, befriend only a small circle and learn from a few actions. 

Further, to be really useful, I have to massage experiences into knowledge by reflecting, talking, or writing about it.  ‘Which takes away from having more experiences.

Weten, tapping into the knowledge and skills of others, gives greater scope for learning.  But it also requires establishing relevance, communication, and trust in sources, whether news, experts, literature, friends or social media.

The classical model for accessing second-hand knowledge is to search for answers to questions.  So I check out a book, talk to a friend, follow recommendations,  then test the quality of the answers by their alignment with reality and the  outcomes that they produce.

FeedsWhen I find sources I like and trust, then I accept more of my information from them.  I attend a business class, read the Economist, share conversation over coffee.   ‘Good, but still limited in three main ways.

First, it’s hard to keep up with the flow of people and news that interests me.  My aggregator has a growing backlog of unread blog posts; old issues of magazines pile up in my tablet.  I call a friend to ask about their health,, find out that she has new vacation pictures, stories about kids, a change of job I hadn’t suspected.  I feel like I can’t keep up, much less think through, the news and conversations that fill each day.  (Even if only the ones in English!)

Second, I identify new sources using similarity searches: friends of friends.  “Find more like this” works well for music and movies, but I know that it gets dangerously constrained when applied to news and commentary.  A single point of view, endlessly reinforced, creates a brittle and embattled outlook towards life and people, nurtures homogeneous communities that feel both exceptional and victimized.  As the Economist notes, “Americans prefer talking heads because they increasingly prefer to hear opinion rather than fact.”

Finally, I am all too aware that I am taking samples from someone else’s narrative, colored with their motives and biases.   Even with the best of intentions, people pick examples by analogy, tell you whet they think you need to hear, omit context and embellish details.  I’ve had situations go horribly wrong in the past few months despite getting trusted advice  which, in hindsight, was simply misguided or malicious.

I want to keep up with people and trends that are meaningful and important  to me.  I want to be deeply informed about things that matter to me and occasionally surprised and challenged by new ideas.  I want to grow my social and professional circle.

TweetdeckDave Winer talks about one alternative: rather than pulling items individually by polling trusted sources, we should embrace the flow of a “river of news”. 

He envisions sitting on the bank of the news crawl, the Twitter feed, the Facebook scroll. We become aware of new information as it becomes more prevalent, we inspect it if it’s interesting, we discern trends in the evolution of the stream.  Last week, Dave released River3, a Dropbox based aggregator implementing the principles: you can see sample output at MediaHackers.

Another idea is Curated Content: diverting streams from the river related to particular topics.  These can be crowd-sourced (Digg), organized by an editor (  or scrapbooked (FlipBoard magazines).  I prefer the latter: I don’t trust crowd-sourced content (selection can be superficial and self-reinforcing) and newsletters too often pile up, unread.

And then there’s the question of who is doing the curating.  As Google, Facebook, or PRISM watch us, they build up profiles leading to predictions.  They create individualized filters that constrain and, ultimately, manipulate what we see and do.

And it’s likely to be inaccurate.  To paraphrase William Buffet, we are obsessed with having our public persona being seen, but also with our private self remaining hidden.  Basing our trusted sources on our projected selves cannot yield truth.

I’m not sure that we’ve yet seen the ideal way of learning through weten.  More data is available, but it’s getting harder and harder to organize, collate, and prioritize.  And there’s no choice but to keep listening, reading, sampling, analyzing, and learning.

And even then, it still comes back around to denken.

Events, experienced first-hand, often prove how little I really do know.  The bite can be really painful but, in the end, I hope  it doesn’t make me cynical.

Insight and wisdom are best gained by simply living.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Vintage cars for the 4th

It’s the 4th of July in the US, celebrating our independence from the British.  In Britain and the Netherlands it’s a day like any other day.  I’m going to a party thrown by a few friends tonight, ‘dogs and beers hopefully.  Not much likelihood of traditional fireworks, so I’ll toss in some traditional motor cars instead.

These were on show at the monthly Car Meet outside the Royal Oak in June, really a nice evening shared with good friends.  And, yes, the cars are mostly British.  But the BIG motorcar is such an American classic that it’s worth a few shots.


Amusingly, American cars came up at dinner, and the Italians present dismissed them as “underpowered mopeds”.  They said that the RPMs never got high enough, the cars downshifted before accelerating, and they were generally stately saloon vehicles as opposed to true road machines.

‘live and learn…

Be sure to check out 13 landscape photos for the 4th  here as well.



Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Chicago Way

I was sitting at the dining room table, banging through some business work when the internet failed.  A quiet bloom of “Unable to Update” windows spread across the screens.  I sighed, tapped a few reload keys; more windows.  This  was not good.

BT knocked on the door Friday to advise me that they were replacing the box around the copper wire in the front yard.  Will I lose the connection?  Nah, it’s just a box, nothing electrical. What could happen?

