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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gimme Shelter – Amsterdam Day 1

After disembarking from the ship and a brief, but serious, grilling by NL customs, I was on the morning commuter train headed towards Rotterdam.  Pictures are provided on Facebook.  A transfer to Amsterdam Central at Rotterdam and I was on the final leg of my journey.  I met a man who was on his morning commute and we had an interesting discussion about mankind’s apparent desire to overtake every square inch of the planet.  He is concerned that people in his country are not leaving enough land alone.

Next, I met Jason.  He is from New Orleans, but he went to speech coaching to lose his accent so he could fit in better in Amsterdam.  He is one of the owners of the Freeland Hotel, where I am staying.  As I mentioned, the place is tiny.  Amsterdam is a city that is quite literally…packed.  I should say packed and stacked.  No square inch is wasted.  Again with the machine-like efficiency.

When I got to the hotel, my room wasn’t ready and it was drizzling heavily.  I dropped my backpack, detached my daypack to keep with me and headed out to the Van Gogh museum with my new windproof umbrella.  It wasn’t very windy.  I’m sure it will come in handy someday.

If I could sum up Van Gogh, I’d say he was the Jimi Hendrix of pointillism.   It was interesting to see his early work, before he started using very small brush strokes.  I don’t think Van Gogh is the best pointillist in history, but Jimi isn’t the greatest guitar player of all time either.  However, nobody had done anything quite like what they did before they did it.

After the museum, I had lunch – goat cheese, walnuts, honey and frieze’ lettuce on a wheat roll.  Yummy!  (yeah, yeah – not good for my cholesterol, but I probably walked five miles today.)

By the time I fumbled my way back to the hotel, fatigue had gotten the best of me.  A two hour nap fixed me right up.  I cleaned myself up and changed into some moving around clothes and headed back into the city.  For the longest time, I just wandered.  Amsterdam is primarily a giant tourist trap.  They even have a wax museum.  No self-respecting tourist trap would be without one.  I won’t bore you with details of my physical observations.  There are real lives being played out in Amsterdam – I’ll be talking about some of them shortly, but most of what you see is a money-making deal perpetrated on foreigners .

Being a foreigner, it seemed only fair that I pay homage.  Several friends had mentioned I should visit a place called the Grasshopper.   It has three levels (actually four, but two of them are for drinking).  The top is a restaurant, the middle a bar and the lower level a coffeeshop.  For those who don’t know local terminology, a coffershop, for some unknown reason, sells cannabis products.  Well, I decided to start at the top and work my way down.  The restaurant is an Argentinean steakhouse.  There are a zillion of them in town, so I figured there must be something to it.  Still trying to figure that one out.  I met two guys from Argentina in the basement – Paul and Manu.  They didn’t know why there is so much of their native cuisine in town either.

Before I got to the basement, I had a beer.  I was alone in a crowd.  It was somewhat of a relief to finish my beer and go to the basement.  The nice thing about not having a lighter is it provides a good excuse to encroach on someone else’s privacy.  Paul and Manu spoke very good English as did literally everyone which whom I attempted to communicate.

On my way to discovering the Grasshopper, I passed a monument that looks like a giant penis.  Actually, as I later learned, it is a monument for the local Jews that died in WWII.  Something told me it would be an interesting place to hang out later.  I was right.

On my way back to the monument, a thought crossed my mind:  I was seeing the city through the eyes of a tourist.  I was turning my head here and there, trying to take in all the sights.  What would it be like to see the city through the eyes of a local.  I realized if I lived in town, I would not be looking around except in my immediate perimeter.  I started doing that and saw the city for the first time for what it really is: a tourist trap.  I lost interested in seeing the city from the tourist’s perspective.

At the monument, I first met a young man from Nigeria named Clifford.  Next, I met a Somalian rapper named Issa, who has lived his whole life in Amsterdam.  His dad moved to America and he has visited Minnesota, but he prefers Amsterdam.  It is his home and he knows how to move and shake on the streets here.  He should – he lives there.  Some nights quite literally.  I also met a fellow countryman of my friend Ghassan (aka Feter McBlues), named Omar.  Omar left Fallujah in 1982.  He has been living on the streets in Amsterdam since.

