In hindsight, it looks like a master plan

In hindsight, it almost looks like it was a master plan: spend two to three years each at different international organizations, building up the skills, experience and network I would need to launch a (hopefully!) successful communications consultancy. In reality, it was more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where deliberate decisions at specific moments in time have brought me to this weekend and the launch of THAT COMMS GUY.

I surprised myself last May when an afternoon of introspection brought me to the conclusion that the time is right for me to have a go at establishing myself as an independent communications consultant. The plan came together quite quickly once I made the decision (naturally with the full support of Nadine). Thus, as of October, I will reduce my hours and responsibilities at the Ecolint Alumni Office, enabling me to start taking on clients while retaining some guaranteed regular income. (I’m grateful to my boss for facilitating this.)

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My high-level concept for this venture is to be the MacGyver of communications for non-profit organizations in the Geneva area. If you are unfamiliar with the aforementioned TV series, let me quote from the Wikipedia article (with some edits to adapt it to my situation):

“Resourceful and possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the physical sciences communications techniques, he solves complex problems by making things out of ordinary objects, along with his ever-present Swiss Army knife Irish good humour. He prefers non-violentnon-expensive resolutions and prefers not to handle a gun.”

In practice I’m proposing services in three broad areas: writing and editing copy, event management, and community engagement strategies. I’m focusing on the Geneva region and on non-profit associations, which is not, of course, to say that I would turn down clients that don’t meet one or other of those criteria. However Switzerland’s higher costs make it unlikely that I’ll be a viable option for organizations based elsewhere, and with the majority of my experience having been in the non-profit sector, that’s where I’m hoping to carve out my niche.

My new website will be an important marketing tool for the business. I’ve created six WordPress-based sites before, but this is the first time I’ve worked with a premium (i.e. paid-for) theme. During the development phase I received lots of valuable comments from various friends and relations, which has helped me to bring it to a point where I’m happy to launch it publicly. Further feedback will be most welcome of course!

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So, not a master plan, but definitely the result of a set of deliberate decisions, some professional, some personal. It was not pure chance that my switch from EAZA (in Amsterdam) back to the EBU (Geneva) in 2011 coincided with the birth of Robert, nor that I started my current job at Ecolint just as Declan was born in 2014. Robert starts school tomorrow, and it would be fair to say that this next significant milestone was not irrelevant in the decision to try to establish a more flexible professional arrangement.

It’s the end of the beginning for this new adventure. I’m looking forward to the challenge. And if you hear of an organization facing a communications-related challenge, don’t forget to recommend that comms guy, you know the one with that name you can never remember how to pronounce.

 

 

Top tip on bike rental in Amsterdam

I had the pleasure of spending 24 hours in Amsterdam this week, organising a dinner for Netherlands-based alumni of the school I work for. (The Apotheek room at the Pultizer Hotel, where we held the dinner for 14 people, was a perfect venue for this kind of thing. The food was excellent too.) It was so lovely to be back in the city where we spent two and a half very happy years. I hadn’t visited since September 2013 and was definitely missing it.

When we left to return to Switzerland in 2011 I wrote a blog post about some of my favourite things to see and do in Amsterdam. I often share the post with friends that ask me for travel advice. Having returned as a kind of tourist again this week, I discovered a potentially very useful tip for related to bike rental in Amsterdam. There are loads of different rental companies, but only one (as far as I know) that offered what I needed, which was the possibility of returning a bike after opening hours.

I was in the city for just 24 hours and needed a bike from Thursday morning. My flight was at 09:00 the following morning. Most of the rental companies close between 18:00 and 19:00, but I really wanted to have the use of the bike until midnight or later. I discovered (tipped off via an old forum discussion that I haven’t been able to re-find) that Star Bikes offer a late return service. For €9 I could hire for a 24 hour period and simply lock the bike outside the shop whenever I was finished, dropping the keys through their letterbox. Perfect!

They’re located quite close to the central station, on the waterfront just a little further east along De Ruyterkade. The woman that served me was super-friendly and gave me a nice discreet black bike with a big basket (which meant I didn’t look like a tourist, as those on the very popular red and yellow bikes do).

