Saturday, July 31, 2010

Does expatriate experience change politics?

balance-scale Isabella posted her Dutch Top 20 over at A Touch of Dutch this week, her list of  interesting observations on her expat experience.  It’s a good set: I had no idea that the Dutch write their number ‘8’ different than we do.

I was particularly intrigued by her answer number 13: “Since you've lived in the Netherlands, have you changed your political views?

I would have answered that life abroad made me more liberal, but Isabella gives a thoughtful reflection on how her politics became more international: understanding the differences among cultures and how these differences aren’t necessarily good or bad.  I thought a lot about that today, and both agree and disagree with her insights.

At the outset, I should say I’m generally center-left politically. Liberal, not ‘progressive’, I came of age in late 60s social idealism, and was an early believer in environmental protection and social equality.  Strident conservatives ran me over a few times (memorably, Rep Phil Crane from Illinois excoriated me in a public forum when I was 17 for asking about an Alaska Wilderness bill), and I’ve never had much patience for religious conservatives and libertarian free-market types.

And living abroad has further grown my thinking.

There’s no question, as Isabella writes, that my expat experience has broadened my international outlook.

Exposure to varied ideas, customs, viewpoints, foods, parenting, and languages changes how I see, interpret, and judge others. I'm more accepting, less judgmental, more flexible, and more accommodating of divergent views. I have direct experience with alternative policies, like European Health Care systems, that I previously only knew from second-hand reports. There’s also perspective that comes with distance: I struggle more with the provincial stereotypes that still populate US media and discourse.

However, there’s still another aspect of living overseas that pushes me towards being more liberal.

US conservatism resists government meddling through social policy.  But I’ve now lived in societies where governments do intervene, experimenting with alternative policies to drugs, health care, bank bailouts, or free speech. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but they learn and change.

And the world doesn’t end when a government policy doesn’t work, as Bill O'Reilly would have us believe in his famous video about the Dutch.

So, expat life has made me both more international in the cross-culturally accommodating way that Isabella describes, and more liberal in accepting that responsible government can have a role in setting policy to improve the common good. 

I agree with her, as well, that awareness of this effect has to govern repatriation choices.  I had this conversation with friends last night who were considering moving to Texas after decades overseas.  They concede it may need to be a two-step process with a stop at a more diverse waystation along the central east coast before diving into a very self-referential state like Texas.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Bobbing and surfing

Ocean waves

A big difference between corporate and indie work is my exposure to waves.

There are highs and lows of workload, ebb and flow of  cash balances, rhythms of customer and supplier interest.  And, like journeying out onto the open ocean in a small boat, I now feel waves that previously passed unnoticed beneath the longer hull and stabilizing mechanisms of a billion-dollar company. 

Nimble footing and steely nerves can smooth out the oscillations (when I can muster them).  But, like the ocean surface, the interactions of various forces from many directions create a complicated surface, with occasional doldrums and rogue waves.

Workload variation is probably the easiest to cope with.  I’ve gotten better at recognizing periods of heightened demand and the risk of over-commitment.  Sometimes its as simple as blocking out a few days during and after a trip.  When the to-do list gets long, I close the door and block a week to whittle it to size. I put a priority on communicating progress and keeping promises.

And doldrums, such as the six-week summer holiday period, are a good opportunity to clear the lists and to make structural improvements to the business.  These include reviewing the business plan, re-tooling the web sites and brochures, training, prospecting new customers and suppliers, building the brand with publications and publicity.

Much harder is cash-flow variation.  This month, I got caught between suppliers who needed to be paid and customers who were slow sending money for completed jobs.  I keep a reserve, but it was barely sufficient as one-time bills hit from accountants, immigration, and lease car providers.  There’s a scramble to shift funds around to cover the short-term squeeze.

In the old days, companies would have a line of credit from their bank to smooth out rogue waves like these.  But with the financial industry retrenching, my options dwindle to reducing spending, add debt to credit cards, or defer non-essential payments.  Sadly, I take these on myself, delaying purchases and holding back my paycheck (but never high-interest debt).

