Saturday, August 23, 2014

Rigor, relevance, value

In a lecture on peer reviewing, I was taught that, as a reviewer, I should comment on the scientific rigor, relevance, and value of the manuscript (I'm talking about studies in management science, not natural science). Very well, I thought, the 'relevance' of course refers to whether the study addresses an interesting topic from a practical point of view. But, no no, the 'relevance' was meant to be purely scientific: does it address a gap in the literature? Then it must be 'value' that refers to the study's interest to the real world, right? Wrong again. Value means the kind of contribution made to the literature. Wow, so none of the reviewing criteria is concerned with actual real-world relevance! Isn't that a guarantee for academia disconnecting itself from the real world? Or would such a criterion be a harmful constraint on scientific inquiry, and is the disconnect prevented through other mechanisms that may be temporally separated (through research budget allocations for instance)?

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

La Marmotte, encore

A marmot whistles from the grassy alpine slope to my left, but I'm focused on my cadence and the stone building in the distance that marks the top of the Col du Glandon. Barely 8:30 in the morning and already 90 minutes into La Marmotte GranFondo, together with 2000 others. It's the yearly cycling race for amateurs that passes three legendary mountain passes before finishing with the (in)famous climb to Alpe d'Huez. This morning, remnants of last night's cloud deck mixed with early rays of sunlight make for a stunning scenery to climb through. In about 10 minutes I will reach the top of this first of four climbs and hope to find Merijn there healthy and happy. At 6 in the morning, I had dropped her off at the parking lot at the foot of the mountain with her bike and four bottles of sports drink. She would climb up before the riders, carrying the weight of the bottles on her back, in order to resupply my friend Mark and me when we crest the col during our race, which started at 7 AM.
Suddenly, I recognize the rider next to me. It's Henk, the Dutch guy I rode to the finish of the Vercors Challenge with, about 5 weeks ago. Would he have made the 1000 km trip to the French Alps again, just to participate in this race? How many times a year would he do that? What would he do for a living? He could be a lawyer, or a system administrator, or the owner of car dealership maybe. Instead of asking, I focus on dropping him. Why? Why is going fast always trumping the opening of the senses to all that's there to be seen, heard and smelled? The scenery is stunning, the weather nice, the people diverse. Could it make more sense to maximize one's time on the course rather than minimize it? Maybe, if people wouldn't immediately ask your time and rank when you tell them you did La Marmotte. Maybe it’s that bike racing brings a new social order. On the bike, social differences are neutralized and replaced at the finish line by the classification. From that perspective, it would be cowardice not to race, an arrogant rejection of the new order. And what about the joy of racing, the great feeling of satisfaction that is waiting for you at the finish line and which is strongly correlated to the amount of suffering endured to get there? The mountains won't go anywhere, I can devote them my proper attention some day when the clock isn't running. So, let's drop Henk if we can.
Unfortunately, my legs feel mediocre. I have more difficulty pushing the gears than I remember from last year and something in my back seems to block my left leg a bit. Merijn's waving and smiling. Two fresh bottles, a jacket and a kiss and down it goes, into the treacherous descent into the Maurienne valley. In the valley, I'm thinking I ended up in a good group to cover the 25 km traverse to the next col with. But the cooperation in the group is getting progressively worse. One frustrated rider starts screaming at another, but he is complaining to the wrong one, a strong one, instead of the short old Frenchman who, knowingly or not, is constantly sabotaging the echelon and deserves a . As a result, I'm spending much more energy on this flat part than I planned to. As soon as we hit the bottom of the Col du Télégraphe, the group is back to a mere swarm of individuals. The next 75 km over the Col du Télégraphe and the Col du Galibier back to the foot of Alpe d'Huez pass rather quickly. The weather is excellent: neither warm nor cold, some sun, some clouds, but no rain. When I hit the bottom of the climb to Alpe d'Huez I'm glad to discern Petra, Mark's wife, standing beside the road with her pregnant belly of 8 months, holding out a fresh bidon. We exchange bottles as if every second counted, and I drop all excess weight (jacket, arm warmers) at her feet. The speed I have to settle for I find a bit disappointing at first. But as I seem to be leaving behind most of the riders of the group I'd been in in the descent from the Galibier, I cannot be doing so bad. In corner #7, the (in)famous "Dutch corner,"  a bit past halfway up, there's Merijn again! She's holding out a bottle of refreshing water this time, which I partly pour over my head. I control my pace and manage to keep it steady until the top. I've tried a bigger gear, but the effect on my speed was zero. Coordination is giving in on the last steep straight, so this must be all I have today, the legs are done. Behind the finish line I suddenly find me and my salty face standing still in the midst of the colorful fair that is the finishing area in the heart of the ski resort. The abrupt change from a pressurized racing environment to a slow-paced holiday atmosphere confuses me.
According to the official time, I needed four minutes more than last year to finish the race and ended up 159th in the classification. Surprisingly close! All day I'd been disappointed about the speed on the display of my odometer; I was convinced that last year I was significantly faster. Last year, though, I didn't have an odometer, and with only four minutes difference it's impossible that I was really noticeably faster last year. So this innovation had been feeding me negative energy all day, for nothing! I can't believe I spent a good seven hours in the saddle, though. Normally, that would be a very long day, but today they passed very quickly. The loop the parcours makes is awe-inspiring on a regular day, but in an event like this, the magnificent mountain tops and endless roads seem to shrink to a mere backdrop for a cyclists' playground. Come back again tomorrow and the rocky heights will demand your renewed respect.
After finishing I feel a bit dizzy, but the feeling quickly fades. In the finish area I'm looking for Mark, but he's nowhere to be found. Last year, he was waiting right there behind the finish line. What happened? He was racing ahead of me from the bottom of the first uphill, and I did not see him again after that. Then, after about ten minutes, he suddenly shows up next to me, looking exhausted. Sweat drips from his glasses, leaving a trace of salt. He obviously just finished and told me he had a puncture near the Col du Galibier. As he was descending, in the first corner his bike almost slid from underneath him. He stopped, was freezing, but was lucky to find a kind spectator who happened to have a spare tube and CO2 cartridges. The guy replaced the tube and reinflated the tire while Mark was shivering. It had cost him at least 15 to 20 minutes. The malheur had cracked his morale and confidence, but he got back into his rhythm on Alpe d'Huez.
Mixed feelings after the race. I would love to race again next year, faster. But the time and energy that went into preparation was costly, in many ways. What would it take to get fit enough to feel strong, ride with grace, enjoy the effort, the scenery, and sometimes the game? Even more training, possibly. Should I just let go of the racing and maximally appreciate the opportunities the event has to offer. For that, though, I don't need a chip for timing and had better do a randonnée, together with the other old men.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Kaubad (ETH PhD Academy 2014)

