Saturday, October 16, 2010

A week of ideas (and product trials)

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Heading back on the road for ten days, first with a presentation at the Acute Care conference in Copenhagen, then back to the US before heading back to the Netherlands.  Well past the 100K airmiles threshold for the year, ‘wondering what delights await me if I hit Diamond Level (Free Lounge Access, promises the website.  I’d prefer transatlantic upgrades, a rarity since KLM merged into Delta).

While sitting in terminal 3 waiting for the Copenhagen call (above), I got my notes organized and found that I have a fair number of scribbles with ideas from various sources.  So, rather than write travel notes, I’m going to declare a week for ideas and explore a few thoughts that I’ve been reading and mulling when I could have been haunting the Duty Free . 

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DSC00321A couple of technical notes for a Saturday before heading out into the city:

  • The new version of Windows Live Essentials has been released.  I tried the beta but it was very buggy.  I lost mail crashed applications as a result, and had advised people to avoid it.  The final version is much improved and well worth the download (especially Mail for organizing disparate accounts, Writer for blogging, and Photo for editing).
  • “If you don’t have a good RyanAir tale, maybe you didn’t really experience Europe.”  Vagabondish has a wonderful list capturing all the things that I’ve learned to love about the yellow and blue birds.
  • Mobile applications are in every tech product’s future, and I have been looking for a way to create an app just to learn how the systems work and what they can do,  Microsoft is releasing Windows Phone 7 next month, and has released a free developer toolkit.  It’s an easy way to play with the environment.
  • I am learning to like the emerging philosophy of keeping my data in the cloud and accessing it from anywhere: I’ve made the conversion on mail and contacts.  I tried two new services that promise to do the same for bookmarks (43marks.com) and everyday notes (evernote.com).  Neither was very useful: there’s still too much manipulation to organize what should be a simple shove-and-search process.
  • Skype 5 is out, with (help me) better Facebook integration.  I depend a lot on Skype and Facebook (I suspect that most expats do), but it’s not a good combination.
  • I need to create two web sites later this month, and took a look at the newest all-in-one hosting sites: SquareSpace, Yahoo Sitebuilder, and Office Live.  I really struggled with each of them: templates are hard to find and to modify, controls don’t work, drag-and--drop editing is balky.  I used to be a FrontPage fanatic, and came across WYSIWYG Web Builder, which gives me a lot of the same capability to build a site to my own taste much as I would construct a PowerPoint slide. 
  • Finally, I am trying the Internet Explorer 9 beta.  It’s going to be a good upgrade from 8 but still has the bug that I can’t install Java or display Capcha pictures in it.  There are some odd features, there’s no progress bar for page loads and functions like Print are harder to access, but these may be smoothed over in the final release.

Disclaimer: The products I mention are products that I pay for and use: I do not accept commissions, gifts, or advertising.

Friday, October 15, 2010

It’s a process

altThe fields and villages scrolled past the National Rail line, threads of mist still clinging to the grassy hills.  It’s starting to really feel like fall across Britain now.  Lines of trees glow yellow and orange against the blue morning sky; the BBC is predicting frost overnight.

The pivotal funding meeting a week ago had not gone as well as I hoped.  Everyone was discouraged, but we were trying to regroup. Over the weekend, we revised project timelines and budgets, answering each person’s questions.  Follow-up calls were scheduled this morning; I hoped that my failure to get to ‘yes’ wasn’t the same as a ‘no’.

I sighed, listened to podcasts, and looked for a bright spot.

A technical clip, a travel story, then Douglas E Welch with a few words of wisdom in the Career Opportunities podcast. “Reviewing your social media streams can give you a clear indication of how you are doing in your career and whether you might need to make some major changes.”  I winced. Only last week I’d scribbled “Dave did not have an easy time of things today.”  on Facebook.  ‘hope nothing bad went into Tweets.

Douglas continued:

Few lives are unrelentingly good or bad and your online life should reflect that. We all have bad days. That is OK. In fact, we can even make these bad days useful. Rather than simply ranting about your life, consider asking for help. Putting a productive spin on your “grumbly days” is a great way of rising above them. It also allows others to see that you are not just wallowing in your despair, but actively trying to find ways to make your life better, even in the midst of conflict.

I really started to think about this.  How I’d let this setback get the better of me, and how that played out in my on-line narrative.  More importantly, where was the balance: what would I write tonight?  I realized that it wasn’t  a question of “how could I do better?”, but that, as suggested, I needed to change perspective.

The fact is, free-market capitalism is absolutely brutal in challenging new ideas.  It makes me long for the days of patrons and guilds, love and respect, instead of the perseverance that it takes to get a new business going.

But I do believe that there is benefit in the criticism, and  logic behind what investors and customers want.  It feels adversarial but it’s a courtship process.

