Saturday, November 16, 2013

Wandelen door Winchester

The big Sandbanks Birthday Bash kicked off with a Lionel Ritchie tribute night at the nearby Harbour Heights hotel, a  delightful summer venue for sipping coffee and watching boats on the harbour.  This evening, it was all sweet wine and savoury dinner,  then dancing and conversation until one in the morning.  The faux-Lionel was well-voiced and performed a good-humoured mix of Richie’s canon, easing everyone into the weekend.

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I opted out of Day 2, preferring to explore the historic city of Winchester with the wonderlijke wezen.  Best known for the eponymous Winchester Cathedral (hum a few bars) and Winchester Castle (Round Table and all), it’s a short distance north of Southampton on the main rail and road lines connecting London with Bournemouth.  The city was the capital of England during the 800’s, but has more the flavour of a market town than a royal seat today.  It was cold and grey, but absent rain it was perfect for wandering the old city streets and investigating the Cathedral.

…and correct me if I’m wrong in choosing wandelen door, to wander, as opposed to dwalen over or zwervend, both of which have more of a loitering connotation.  ‘still learning, every day.

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Winchester Cathedral reminded me a lot of the ‘”Ship of the Fens” up in Ely, an outsized sprawling structure with a wonderful fan ceiling, long naves and decorated transepts.  It’s expensive to enter at 7.50  gbp, but I took that as encouragement to linger and read.  The choir was preparing for their annual performance of the Messiah, so there was dramatic lighting and soaring voices to accompany the visit, a fortunate touch.

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People tend to linger at Jane Austin’s tomb (which I accidently walked on) and the Antony Gormley statue in the crypt (more my style).  I thought that his mysterious blue figure, cast from Gormley’s own body, was holding a book, but I’m told that he’s actually cupping water.  During rains he can be found up to his knees in groundwater so I’m sure its all linked.

The library and illuminated works are a musty delight, and there are several museum areas where antiquities associated with the cathedral are on display.  As with any organic structure, especially one that’s been extended and decorated over millennia, the best bits tended to be the small surprises: cat’s head cornices along one wall, a chapel themed as water evoked by sinuous wood, and a memorial to writer Francis Francis (actually buried in Twickenham), whose fishing friends clearly knew him best.

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DSC01377 (1300x1062)‘Then out for wine, chestnuts, lights, dinner, and a good close conversation – the sort of generally relaxed airing that clears the tension from a difficult week.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Its been a busy week…..

DSC01246 (1300x1127)It feels like ages since I last wrote, but it’s been more a lack of time than a lack of interest.  I’ve finally had the chance to sort pictures, sort notes, sort receipts, so the pieces are all in place to catch up with myself again.

I was listening to a relevant 5By5  conversation while driving yesterday: When writing, one should be living life instead of documenting it.  I agree, and have always looked at my personal essays should be a reflection on life rather than simply a mirror of it.  The blog gives me a chance for me to reflect on what’s important and why in my expat and entrepreneurial activities, and to connect with readers about their insights and ideas.  So I always feel less put-together when I step away from writing as I have had to this week.

The week included a couple of Marathon Days: Amsterdam on Wednesday and travel to London on Thursday. 

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Amsterdam was beautiful in late autumn colours under blue skies.  I had to arrange for the 2012 taxes to close and for a new business to be chartered, a continuation of a court case and a plan for collecting on a debt overdue a year.  I’ve learned that I get charged for time spent on pleasantries, and so we plunged through my agendas and documents efficiently, making commitments and handing out tasks for follow-up within a week. 

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‘back in Maastricht by evening, then on to the Dunkirk ferry at 3 am.  It was a rainy drive on either side, but a clear cruise in between, finally arriving in a park-and-ride west of London by late morning, pre-positioned for a Greek dinner met het wezen.  The rest stops and ferry decks were full of Christmas trimmings, all tinsel strands and twinkle lights.  I made a few notes not to fall behind on cards and travel planning this year.

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‘exactly the sort of travel insanity that I said was past, but this trip was a necessary choice.  I changed into suit and tie and headed for two key  meetings with key governing and funding boards in London.

The problem is that every week has an increasingly consequential live-or-die milestones with implications for the business.   When can results / prototypes be delivered?   We’ll know soon.  How quickly can you augment our funding?  Once you show results,  we can raise the investment.

So, it’s a never-ending circle of trading confidence beneath trading information and promises.  And it mirrors broader issues in my expat and personal life: is it enough that I have confidence?  Or do other people also need to see consistent predictability against plan and regular, small successes to bolster their confidence, independent of me?

It’s an issue that recurred in my Corporate R&D projects: ‘love the vision, uncertain about the execution?  And simply Expressing Confidence is not enough to solve it.

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Meetings ended, I made harbour at a hotel north of the city before moving on to Cambridge in the morning for some packing.  We’ve decided to pull move our St. Johns offices to the Babraham Institute, since our activities have shifted to our microbiology labs.  St. Johns has been a good workspace for us theDSC01294 (1300x970) past year, but just not necessary when the group is working at other sites.

It’s a pragmatic ‘new start’: I’m a person who builds things, I don’t tear them down. 

