Saturday, October 19, 2013

Autumn at the Kew Gardens

DSC00745 (1300x973)Somehow, I’d never visited the Royal Botanical Gardens in many years of living in England.  But the day dawned warm, a friend living nearby invited me up, and we enjoyed a lovely day out together. 

The Kew Gardens lie just outside Richmond, Surry (near Heathrow): we had a quick lunch at (very busy) Whole Foods then a stroll out to the park entrance at Lions Gate.  This brings us into the south end, near the Japanese gardens and pavilions, and we worked our way north along the meandering paths and fall foliage to the special exhibits.

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It’d a bit reminiscent the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens, trees and lawns dotted with hothouses, but on a much larger scale.  There weren’t as many signs as is typical in British educational gardens (maybe visitors to Kew already know all the names) and a lot of the houses are closed for restoration.

I really liked the display of herbs laid out on a huge discovery table near the Palm House and the Tree Walks.

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The special exhibit of pumpkin and gourds against reflecting pools in the Water Lily house was very artistic and the huge willow-branch Circle of Fungi sculptures were fun (I still regret missing the Bouncy Carrot Tops, though).

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It was so good, in fact, that we completely missed the 6pm closing time and ended up having to lope the length of the DSC00770 (1300x975)park in gathering dusk to find the Victoria Gate, to only remaining way out.

A fun day, a good Persian dinner to cap things off, and an uneventful drive home before the thunderstorms blew in off the Channel.

More photos, as always, on my Flickr site.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Back to Dorset; back to the 70’s

DSC00653The drive from Maastricht took twelve hours yesterday, a record.

I had everything packed, the car pre-positioned and fueled, the alarm set.  Everything was loaded and I eased west around Liege on schedule at 8 am, headed towards the noon ferry at Dunkirk.  Stories played on the radio, I made the occasional ‘to-do’ and ‘to-write-about’ note for later.

But the traffic thickened, slowed, stopped as I circled around Brussels.

The skies darkened, lowered, burst as I sped across Belgium.

The police compressed, bent, and stopped traffic to avoid accidents and stalls.

2013-10-17 15.24.00 (1200x665)So I reached the ferry dock ten minutes after the noon boat departed.  New Attitudes mean that I’m prepared to kick back and relax though.   I finished some reading (Poetry by Adrienne Rich, one of her 1980 essays, a book by Susan Brownmiller), then turned to planning and writing until the next boat arrived.

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The crossing was calm, and the weather cleared as we approached England.  The Cliffs drew a stark white line between blue skies and cobalt seas.  Everyone took pictures.  Rain returned at the M25 Orbital around London, though:  the traffic crawled across to, and then down along, the M3 towards Southampton.  Then dragged over the New Forest moors.  Finally lagged into Sandbanks, Sandbanks Penninsulaat 7 pm, 12 hours from the start.

Much too much.

Happily, I had been invited to the Royal Motor Yacht Club for a 7:30 party.  Casual dress, so a nice shirt, slacks, shined shoes.  I turned my appearance and attitude around.

Ten minutes and I was back out the door to join the local business and sailing folks, eight in the car packed together and laughing.  One had the information about dingy sailing classes I’d requested, another had some suggestions for local angel investors, a third  just back from Hong Kong, the last reminding me that her sister was due in a few weeks. 

RMYCIt was a good group, and 12 hours of road wear fell away in minutes. 

It also turned out that the Club was hosting a 70’s music Quiz Night: 81 songs that we had to know Title, Artist and Year. It was a two-hour delight: there are so many good tunes, good memories to sing along with and share stories about.  My forte turned out to be the Intro rounds: 10 second beginnings from the hits I used to cue up for my afternoon drive radio show.

In the end, we got fourth place: not enough to qualify for a bottle of wine but good for another round of drinks and conversation past midnight.#

‘good to be back in Dorset again.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The comfort of Risotto

DSC00639 (1200x877)Although it was midafternoon, the interior of the train back from Amsterdam was dim and quiet.  Rain spattered on the windows, people read magazines and dozed in the swaying car.  I tapped on my phone between articles in the Economist.

I’m in a mood for Risotto: what sort should I make?

Salmon.

Fish risotto always has a lemon squeeze or a sweet glaze.  I want something earthy.

Add squash?

Mushroom, maybe spinach?

I flicked through the Saveur and BBC Good Food sites. Lots of squash and mushroom; little salmon.  Still, with a bit of Dubbel…it might work…blend two recipes…get the right stock.

…and it worked really well.

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DSC00642 (1200x900)Salmon, Mushroom, and Spinach Risotto  (Serves 2)