I have encountered many homeless people right in the streets of Ann Arbor where I live, but it’s always apparent why they’re there.  The people I met at the monument were different.  They were very intelligent.  I was speaking to them in either their second or third language and we had some deeply philosophical discussions about the world and America’s role in it.   I met a guy from Kenya and a young man from Romania.  They are all a little more than disappointed with the way the U.S. uses its power on a global basis.  The Romanian almost started to cry when he recounted the human rights breakdown that followed the U.S. led breakup of the Soviet Union.  He felt our government did nothing while chaos ensued.  Maybe if Clinton had been in power, we would have helped.  Who knows…he certainly intervened in Yugoslavia when it fell apart.

I do not fool myself into believing that these people hung around me because of my great wisdom and harmonica playing (okay, maybe the harmonica playing helped), but they did a hell of a job holding my attention and I bought Omar a couple beers (which cost .50 euro each versus 3 euro plus in the bar) and shared some of my leftover hash with some of the other guys in exchange for their company.  It was a much cheaper evening than if I had done the tourist thing, and I would have been alone.

On a musical note, in addition to some freestyling, Issa also sang some Somali songs for which I was fortunate enough to be able to provide musical support on the harmonica.  I would like to go on about some of the discussions we had about life, the universe and everything, but at two pages long, this post has probably already overstayed its welcome in your life.

Tomorrow, I will make some more stories.  Today, my world expanded – just a little.

Falling Forward - Day 3 London to Day 1 Amsterdam

I sit here in a tiny hotel room, which is actually smaller than the room I had on the ship I came here on, while a raging party continues on the street below, oblivious due to the jams coming from my iPod (that’s right, one of my few Apple products), trying to catch up on my blogging, which I failed to do last night, but, hey, I figure an opening sentence with seven clauses (not counting the parenthetical remark) ought to score me a few makeup points.

At the moment, it’s hard to believe that yesterday I was standing before a room full of business people and process experts pontificating about small business. I come back to the reason for this in my next blog, which I hope to write after I post this one. You may just get to read them back to back if you weren’t at your computer for awhile or didn’t bother to connect a feed to my blog.

But I digress. If you saw my Facebook pics, you have some clue that things went well. Given that most of my readers are unlikely to give a crap about process management, I will hold the details of the conference. Suffice to say it ended better than my next effort.

Given how much we plan to move around, I decided that I wanted to be able to carry all my belongings on my back. This meant that the garment bag my suits are in had to go. I took it to the local MailStore. Those places are giving Starbucks a run for their money (not really). There was much discussion about the best way to send it. The ways which get there quickly require a signature, but I wasn’t about to pay to have it arrive before Susan left to join me. Finally, after 15 minutes of screwing around, they realized that it isn’t too big to go airmail after all, which is how they were going to send it in the first place.

Before I left to send back my bag, I got it out of storage and changed into the travelling clothes I had in it and put in my suit. When I picked up the bag from storage, the concierge informed me that Victoria Station (where I was going to catch the Underground) was completely shut down because someone had smelled smoke.

Fortunately, they took so long at the MailStore, when I got back to collect my backpack, everything was back online. It wasn’t until I got on the Tube that I realized I hadn’t removed my cell phone from the pocket of my suit. Oh well, I hadn’t used that dang thing once anyway. My Droid and netbook have been working “ok” as communications devices. The problem with VOIP over wifi is there are too many things that can go wrong and they often do. Nonetheless, it is still by far the cheapest way to communicate internationally. When we talk on Skype computer to computer – it’s free!

After a quick pasty at the train station (I know honey, I’m eating like shit, but I’m on vacation), I was off to the coast on the 19:18 to Harwich Town calling on many stops including Harwich International. There, I cruised through customs to board the ship. As cruise ships go – it wasn’t. Turns out, this thing is a high class freighter. Most of the ship is built to move tractor trailers back and forth between the UK and Northern Europe. They have a few decks of “guest” cabins and other accommodations for the truckers. There’s one floor that houses all the amenities. The truckers have their own section. They can use ours, but we’re not allowed to use theirs. I guess they’re regulars, so they get special treatment.