DSC00613 StitchI mulled that for the next hour, finally entering the Accountant’s Hall (right)  with a positive attitude and a commitment to seeing things from their perspective.  And, an hour later, we were back in the race, with endorsements and a clear path to the next steps.  It’s not finished yet, but it’s definite progress.

‘time to go write something good on Facebook.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cold nights and warm drinks

altThere was a cold mist rising off the Maas this morning, drifting past my windows and between the piers of the St. Servatius bridge.  Students bundled tightly against the damp chill, hunched over pedals on their way to school.  I sipped a mug of coffee, warming and watching autumn arriving.

As the weather cools, the Dutch turn to warmer drinks.  Summer beer and fizzy prosecco are replaced by flavored coffees and ceramic spirits.  Winter espresso is often served with a twist of citrus and a small glass of liqueur after a meal, sometimes mixed with whipped cream.  The sprits are strong, sweet syrups that the Dutch call bitterje, loosely translated as a bitter, but different from the British / American definition as an ale / tonic.

Two types really stand out.

Jenever is a clear gin-like drink, served ice-cold, that I first encountered as friends toasted an “Abraham” birthday. It has a distinct juniper scent and comes in two varieties: Oude and Jonge.  Unlike cheese, these ages refer to whether the drink is made in the old- or new-style. (Oude has more alcohol and less sugar).  Korenwijn, usually on the same shelf, has both more alcohol and more sugar, but is otherwise similar.

altI prefer a Kruidenbitter: a thick brown drink, often made locally and served in special glasses from heavy ceramic bottles.  Our engineering director used to keep a bottle to celebrate promotions or project milestones: the bottle and class would be passed from person to person with each pouring a shot and taking a drink.  Its delightfully warming and soothing: I keep several bottles that were given to me by friends at holidays.

You may also encounter brandewjn (“roasted wine”: a grape brandy), citroenjenever (a yellow lemon-lime version of jenever), oranjebitter (reminds me of cointreau), and vieux (a Dutch cognac) are also likely to be encountered.  All are sipping drinks, with long tradition made regionally from old recipes.  If you can’t find them in local specialty stores, you can find them online.

The thermostat says that it’s 18C in the apartment, high by several degrees, perhaps indicating that the heating is broken.  I gave the system a test run and , gratifyingly, the radiators filled smoothly and the rooms warmed in an hour.  Heat, light, and internet: I’m ready for winter.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Browsing bookshelves

Dutch homes always have a collection of books, often placed on shelves near the front windows where they can be seen from the sidewalk. American houses tend to follow a British model, where books are in a separate study, off the public areas in a quieter part of the house.

The Kettle’s Yard house had bookshelves scattered throughout: my favorite was a nook with a Massachusetts-style armchair tucked back by the fireplace.

Bookshelves 1

I took a bit of time to sit and just get the perspective of why it had been put in that spot, of what ambience it held.  It nicely nestled into a warm corner filled with afternoon light, the shelves glowed and the books encircled.  Lots of interesting titles, mostly old travel stories, some biographies clustered together.

The more I looked through the books, the more I started to notice their order.  There was a shelf of science, a corner of European politics grouped by nation.  Little evidence of language or mathematics, and no children’s books.  I was taken both with the types of books, but also their ordering. 

Especially their ordering.

Bookshelves 2I think that people naturally create libraries out of their books, first around favorite authors or topics like ‘travel guides’ or ‘Dutch language tutorials’.  Then reference books accumulate, scratchpad knowledge for solving problems and settling disputes.  Philosophical / theological volumes soon crowd against coffee-table books from favorite destinations and artists.

There comes a time when I bought shelves to hold it all, leading naturally to a need to organizing it.  Often by topic, easily, but soon leading to questions of what to put at eye level, which go upstairs in the study or down near the living room.  Are there gaps to be filled, perhaps more books or better with knick-knacks?  Which do I want to public to see, a reflection of my learning and aspirations; which are private treasures, not meant to be loaned to others.

I like to think that the contents and the ordering of the Kettle’s Yard books similarly reflect their owner.  Someone deliberately put particular volumes where they could be noticed and read, others where they could be easily found.  I could almost read what was important to them from the collection of spines, Apartment Library 2could see that their poetry, just off the left hand at armchair level, was how they spent their time.  More than the collection of art, the ordering of books finally was what most made this space intimate and personal.

I cart my 10 boxes of books from apartment to apartment across Europe, some for reference, some aspirational, many hold personal meaning. And there is a particular order to the shelves: I typically spend a day moving things around until I get it right.

It’s a funny habit, isn’t it?  But so telling about people.

(And a wonderful collection of pictures of personal bookshelves can be found at desire to inspire.)

"A home without books is a body without soul." 

Marcus Tullius Cicero