Saturday, December 1, 2007

Senseo and Schiphol

It has been a brutal week: while I was on Thanksgiving vacation in the US, the Dutch were dealing with a bunch of problems at work here.  There was a lot to catch up with and to help with when I returned, and it feels like I never really got over the time change and travel lags.  So, I took the luxury of sleeping in until 10 this morning, waking to find that the spitting rain and darkness had given way to a windy, clear blue morning.

Falling Short of Expectations: My assistant had loaned me her Senseo coffeemaker to see if I liked it: I picked up some pads and read the instructions on the Philips site and got it running this morning.

Senseo 2              Senseo 1

I'm underwhelmed.  It is fast, and makes a personal cup that is foamy and hot in a minute.  But the taste is a bit bitter (perhaps a function of the Dark Roast coffee type that I chose), and it seems like the one pad / 1/2 cup ratio is wasteful.  I bought a bag of coffee pads at the Albert Hijn and probably ran through six this morning making three or four cups of coffee (1.87 euro for the bag).  The machine is big, I've had to rearrange the kitchen counters to accommodate it, and there are a lot of parts to wash after using it.  I may go back to my press coffee: with the boiling water tap at the sink, it doesn't seem like any more work.

Exceeding Expectations:  Coming through Schiphol airport, I'm again reminded how much I like that airport.  It is clean, modern, efficient, and well laid-out and marked.  I never feel like I have to walk as far as I do in Heathrow or Chicago, and passport checks and security age generally quick and friendly. The style is modern: the reflective silver and black motif, set off with indirect lighting and orange-yellow signage, is crisp and comfortable. Even the long-term parking is pretty convenient and the busses are frequent and direct.

Schiphol Airport Dec 1 01    Schiphol Airport Dec 1 07

Schiphol Airport Dec 1 17     Schiphol Airport Dec 1 04

With the arrival of Christmas, they put out brilliant white-light decorations, the resulting pointillist-art feel is really nice.

Schiphol Airport Dec 1 09    Schiphol Airport Dec 1 05

Granted, the shops are the typical airport shops, and prices are at typical gouge-the-expense-account levels, but as a travel gateway, it is one of the better venues.

(Note:  In writing this, I found that there is no direct antonym of "exceed"....subceed?  Funny that the language wouldn't have that.  It's like the Dutch don't distinguish "How Many?" from "How Much": both are "Hoeveel?".  Evolutionary blind spots, I guess...)

Friday, November 30, 2007

Guard, gate, guard, gate

Last week, I went to the US Embassy in Amsterdam to add more pages to my passport: the accumulation of visa stamps has overwhelmed the original pages, and Dutch customs authorities were threatening to turn me away if they couldn't find a place to stamp. I stood in the cold rain and step-stopped through security: An intercom, a gate, a search by a guard, a line inside a sturdy cage, another gate admitting only one, an antechamber with an interview, confiscation of my electronics, another gate. A similar process, only slightly faster, to leave.

In an era when Europe is removing barriers, the US seems to be obsessed with adding them. As I travel, I've seen increased suspicion of everyone at the American borders. Checked bags are routinely opened, carry-on's disassembled, clothes removed. Coming through DIA last week, I was sensed inside a sealed air chamber, shoes on, entering, then off, exiting, on top of the usual procedures. There seems no end to it: TSA is now proposing new rules requiring more information and 72 hours to process it before flying into the country (The Register).

I do speak out, but know that there is increased scrutiny of phone calls, emails, blog postings, and travel records. Financial databases are being connected and mined; phone records are saved and searched (EFF). I can't wire money easily, invest in stocks here at all, because of new money laundering regulations. My corporate security already follows me though a GPS chip in my phone; public Internet sites reveal my entire history of addresses and associations (Intelius): the government certainly can do more with the information and tools that it already has.

Participatory democracy requires civil liberty and personal privacy. That is inconsistent with being searched, monitored, and investigated. The US government justifies its expanded surveillance, suspicion, and data mining by the threat made manifest on 9/11. But the European community, faced with far more active threats, still remains committed to open borders, open flows of information, and community-based surveillance with greater oversight. There is an inclusive spread of democracy and rule of law through economic and political incentive rather than military intervention.

I do worry about this issue, and write my representatives about the erosion of civil liberties and privacy. I am concerned by news of federal Attorneys General who refuse to renounce the use of torture, of a witless executive who defends renditions, and of attacks on the press as unpatriotic simply for telling the disagreeable truth.