My first real impression of the Dutch was one of machine-like efficiency. They packed two places to eat, two places to get drinks, two places to gamble and a duty free shop in a very small area. They even had a private area for people with extra money, an Internet cafĂ©’ and a TV lounge.

After a look around, I went to bed. On my way back to my room, imagine my surprise when I noticed the clocks had advanced an hour while I wasn’t looking. Sonofabitch! All of the sudden, I’m going to bed late. So, I finally drop off and what seemed like 10 minutes later, a loudspeaker IN MY ROOM wishes me a “good morning.” WTF! How is this consistent with a good morning? No worries. I roll over and go back to sleep. But, no, it is clear there will be no more sleeping as regular announcements EVERY 10 minutes are provided until I drag my ass out of bed and join the remainder of the guests on deck nine. Needless to say, I was a bit groggy as my next day started – which will be for the next entry.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Work Work Work - Day 3

Today was all business.  Okay, maybe not ALL business, but I didn't see any sights, so I didn't have any pics.  This morning, I decided that instead of running, I would do some tai chi.  First stop, the luxurious fitness center.  Nope!  No room for tai chi there.  So far, the only thing that place has been useful for is a drink of water.  I went up a floor to the conference area.  One of the hospitality staff came by, so I asked him if I could do some tai chi there.

"No.  We've got a group coming in here in five minutes."

Dang!  They start early around here.  Next, I found myself out in the car park.  It is underground and had the faint smell of diesel fuel.  There were comings and goings during my workout and I got some pretty strange looks.

Breakfast was pretty much the same as yesterday, but I did have the beans on toast today.  I suppose I could get used to it, but nothing beats a Snickers bar and a Coke.

The remainder of the day was filled with briefings, software demos and round tables.  Interestingly, none of the round tables where held around a round table, but we did have some interesting, if inconclusive discussions.

I'm currently reading a book entitled Human Interations: The Heart and Soul of Business Process Management.  At the mixer after the sessions, I had a chance to meet Keith Harrison-Broninski, the author.  Turns out, he loves jazz and funk.  There was some overlap between our favorites, but we both have a bunch of new music to share with each other.

Tomorrow is my big day.  I'm giving my presentation.  I think I recruited at least two attendees, so I won't be completely alone unless they change their minds.  Then, it's off to Amsterdam on the Holland Hook!

Day Two - On the Ground in London

Now that I've shifted my internal clock, I see London as a human rather than the walking dead.  My day started like any other, which surprised the hell out of me.  I thought for sure I would wake up at some stupid hour and curse myself, but I woke up at...7a?  How is this possible?  Sleep deprivation the day before - works every time!

Since I didn't have any official business until 9:30a, I decided some early morning exercise would be in order.  They have a lovely fitness center here at the Park Plaza Victoria.  I jumped on a treadmill and started to run.  After about 30 seconds, I found myself saying, "WTF!"  Here I am in London and I'm running in front of a video screen.  So, I shut the thing down and headed outside.  I started down Vauxhall Bridge Road towards the Thames.  I figured I can't get lost running down the street the hotel is on.

Along the way, I passed the morning commuters on their way to work.  There were also many children in their cute little monkey suits on their way to school.  Some of the older kids were enjoying an early morning fag while waiting for the bus.  Some things are the same everywhere.   At 5P a pack (that's over $7.50 for us Yanks), it's an expensive way to kill yourself.

When I got the the Thames, I decided to turn right and run along the river.  This turned out to be a good move because I didn't need to stop for cross traffic.  Apparently, I was the last person to figure this out because there were lots of runners along the river.  Some of them had packs on their backs.  At first, I thought they were doing some sort of special training.  Then, it dawned on me - they are running to work.  I hope they work alone for their coworkers' sakes. As I stopped to turn around, I looked across the river and I swear I saw the factory from the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals album.  No flying pigs, though.

