Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bikes (and art and boats)

‘getting back in stride with things in the Netherlands; it’s surprising how much slips by during even a week out of the country.  I’ve been catching up with the government, switching my mind back into Dutch, and, of course, making peace with the bicycle.

I miss riding when I’m away: I abandon the car willingly as soon as I’m back among the Dutch (even though it means a couple of days of painful muscle reconditioning). There’s a loaner bike in our UK offices, but there are daunting hills around Barrington where its hard to get leverage with the folding bike.  There’s not the same array of bike paths, cars have the right of way (and come from the wrong direction), it rains… not quite the same.

I recently heard that the two most efficient means of moving people around are ziplines and roller coasters.  Cool ideas for green transportation, but bicycles must be the most practical alternatives. They are a religion here, and municipalities and clubs make cycling around town simple.  Cyclists (generally) have right of way, and disputes tend to be settled with bells.  There’s lots of people to help with advice, tools, and parts when the bike needs maintenance, usually a 10 euro affair at most.  Red bike paths are everywhere, with bike crossing signals and well-marked routing signs.

A recent article in the Denver Post revealed that this sort of infrastructure is actually a UN plot to reduce US national sovereignty, but, despite what the Tea Party thinks, it would be nice to have.

It all makes for a pretty stress-free mode of transportation (except during the icy winter months), and it’s probably the one cultural artifact that you have to adopt when you move to the Netherlands.  (Yes, I put it off for two years, choking on the price of new bikes, before finding the informal market in used bikes.)

I’ve noticed that US riders tend to pump the pedals hunched over, while Dutch street riders sit bolt upright.  The handlebars are definitely elevated compared to the adjustments I grew up with, and there’s only one rider that this style brings to mind.

Gulch

The exception is the weekend racers, who adopt an exaggerated hunched-over style with lots of teeth showing beneath their goggles.  They’re also the only ones to wear helmets: I’m not sure whether its for safety or to head-butt tree branches and scooter-drivers out of their way.  Finally, all ‘serious’ riders have logo outfits with spandex leggings.

Me, no, I haven’t taken that plunge…

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Two quick notes:

  • I’ve started a Facebook Fan Page for Random Road Art around the Netherlands and elsewhere.  Drop through and share your pictures: sculpture-spotting remains one of my favorite Dutch driving activities.
  • And make a date for Sail 2010: the parade of Tall Ships coming to Amsterdam August 19-23.  It only happens once every five years and seems like it should be spectacular.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ben ik 't’huis?

DSC01469 Ja, and it’s an easier question to answer than waar is t’huis, because almost anywhere  is affirmative these days.

I arrived back in Maastricht late last night after a busy week in the UK.  There were design meetings with Industrial Engineering folks, sorting through the use scenarios and interfaces between the transponder component of the remote monitoring systems and the home-based patients who will use it.  I appreciate the rigor that they use in diagramming out the interactions and considering alternatives for gathering and conveying information between devices and users. It’s good to think of this as a consumer product in addition to being a medical one – its a real art that’s intuitive only to Steve Jobs.

We also had a productive meeting with a drug discovery company who is trying to gauge the effectiveness of their new cardiac therapy. Increased regulatory concerns about safety and effectiveness are DSC01464 translating directly into larger, more intensive clinical trials.  This opens a window for us to potentially place as many systems into one trial as we might put into a mid-sized city, an application that I hadn’t appreciated before.

And the week wound up with a visit to an early-stage investment network in London.  It’s a prestigious group which puts less than 5% of screened companies through to present to their investors, high-net worth individuals from across the EU.  We made our pitch, honed from months on the road with forums and networking events, and were accepted on the spot.  It’s an amazing opportunity, one that comes with grooming and training and a hit rate well over 60%.  This really DSC01468could be the break we’ve been working for.

So it was a weary but optimistic ride back across the Channel this week.  And, perhaps an omen, France was visible from Dover before we ever left the Docks.  Maybe the crossing is, indeed, finally coming into sight.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Doing Duxford (IWM)

Just down the road, away to the south and a bit to the west, is a hive of activity, a buzz of circling planes marking flat grassy fields nestled into the rolling Cambridgeshire hills.  From the ground, dark Constable clouds meet Monet meadows at a distant horizon.  There’s a hum of activity as tractors move vintage craft, fliers wave to get attention from the fuelers, and biplanes swoop through soft, slow touch-and-go maneuvers.

This is the Duxford  Air Centre (more properly, the Duxford Imperial War Museum), about ten minutes drive SW of Cambridge along the M11.Duxford Air Museum 02 The museum is a large, living space, with vast hangers full of restored vintage aircraft, shops for conserving and reconstructing planes, and club space for private groups that fly  historic aircraft. It’s not unusual to see a pilot to take his restored Spitfire through a tight turn overhead, or a white-haired veteran among the exhibits in his original flight jacket.

The museum is fairly pricy, £16.50 entry, but has five large hangers of original aircraft, descriptive text, and first-person accounts.  It can feel like a jumble of machinery, but wandering among the planes imparts a tangible feel for the history of flight and a real appreciation for the crews that took these craft into war.  There are civilian planes as well, the Concord and Catalina, but most are historic planes from the Battle of Britain and the Belgian fields of WWI.  A separate American hanger holds a gigantic B-52, F-15, and SR-51 Blackbird, along with a memorial wall for the hundreds of US planes lost over Europe during WWII. 

For me, its almost more of a tour of national myths than of technologic ascendency.

For the British, its a singular occasion for the national sport of ‘Spotting and Naming”.

The British aircraft seem to turn over astonishingly quickly: plaques tell when the plane was introduced, that tens or hundreds were made, and then, seven years later, how they were phased out.  Sometimes it was a better model, sometimes a change in mission, but they never lasted long.  In contrast the American planes all last 30 years and tens of thousands were produced.  In one respect, it speaks to the magnitude of supplies that the US pitched into the wars, on the other, perhaps the durability of designs (even though we often think our products are transitory).

The biggest driver of aircraft evolution is clearly the engine.  There was always a quest for stronger, lighter engines, and each improvement enabled a wave of larger, faster, better-armed planes.  Transition from the 1920 biplane to the 1930’s warplane happens amazingly fast, and the parallel display of engines really tells the story.

One building holds a collection of land warfare artifacts, artillery and vehicles, set amid realistic displays of them on imagined battlefields.  It’s disconcerting to see a tank surrounded by broken household articles or nestled within a ruined storefront: what is the intended message?

The vehicles don’t change much from trench wars to gulf wars: they just get bigger and more heavily armored.  It makes me wonder if sheer bulk makes leaders think that their war will be different than previous ones?  When you line them all up, they don’t look much different from one another.

A basement of one building honors “The Forgotten War”: it turns out to be the War in the Pacific.  In the US, this is on equal WWII footing with the War in Europe: ‘strange to see it getting second billing here, although I understand the perspective.

Good to, that they remember to commemorate the ‘boots on the ground’ circa WWI, that endure the worst of the fighting.  Wars are not fought from planes or robots, but even now among the young men we send.