Civil liberties that are surrendered to the government cannot be regained. It is vital to speak out against this erosion: I support the EFF and others in this stand.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Beware the schoolchildren (and confuse the rats)

I registered with the American Embassy when I arrived, which gets me the Consular Alerts.  This gem came in yesterday:

   The Consulate General wishes to alert U.S. Citizens traveling to and residing in The Netherlands that demonstrations by secondary school students have taken place during the past week, and may continue over the next days.

   A gathering on Monday, November 26, on the Museumplein in Amsterdam turned violent, with students throwing rocks and other material, and the police responding with water canons.  Although the Consulate General has not been notified of specific demonstrations planned, there have been calls on the Internet for students to resume demonstrations throughout The Netherlands on Wednesday morning, November 28.  There have also been calls for protests to continue over the following days.

   American Citizens are advised to exercise caution, and to avoid large groups of secondary school students.

This begs at least two questions.  Why are the students rioting?

Hundreds of schools students gathered at the Museumplein in Amsterdam on Monday morning to protest the requirement that they spend 1,040 hours in class each school year. (Expatica)

That isn't really that difficult a school year, is it??

And should we really exercise caution around all gatherings of children...?

The scientists came out with something almost as good...

The Ig Nobel Award in linguistics has been given to “A University of Barcelona team for showing that rats are unable to tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and somebody speaking Dutch backwards” (BBC News)

Curb the dogs, please...

This has been one of those weeks; back from Thanksgiving week, and immediately into a spin with work, evening meetings and activities, struggles to get out of bed in the morning, struggles to fall asleep at night.  No airport lounge or comfortable seat makes a nine hour time difference easy (I'm avoiding Melatonin this time around).

Conversational Dutch was hopeless last night: my head just wasn't into it and my ears and mouth wouldn't come together.  It's a bit like the "Wednesday lows" with the nuns in Vught.  After a few days of language immersion, your brain goes into vapor lock: they ask a simple question, and you go through the mental steps of parsing the question, finding the verb at the end of the sentence, deciding an answer, finding the vocabulary, checking the verbs, ordering the time-manner-place, checking the pronunciation, oh, and what was the question again...?  By Thursday, you're over it, but there is a point where your mind can't hold it all any more.

Anyway, that wasn't what I wanted to write about :)

It's the Dutch and their dogs.

The Dutch are an delightfully orderly, logical, and tidy group.  Their stores are clean, well lit, easy to navigate.  Their homes are warm, full of art and books, flowers on the table, conversation at the ready.  They are precise in arriving at work, leaving work, doing a job right, and keeping a good balance in life.  They dote on their children.

But for some reason, they are absolutely unable to clean up after their dogs.

Invariably, on a night when I'm tired and late, I hit one of the many deposits left on sidewalks, curbs, and edging.  I don't realize it until I'm in the apartment and get the lights on, so when I turn around, there's a nice brown heel-trail following up the stairs, around the foyer, and to the kitchen.  I brought American spray carpet cleaner, but it's an hour of squirt, scrub, wait, vacuum.

My Dutch friends have assured me that attitudes are changing, and people are becoming more aware that they should clean up after their pets.  It's still a surprising omission of Dutch etiquette, especially in light of the pride that they otherwise take in their homes and neighborhoods.  And change, in this example, can't come too soon...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Regina Coeli: the Nuns in Vught

Every bit of advice that I get says that the Dutch give you about two years to learn the language; after that, why bother to make the effort of speaking English if you won't make the effort to learn Dutch? As the expatriates drain out of my corporate division here, there is definitely a reversion towards using Dutch in meetings and casual conversation. I feel like I get about a quarter of the words directly, and can infer about half of what is going on, gaining a bit each week.

'Still, it's hard to get up in the morning and keep the commitment to reading De Gelderlander, or to listening to Dutch radio in the car driving to work, or to Laura Speaks Dutch podcasts in the evening, a grammar book on the exercise bike, or to flashcards using VTrain and a session with Rosetta Stone in the evenings (now available online).

You get the idea... So immersion makes a lot of sense for me. Regina Coeli, the legendary "Nuns from Vught" is a good solution. The week costs about 3000 euro's, not too bad compared to 500 euros for ten two-hour group-conversational sessions at the local language school. For the cost, you get very high-quality, individual, 13-hour-a-day, five-day immersion. No shortcuts, no English: just solid Dutch conversation, grammar, and vocabulary training. The common course is two weeks, one week, followed by a break of a month, then another. The waiting list is six months long, so you should anticipate your needs early for your assignment.

