Saturday, November 26, 2011

Explaining Thanksgiving

‘Hope you’re having a wonderful Thanksgiving !, my friend greeted me on Thursday morning.  Then they turned serious.

It’s a religious holiday, right?

Turkey cooker“No, a family holiday, actually.  People gather at someone’s house, cook an enormous feast, and share it together.”

We used to all go to my grandfather’s house: he’d have the grinder out early in the morning and we’d all take turns cranking while he put bread, egg, vegetables, turkey bits in to be minced into the dressing.  A sign of maturity was being allowed to feed things into the hopper without having adults fret about whether fingers would join the giblets.

We’ve since lost the trick of making stuffing using that recipe – it’s been years since someone could get it to come out right.  But we do have a killer cranberry recipe to replace it.

So everyone cooks all morning…and then?

“A glass of wine when the bird goes into the oven, and everyone settles down to watch television while it cooks.  Mostly parades.”

What sort of parades?

Macy Balloons“The New York department stores put them on – it involves lots of bands and, well, enormous balloons.  And football.  American football.”

It was a day for getting out the wooden railway tracks and building out across the room, adding cars and Lincoln Log houses, staging complicated wrecks.  It was a day for reading books, playing in the snow, getting reacquainted with cousins.

And always turkey for dinner?

“Always.”

And red candied crabapples and green candied pears, a relish plate with olives and celery.  The turkey, separate plates for white and dark meat, a bowl for the stuffing, another for gravy.  Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, string beans and mushroom with the crunchy onion things on top.   Cranberries, pumpkin pie, mince pie: Wine, tea, wine, coffee.

And then?

“Actually, the cleaning up was a family event, then sitting around the living room for some conversation or a movie if one was on TV.”

Or, lately, take a nap before heading to stores at midnight to start Christmas shopping.  Don’t ask.

Every Year?

“One way or another.”

It’s a bit of a moveable feast these days, we take I on the road, sometimes check into places with buffet dinners on the coast, occasionally do core elements out of a box and focus on the essentials.

Five years ago, ‘Liam came over to Cambridge for the Expat Thanksgiving organized by Cambridge MA, in the US.  The turkey was wrapped in bacon, there was a lot of wine for 2 pm, lots of patriotic flags around the room.  It looked like there might be dancing.  At 2 pm.

The Vice Chancellor gave a toast saying that “We don’t understand Thanksgiving, we’re not sure that we approve of it, but we know that you miss your families, so try to have a nice Thanksgiving!”

Here, here.

And note that the Pilgrims do, in fact, look a bit Dutch.  There’s a reason.

‘Sounds special.

“Absolutely.”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thursday’s links of interest

I have lots of little jots in my notebook – things that I want to write about but that don’t merit a whole essay.  So just scroll through and watch for something of interest.

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launchpadLearning:  Stanford University runs a very good set of online technical and management courses.  I took their Certificate of Management program, four courses that were all excellent: I don’t know how I would survive without their Accounting class in particular.  The school is now giving courses for free: lectures and classwork online, backed up with readings and faculty support.  The Lean Launchpad, for those starting a business, is here, and the links to other courses are at the bottom of the page.

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Thought 1:  Do we get suspicious of people in situations where we feel vulnerable, or just in situation where we’ve previously had bad experiences?

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OWSPolitics: Now the OWS has been evicted from parks (I love the images of city workers cleaning up in HazMat suits to reinforce the health risk that bearded protesters pose to the public), the discussions seem to be shifting to thoughtful debate rather than civic actions.  I liked Ursula Le Guin’s 99% parable and Sen Bernie Sanders plea for Democrats to stop caving:.

Here is something we all can agree on: Federal deficits are a serious problem.  Here is something no one seriously disputes: Today's big deficits were caused mainly by big tax cuts for the wealthy, two unpaid-for wars, and a horrible recession caused by Wall Street greed.

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cafeiconLight Reading:  Book View CafĂ©.  Wonderfully written daily essays by outstanding writers.  Along with BBC’s From our own correspondent and NPR’s This American Life, it’s both an enjoyable and informative collection of content and a strong example of how to tell compelling short-form narrative stories.

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Thought 2:  Does the truism “Past returns are no guarantee of future performance?” increasingly apply to the value of a colelge education?

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chrome-iconTech tools: Google Chrome.  IE has become unusable – it takes forever to load and fails too often.  Firefox is a trusty alternative, but speed is again an issue,  I gave Chrome a try and am pleasantly surprised: it’s lightweight, compliant, includes build-in spell checking and has a rich supply of plug-ins.  I recommend adding session Buddy – I’m always having to save sets of tabs after doing some research.