The rule of thumb is that 10% of revenue can be used to pay off debt.  Thus every $1000 of debt requires $10,000 in income to pay off.  Knowing my future cash flows allows me to estimate how long it would take to pay off debt.  Generally, I stay very short, perhaps a month or two of payback time.  More complicated managerial accounting strategies have fixed costs that are too high for the benefit I’d get right now.

I’ve also begun to realize that I can’t extend floats to customers without thinking of these effects and building a ‘risk premium’ into my billing.  I’ve introduced a late payment penalty clause, and am charging more if the prospect of being paid is uncertain.

Laird Hamilton In uncertain times, I can bob in the waves or I can surf them.

Let me be ‘Laird…

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The advantages of ruby shoes

WizardOfOzTechnicolor

I was riding my bike this morning. listening to an analysis of the Wizard of Oz (two incongruous activities, to be sure), and heard a clip of Salman Rushdie reading from one of his early essays. Titled “Out of Kansas”, it reflects on the tension between “staying” and “leaving”, as played out in the song “Over the Rainbow”.

It made me think: that tension reflects both  the motivations and the doubts that are a daily counterpoint in my expat experience.

My further question, after reading the passage, is whether I migrate in search of roots, or only for escape?

More reflective bike riding is in order.

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"Anyone who has swallowed the scriptwriter’s notion that this is a film about the superiority of “home” over “away”, that the “moral” of the Wizard of Oz is as sickly sweet as an embroidered sampler -- “East west, Home’s best” -- There's no place like home”-- would do well to listen to the yearning in Judy Garland’s voice as her face tilts upwards toward the skies.

“What she expresses here, what she embodies with the purity of an archetype, is the human dream of leaving, a dream at least as powerful as its countervailing dream of roots. At the heart of The Wizard of Oz is the tension between these two dreams. But as the music swells and that big clean voice swells into the anguished longings of the song, did anyone doubt which message is the stronger? In its most potent emotional moment, this is unarguably a film about the joys of going away, of leaving the grayness and entering the color, of making new life in the “place where there isn't any trouble”.

“Over The Rainbow” is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world's migrants. All those who go in search of the place where “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”. It is a celebration of Escape, a grand paean into the Uprooted Self, a hymn – the hymn -- to Elsewhere."

Rushdie, Salman. "Out of Kansas." Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002. New York: Modern Library. 3- 31.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lightly pondering the nature of narrative

WatsonIBM has developed a new form of artificial intelligence that is able to play Jeopardy (ref).  The system, nicknamed Watson, has processed a vast assortment of text documents and had ‘learned’ the likely statistical associations between words and phrases.  Thus, it ‘understands’ that a bicycle is often associated with Holland, Lance Armstrong, and training wheels, and probably not with Shakespere, candlelight, or rain.  This allows it to answer natural language questions of the sort posed on Jeopardy.

I wrote about associative intelligence a couple of days ago, so this development challenges me to ask whether Watson is also ‘thinking’ in the same sense that I do.  I’ve decided not, because the computer can match facts to phrases, but can’t yet understand narrative.

hernandez-flies1 David Lodge once wrote that we organize space through pictures, and we organize time through stories. Its a great insight, echoed by historians such as Arthur Danto, who observed that a data recorder, no matter how good, would never allow reconstruction of accurate histories.  It has no knowledge of cause and effect, motivation, intent, or associations.  With those, you know the story, otherwise its an ambiguous data set.

Similarly, statistical associations, alone, are insufficient basis for human thought.  The sequence of panels in the Hernandez comic above make no sense unless you can reconstruct a plausible narrative around it.  Watson could put them in the proper order based on statistical likelihood that one is more closely associated to another.  But only contextual knowledge and insight into the actors based on learned experience can yield the underlying story, the basis for really answering questions.

Based on those ideas, several of us once built a research system for reconstructing medical events using a narrative approach (US Patent 6,594,634).  I’ve believed that to make sense of medical monitoring data, you have to take Danto’s tack, less dependent on data-based states, trends, and markers and more concerned with developing the story from laboratory, patient, and procedural sources.

