Saturday, July 19, 2008

Enjoying a quiet Saturday

DSC09072 I've looked forward to this weekend for a while: I haven't had an uncommitted weekend in two months.  This one is completely free: I plan to 'catch up, 'do nothing, and 'do something (not in equal proportion).  For a further change of pace, I'm largely avoiding job hunting, data analysis, computer surfing, and podcasts.

Bliss.

So, I've done a bit of watering, shopping, filing, and exercising to satisfy the first...took a walk and watched a 'guilty pleasure' movie for the second...started reading a Philip Roth novel (my first) for the third.  It's a lazy day: storms blowing through but no interruptions or demands.  It's almost as good as long walks in high open spaces, especially with a stiff wind vibrating in the trees.

The Dutch headed out en masse this weekend: the Gelderlander reports traffic jams leading south and east, with hours of delays at the Swiss passes.  Although my daily commute will be easier, I'm happy that people still fill the neighborhood square.

It's a nice feeling to see everyone walking and biking around the stores. I never see that in the US any more: the pace, scale, and human-ness of it all has become comfortable and familiar.

My biggest issue this election is restoring civil liberties: those freedoms that protect the individual from the government.  These liberties first appeared in the Magna Carta and are guaranteed by the US constitution.  They include freedom of speech, association and assembly, the of the press and religion, equal protection under the law and rights to due process, and freedom from unwarranted government intrusion into your personal and private affairs.

Traveling, banking, and communicating across the US border has made me very aware of how much these rights have eroded since 9/11, many current abuses having no connection to combating terrorism.

I was wondering whether "freedom of speech' includes a right to remain silent?  is it legal in the US for the government to require loyalty oaths, for example.  It's not an academic question: the Republican National Committee (RNC) used both signed Loyalty Oaths and spoken Loyalty Pledges as a requirement to attend 2004 re-election campaign speeches.

Standing in airport screening lines, doffing clothes and unpacking carry-ons, I wonder where my limit is.  I'm inconvenienced by the procedures, but don't object.  I am uncomfortable with sniffer dogs and CCTV cameras, but don't object.  I object to surveillance of my library borrowing and electronic communications, but can't avoid what I never see.  I think I did take a loyalty oath to get my passport.  What would it take for me to say 'enough'?

Time to cook some dinner and go back to my book...'can't let George Bush steal my Saturday. At least I'm not pummeled by the right-wing radio-screamers here in the Netherlands.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Being right for the wrong reasons

I've grown used to living with long-distance social interactions as an expatriate, with co-workers and extended family living thousands of miles away and many hours delayed. While this separation sometimes makes it difficult to understand events, I still feel like I usually know what's happening since I can infer the likely causes.

So, for example, I've talked with colleagues about what positions might be available at one of our US centers. They tell me that nothing is available now, but that they'll surely open a suitable position next fiscal year. I know that budgets are, indeed, tight, so I look for a way to wait until the job becomes funded.

Yesterday, I read an article about the Gettier Problem, a philosophical challenge that asks when, in fact, we can say that we "know" something. An illustrative example is:

I'm worried that my car is safe one night, so I go outside to look at it. Unfortunately, I get turned around in the dark and go the wrong direction up my street, where I see a car that looks like mine, safe. Meanwhile, my car is, in fact, parked safely down the street.

Do I "know" that my car is safe, and am I justified in sleeping peacefully?

Classically, philosophers would say 'yes'. Their reasoning rests on three facts: My car is safe, I believe it is safe, and I have evidence to justify my belief. (Their technical term for this argument is Knowledge through Justified True Belief, and it's considered a basic test for whether what we think we know is, in fact, true).

Still, if I am right for utterly wrong reasons, I have to admit that I don't really know the situation.

And that puts a creeping doubt into my smug self-assurance about inferring causes for distant events.

Its true that a vacancy will open next year, I believe my friends when they tell me that, and I justify it as a budget issue. But if management opens the vacancy on the basis of finding an attractive new project rather than making a further budget allocation in an existing project, then my chances of landing the position are significantly diminished.