Miriam of Mulligan's

I only managed to follow up on one of my top tips from that 2011 blog post and can happily confirm (thanks to my Star Bikes enabled late night mobility) that Mulligan’s pub is as gezellig as ever. Miriam, the owner, was behind the bar and I enjoyed catching up with her over a fine pint of the black stuff (and possibly something a little stronger to follow).

Breakfast at Café Thijssen

I’ll also mention in passing that I took advantage of the wifi at Café Thijssen (at the Brouwersgracht end of Lindengracht) to do a bit of work on Thursday morning. The yoghurt, fruit and muesli they serve there is every bit as good as I remembered. In fact, I probably should have included this place in that earlier Amsterdam travel tips blog post, as it’s a nice spot to visit at any time of day or night. (Then again, the Jordaan area is spilling over with nice little “bruin cafés”.)

The best Irish pubs outside Ireland

I’ve been an Irishman abroad for more than ten years now, and had already travelled a fair bit before leaving for Switzerland in February 2004. One big difference between being an Irish tourist and actually living overseas is that you tend to visit Irish pubs more often. It helps to keep the homesickness at bay and Irish pubs are usually one of the best places to meet (not just Irish) people, hear live music, etc.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve got a fair bit of experience of Irish pubs around Europe and a bit beyond. And I like to drink Guinness. Nowt wrong with that, eh?

Barack Obama with a pint of Guinness

My absolute favourite Irish pub outside Ireland is Mulligan’s of Amsterdam. Here’s how I described it in a post on my top Amsterdam spots after living there for a couple of years:

Live music and good Guinness in Mulligans – as an Irishman overseas I do sometimes get a hankering for a pint of the black stuff. The best pint in town is to be found in Mulligans Irish Music Bar. It’s just around the corner from Rembrantplein but it feels like you’re stepping into an oasis away from the neon and the tourists. Live music three or four nights a week, trad sessions on a Sunday, bar staff who take pride in their job, and TVs that are only switched on when there’s a match featuring an Irish team. Many’s the pub in Ireland could learn a thing or two. (Honourable mention to Molly’s where Matthew and the gang have taken good care of me over the two years.)

As it happens, Mulligan’s of Geneva has been my favourite Irish pub around these parts. I say “has been” because, sad to say, it’s not the pub it was. In its heyday it was the hub of expat life in Geneva; in fact I think it had probably already peaked in that sense when I first got here in 2004. Nonetheless, I’ve had many memorable nights there and I still like to drop in from time to time for old times’ sake. Otherwise, in terms of Irish pubs in Switzerland, the Café du Cerf in Neuchâtel and Paddy’s Pub in Ferney-Voltaire (alright, that one is technically in France) would be two others worth a visit.

The best pubs…according to reddit

What prompted this post is that it occurred to me earlier this week that the folks that hang out on the Ireland subreddit on reddit.com might well be a useful source of knowledge and tips on this very topic. So I kicked off a discussion there that did indeed generate a fair few tips on Irish pubs outside Ireland. I thought it would be a good idea to gather the complete list together, in no particular order, so that I have a handy reference whenever I find myself in some far-flung place in need of a pint.

Europe

  • De Danú, Toulouse, France
  • Stapleton’s, Leuven, Belgium
  • The Celt, Los Alcázares, Murcia, Spain
  • The George Best Bar, Bled, Slovenia
  • St James and Flanagans, both in Lyon, France
  • Lir, Berlin
  • O’Connells, Stockholm
  • The Corkonian and Flanagan’s, both in Cologne
  • Fitzpatrick’s, Essen, Germany

North America

  • Johnnie Fox’s Irish Snug, at Granville and Nelson, Vancouver
  • McVeigh’s, (formerly the Windsor House), Toronto
  • The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, New York City
  • Kells, Portland, Oregon
  • Molly Maguire’s, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania
  • Finn McCool’s, New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Nine Fine Irishmen in New York, New York casino, Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Gaelic Park in Chicago
  • The Druid, The Field and the Tam, all in Cambridge (outside Boston)
  • Black Rose, State Street, Boston
  • Raglan Road, Disneyland, Orlando
  • Tigin or Fado pubs in the USA