As an entrepreneur, I am trying to do things that are disruptive: significant, risky, difficult, unique.  I set the goal and a process for DSC01247 (1300x1070)achieving it, budgets and timelines follow.

When things go wrong, as they will, I get the facts, face reality, create a new plan, then communicate and motivate.  Progress is a series of incremental, adaptive steps within funding and resource envelopes that bring us ever-closer to success.

It’s under control and I can fix it when it veers.

But, from an outside perspective, it is a series of surprises and changes. Saying what I will do, then failing to do it for whatever reason, can result in loss of confidence rather than admiration for problem–solving and contingency planning.

It’s a major perceptual disconnect, and a problem that I’m just realizing needs a lot more attention for people who both professionally or personally have to be able to rely on believing what I tell them and live with what I say I can do.

And, failing to address it, people will feel stressed by the unreliability of the process, and some take abrupt steps to deal with the perceived chaos or decline.

DSC01296 (1300x964)It was finally a three hour drive to Poole, to a  weekend-long birthday celebration for a friend.   Along the way, I had a lot to think about. 

Am I still true to myself, building worthwhile things with great people, or just postponing failure? 

Am I letting my incremental process impact others needlessly, failing to take account of how my actions are perceived by them? 

What is the proper expression of confidence, both explicit and implied, that keeps everyone ‘onboard’ with the ventures?

Am I still respecting the balans en grens that lead to and underlie a healthy life and fulfilled relationships?  

Am I becoming a happier, more confident and grounded person again after the summer’s crash?

DSC01290 (957x1300)There’s such a lot of potential and opportunity in what I do, and I still believe that there’s a lot around on hand to enjoy and even more on offer ahead if I keep the energy and resilience to see it though to success.

But I understand that many, maybe most, don’t see it that way.  And, I admit, it’s all still an incremental, adaptive work-in-progress that can feel distant and uncertain.

As extends, probably, to me.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Expat tech

expat techIn eight years living overseas, I’ve found that two truths hold when it comes to understanding technology.  First, the best investigations are driven by trying to satisfy a particular desire.  How can I send a text to a friends phone from my Nexus?  How do I set up a local WiFi network for my computer using a 3G data link from the phone or tablet?  And, every expat’s dream, How can I watch US or British TV from the Netherlands?

The second truth is that I always end up solving a different problem than the one I set out to fix.

Warning:  This essay is a bit geeky, but it has a good payoff.  Skip towards the bottom if you glaze over when communication apps and internet protocols are discussed.

I have always been loyal to the Microsoft ecosystem.  I began with DOS and Visual C, and rely on Office, Live Mail, Writer, and Photo Gallery for everyday work.  I understand the myriad configuration and troubleshooting techniques and am a paid member of TechNet.

But during the past couple of years, past Windows 7 and the new Office ribbon, Microsoft has been more of an annoyance than a  leader.  Windows 8 is unusable, with buggy and missing drivers that made my computer useless.  Applications and utilities have been dumbed-down, performance has suffered, features have disappeared, products that I rely on have been orphaned.  Corporate intrigue and failed strategy is  more of an obsession in Redmond than than product quality and innovation.

Honestly, Google is doing more cutting edge and reliable work.  So I am spending more and more time with their systems and apps.

So it became my desire was to get Google Voice running. Voice is an audio/video telephone and messaging utility for making cheap calls, conferencing, and sharing data.  Beyond what Skype provides, it has some interesting transcription and translation capabilities linked to email and voicemail.

Armed with instructions and my Gmail / Google+ account information, I tried to get it working…

…and immediately ran into my first issue: Voice is only available to US people with US phone numbers.

The first problem is solved by setting up a VPN service. This establishes a tunnel from the Netherlands to the Internet via another computer.  The Internet thinks my geography is where the linked computer is located (in this case, San Jose).

For the US-based phone number, I tried to set up a  temporary US-based number using a SIP provider, tying that service to a separately generated US phone number.

All good (and fascinating), but the insolvable issue turned out to be finding a PC-based SoftPhone utility that would talk to the SIP provider.  I tried one package after another, but none connected and all messed with low-level functions and firewalls in my PC in scary ways.

After a couple of hours fiddling and rebooting, I gave up. The (simple) alternative was to call a friend in the US, and let Google validate the account through their (unused) landline.

So, as per Truth 1, I learned a lot about VoiP technology in my failed attempt to get it running (it’s as complex as SWIFT/BIC /IBAN international electronic banking).

And, as per Truth 2, I discovered something else wonderful.

I used HotSpot Shield to set up the VPN.  The utility is (mis)marketed as away to make surfing anonymous, but it’s actually an effective way to drop a VPN into Britain, the US, and Japan.  This is very slick: I switch it on, tell it to connect to Britain, and I’m streaming MasterChef Pro.  Switch to the US, and I can watch The Amazing Race.

It is dead simple and effective, the best solution for accessing media in another country that I’ve seen.  I paid for a 1–year subscription after two hours of testing it, getting a license for 5 machines so that I can run it on my  Nexus and my phone as well.

Google Voice can wait for another day…

*** As always, I have neither been asked nor incentivized to write about any product mentioned here.  he pinions reflect my own experiences and opinions, and I pay for all software that I use.