Upon my return, I, unlike my working class counterparts, showered.  Breakfast consisted of English bacon (looked like overcooked ham to me) with pineapple on it, fried potatoes with mushrooms on them, grapefruit slices and juice, a croissant, and tea.  I could have had beans on toast, but I'm saving that one for another day.

I enjoyed some nice sessions of the conference I'm attending, the details of which I will spare my readers.  It was fun meeting people from around the world.  I talked with people from Sweden, Germany, Canada and, of course, the U.K (England and Ireland - no Scots yet).

After an overpriced scotch (getting warmed up for Scotland) at the hotel, I was joined by my friend Larry from Ann Arbor who was recently transferred by his employer, Google, to London.  We enjoyed dinner at a local Thai restaurant.  The food was quite good and the portions where characteristically European, which probably explains why the obesity problem isn't quite as bad here, although it's the worst in Europe according to the morning talk show I had on earlier.  The restaurant was staffed by the most beautiful Thai people.  Only in one of the greatest melting pots on the planet could you field such a first rate home team.  I imagine an advert for Thai people and having 200 show up from which they selected only the most fit.  Try that in Detroit.  I don't think so.

Tomorrow is the first REAL day of the conference.  I'm hoping to see actual sites after the day's events.  Buckingham Palace is apparently only a few blocks away, so I would probably be soundly chastised for not not at least stopping by.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Day One...Or Is It Two?

Well, I managed to fake myself into believing that I had a good night's sleep on the early evening red eye to London.  I expected that my arrival at the airport would be met with some of Britain's famous queuing.  The sign said E.U. travelers to the left, everyone else to the right.  The right has a six or seven rows of switchbacks full of people and then the line took off down the hall.  So, I headed down the hall.  When I got to the end, I discovered another hall full of people.  So, I headed down the hall.  When I got to the end, I discovered another hall full of people.  So, I headed down the hall.  When I got to the end, my friggin legs were getting tired, but I had one more hall to traverse.

An hour and a half of queuing is enough for anyone.  Yet, I was convinced that I had more queuing to do at baggage claim.  I was wrong.  Apparently, the baggage checking chaps had popped out for some tea.  I knew I should have brought that raw beef with me.  Oh well, maybe next time.

After hauling my bags around the terminal a bit, I found the shuttle kiosk.  The gent told me that I could expect a 30 to 40 minute wait for the shuttle to arrive.  To my surprise, it was more like 30.  However, we had to wait another 15 minutes for them to round up some more passengers and to plan their drop-off.

If you've ever been to Heathrow, you may know that there are four main terminals.  Fortunately, we only picked up more passengers at one other.  Only a short fifteen minute drive.  I learned several things after this. I learned that on Sundays, because the traffic is not too bad, they fix the roads, which makes the traffic bad.  I learned that if the driver needs to deliver his passengers to six different hotels and you are going to the last hotel in the route (contrary to the 10 minute planning session's suggestions), you are looking at a drive of over two hours.

I learned that if you try to buy a SIM card at the airport, you will pay ten pounds for it, whereas elsewhere it will be free.  I learned that rates vary from 30p/min to 10p/min.  And, most importantly, I learned that if you want your new phone to work, you need to turn it on.

As day one (or was it two) wore on, my fake job on a night's sleep was beginning to wear thin.  After wandering around the neighborhood for awhile, I decided it was time for dinner.  I think there was a good Indian restaurant somewhere (the concierge put an "X" on my map), but I couldn't find it.  I did find Victoria Station.  They had a genuine Cornish Pasty stand, so I enjoyed a lamb and mint pasty with some potato wedges.  After that, I needed a nap.  I've managed to stay up until 9:45 local time.  I'm going for 11p.

Tomorrow is day one of the conference I came for. if you care to have a look.  Hopefully, I will meet new people and create some stories to tell.  Until tomorrow.  By the way, pictures are being posted on Facebook.  If you're not my friend, you don't get to see them.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

World Traveler - Finally!

I've always been fascinated with the world, but I haven't actually seen much of it.  This Sunday (local time), that is about to change.  I am finally going to get off this continent.  Don't get me wrong, North America has been and always will be my home.  But, sometimes you've just got to go have a look see for yourself.