Of course, it did.

I’m in a pretty fragile mood at the moment, but I stuck my head out the front door.  “Problem?” I asked the man with the shovel, sitting in the big dark hole.  No Problem, he grinned.  “No connection!” I frowned.  I didn’t touch anything!

I asked him to call a supervisor while I rebooted routers and checked phones.  ‘Still nothing:  I went back outside.  The supervisor will call BT, he smiled and put the men back to digging.

I think that this is where European and US sensibilities differ.  I have enough irritation, enough experience with BT to know that this will go on for weeks.  American sensibility says that this gets solved now or it won’t get solved.

“Please stop all work now.  I want to talk with your supervisor.”  They looked incredulous but I stood my ground.  They got out of the hole, retreated to the truck, and started dialing.

“When I can get back to work, your men can get back to work,” I told the supervisor.  You may be delaying your long-planned service upgrade, he began: I handed the phone back to the work diggingcrew.  “No more digging in my yard.”

Everyone took a half-hour time-out while the supervisor drove-out, accompaied by the office manager.  He inspected the hole, then hit the phones; I made calls outside where I could get a mobile signal and keep an eye on things.  BT says its not their problem if our shovels didn’t nick the wire.  “It’s certainly not my problem: keep trying please.”  The neighbors arrived: one (10 months pregnant) glowered that her phone was off, while the other just glowered at the mess.  ‘Great team effort.

BT is on the way. “Many thanks, go ahead and dig while we all wait, but please stay until they get here?”  He nodded, made another call to BT.

A tech showed up within the hour.  He isolated the problem to a ten-foot stretch of cable between the hole and the house.  The workmen started digging a trench.  The neighbors beamed.

A bad crimp, the tech said, holding up a copper wire, and completely oxidized to black as well.  I bet this never worked well.

“Not in three years.”

It just took a little jerk to separate it entirely.  He stripped and crimped with gusto.  There we go, try it now.

The neighbors and I ran in for another reboot.  This time, blue lights glowed, web pages loaded, dial tones hummed.  Everyone shook hands and waved.

chicago wayAt the peak, I had a half dozen people on site, peering into the hole and solving the problem. 

Okay, I may have been the problem, but I didn’t cause it. 

And I did get it fixed.

The Chicago Way.

It almost made me feel a little better.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Curating expat thoughts

I’m still feeling rough despite the time off: sleepless, alternately discouraged or worried.  Rather than fret in print, though, I’ll share a few links that absorbed my 4:30 am reading.

The dark side of expat life.  ELink

expat-stages-2_0002The NYT offers a perceptive blog post that likely resonates with every expat.  It starts by noting that “home” might be where your apartment, your work or your belongings are.  It’s true that I’ve become less rooted to a sense of where I am,  and more to who I am.

That is a subject for a whole other blog post, but has to include my personal capabilities and ambitions, the balance struck among life’s activities and events, and my important relationships with a tight circle of very close people.

But such transience has a dark side: getting stuck in limbo, neither here nor there.  True: I’ve felt it.  A loosening of family connections, never meeting my son’s (ex-)wife, friendships maintained through Facebook and Skype instead of dinners and drinks.  That nagging worry about becoming that expat with the long white hair at the end of the bar.

Therein lies the expat’s problem: there’s nothing back home for me now. Home is not “back home.”  My life is here.

Base camp -It’s both an exciting and hard reality that every expat faces.  Where is “home”; how do you define it?  How do you maintain important and core relationships?  How much a part of “home” can you become if you aren’t native?  How much a part of “home” can you be if you’re never there?

And, perhaps most of all, how long is too long?

UK Wealth Managers turn Americans away.  ELink

Wealth mgmtIt seems that measures to address excesses of the financial collapse have now swept up expats as well.  The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act requires banks to disclose the identity and activity of every American with more than $50K in their account.  While the point is to prevent tax evasion, in reality it blocks banking services.

I’d found that no Dutch or UK bank or brokerage would want to take an investment account from an American citizen.  Now it seems to be extending towards everyday banking as well?

Saskia HollemanSaskia Holleman, a 25-year-old actress who appeared nude in a famous Dutch political campaign poster in 1971 has died.  The PSP party saw it’s representation halved from 4 seats to 2, regardless, but the poster remains a legend.

Making friends (Cameron edition) ELink

CameronThe UK has proposed a Security Bond, ensuring that everyone who comes into the country will eventually depart.  Visitors from nine foreign countries, including India, will need to deposit £3000 on entry.

India in  particular, takes this as a personal slap and is planning reciprocity for UK visitors. 

How about a “Collective Pension Plan”?  ELink

Nest EggOnce upon a time, companies banked funds for their employees retirement.   “Defined Benefit” plans have now been replaced by “Defined contribution” ones, where each worker bears the burden of funding and managing money for their retirement.

