Saturday, November 8, 2008

Central Park autumn

I was in New York on Friday, getting a tooth fixed and visiting a close friend that I hadn’t seen in  over twenty years.  ‘Riding back to Penn Station from 94th Street, the taxi driver took a cut through Central Park.  The leaves were in their full fall glory: impossible to do justice, but worth sharing.

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Why we blog

image A number of people whose blogs I enjoy reading have stopped writing.  While some have run out of time or things to day, others seem to have reached a point of existential concern about the very nature of their work: has their blog drifted from it’s original purpose, or has it become too personal, too revealing, or too demanding. I’m surprised at how I’ve come to know them through their writing, and that I miss their correspondence once they’ve gone.

Andrew Sullivan recently published a fascinating essay touching on this topic, “Why I Blog”, in the Atlantic Magazine.  In it, he begins by defining blogging as the “spontaneous expression of instant thought”.  He goes on to describe how this drives the main characteristics of blogs: their  impermanence, interactivity, and superficiality.  I found a lot that resonates with my own motivations and experiences writing here, and agree with his tag that blogging is “Writing out loud”.

Returning to issues brought up by my fellow expat bloggers, he counters that this medium is, by it’s nature, personal and demanding.  Blogs are “the least veiled of any forum in which a writer dares to express himself” because they captures events, emotions, and perceptions without the perspective of time and the cooling of passions.  Blogs are also social acts that generate discussion and connect as conversations, actively engaging both writers and readers.  Unlike personal journals or newspaper columns, the form will invariably tend to become an extension of the writer and their audience, whatever the original intent.

I’ve subscribed to Andrew’s feed for a couple of weeks now to see how this plays out in practice.  Returning to his article again this morning, I find that I still agree with him philosophically, but diverge from him in how this gets implemented as style.

Andrew’s blog is a stream of dozens of brief posts each day, many consisting of short snippets of text, links, and commentary.  They strike me as well-informed Twitterings, aggregated within his overall theme of politics and media.  Reading them, I feel informed, sometimes intrigued, but seldom stirred.  There is no reflection or insight: I feel like volume and superficiality overwhelm the personal and communal aspects that he rightly champions.

In contrast, I blog to reflect on the ideas and experiences that I have in the Netherlands, and to break free of the isolation of living as an expatriate. I tend to write an entry in a single sitting, but never more than once a day and seldom for less than half an hour.  I never revise prior posts except to correct factual or (obvious) grammatical errors.

Thus, I think of my blog (and others) more as personal essays: short narratives that focus on a central idea about the writer, supported by a variety of incidents from the writer's life, and, often, connected to some larger idea.

imageMy style is heavily influenced by essayists who I enjoyed long before: Robert Waller, Robert Benchley, Isaac Asimov, David Sideris, Barbara Kingsolver, and many others who have filled my bookshelf and backpack for years.  “Excavating Rachael’s Room”, in Waller’s Just Beyond the Firelight, is a wonderful example, reflecting on his college daughter’s life while sorting through the childhood things she left behind.

Many of the blogs that I follow take similar time to reflect on their lives and write in ways that connect out to others.  They describe human moments that touched them or larger events that made them aware.  They arrive at insight through analysis or juxtaposition, sometimes just stimulating connections into my own experiences and ideas.

In this sense, I think bloggers best capture the  benefits that Andrew values through a more personal and introspective style than he uses.

It’s interesting that the expat bloggers in the Netherlands seem to have universally arrived at a similar form, adopting an essayists prose.  And so many are natural storytellers who do it well.  I guess that I note this in the hope that some will still see the personal and social value in their writing, and not draw back because it feels too personal.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hodo-hodo zoku

image The words literally translate from Japanese as “so-so folks”, and the Wall Street Journal says it’s the newest trend among salarymen.  They are workers who are refusing promotions, shunning civil-service exams, and forgoing raises in favor of slow careers.  “Not everybody needs to become a leader…Forget goals, and stay true to yourself”.

  In contrast to the young hodo-hodo, I’ve been a lifelong learner and striver.  But I wonder if there will come a time when I willingly make a transition to a slower career, or to none at all.

I thrive on the creative challenges of medical diagnostic innovation, the competitive sport of releasing products to customers, and the social rewards of seeing patient’s lives changed for the better.  I’ve always been ambitious about wanting to lead projects, programs, and businesses, and I’m fortunate that my career has opened those opportunities for me.

I am close to peers and colleagues who are finding themselves at  crossroads, where reorganizations have isolated their function, where bosses no longer count them as ‘high potential’, where the flow of new opportunities slows.  Some make a transition out of operations and development into positions where they network, mentor, or consult.  Others, faced with health or family problems, drop out all together.

Maybe this is an inevitable part of our evolution in life: at some point, we all ‘go hodo.

I do know that I haven’t reached that stage: I still have visions of needed products and drive to work with talented people.  I even still harbor desire to advance within the organization.