Arriving at the right answer for wrong reasons is a brittle basis for taking action. I end up watching the wrong indicators and talking to the wrong people because I make wrong assumptions. Even though I'm right in the end, I'm wrong on particulars.

So, while it's important to get the facts right, its also important to understand and to verify the reasons for believing them. Particularly in distant interactions where a lot goes unsaid and my mind is good at filling gaps with inferences, I need to stop and check the assumptions before planning actions.

Drawing credit: Jared Byer

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Two sides of identity

Sense of EquilibriumJob hunting is a sure route to self-discovery.

I've been updating my resume and preparing for interviews, sending inquiries and following up on referrals. At each step, I have to think about fundamental questions of who I am, what my experience means, and what I want. The answers have to be written down in very clear and succinct prose, maybe two paragraphs that a busy person will take time to read before skimming onward. I work with a freelance writer, Judy Friedler, to organize my career into polished, formatted prose, but it still takes me weeks to arrive at satisfactory answers to her background questions, summarizing my life, my experiences, my goals.

I've spent lots of travel time reflecting on this, concluding that these questions actually touch on two distinct aspects of my personal identity: "Who I Am", and "What I've Done". One is a snapshot, the other a story; one constant, the other evolving. 'I' am not either/or: I've found that I need to think hard about both to describe the whole.

"Who I am" is a description, a "brand": the unique and distinguishing qualities that make me recognizable. I am a scientist, businessman, parent, writer: but what do those words mean, how do they define me, which are important? I have academic degrees, political views, professional networks, global perspectives: which are relevant and which are toxic parts of my introduction? (The dilemma reminds of the HSBC ads that line the walls at Heathrow.)

"What I've done" is a narrative: the arrangement of events that tell a meaningful story about myself. I've held positions of increasing responsibility, I've learned from my mistakes, my interests have evolved, I've grown from knowing insightful people. The story steps and flows: what happened at each phase of my life, and how did it inspire the next transition? Does it culminate in who I am, or does it lead towards (or away from) who I want to become?

It's been good for me to take the time to pause and do the critical assessment. It's helped to get feedback from others during conversations and interviews, asking questions and reacting to answers. I'm surprised at how the image of "scientist" quickly locks people away from seeing "businessman", for example, but if I juxtapose "entrepreneur" then the right image forms. The meaning (or value) of being "expatriate", though, is still difficult for me to convey. Despite all the talk about the importance of global markets and workplace diversity, people don't relate my experiences to those concepts easily.

And, at the end, both brand and narrative feel like they are being tailored to the simple end of job hunting. Experiences (and skills?) raising a family, pursuing life's passions, sharing formative journeys with friends, all get omitted. A pity: a lot of that is what makes me whole, and are among life's tales that I would share with a new friend over a good meal.

I think that the duality of brand and narrative has much more generality that just the application to identity that I've described here. For example, 'returning to the topic of a web presence, I think that these concepts apply in creating an outward expression of ourselves on the Internet.

Static content, brands, occupy my personal web page, my photo site, and my social networking descriptions. They are authored, published, indexed, and made discoverable. They are intended to have longevity, and I change them infrequently.

Dynamic content, narrative, fills my publications, my blog, my status messages. These are epiphanies, posted, tagged, and streamed. They are transient and meant to be ephemeral.

Web services still don't properly differentiate between the two. For example, Facebook narratives have a way of leaking out to become lasting images, discoverable for interviews. They should have less persistance, consistent with the style of their creation.

For building and maintaining my web presence, I'm realizing that it's more than just 'managing search results'. I really have to to think the content through, properly utilizing networking tools in ways that correctly catagorize and reinforce the two aspects of my personal identity.

I think that it also has big implications for how to configure medical telemonitoring, a topic that I'm thinking deeply about for an upcoming talk.

But that, as they say, will be a tale for another day (Specifically, Computers in Cardiology 2008; the Sunday Workshop).