Resource Monitor.  This one is from TechRadar – my Windows Live Writer hung in the middle of a process.  I could see it dragging 50% on the CPU, accomplishing nothing, but didn’t want to kill the process and lose the work.  Resource monitor lets you see the process tree and kill the sub-process causing the problem, allowing me to recover the main window text.  Yes, we shouldn’t need it, but when we do, it’s a lifesaver.  The utility is built into Windows 7 but, like Snipping Tool for screen capture, you have to search to find it.

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Consumer tip:  I increasingly find that when I dead-end with a company’s support department, a quick tweet with the company hashtag produces results.  BT and Rosetta Stone certainly monitor their tag, and the public shout-out seems to get their attention.,  It may not resolve anything, but it’s another avenue to try.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A foggy time in Eindhoven

The week ahead was beginning to fill with UK-based meetings and most matters Dutch had been settled – it was time to hop back across the Channel to Cambridge.  Ryanair  offered fares that were half the going rate on Eurostar (43€ vs. 80€), so I booked my seat…well, a slot… and packed my 10 kg/single bag to head north.

Uneventful hour up to Eindhoven Airport, the trains were on time (even if the do divert to Heerlen ahead of Sittard on Sundays, adding half an hour to the journey) and the airport bus was running regularly.  The Big Board showed only one cancelled flight to London City,  a localized weather problem.  No worries; I settled in.

The call came to passport control, where the officer dug into the 5-month delay with IND (now approved, dank u wel) as the grumbling line swelled behind me.  A brief wait, a boarding call, and we walked out into the gathering dusk,

and the pea-soup fog.

No planes on the tarmac; ground crews settled on silent tugs and luggage tractors.  Not good.  We were diverted through baggage claim and back into the main terminal to wait for bus transportation to an alternate airport.  A quick check confirmed the Ryanair got caught by surprise and it was at least two hours before busses could arrive.

After the mess with the volcanic ash 18 months ago, Ryanair has become more attentive to European Regulation 261/2004(8)  - they even hand a copy to every passenger- and the deal is clear: U kunt de vlucht omboeken of restitutie vragen …er bestaat ook een mogelijkheid de vlucht om te boeken in de terminal.

Cool.  I jumped onto the Viggo Servicedesk to see if there was an alternate, and they swiftly booked me onto the 9:30 flight the next morning. 

No fees; no hassle – it was a whole new Ryanair experience.

I unwound the journey and got a good night’s sleep, printed my new boarding pass, and headed back north at 7 am.

and back into pea-soup fog.

There was no fighting it: I joined the refugees boarding waiting buses and headed to Dusseldorf – Weeze.  The local television station sent a camera crew to take pictures as we shivered in the fog.  It’s an hour-and-a-half journey to Germany, I dozed and listened to the back catalog of BBC4’s Analysis (iPlayer or download: seriously the best half-hour on radio if you want to understand contemporary social and economic issues).  They dumped us off of the buses and through security onto the planes within 30 minutes of arrival, I suspect there must have been folks left behind looking for food or duty-free gifts.

All in all, a delay of 18 hours and 20 euro additional train/bus expense.  But the new policy gives choices when the weather gets bad: no-fee refund or switch, take the bus when it suits, and expedited handling in Germany. 

‘Lots better than it’s been, but it may still be a better idea to take the train if temperatures are likely to drop during high humidity.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Social mobility and the Spirit Level

What is the correlation between income and health?  I would guess that those on lower incomes are less healthy, and that they might also score worse on related attributes of life expectancy, addictions, literacy, and criminal or domestic violence. 

And this is, in fact, what the data shows.

income - health by country

But now an intriguing study suggests that many measures of social health also worsen with increased income disparity. 

Income Gap is the ratio of the average income of the richest 20% to that of the poorest 20%: it’s value is 5 in the Netherlands, 7 in the UK, and 10 in the US. 

The study argues that this multiplier directly correlates, and potentially causes, all sorts of social ills.

Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better

Income Gap and social health

The statistics fill graph after graph (available through the Equality Trust).  They are compelling and could factually motivate positions like OWS’s stand against rising income inequality.

The Spirit Level’s argument is controversial, of course.  If true, it completely undermines the conservative position that rising income inequality elevates society as a whole by empowering the winners to spend, create new businesses, and pay the majority of taxes.  BBC4 had a good pro-con debate on Analysis, and the Right has predictably weighed in to say that the facts don’t speak for themselves, the evidence is incomplete: tactics used to hopelessly muddy the climate debate.

The Spirit Level is not perfect: I particularly struggled with this graph of Income Inequality and  Social Mobility.

SocMob2

The data is sparse and the line is created by two outliers: the US and UK – I doubt that this graph proves anything.  More disturbing is the characterization of the US as dead-low in Social Mobility: our “classless” society where merit determines earnings determines social rank should be more mobile, not less.