But I’m also know that I’m spending increasing amounts of time on complementary pursuits that matter to me.  I’m developing a Diagnostics course module that I’ll be teaching with others during  winter term at Cambridge.  I love the travel and photography that I’m doing.  I want more time to read books, draw charcoals, and practice Dutch.  I’d like to find ways to do more teaching and mentoring.

Scary: it’s starting to sound a bit like regret…

MIT Lecture (2) Earlier this week, I had an open evening in Lausanne, and I ended up drifting into the MIT OpenCourseware archive.  Silly, but I spent an hour watching a fascinating physics lecture on magnetism by Walter Lewin.  Three thoughts, on that evening:

  • Don’t we live in a remarkable time, able to casually tap into these resources,
  • I wish I had more time to watch the whole series,
  • Walter Lewin never had a hodo-hodo moment.

  and, I suppose, neither will I.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Good election outcomes

Schiphol Fog I came back through Schiphol late yesterday evening: it had been a long few days of meetings and interviews.  The fog had settled in over Amsterdam, and the flight up from Geneva was delayed by hours.

I was only half-awake when I hit Immigration: as is custom, the officer glanced at the residency card and asked if I spoke Dutch.  Yes, I smiled.  There was an unintelligible burst of Nederlands: it wasn’t the evening to go native.

Switching back to English, he asked if I had voted in today’s election.  I assured him that I did.  He smiled, “And did you vote for Obama?”.  I smiled, Of course.  Passport stamped, entry obtained.

I wonder if I’d have gotten in if I was a McCain-Palin supporter?

I’m happy with the election outcome: I woke at 5 am to watch CNN call it and to listen to the speeches by the two candidates. I thought that John McCain was gracious and forward-looking: it was a good moment for him.   Obama similarly kept his focus on the future and, watching him, it reaffirmed my choice.  If he can manage expectations and focus on crafting more remedies than rhetoric, he will be a wonderful leader.

Still, I’m also glad to see the Democrats are being held to less than 60 in the Senate, forcing them to reach across the aisle.

Last Days  And, finally, it’s wonderful to finally be saying “good riddance” to the know-nothing, ideological, dysfunctional crowd running things from the White House today.  The Countdown Clock is running…

Christine Gregoire won the governor's race in Washington State, which also delights me: her opponent would have turned the state over to mining, timber, business, and building interests.  The statewide initiatives are mostly going my way, and the local races are falling towards solid reformers.

The election of our first black president is a historic moment and is a real milestone capping 50 years of progress from the beginnings of the civil rights movement.  Still, I hope that the references to our ‘first black president’ will fade soon.  The true measure of our progress is that the vote felt color-blind: people voted in hopes of effective leadership, bipartisanship, and new ideas, and not to make a civil rights statement.

I was surprised at the variety of people that had voted for Obama this year.  My brother and his wife, staunch free-market conservatives from Alaska, both voted Democratic for the first time in recent memory.  Many others who are usually among the low-tax, less government wing of politics similarly switched over this year, fed up with the fiscal mess, the war, and the symbolism  of Sarah Palin.

The Financial Times has asked, intriguingly, whether we are seeing a permanent crossover between the two parties.  Upper-tier voters, fleeing the social-evangelical tilt of the Republican party, will end end up becoming Democrats, while the blue-collar unionized voters continue to drift towards the right.

Schiphol Christmas Balls Meanwhile, at Schiphol, the Christmas Balls reappeared over the parking area…the holiday season has officially begun…

Monday, November 3, 2008

Keeping perspective

DSC02794This morning, I caught up on recent blog posts authored by a US-based friend of mine. Although they are a long way from the sights and thoughts found along a later stroll through Amsterdam’s center, they do remind me of the force that Tuesday’s election has back home.

She writes passionately about the upcoming election, feeling their significance and worrying about the potential consequences of an upset. I followed her links to typical Letters to the Editor and agree that it is getting ugly out there (as it is in my home state: the Seattle Times, the Tri-City Herald). It’s easy to get upset at the distortions written and misunderstandings expressed as people try to sway one another’s votes.

At the same time, it’s not something that I can take personally. These voices are out there, and the papers try to reflect that diversity to reflect the national dialog. But in the end, we all get one vote, the country will move on with a popularly elected leader, and we will undertake the serious work of undoing the social, economic, global, and constitutional damage done by the last one.

Truth be told, I’ve actually been encouraged that the press has not focused on the whispered innuendo and biased slogans from either side, and that they have fact-checked statements and contrasted positions to a much greater degree than in the prior decade.

And, in the end, I do trust that centrist people will make a wise choice.

It’s also not so consequential in the long term: the future will turn on larger themes and bigger events than those we are debating today.

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Touring the 16th century canal houses and 18th century villas that dot Amsterdam, I’m always struck by how quaint the technologies, fashions, and perspectives of that time are when viewed from our own. Yet they were the height of progress and sophistication in their time, deadly serious for their people.

