‘Enjoying a few days of remarkably sunny weather along the north Irish coast. It’s a beautiful area and a good chance to explore both the new geography and some new ideas.
I was talking with friends the other night about what makes a good research conference. There was a time when it was a big conference, filled with important people and companies all showing off their latest findings and innovations. It was a distant city, a nice hotel, good dinners, and visits by the corporate brass.
It does seem like a tender age.
These days, I really enjoy a smaller gathering, one where there’s a singe track of presentations, a limited audience, immersion in a topic, close discussions of creative ideas, promises to follow up on collaborative projects. It’s more of a retreat, things to see and discover together, shared meals, an excursion or two.
The big conferences have their place, but I really don’t learn as much or get time to talk about ideas with others.
I’m headed up to Ireland for a few days for such an event, ‘looking forward to the time away (even though I have to finish a grant application during the evenings). The organizers have a good sense of how to assemble a group: they get a good mix of young and older investigators, people actually doing work, and mix the theoretical/technical sorts with the practicing/clinical ones. There are a few repeat members, a few industry folks, a core focus for everyone to put their heads around.
It reminds me of the times running a research group, a lot of the same considerations lead to a lot of the same solutions. You want to gather together a group of smart folks with different perspectives who can work together around a common cause. Flatten the hierarchy, celebrate successes at every level, and keep the networks humming.
When it works, it’s really one of life’s delights.
I was talking with a colleague today who is preparing to take on a new role as editor of a bimonthly (every two months, vs. semimonthly, twice a month) journal. It’s been run as a traditional media product up to this point, paper stories mailed to subscribers. The new management wants to create a more colorful and relevant publication, improving quality and involving readers more directly. New media ideas such as online forums and social extensions are suggested.
It seems to me, I started, leaning back as though preparing to light a pipe…Cambridge casts it’s spell…
It seems to me that the publication is a static entity at this point. Every two months it touches it’s subscribers, then goes quiet for another two months. Simply putting the journal online won’t change that: the content will still only be updated infrequently and there’s no motivation to look in.
Similarly, it seems like your not ready to push the online presence into social media, where your subscribers interact with one another. There’s nothing for them to talk about, no community or tribe that draws them together. Seeding a forum with surveys, provocative letters to the editor, and event notices may generate heat but not the sort of quality and light that the publication wants to build.
I think that there’s an intermediate step that needs to happen, creating dynamic content.
First, the journal needs to offer simpler content that is updated more frequently. Pre-publication, post story ideas, articles that didn’t make the cut to print, pointers to relevant news and events. Post-publication, post article updates, links to enhanced content, audio or video follow-ups.
Second, offer interactive features. Make the author available for discussion on-line, invite guest specialists to post perspectives and commentary for questions or comment, offer ways to get involved or to share stories within a short, moderated format that can be summarized in newsletters.
Third, make the subscribers special. When an institution is featured, add special offers for admission, access to programs, or advance notice of events. Collate information of interest to them; invite contributions and opportunities to make their special interest into a special feature.
Our local Meetup groups held a ‘Social media and Startups’ session recently, emphasizing the need to see past the tools to the goal: creating self-organized communities of like-minded people. Seth Godin made the same point in his discussions of Tribes, and I’ve seen it work (sometimes) on LinkedIn.
I think that the benefits of social networks, and their desirability as mediums for branding and marketing, are now well understood (above). You have to learn to leverage the new medium.
But I think I’ve also learned that a growing community with vigorous conversation doesn’t start with a Facebook page. Rather, it has to start with frequent, relevant, interactive content that generates (and shows) interest and engages audiences.
Today’s art is Mondrain’s Ocean and Pier / Composition 10, one of many works that he did exploring this theme. The jutting pier is represented by the verticals at the lower center, while the texture of the water is implied by the contrasting reflections around it, receding to the horizon, with sky above.
I visited the pier in Brighton today, taking time off after a visit to the microbiology labs at the University. It’s a structure in the grand old style of boardwalks and dance halls, with wooden slats and iron supports, the sea swaying and heaving green beneath the walkwayss. The promenade is lined with shops selling sweets and trinkets, canvas and wood beach chairs, blue and white stripes mirroring the sky, for watching the ocean. A radio station plays an rotation of memories from a DJ booth at the end of the pier, close by the thrill rides. The pressure to visit MooMoo’s for a MilkShake is relentless..
It’s a relaxed, lazy place, similar to the ones vanishing from beaches around the world. Navy Pier in Chicago (below, left) was rehabilitated, it’s now a vast family-safe pedestrian walkway. Brighton was conserved, a modern day Vasa, still retaining it’s charms despite the age of the wood.