Enter a new Dutch idea: Collective Pensions.  Individual retirement accounts are bundled together to create large funds pool risks and share costs.

It’s had mixed success so far (admittedly during devastating market downturn),  with loss of individual control and diminished overall returns as the major drawbacks.  But they may provide an attractive Mutual-Fund chubbiness and professionalism that brings these schemes to US / UK workers soon.

Zevende HemelFinally, it’s rumored that In de Zevende Hemel,  a local brothel around the corner from my apartment, is now offering 18% discounts through Groupon.   They have a Facebook page (with 2 Likes): can a Kickstarter campaign be far behind?

I’ve never visited (any) place like that, and they’ve always been good (quiet) neighbors.  Still, I suppose that a business has to brand and market, and that means the occasional discount to get people to try a sample?

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Along the Jurassic coast

It’s been a seriously difficult week.  Stress and crisis filled every day: it started to interfere with sleep, digestion, confidence.  Even I can realize when its finally time to step back and get some perspective before something worse happens.  I turned to the window and dialed friends outside Bournmouth, asked if they’d mind giving me refuge for a weekend.

Old-Harry-Rocks-DorsetThey live near Canford Cliffs, a lovely upscale village next to the Jurassic coast of sheer chalk walls rising straight from the cobalt sea, changing color with the light.   The weekend weather couldn’t have been better: sunny and breezy, blue water and high thin clouds.   The younger kite-surfers were out on the lagoon in force; other parents convoyed power and sailboats past the Chain Ferry and out to sea.

We took the Yellow Ferry to Brownsea Island, famous as the founding home of the Boy Scouts and a big population of red squirrels.  It reminds me of Maine, tall red-trunked pines and driftwood beaches, islands dotting the horizon.  We walked the circumference, enjoyed tea, talked a storm comparing countries, peoples, customs. 

Then over to Swanage to see the Corfe Castle ruins, drop their kids at horseback riding, on to Pimms and lamb with a chatty group of their friends.  It was long ago, long forgotten, normalcy.

Poole’s houses are huge by British standards, but squeezed together like American developments.  They are of two types, classic British country houses and Miami-modernist white plaster and blue glass. 

My favorite was Emprio (£3.9 million, although the realtor confided that she’d take £3 million if I paid cash).  The third-floor master bedroom had a glass wall with panoramic views of the harbor across the foot of the bed.

We all talked a lot about life, generally and in it’s particulars for the week; my worries and theirs.  It really helped me to air out a bit; hopefully my stomach stays unclenched when I get back.

More pictures, of course, on my Flickr site.

The prevalence of abuse

Nigella 1The sun was setting behind us, highlighting the sailboats in the harbor.  They glowed against the dark blue water.  There was a warm breeze, beers and juice glasses scattered over the table.  Our group, five women and two men in 50’s, a 20-something man, were trading easy conversation about families and relationships.

Did you see the picture of Nigella’s husband choking her?  It’s appalling: she was right to have moved out.

I left when my husband threw a glass of water at me.  The physical threat was real and she felt afraid.  The other woman at the table, her neighbor, had divorced under similar circumstances.

What percentage of men abuse their partners? I asked.  Well over half, perhaps as many as 70%, was the female consensus.  Maybe 10%, at most 25%? was the male’s.  Lively discussion ensued.

Partner abuse is morally and legally wrong.  The US department of Justice estimates that 25% of women suffer abuse from their partners, but many say these assaults are the most deeply underreported crime.

Victims of Violence

The numbers, of course, go higher if abuse is more broadly defined.  Emotional abuse, controlling relationships, manipulative partners are all debilitating and morally wrong, and inclusion lead to  higher numbers.

Violence against women 2

Why is there such a divergence in the perceptions,  with women agreeing that well over half of men are abusers, man converge under a quarter?

Personal experience plays a large part, I’m sure. 

The men, and certainly myself, don’t have any friends that are we would characterize as physically violent.  We don’ know what goes on out of sight, and we do end up with a low estimate. Nigella 2 I suspect that age, class, and culture,  may also play a role: the 20-something said that a quarter of his friends were physically aggressive to women in public.

The women seemed to key off of family violence statistics, especially the percentage of abused children who would, in turn, be likely to grow up misogynistic and violent.  One suggested that abused girls grow up with lower expectations of how men behave, more willing to tolerate abuse, more afraid to stop it when they feel vulnerable with  low self-confidence.

In the end, what percentage of men abuse women?  I’d lean towards a third, certainly less than half of men but triple what I would have thought.  Too high in any case.  And, listening to the stories of sadness and loss that followed their divorces, too emotionally and economically devastating.

The conversation drifted, diffused, moved on.  We ordered a pitcher of Pimms and talked on into the evening, the sun reflecting warm and pink across the water and into the clouds.