This drove me back to the literature – “Social Mobility” is, not surprisingly, a slippery concept.  It can be based on at least four definitions: Inter-generational and Intra-generational, each in Social and Economic dimensions.  SocMob1Is your income highly correlated with your parent’s income?  Yes: and in that way, the US has low social mobility.  Is your income highly correlated with your own educational achievement?  Yes: and in that way, the US has high social mobility.

The truth depends on the myths we tell ourselves about our society and the often differing ways that we choose our definitions in different cultures.  While this is an issue in making the global comparisons, I don’t think that it obscures the central truth of the Spirit Level’s argument: greater income inequality is bad for society.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Learning Dutch - Flikken Maastricht

Flikken MaastrichtI visited my Dutch college this week to try to get my inburgering back on track.  The past couple of months has been hard on the daily time that I set aside to work on my language skills, and I’d fallen badly out of sync with classwork.

I’ve been able to continue reading and writing: most of the Dutch newspapers and radio stations are available on the Internet, and I spend time daily reading selections and writing about them to a Dutch friend.

New words go onto a growing vocabulary list that I can drill through VTrain, a flashcard trainer that is easy to set up with Dutch-English pairs.

The War of the Week with Rosetta Stone ended in a draw – they refused to renew my subscription but gave me a three month free preview of the new TOTALe course, with progressive drills and live chat.  Wolf and EvaI’ve started working through the exercises again but still need to see how the studio sessions work.

The problem is the listening and speaking, more mundane conversational skills.  My administrator stresses that there is no way to pass NT2 without regular and focused Dutch language presentations and conversations.

I do bi-weekly Skype chats with Dutch friends, which helps, but would like something that I can watch and follow more often. There’s limited availability of Dutch television outside of the Netherlands, but some shows have been serialized and can be obtained on DVD or BitTorrent.

Such is Flikken Maastricht, a police drama set along the otherwise placid Maas.  It’s got a bit of a Hill Street Blues feel at the intro (being from Chicago, I can appreciate that):

Title and intro–Flikken Maastricht

In it, Wolf and Eva sport fashion worthy of Miami Vice, zip around town in tiny police cars and big speedboats, and hyperlink around familiar venues connected by imaginary alleys.  It’s all good fun.

The stories are familiar, so the Dutch is understandable – I never really get lost and can always pick up the thread if I lose a few words.

Flikken 2 Flikken 1

And, here, Wolf sits and broods outside of my old apartment.  The bench actually never existed here (it would be nice if it had), but my bicycle’s been parked at that same spot countless times…

JECG Sept 2011 (2)

… and in unusual ways.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

De economie krimpt, en de 30% regeling

NL Economie

I stopped into a pub to sample some Bok bier and catch up with the news after a long day’s train ride.  I picked up The Volkskrant, a center-left paper, to find the front page full of graphs with all of the indicators pointing down. “Consumption falls, recession looms!”  The Telegraaf (center-right, above) and FD were the same: the world’s troubles had finally arrived at Dutch doorsteps.

I’ve previously written that the Dutch have done an amazingly good job over the past two years of tacking through the swirl of global economic riptides.  GDP was growing at 1.7%, unemployment hovered around 5.5%, the current-account balance was broadly positive.  But this was a big change: “The Dutch economy shrank in the 3rd quarter, the only one of the five largest Eurozone economies to do so. A combination of government cuts and falling consumption caused the economy to shrink by 0.3 percent compared to the preceding quarter...” (Volkskrant)

It may be a relative thing, a long run of good news followed by a quarter of bad, but it’s a surprising change.  People I talked with blamed it on bank layoffs driven by weak mortgage lending.  If so, it may be a one-time event before government activism and Dutch optimism re-asserts itself.

National statistics are kept by the CBS (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek) and their report (good practice in Dutch) can be found here.

30% RulingIt will be worth watching how changes in the economy drive changes in tax policies.  Another negative sign was an alert from my accountants about upcoming changes to the 30% Tax Ruling.  This is an expatriate tax break that allows expatriate employees to earn up to 30% of their compensation tax free for ten years.  In a country with 52% marginal tax rates, this is a huge deal.

The rules are being tightened, and this will affect knowledge workers and graduate students directly.  Expatica summarizes the rule changes; most accountants are being proactive in issuing advice.  The government will check that eligibility conditions are being met (that the employee or researcher has been recruited from abroad and meets salary conditions) and may, in some cases, reduce the duration of the discount.

If you already have, or were planning to apply, for the 30% exemptions, find out what the changes mean to you: this will have a big impact on expat living costs.