Figurative Painting: "A Sense of Equilibrium" David Cobley

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bits and bobs for 'Hump Day'

Reason for hope: The Economist reports another reason to savor wine and dessert after a good meal. When high-fat foods, especially red meats, are digested, they release various oxidizing toxins, implicated in cancers, diabetes, and heart disease. Red wine and fruits contain substances that react in the stomach to neutralize these toxins before they are absorbed.

It doesn't mean that I can give up fish and vegetables, but at least I can feel better about dessert.

Two sides of the coin: Whenever I get excited about a new computer application, I rush to show it to friends, calling up an example and putting the program through it's paces. Invariably, it seems, people miss my point. Typically, I'm pushing keys exclaiming 'Look what this does!'. And friends, confronted with pie charts of their bank accounts or time-series of summer airfares, are forever horrified, exclaiming 'Look what this says!'

Come on: content is ephemeral. A cool user interface is forever.

I believe: I got into a good discussion of whether we lead our lives at the whim of fate or by the rudder of destiny. Fate, predestined by a universal designer, isn't appealing to me on either a philosophical basis (why should the Designer care?) or a practical one (what can I do about it?). I do accept that impersonal chance will continuously shift my life's context, but that means that I simply have to be aware and adaptable, as any long-term plan is likely to be invalid within days of it's conception. But it doesn't mean that my life is determined by Fate.

Rather, I prefer Destiny: the mythical best-match between our talents and society's opportunities. It falls to each of us to discover that happy fit for ourselves through exploration and experience. Or to lend sympathy, encouragement, and wise counsel those around us in theirs.

Threading the minefield: My son asked me to send him some magazines for leisure reading, so I hit the local Borders. It's harder than it looks: I needed to find European magazines that will a) be of interest to him, b) not invite criticism from his flight-mates, and c) not raise Air Force eyebrows. I finally settled on Wired, Top Gear, and the Sunday Independent: I hadn't realized the extent to which news and opinion (and half-clad women) overtly fuse in UK weeklies.

I did end up buying a bit of travel / tech porn for myself though: I'm an easy touch for dramatic pictures of mountain getaways and breathless descriptions of web services. I can't imagine what life will be like if Amazon.everything finally does away with bookstores to browse.

Tom Ashbrook interviewed Jeff Bezos last week, and the Amazon CEO was unrepentant about the loss of independent booksellers. I reflected on this while spending a happy hour in the Cambridge University Press store thumbing volumes and noting ideas. There would be a lot lost if this went away, but I don't know how to save it. And, once it's gone, what's the on-line equivalent (I bet it won't fit on a Kindle...)

Photo credits: Skeptic's Dictionary and Comstock Images

Monday, July 14, 2008

Back from London

I'm back from a long weekend trip to London on business.  'no internet access, unexpectedly, so I'll need to be catching up with everyone (online and off) over the next few days.  The weather was (also unexpectedly) sunny and warm, so it was a nice chance to enjoy London on Saturday and a music festival in Cambridge on Sunday afternoon.  Summer brings out the crowds in both cities, and it's nice to get out and jostle among everyone out enjoying the weekend.

The British Museum has a wonderful exhibition of prints which is worth a visit.  The American Scene, which really is worth a visit (I appreciate TH's recommendation).

I thought that Martin Lewis' prints in the fourth section were especially good: he textured the shadows with amazing skill.  Spring Night, Greenwich Village (above left) is a good example.  The lines and roughness in the pavement run right through the shadows cast beneath the people.

Edward Hopper's lonely prints play with light in more interesting ways than his classical Diner paintings.  Some, like Evening Wind, below left, reminded me more of Edvard Munch's drawings.  And, finally, John Ward McClellan's Entrapped also caught my eye (below, right); an apt metaphor for today's working world.

  Entrapped

Finally, I got a smile from Louise Bourgeois' third plate from her collection of prints He Disappeared into Complete Silence.  I think it sums up the way my mind works sometimes.

81493004  Once a man was telling a story, it was a very good story too, and it made him very happy, but he told it so fast that nobody understood it.