Rest of the World

  • Finnegan’s, Hanoi, Vietnam
  • Tropical Murphy’s, Chaweng, Koh Samui, Thailand
  • Paddy’s, Cusco, Peru
  • Bobby Sands, Afghanistan

Now we just need somebody to create a wiki or a collaborate map for Irish pubs. Any volunteers…

Reading more, paying less

My reading habits have been changing and it’s worrying me. Don’t worry, I haven’t started reading the Daily Mail or anything. On the contrary, I’ve been reading loads of great journalism recently (The Vitamin Myth: why we think we need supplements and The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Food, to mention but two articles). The thing is, I haven’t paid for any of it and that makes me wonder how such journalism can continue to exist in future.

Storability, Readability

Readability is a cross-platform app that does two things really well: it reformats articles on websites to make them easier to read on whatever screen you’re using and it stores articles in your own personal reading list for you to read later, even when you’re offline. If I spot something I want to read later I just click a little button on my browser (or share it to Readability on the smartphone). It adds it to my reading list, strips out most or all of the images and serves up the text in an easily readable layout.

Before having this app, if I came across an interesting looking article but didn’t have time to read it right away it was a case of bookmarking it (using the excellent Xmarks) and going back to it later. Readability has made it much easier which also means that I’ve started seeking out good sources of new articles.

Finding the good stuff

I’m referring here primarily to longer pieces that take 15 to 30 minutes to read, or maybe even a little longer. Sources would include, for example, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, Rolling Stone, feature articles in quality Sunday newspapers, etc., or even Readability’s own website. The subject matter could be politics, science, the arts, history – just about anything.

Sometimes I’ll visit a few of the sites mentioned above and bookmark some recent articles. I’ll also come across things via reddit or kottke.org. But the most useful source is a site called Longreads that aggregates together the best new articles over 1,500 words each week. Their weekly mailout usually throws up a handful of articles that end up on my reading list.

Who pays?

We once had a subscription to The New Yorker (and would have renewed after the gift expired if it hadn’t been for the fact that we struggled to find time to keep up with the weekly issues) and used to buy a lot of newspapers, particularly at the weekend. Now I’m using a free app that strips out the advertising to read the same quality journalism for free. It’s not sustainable.

I’ve just learned that I can become a member of Longreads, to contribute towards the upkeep and development of the service (and intend to do that), but it’s not clear whether any of that money supports the journalists and publications. I’ve seen that some publishers use Longreads to promote books by allowing them to publish an extract, but that doesn’t address the fundamental problem.

We stopped buying CDs more than five years ago, instead downloading our music. But we still pay for it all, so the artists are still getting some remuneration (at least from those of us that do still pay for music). With newspaper and magazine sales on a downward slide and the failure so far of paywalls as a viable model, what will enable quality journalism to continue to exist?

Gateway drug

One little personal postscript to all of the above is that I find I’m reading more and more on my smartphone, which naturally eats into the time I spend with an old-fashioned book in my hands. I’ve resisted the jump to an e-reader until now, claiming that I like the feel of a book in my hands, don’t want to read from a screen, want to be able to pass books on to others, etc. But I can see that I’m not that far from making the leap and joining many, many book-loving friends that now swear by their Kindle.

So it seems the combo of Readability and Longreads is pulling me inexorably to the world of the e-reader, which means our bookshelves might go the way of our CD racks before them. It makes me a little bit sad, but I guess it’s not worth getting too worried about. On the other hand, I’ll be interested to see what business models rise from the rubble when the publishing industry follows in the footsteps of the record industry. It’s all in flux for now.

Spuds!

I grew potatoes for the first time this year. It wasn’t difficult at all: drilled drainage holes in the bottom of a rubbish bin, added a layer of big stones, some soil, and three chitted potatoes. They grew really quickly and it was just a case of adding another layer of soil every week or so.

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I’ll have to admit that I was expecting to have a bigger harvest, but it’s not bad for a first attempt.

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We also tried to get a veggie garden up and running, with mixed success so far. We followed the advice from a great book, called Square Metre Gardening, that makes it almost foolproof.  That huge plant sprawling halfway across the garden will hopefully soon give birth to some pumpkins.

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The big tomatoes are taking their time with ripening.