The message from the US is real enough, and my friend’s reactions are justified. I have similar feelings of sadness and frustration as I follow the McCain / Palin message and messengers.

But I think that in the heat of this moment we can all see events larger than they really are, and credit dissident voices with more influence than they have. I know that sometimes I do.

And I recognize that we all need to keep the longer perspective.

And so, I’ll share a passage from science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon which I used as a preface to my doctoral thesis and which has always been effective at reminding me of that:

Men of your day, when they look back into the history of their planet, remark not only the length of time but also the bewildering acceleration of life's progress. Almost stationary in the earliest period of the earth's career, in your moment it seems headlong. Mind in you, it is said, not merely stands higher than ever before in respect of percipience, knowledge, insight, delicacy of admiration, and sanity of will, but also it moves upward century by century ever more swiftly. What next? Surely, you think, there will come a time when there will be no further heights to conquer.

This view is mistaken. You underestimate even the foothills that stand in front of you, and never suspect that far above them, hidden by cloud, rise precipices and snow-fields. The mental and spiritual advances which, in your day, mind in the solar system has still to attempt, are overwhelmingly more complex, more precarious and dangerous, than those which have already been achieved. And though in certain humble respects you have attained full development, the loftier potencies of the spirit in you have not yet even begun to put forth buds.

Last And First Men, Olaf Stapledon, 1930

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Museum Night in Amsterdam

A fellow blogger's recent post alerted me to the N8 Museumnacht Amsterdam held across the city last night.  It looked great: roughly 40 museums open from 7 pm until 2 am, accompanied by special showings, performances, lectures, and activities.  For 17 euro, patrons get access to every venue, as well as free rides on all city transportation and another day of free admission to a museum before the end of the year.

To take full advantage, it made sense to drive over from Arnhem early, buying tickets mid-afternoon in freezing rain and piercing wind, then securing a hotel booking.  The detailed (entirely in Dutch) programme offered at least a dozen worthwhile new places to see over the 7-hour open period.  Fortunately, most clustered into three geographic groups, making it easy to skip from one to the other.

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So, at 7 pm things started at the Artis Park housing the planetarium, zoo, and aquarium.  Venues are easy to reach, transportation is frequent (but crowded), and each entrance is marked with a big flashing colored light cube.  The planetarium was a bit slow getting their sky-show kicked off, so the zoo-queue looked like a better alternative.  They give you a group number and usher you into a waiting area to wait to be called; there was a brisk trade in gluhwijn and broodjes that probably floats the zoo’s budget for a month.  The tour was good fun: the animals were puzzled or sleepy at having repeated intrusion of guests and flashlights after dark, and the guides kept up running Dutch commentary on the natural and social history of the park.  We ended at the entrance to the aquarium, a good opportunity to wander the marble halls and debate which was the prettiest (or most repulsive) exhibit.

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It was a few blocks walk onward to the Oosterdok, where the ARCAM architecture center, the NEMO Science Center, and the Scheepvaartmuseum are located.  More refreshment prior to entering NEMO, then plunged forth into the various interactive exhibits.  It seems geared towards children and teens with lots of interactive games, but if you’re willing to get hands wet, it’s a fun time.  There was a competition to generate the most power from a water wheel by diverting water (the secret is to create a waterfall, not a rapids), and a popular discussion of puberty titled “Ben Ik Mijn Hormonen?”  The party areas were slow to kick off, so the ship seemed like a good alternative.  However, it was a bit cold and wet to wander around the decks, so onward to the city center.

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The Hinlopen and Van Loon houses were open, exhibiting classical Dutch arts and architecture, circa 1680.  The Hinlopen Huis ushers you out into a darkened garden, where people crept along by the glow of cell phones making their way to the main house.  The rooms were opulant and there was a harpsichord soloist to set the mood.  But I thought that the Van Loon house, filled with actors and everyday items from the period, captured the Golden Age lifestyle better.  Lines were long to get into the FOAM gallery, so the Rijksmuseum would be the last stop.

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It was nearly 1 am when we joined the line outside the museum.  The Dutch were incredibly engaged with the events all evening: the lines never flagged and their interest never seemed to wane.  I can’t think of another culture that would wait 40 minutes to tour the Masterworks collection past midnight.  Damien Hirst’s artifact, a diamond-encrusted skull titled “For the Love of God”, might also have been the big draw.  I thought it was anticlimatic though: after seeing so many examples of really great art, this work just seems shallow and manipulative.  (Maybe I was just getting cranky at 2 am).

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There were post-parties until dawn, Oliebollen at the corners, and I was tempted to have a last drink at Leidseplein, but in the end tired feet and a weary mind led only back to the hotel.  Still, it’s a fun event and well worth coming into the city for the evening.  I’m already scanning the guide for next year’s opportunities.