Spent one week in Appenzell as participant in the ETH PhD Academy on Sustainability and Technology. 15 PhD students (14 nationalities) and a handful faculty stuck in a mountain hotel (Kaubad) for 5 days to discuss each other's work. Inspiring company, interesting research, learning, beautiful scenery, long meals, excellent service. The rhyme below blends events, quotes and research I observed, which, I'm afraid, will only fully speak to those who were there. More, less cryptic Kaubad narratives from other participants are published on: http://freddytale.blogspot.ch

Tiptop, vegi, Quöllfrisch
Suppe, Fondue, Nachtisch
Papers, review, debate
Quals and quants and roommate
Narrative, ontology
Raghu, Joanna, Magali
Appetizers, Hoffmann
5, 2, 0, Hoppmann
Focus, focus, focus
What on? Hocus pocus
No plain vanilla company
Shedding light on LED
MaxQDA, R, Stata
Really awesome data
Heavy duty agency
Outrageous EV subsidy
Mountain exploration
Barrier exploitation
Niche, TIS, institution
Incumbent dissolution?
Field configuring karma
Frame disruption drama
Cognitive hypotheses
Irish offshore qualities
Is Oman transitioning?
I’d like to do some modeling!

Group at Scheidegg
Group at Scheidegg. Photo: Jan Ossenbrink

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Wubbo Ockels, gone too soon

Wubbo Ockels, 1946-2014 (Photo: HP Photography)
A cruel thing about cancer is its randomness. There's no justice, no explanation. The tumors are like snipers that randomly seek out their victims. Everyone a target. You feel it when a dear one is hit, like happened last year when the news got out that Wubbo Ockels was diagnosed with an aggressive kind of kidney cancer. Two years the doctors gave him - one year it was. Today, after a year of relentless fighting, his body could no longer. My thoughts go out to his wife Joos and their children and grandchildren.
In 1985, Wubbo became the first Dutch astronaut, flying aboard the Spaceshuttle Challenger. His space flight launched him onto the national stage. He never left. He leveraged his fame to advance the issues he deeply cared about: sustainability and new technology. It never tired him to explain how his experience in space had made him realize that his mission was on the ground. From space our planet looked so beautiful yet so vulnerable. Looking down from the shuttle it sank in that the earth is our only home and that it is habitable only thanks to an atmosphere that, as seen from space, is ridiculously thin. There is no escape planet. Earth is our spaceship and we are all astronauts, so we’d better not break it. That became his mission, which he pursued until this day he died. Too soon for all of us.
Wubbo displayed an uncommon kind of optimism and drive to act, which, I think, he recognized in young people much more than in adults. He had a strong love for and believe in technology. Young people developing spectacular sustainable technology, that is how Wubbo thought the planet was to be saved. And that is how I met him.
When I was a student at Delft University of Technology, studying Aerospace Engineering, Wubbo was a (the part-time) professor and adviser to the Nuon Solar Team, a group of students that had just won the World Solar Challenge in Australia with their self-designed and self-built solar-powered race car. I joined the project for its second campaign to develop a brand new car with a brand new team. Afterwards, Wubbo became my thesis supervisor and enabled me to write it on the solar car project. The collaboration has impressed me indefinitely. His drive to win, his intelligence, and the calmness to manage crises I had never experienced before. When he couldn’t make it to my graduation ceremony, he made a little video clip in which he spoke to me sitting in our solar car and dressed in his professor's gown. It made me feel proud. When a few of the solar team had the idea to take the car on a tour through Europe, from Greece to Portugal, Wubbo made it possible for us to work on it. He helped to attract sponsors and arranged assistantships so we could pay our rents. At one point, the Austrian road authorities were refusing to grant permission to drive on their roads with the solar car. Wubbo then picked up the phone and called his well-connected Austrian astronaut friend, to explain what was the problem. Shortly after we got the OK to drive in Austria and would even be escorted by police into the city of Vienna.
The solar team now has completed seven campaigns and many parallel initiatives have sprung from Wubbo’s mind, always revolving around young people and sustainability. Solar powered boats, a super fast electric bus (Superbus) and an energy self-sufficient yaught to live on now grace the roads and waters. His innovative ‘laddermill' wind power concept is in development. Ironically, when the system’s abilities were demonstrated by making it power an open-air performance of the Jan Akkerman band, it weren’t the energy companies that showed interest in the system but bands from all over the world that wanted to use it for their own gigs!
Over the years, Wubbo has grown a small army of techno-entrepreneurs, instilled with the drive to make a difference and the conviction that they can do it, because they have seen it and they have done it. The best thing they can do to remember Wubbo is to continue his work, to do what he has always done: go create the solutions for a sustainable tomorrow and have fun doing it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Muesli