I will be going to London first.  After a quick stop in Amsterdam, I will be joined by my wife for some time in Scotland.  From the pictures I've seen, it looks like a beautiful place.  In my experience here in NA, pictures rarely do the actual view justice.  I will be posting some inadequate pictures on my Facebook page and I'll put a few here, too.  I will not be tweeting.  Frankly, I think tweeting should be left for the birds.

After Scotland, we are going to visit some friends in southern Spain.  They promise to give us the grand tour, which will include Gibraltar and a bit of Morocco.  That last bit means we will actually get to land on two separate continents.

I will be using the blog here to comment on people, culture, drugs, architecture, music and bad customer service.  I hope that my little travelogue will be slightly more interesting than the typical offering as it will contain some of the far reaching philosophy that my 5 - 6 regular readers have come to expect.  Since most of you are friends and family, you got more of it than you wanted even before I started blogging, but...tough shit.  That's me and that's what you get.

See you on the other side of the pond.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Outside In From the Inside Out

Governments ultimately exist for one reason – to control their people.  Citizens expect their governments to take care of them in certain ways, but this only represents the “obligations” of government, not their reason for existence.  I have written elsewhere about the nature of power and the type of people who seek it, so I won’t belabor that point here.  Suffice it to say, governments are controlled by people who seek power.  Power means control.

The challenge of any fledgling government is to decide how to gain control of the population.  The most common choice is by force.  Most governments are born out of violence, so why not ride the horse that brung ya?  Maybe after a few generations, if some other group doesn’t seize power by violent means, a government will decide to settle down and take a more egalitarian approach.  But, the goal never changes.
In authoritarian regimes, the people know what to expect from their government.  They usually know the truth about the brutality with which their government dispatches control of what gets said and what gets done.  They may not like it, but as long as the government has some means to avoid wholesale revolution, who cares?

Democratic regimes, on the other hand, face a more daunting challenge.  How do you control your population without pissing them off?  The answer is: disinformation.  All a government needs to do is get their citizens to believe what they want them to believe.

I know you’re probably thinking that something like this couldn’t happen here.  You’d be wrong.  I took a mini survey around the office for a couple weeks; asking anyone if they had heard of Noam Chomsky.  Nobody had.  More people have heard of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  They have something in common, they are (or were) considered to be the leading dissident by their respective governments.  Solzhenitsyn was a Russian dissident.  Noam Chomsky is American.  Sozhenitsyn spent years in a gulag.  We don’t do that sort of thing here in the good ole U.S. of A.  So, Chomsky is allowed to roam “freely” and speak his (considerable) mind.  And yet, you’ve probably never heard of him.  How is that possible?

Because our government doesn’t want you to know about him.  His ideas are subversive.  He believes that our government should not engage in terrorism, incitement and unprovoked acts of aggression.  Our government believes otherwise.  So, when our government takes provocative actions that go against the common beliefs of its citizens as to how our country should operation on the world stage, those actions are either covered up or obfuscated to the point where the news reporting is unrecognizable compared with the reality.

Where is Noam in all this?  Oh, he’s blogging and speaking to anyone who will listen (check out  Who will listen?  Because he is banned for all major news outlets, the government can brand him as lunatic fringe or a conspiracy theorist and people will believe them, when, in fact, he is a brilliant academician who cares about truth and justice for all (just like in the pledge of allegiance to the Flag).

Like most citizens, you probably don’t care about all this as long as you can enjoy a comfortable lifestyle free from undue hardship.  Meanwhile, thousands suffer and die by the hands of our regimes, because the puppet masters think that’s how it needs to be.  One day, maybe we will wake up and decide to give a crap about the truth, but for now, most of us are content to live in ignorant bliss.  After all, if you believe the truth about the actions of our government, you may need to do something about it.  And that’s a bunch of effort we can all just do without.  Meanwhile, we’ve got blood on our hands.  The only thing separating us from having to live with it is our ignorance.  So, don’t read too much of what Noam Chomsky and his kind have to say.  It will only upset you.  We now return you to your government’s bullshit, already in progress.