I was trying to remember any Dutch equivalents, then hit upon a sunny day spent at Scheveningen when I first came to the Netherlands. A broad beach, a flat ocean, a long boardwalk stretching fingers towards the grey and yellow horizon. Scheveningen is a bit between, glass enclosed and updated in spots, vestiges of the carnival heritage poking through.
I suspect there are, or once were, similar great piers extending into the sea all along the coasts of Europe. Wikipedia keeps a list, but the sparseness suggests that, beyond a few in Belgium and the one in the Netherlands, these artifacts have all but vanished from the Continent.
And there’s no hint of what pier inspired Mondrian, watching light flicker on water, fingers twitching over his canvas. No clue if it was a sunny day or grey, observed from canvas chair or a lazy lean over a rail. ‘just a figurative sketch, ever in the present moment of people strolling the planks above the sea.
Wolfson College sponsored a talk yesterday by Sir Anthony Brenton, a retired British diplomat and recent ambassador to Russia. It’s always interesting to hear stories from people at the center of events, and Sir Anthony was eloquent about why the world needed diplomats, what ambassadors do, and how they flourished during the ‘Golden Age” of diplomacy in the late 1800’s. A mathematician by training, he set out eleven traits of the good diplomat, including honesty, an ascetic private life, a love of good food and drink, ad a willingness to learn languages. All good stories, as I’d expect from one who spends a lifetime in conversation and presentation.
I was most interested in his ‘Great Power’ view of the world: that diplomacy works best in a world dominated by a half-dozen major powers. His Golden Age depended on a balance among major European powers; he views the coming decade as including BRIC / Asian as well as EU and US. These powers, in turn, must be collectively vigilant about the smallest emerging and failed states, black holes that seem to breed the worst social and political abuses.
I think this is a general omission, and an unfortunate one. Graphs in the Economist and press releases from the EU regularly wring hands over the the statistics of the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Spain. They fret about politics and voting in eastern Europe and the Balkans. They are generally silent about the broad middle kingdoms in between.
OECD statistics suggest that many of these countries, far from dull or uninteresting, are succeeding. where larger and smaller ones are not. Economically, they didn’t suffer as bad a downturn and most are dealing effectively with financial reform and budget-balancing. PSocially, they are preserving a good standard of living and innovative business growth. Politically, they seem civil at the center. It seems like there are lessons to learn in their variety successes and failures coming from the things each is doing differently from the others.
It’s much the same in the US: Federal policy and the politics of large states like Texas and California dominate the news, while strugggling states like West Virginia and Louisiana lap up headlines. In between, middle states like Wisconsin, Hawaii, and even South Dakota are seldom covered, although they are the ones trying innovative social and economic policies.
Sir Anthony noted that the purpose of diplomacy was to project national interests and to collect foreign information. It seems like there should also be a role for watching and learning from successful, non-troublesome countries. There might even be a role for diplomatic exchanges at home, giving states access to one another’s experiences and ideas.
For example, electric rates:
I’ve struggled for years to try to manage them properly, but it has been a really frustrating few months.
e-on, my UK electricity provider, started out with charges of around ₤25 per month. The bill bounced around a bit in midsummer, creeping up towards ₤40. The issue for me was that the bill went up even when I spent more time in the Netherlands. Part of the problem was with their method for meter estimations, which I now read myself.
Then this month’s bill hit at ₤90, outrageous for late-summer when light and heat are still lightly used. I can’t even imagine where that kind of consumption is going in a 900 sq ft flat. Is it the immersion heater in the water tank? The wind through the mail slot? Leaving my laptop lit at night?
I generally believe that things that generate heat are the biggest consumers of electricity, so I’m focusing my efforts there. Certainly the storage heaters (a completely unfamiliar concept to an American) cost money to heat and discharge. I suspect that the electric range is slurping power to heat the slabs of iron that make up the ancient cooking surfaces. The walls are likely well insulated because I abut units to either side, but the windows and doors certainly have gaps that may cause issues.
And, yes, I’ve considered whether I’m just a thoughtless, profligate American in my usage habits.
My best solution in the Netherlands has always been to get the utility bills included under the monthly apartment charge (Maastricht).
The second-best is to negotiate a flat-fee arrangement with the utility (Arnhem). Water companies seem to prefer this sort of payment scheme, and landline/internet telecoms like KPN or BT often provide ‘’all you can eat’ flat-fee arrangements. Gas, and especially electric, bills are very difficult to negotiate, and I’ve found that the many different pricing and usage schemes are hard to compare..
Third, I’ve been working with the landlords to improve insulation and to install energy-efficient heating in anticipation of the cold months to come. It’s a win-win and most see the long-term value to tenants, taxes, and property value.
Finally, I’m turning things on and off and running to check their impact on the meter. The worst offenders are going to be the least used, no matter what.
The goal is to get this stabilized back at a reasonable level (‘comparable to what the neighbors pay) before things really spiral in December.