I walked around Brussels, looking for muesli, but no supermarket anywhere. I’d already given up when I spotted a tiny neighborhood grocery just a few doors from the AirBnB address I’m staying at. Inside, an older Indian-looking woman behind the counter. I browsed the shelves for a while. No muesli. Then I looked up. There, on the top shelf, about 10 feet from the floor: corn flakes, cruesli, and chocopops. A box of oatmeal caught my eye while my thoughts went back to the muesli I recently bought at Leclerc and which was more than a year past its expiration date. The woman sensed my hesitation and asked if she could help. I told her I was looking for muesli. Yes, she said, it’s over there, in the corner, next to the coffee filters. I looked but didn’t see muesli. There, she said, mousline! It was a package instant mashed potatoes. A slight misunderstanding. I said that I wanted the oatmeal, but that despite my 6'2'' there was no way I could reach it. The woman dove behind her counter and one second later re-emerged holding a full-size field hockey stick. She handed over the weapon to me, her potential robber. I was astonished, but touched by the gesture of trust. I lifted the stick and pulled the box of oats from the top shelf and caught it as it came flying down, almost smashing the jam jars in the act. I handed back the stick to the smiling lady, but kept the oats and let the expiration date hidden under the dust.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Au laboureur

Au laboureur. Source: beercapital.be
The bar at the end of the street I’m staying at in Brussels this week is called “Au laboureur.” That's French for “peasant” or “yokel.” Behind the glass windows I saw people behind foamy brown brews on bare tables. Locals, clearly. Unpretentious, pleasantly imperfect. Perfect, it seemed, for a tasty ale before sleeping. I walked in and ordered a Leffe blonde. It wasn’t crowded. One party looked like a group of volunteers having a project meeting. Another was just three friends chatting. Two or three men were standing at the bar. Another was outside, stacking chairs for the night. I found a table to the side of the room, close to a man and a woman with violin cases next to their table. I sat down on the bench that was fixed to the wall. After staring at the curiosities that decorated the walls for a while, I pulled out my book and tried to read. A young man came standing next to me. He looked down at my book, wandered away a bit, returned. He had a drink or two too many. He wasn’t looking at me but stared ahead and made strange faces. He murmured french words too soft for me to understand. I tried to ignore him, but then he touched my neck. He said something like “you’re eating your book, you.” And I thought I heard “dégage.” That means “get out of here,” I found out later. Like this, I couldn’t read. Aggression is often a deficit of love, so I laid down my book, took a good sip from my pint and said: please, have a seat. Bartender, please, poor my new friend a ‘pintje.’ He hesitated a moment, but then sat down. I said: Hi, my name’s Mark. What’s your name? He said he was Guillaume, so I said I would call him Bill then. I told him that I was from Grenoble and was visiting Brussels for business and that tonight I thought I’d better enjoy a nice beer than linger lonely in my apartment. I asked him how he was doing. Why is that any of your business?, he responded. I said that it wasn’t but that I liked to know. For a moment, he rocked on his chair uncomfortably. His eyes showed internal struggle. Then he calmed, sighed, looked me in the eye and said: I’m single, since yesterday, for god’s sake. She was formidable…Then we talked, about love, life and lumberjacks….
That's how it could have gone. In reality, after I laid down my book I finished my beer,  took my coat and left. If it happens again, though, I will have a strategy.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In theory

A year ago, I wrote that I envisaged my thesis to be "a piece of art composed of multiple theories." At least, it still sounds good. I also wrote that I was destined for deception. I'm not stupid.