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The cherry tomatoes are really tasty.

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We managed to get a decent crop of little courgettes from a potted plant, and there are a couple of little aubergines developing nicely in the raised bed.

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Not bad for a first effort. But we’ll be hoping for more in 2014.

 

A tale of two toilets

Visiting our friends Ruth and Damian about a year ago we noticed that they had twinned their toilet. The money raised by this clever idea is spent on providing safe, clean toilets for people in developing countries. It’s something we take for granted in our part of the world, but actually 2.5 billion people don’t have suitable sanitary facilities.

They ask for a donation of GBP £60, which goes towards providing toilets for countries in various parts of the world. Apparently it can cost between £10 and £100 to build such facilities, depending on the circumstances. In return your toilet is twinned with a recently built toilet in a country of your choosing – and you get a nice framed certificate to display. As with many charity schemes this serves the dual purpose of making you feel good about yourself (not so important) and spreading the word (very important). I think it’s a very clever way to spread the word – when you visit friends that’s one room you usually end up spending time in, right?

Toilet Certificate

We chose to twin with a toilet in Ethiopia, not least as my neice and nephew are both half-Ethiopian. They provide you with the GPS coordinates of “your” toilet’s location. Ours is located in a village south of Addis Ababa.


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Toilet Detail

(Actually, this is the second time we’ve done this, as our friend Paul pointed out that, having moved house recently, we were cheating by moving the twinning certificate too. It was in fact the toilet in our old place in Meyrin that was twinned with a toilet in Burkina Faso. Hence this new twinning. It was nice to see that in just over a year the Latrine No. has risen from 977 to more than 80,000. Clearly this idea is going viral.)

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Generating a customised Google map of zoo locations from a spreadsheet

In searching for a quick and effective way to map the members of the organisation I currently work for I came across a very useful tool from the Google Earth Outreach department. The Spreadsheet Mapper tool allows you to generate the code that Google Maps and Google Earth both use to display information. Very clear instructions are provided, but it basically boils down to the following steps:

  • Open the spreadsheet in Google Docs, select the basic configuration options and then publish the spreadsheet as a web page from Google Docs
  • Add the geographical coordinates (latitude and longitude) of each point you want to map along with whatever data you want to display in the balloon that pops up
  • Update the layout templates provided so that the information is displayed in the way you want it to appear (this takes a little bit of time and some knowledge of html is helpful)
  • Republish the spreadsheet regularly to check your progress and view the results in Google Maps.

KML, which is the markup language used, doesn’t seem to be very forgiving of errors. I found it was quite easy to “break” my map if I added a tag in the wrong place when adjusting the template tabs, for example. But if you take your time, and check the results of each change made as you go, you can generally find the error causing the problem.

The map I created shows all of the members of EAZA, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. The placemarker icon I used came from the Map Icons Collection which allows you to generate placemarkers in just about any colour. This allowed me to take their “zoo” icon and generate various versions to represent the different categories of membership.

 


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I’m loving SoundCloud

I’ve never been 100% happy with the way I was presenting my own recordings on this website. I used a neat WordPress plugin called WPaudio that looking for links to mp3 files in the page and puts a little player on top of them. But what I was really looking for was a player where I could upload a whole lot of tracks and have them play sequentially – and ideally one that looks good too. Enter SoundCloud.

I first signed up for SoundCloud about three years ago, but I think it had only just launched then and didn’t have the full feature set it has today. I’ve seen it popping up here and there since then and I finally decided to take another look. It turns out that it does pretty much everything I’d like it to do now. I realise that BandCamp can probably do the same thing, but my recordings are all in mp3 format and I can’t be bothered trascoding them to a format that BandCamp will accept. So for now I’m going with SoundCloud. There are a couple of players like the one below now on my Songs & Music page, one featuring my own compositions and one with a few covers that I’ve recorded over the years.

My Songs by eoghan

An EasyPeasy makeover for my Acer Aspire One

A couple of years ago I bought an Acer Aspire One netbook. It’s a compact little device, not nearly as slick or stylish as an iPad, but very functional and more than capable of handling any of the tasks you’d do on a normal laptop. The Linux version I chose was a couple of hundred euro cheaper than the Windows version and, in any case, I was keen to become more familiar with the world of open source operating systems.