  1. Rinse 250 g salmon fillet and marinate in dark (dubbel) bier and 1 tsp lemon juice (or white wine DSC00645 (1200x900)vinegar) for 20 minutes.
  2. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil and 25g butter in a large deep frying pan. Add one chopped medium onion and cook gently for 5 minutes until softened. Stir in 140g brown chestnut mushroomsDSC00646 (900x1200), sliced, and two small cloves garlic, crushed and chopped, and a sprinkle of pine nuts.  Cook gently for 2-3 minutes.
  3. Stir in 140g arborio rice to coat with the onion and mushroom mixture. Pour in 150 ml dry (Riesling) wine and cook over a moderate heat for about 3 minutes, stirring from time to time, DSC00647 (1200x900)until the wine is absorbed.
  4. Transfer the salmon and marinade to a pan and poach until the liquid is almost gone.  Add 1 tbsp butter and brown on DSC00648 (1200x900)both sides, cooking until very slightly dry so that it easily flakes.
  5. Reduce to a gentle heat. Add 125ml of 500  ml of no-salt vegetable stock and cook for about 5 minutes until the liquid is absorbed. Pour in a DSC00649 (1200x900)further 125ml stock and continue cooking until absorbed. Repeat with the remaining stock, until it is all absorbed and the rice is creamy and tender.
  6. Season to taste: 1 tsp thyme,  a sprinkle of salt and pepper.  DSC00650 (1200x900)Add 15g shaved parmesan.  Chop 1-2 cup spinach leaves and add to the risotto (can be left whole). Cover and cook gently for 4-5 minutes until the spinach has just wilted.
  7. Chop the salmon filetDSC00651 (1200x951) into chunks and stir into the risotto.  Serve immediately sprinkled with parmesan and fresh crusty bread, accompanied by dry white wine and a candle.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Grey Amsterdam

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There was a beautiful sunrise in Maastricht this morning – still dark along the ‘skade at 7 am but with the promise of a brighter day.  I was out at 8, on the train at half-past, and into Amsterdam by 11.

Stu had warned me that it would be wetter to the north, and the skies did indeed darken and the rain started at Utrecht.  The fields are flooded in many places, surprising since the Maas river is still low in Limburg (it flows up from the south).

My meetings were all business: lawyers at 11:30 to decide next steps in the collections process, accountants at 1:30 to review 2012 annual reports and taxes.  (Yes, ‘still) 

Amsterdam was dark and shiny, probably a week shy of having really good fall colors along the canals.

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On the way out, I got a text from my immigration consultant, who advised me that my request for a 5-year residence permit had been approved.  This is wonderful news: it means no more yearly applications, fees, and documentation to prepare, and I’ll breeze through Schiphol and across the border at Liege more easily.

It won’t change the UK Tier 1 process, I still need to make the decision to add a UK passport in 2015, or just take Indefinite Leave to Remain.

And, of course, it takes pressure off the Dutch Language exams, but I still plan to take the tests soon.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Entrepreneurial reflections

I was reflecting on the fit between people  and startups while listening to a recent episode of In Beta, where the hosts discussed whether anyone should become an early employee of  a new venture.  They sounded a lot of cautionary notes: employees don’t have founder’s equity or benefit programs, they suffer low pay, long hours, limited social networks, and get no respect from ego-driven CEOs.

Their conclusion was  '”Either start your own company, or work for a big one that has its shit together.  Anything else - there's lots to lose, little to gain.”  

I’ve thought about this a lot since hearing it, focused on two main questions.

1)  Are my companies good ones to work for?

There’s no question that I’m guilty of several of the sins.

The Board hasn’t let me distribute equity to employees and contractors (the goal was to give 15% in warrants; only a fraction of that has been approved). 

Everyone has had to do a little of everything every day: it’s not unusual for any of us to be arranging shipping and driving samples. 

There’s always performance stress to finish tasks, correctly, within our  resource and time limits. 

Worst, there’s always a lurking feeling that it could all be over next month.

But I think we do a lot of things right too.

I hire good people and listen to what they say.

We know what we are in business to do and why.

I stay optimistic and confident (mostly), communicate constantly, smile lots.  We keep things in perspective.

We generally push key decisions to people best able to make them. 

Clare and I spend 80% of our funds on operations, not management salaries or perks. 

I insist on an honest and open work environment, that we debate from experience and data.  I want to hear the truth.

I remember to say thank you when people do good things.

And, as Lucy Kellaway wrote in the FT over the weekend, a little ‘unconfidence’ works wonders: …they are driven on by anxiety. They also listen to criticism and try to adjust accordingly. And they are far less likely to become arrogant, hubristic monsters.

I follow Bob Sutton’s “No Asshole” rules for things good bosses believe.  And I check that the people working with me feel we’ve got this environment, more often than not.

DSC09951 (900x1200)2)  Have I started my companies for the right reasons?

It’s too hard work and too uncertain a future to simply do it to satisfy narcissic yearnings for ego inflation.  A recent article in Medium suggested some good and bad reasons to start a new business, and they are generally valid.  But I (of course) have my own list:

Good Reasons:

  • I want creative and business control of my ideas.
  • I want to work alongside talented people who I like.
  • I want to work on meaningful projects and products.
  • I want to keep what I win.
  • I want experience: to make a difference, to build a network.

Bad Reasons:

  • I want money (or travel, flexible work hours, an office with a view, or other perks).
  • I want to impress my (partner, parents, ex-bosses, colleagues, media, or other favorite audience).
  • I want power over my life (I want to be my own boss).
  • I want the kick (the rush, the adrenaline, the win).
  • I want the Peaceful Life (or Glasser’s Quality World).

On balance, on both questions, I think we do okay.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jazz Weekend Maastricht

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It was Jazz and Blues weekend across the city, with over 100 groups playing at bars and restaurants.  I had tapas dinner with a friend, then we wandered the venues until the wee hours.

As the beer flowed and the saxophones played, we observed that the groups seemed to divide into two camps.

On the one hand, there were young-ish musicians with pop-ish beats for a bouncing college student audience.  

On the other were authentic, older musicians with years of  life behind them and deep experiences to inform the playing, attended by a swaying older audience. 

And, after three hours, we determined that our crowd was the latter one. 

Some things do grow better with age.

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