Back to Watson, performing a very sophisticated parlor trick.  Remember how Deep Blue played chess by exhaustive search made possible by fast processors, not an expert’s insight into the game.  Watson expands the range of associations by scoring statistical distance rather than game positions, but it’s the same computational deduction rather than contextual understanding. 

Ruben and Lullaby This is why Watson can explain “How did you get to that answer?”, but never the question “Why did you get that answer?”

It would require him to tell a story.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Inside / Outside

foam2 ‘feeling a little bit punk today: I’ve been working pretty much straight through for a week, finishing everything on my URGENT! list.  Now I’m into neglected things, catching up on old emails, and branding.

Refining the purpose and public face of the business, the brand, is long overdue.  During the past year, I’ve been trying to build a solid structural foundation while multiplying a palette of good contacts and opportunities.  The result is a bit foamy: lots of Protein_Crystal_Malic_Enzymeideas, alliances, and odd collectables that fill the Remote Monitoring space, but without much holding them together.  I  need to get to something more crystalline: solidly connected pieces that form a glistening whole.

In part, this means organizing and focusing the website and getting some dynamic content going.  I’d like to have a news feed and a blog, with links to the company’s LinkedIn and Facebook pages.  Content is easy to create and, within an environment like Facebook, easy to publish and connect with.  Cross-platform, Facebook to Twitter, Status to Blog, News to scrolling subwindow, is just awful: total lack of means and tools.  In Unix, we built simple apps out of pipes connecting processes, the OS was designed with good interfaces.

Not so in NetWorld.Social Media Fortunately, Kesselskade has a stream of light (and human) diversions playing out beyond my window to keep things sane.

DSC01044A couple of weeks ago, a student jazz ensemble set up across the street and started a concert.  The police closed them down after an hour for not having a permit, but it was spontaneous and fun while it lasted.

 

DSC01243 Last night, a reception played along the waterfront all evening.  Coloured lights, bagpipe music, ethereral women on stilts filled the patios. Busses dropped off loads of people, photographers dashed around, and a quite good stage band played until late evening.  The police kept their distance.

Somehow, it all fits, and makes for a good summer’s day.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Associations while biking

DSC01213

(…and a Random Office Art sighting.)

I’m fortunate to have some great biking close to both apartments.  I’ve written about the joys of  the Albert Canal near Maastricht, and I took the ‘House bike’ out for a spin around the hills near Barrington.  The 10% grades are killers (‘and good for me!’, I wheeze through gritted teeth approaching the summits), but the scenery is wonderful, with trails and radio telescopes dotted everywhere.DSC01206

And that’s just cool.  It’s also mentally stimulating, because nothing sparks my thinking more than a little quiet and good juxtaposition.

People groan about the way that Google throws up unrelated web sites when they query it, and designers promise that the search goal must be to put the ‘right’ answer at the top of the list.  I’m not sure that’s the best answer though: I make serendipitous discoveries all the time when Google throws up something that’s almost the same as what I’m looking for.  It may be a metaphor, a synonym, an example out of context, but often it brings things together and helps my perspective or gives insight.

Far from making me stupid, an imperfect Google makes me smarter.  The same thing happens when browsing books on a library shelf, biking alone through landscapes dotted with artifacts, or talking with an artist about a science question.

And the same with biking around the rolling Dutch or English countryside.  There’s the quiet and the wind and roadside plants and villages.  My mind, full of the day’s work, wanders off onto idle associative tangents.  Can people enjoy an activity without having to master it (the Dutch tell me that they won’t start a sport unless they intend to master it)?  Would a little insight into technique make a huge difference in my cooking (throw vegetables or spices into the pot early or late in the preparation of a dish).  And why do I always seem to end up living within a mile or two of a cement pit (and why are they all abandoned)?

It keeps me human.  And, maybe, fit.

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DSC01208 And the random office art. 

I met with a financier in London yesterday, getting to his office through the usual faceless halls dotted with generic corporate art.  Nothing particularly unusual or interesting: I’m practicing my pitch anyway.

But, as I pass a side corridor, I glimpse this:

 

 

My first sighting of Random Office Art worthy of the name.