Installing software wasn’t always easy, and certainly not as user-friendly as in the Windows environment. It came pre-installed with Linpus Linux Lite, which is based on the Fedora flavour of Linux. While Firefox, Skype and one or two other packages were already present, installing anything else involved typing a lot of strings of code into the terminal window and, in my case, not really knowing whether it was going well until the software finally started working. (For example, I never managed to get Adobe Flash installed.) Definitely not for anyone whose eyes glaze over at the mention of a command prompt.

We used the netbook on and off for a year, mostly when travelling or as a more portable device to run Skype. For one reason or another – including the fact that my wife got a smartphone and so there wasn’t as much competition for our main laptop – we almost gave up using the netbook entirely. On the few occasions I did use it I found that the battery would no longer charge and the orange charging light flashed constantly when the netbook was powered off. So I finally decided this weekend to try to fix that problem and also see if I could get to grips with bringing all the software up to date. I’m pleased to say that I managed to fix the battery issue and discovered a fantastic, user-friendly version of Linux that I was able to install without too much difficulty. It’s like a new device now and I suspect it may get much more use in the coming months.

So what did I do to give it this new lease of life:

1. The Battery Issue

I found the answer I needed to solve this on Acer’s own website. It seems it was a problem with the BIOS that was installed on the device originally, meaning that when the battery dropped below a certain charge level it could no longer be recharged. The Acer support section gave advice on updating the BIOS to the latest version (3310), but I found even better instructions here on the netbooktech.com site. And sure enough, when the BIOS had been updated, the battery was recognised and started charging up straight away.

2. EasyPeasy Linux

In researching the battery issue I stumbled upon something called EasyPeasy Linux, based on an Ubuntu distribution of Linux (as opposed to the Fedora version that came on the Acer Aspire One originally). It’s a version of Linux that’s optimised for netbooks, with a much more user-friendly – and nicer looking – user interface. From their own website:

EasyPeasy is a lightweight open source operating system (OS) for your netbook or ultra portable laptop. The OS is optimized for web surfing and provides easy access to your favorite Internet applications like Skype, Firefox, etc. EasyPeasy is designed for low power consumption, because we know that your battery life time is important to your mobile lifestyle.

It can be downloaded from the EasyPeasy website, although the instructions for installing it are not all that clear. Instead I followed the instructions I found here on techandlife.com. I cut a corner by not bothering to make the recovery drive for Linpus – I was confident that I wouldn’t need to go back to Linpus again.

The instructions were clear enough. I hit two small problems along the way: I couldn’t seem to access the folder to which I downloaded EasyPeasy when I tried to select it on the Unetbootin interface. For some reason I couldn’t browse to the Linpus Downloads folder. By playing around with folder views and changing to advanced mode I managed to copy the .iso file to a location where I could see it. The other important thing that I missed first time around was that the first time you’re looking at EasyPeasy on the netbook you’re still running it from the USB key. You do need to then actually install it from the key onto the netbook. This is a relatively easy process, but somehow I managed to miss that step and was confused when I restarted my netbook and found Linpus still running!

So, in summary, if you’re having the widely reported battery problems with your Aspire One, just update the BIOS. And if you want to have a more user-friendly experience overall, install EasyPeasy.

Barber in Amsterdam

It hasn’t been easy to find a decent barber in Amsterdam; somewhere not too expensive, not too fancy, with friendly, efficient service. There are, of course, plenty of unisex hair salons where a man can get a haircut, but they tend to be a bit pricy and, personally, I prefer going to a more traditional barber. So I’m recommending Neni Kapsalon on Marnixstraat. The Turkish (I think) gentleman that runs the place is very friendly and seems to take a lot of pride in his business. At €13.50 for a haircut, it’s excellent value (for Amsterdam), and most of the time you can walk in off the street without an appointment.

(I once tried a place on Ferdinand Bolstraat that promised a haircut for €12, which seemed like a good price. It seemed somewhat less attractive when the woman cutting my hair pulled on a pair of latex gloves before proceeding. And no, it wasn’t just me that got the latex gloves treatment!)