The day goes from 8 am to 9 pm, consisting of alternating hours: individual conversation with a teacher, then language lab practice using books and exercises, then back to a teacher. Lunch and dinner includes "Taaltafels", and there are individual study breaks and group sessions with games and role playing. Instructors vary from demanding conversationalists to relaxed grammarians to encouraging mentors. (Somehow, I always got the demanding conversationalist at 9 am). Beginners use a series of exercises in a workbook featuring the exploits of Rob and Mariolein; advanced students have more traditional paragraph-level reading and writing. I was able to go through the workbook at about 1 1/2 chapters per day, two weeks easily finished the 10 chapters.

I thought that the experience was extremely effective: I could read a newspaper and hold a simple conversation to check out of a store or into a restaurant after one week. The instructors were first-rate and there is constant feedback on how you are doing. My pronounciation and grammar were very good coming out of the course, but you will need to continue to develop vocabulary and an 'ear' for parsing words in spoken Dutch (which always seems run-together to me). It's hard to find good follow-up, though: you can lose what you learned very quickly if you don't put it to use, and simple conversations with clerks and colleagues don't help much. I signed up for a conversational course here in town (I'm headed there now), but it is at a lower level and not as effective. Still, it forces me to keep developing, which is what the Dutch expect to see and appreciate.

And, no, the actual nuns left long ago...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Impacts of Language

Even though I'm not much good with learning languages, I believe that learning Dutch is a valuable path to joining the people and culture here. The Dutch are nice about it, saying that it's a tough language and that everyone speaks English (actually, the language is very straightforward and there are many times that I get caught in situations where little English is spoken)

So, I've put effort into it, spending two separate weeks with at the talen instituut Regina Coeli in Vught: a wonderful, intense experience in language immersion. I never learned so much so fast.

image Nuns in Vught image

The difficulty now comes from two directions. My Dutch is improving, but still fairly elementary, so I'm limited to conversations at about the second grade level. The Dutch people's English is much better, but we still talk at maybe the high school level. We both try to communicate clearly and slowly, avoiding misunderstanding. It isn't baby talk, but I am aware that we both 'dumb down' the language by avoiding big words, colloquialisms, catch phrases, technical terms, metaphors, and other subtleties.

In the end, isn't our personal ability to express and understand diminished by this? Do we actually lose fluency by always choosing only the easiest word and safest phrase to communicate thoughts? Over time, do we lose more? Remeber, Orwell said that if you can't express it, you can't think it...

Then there is the remarkable discovery by Juan Manuel Toro et al., who demonstrated that "rats sometimes cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards", earning them the 2007 IgNobel prize for linguistics.

Maybe the rats just didn't care -- we all develop a skill for tuning things out now and then...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Shaping a web presence

I've tended to accumulate a web presence, rather than crafting one. Originally just an e-mail address and a few USENET postings, then a personal web page, now social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, and TripAdvisor. The problem is that I started each with a specific purpose in mind at different times in my life, and they've tended to accumulate lots of contradictory, out-of-date, and (sometimes) embarrassing bits. At the same time, many more people are getting acquainted with me by scanning my sites and following the cross-links and search pointers. The personal bits that float out can be a bit unnerving when someone asks about them in a business meeting.

So, it's time to get some consistency and professionalism, even as I find my voice and purpose here. I shuffled the bits of my web life during a slow meeting today (I was jet lagged after a flight from the US, delayed in Munich by ice, so I doubt whether my bleary mind was capable of much more), and I think I see how they all go together. The marketing people would talk encourage me to think about establishing a brand and reinforcing it with synergies among the sites. But, really? I think I just need to sculpt who I am, now, from the raw materials that are out there.

(Note: 1/2/2008
The personal web site has now been re-launched as a personal hub. View the results here.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Time zone differences

From Arnhem, I'm 7 hours ahead of the Corporate center in Minneapolis: They start up by 8, which is late afternoon, my time. I've learned that if I don't cut it off by 5 or 6, then it's easy to stay until 10 pm, getting dragged along with their morning meetings and e-mails.

More difficult is keeping in touch with people in Seattle, 9 hours later than I am. My early morning is late evening for them, and evening calls for me are early mornings for the West Coast. It makes the calls a bit stressful, because neither of us are at our best at those hours. I think we've all just learned to to tackle difficult subjects without warning.

I leave a phone on all night by the bed in case there is an earthquake or some other emergency: it's seldom rung, fortunately. However, the day does get off to an apprehensive start as I make the rounds to check text messages, e-mails, and phone messages when I get up in the morning. All sorts of lesser perils and delights accumulate while I am sleeping, and I sort of hold my breath as I check each in turn. On the good side, if they come up clean, I'm clear for the day !