We Travel Alone

Ole Paus is a Norwegian singer-songwriter with a very sarcastic bent – essentially, a Norwegian Tom Lehrer with a guitar and a much longer career – frequently referred to as Norway’s best text writer. This is a loose translation of one of his best, a song called “Jeg reiser alene” – about children shuttling back and forth on airplanes between their divorced parents. I listened to it coming home from Shanghai, and thought it deserves a wider audience:

I travel alone
(Ole Paus, 1994)

I travel alone
I fly over land and town
children used to come with the stork
now they come by plane

I travel alone
I fly over mountains and fjords
from Mommy in the south
to Daddy up north

And under me is the whole earth
where grownups and children have their home
but if you ask me where I live
well, it’s in SK305

We travel alone
a flying army of children
equipped with teddy bears
and a suitcase with clothes

And in front of the plane lives the General
he takes all the children from home to home
and down on earth in the terminal
awaits Mommy or Daddy or God knows who

I travel alone
the stars are coming out
they are many
but we are many more than them

We are so many that you would not believe it
and the purser he is my best friend
and then we land on a spinning earth
and then we go up again

I travel alone
I fly over land and town
children used to come with the stork
now they come by plane

Car-ried away a bit

I really should not be writing this – I have numerous other demands on my time, sitting in my home office and writing outlines for a couple of new courses, doing my taxes and preparing for a class in Shanghai next week. But I just read this column by Bob Cringely and, well, last Friday I picked up this beauty:

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Now, this is a $100,000 car and you might be asking yourself why on earth a not too well paid academic should go out and purchase something like that. The answer is complicated and very Norwegian. We needed to update the Andersen car fleet (have a 1996 Mercedes C class and a 2002 Toyota Previa, both due for an upgrade). The kids are moving out, eventually, so we no longer need the minivan, and we were thinking about an SUV or perhaps a Volvo station wagon, about 5 years old. The problem is that a car like that costs $40-50,000 in Norway, due to the 200% taxes levied on almost all cars when they arrive in the country (more, if it is sportier.)

Anyway, for electric cars, there is no tax. Moreover, if you take it as a company car (I have my own consulting company), the assessed benefit is only half of what it would be for a regular car (or even a hybrid.) Moreover, you can park for free in Oslo, drive in bus lanes, get a free E-Z-Pass (i.e., the Oslo equivalent), there are free charging stations around and there is no annual road tax. Electric energy is clean and plentiful in Norway. The upshot is that this great GT car will cost me just a little bit more per year than our 12 year old Toyota. In short, a no-brainer. The Tesla S is a very cheap car in Norway, and consequently, Norway is the second largest market in the world for it. The dealer told me they were taking delivery of almost one thousand of them only in March.

It drives wonderfully, as Cringely says. After having driven it for a few days I have a permanent grin on my face. The effect is similar to driving my veteran Mercedes 6.9 – smooth and effortless power and comfort – but without the $2/mile fuel cost. In fact, driving the Tesla 100 km (60 miles) costs around $2.30 in electricity if I charge it at home, which is quite manageable, thank you very much. Now I make up excuses to drive somewhere, and constantly have to watch the speedometer, since there is no motor noise to help you estimate the speed.

iPhone Screenshot 1Right now, of course, I am not driving the car, since I am slaving away at my keyboard. But there is an app that allows me to see where it is – and currently my wife and youngest daughter have driven it to Sweden to do some shopping. With the app, I can see where the car is, how much juice it is consuming, and its speed. Great for constructing annoying messages to my wife commenting on her driving…

There has been an interesting debate in the Norwegian media the last few months about the subsidies for electric cars. The first electric cars were really not very practical – range and speed limited to 50 miles and 50 mph, respectively – and so the tax incentives where set up. Then the Tesla comes along with technology blowing everything else out of the water, and now you can be environmental and have fun at the same time. This constitutes an almost existential crisis for a number of people, who write angry articles about these monster cars that, well, don’t pollute (at least not in the use phase) and, well, should not be that good. We are, apparently, meant to suffer for the environment in order to save it, not enjoy our cake and eat it, too. (I am, of course, a technology researcher and can make the excuse that I should be familiar with new technology – in fact, perhaps I should charge the thing to my research budget…)

But I am not suffering at all at the moment. Instead, I am looking forward to tomorrow when my wife, perhaps, will not need the car and I’ll get to drive it.

If you need a Toyota and a Mercedes or two, just send me an email….

Notes from OECD 2014 Norway report presentation

(This was presented at the Norwegian Business School following the initial presentation to the government. These are my quick notes.)

Patrick Lenain, Head of Division, OECD:

Norway is doing well!

Overview of OECD organization and general reports.

Paul O’Brien: The Norway survey

See executive summary for main points and recommendations. Main points:

  • tertiary education more subsidized in Norway more than most places – perhaps time to start charging for it. There is a resource cost of education, has to be financed, comes through tax. But most of the benefits of education accrue to the individual, hence they should pay. In Norway, the income distribution is very even, however, and hence tax may work. This depends on returns and skills, intergenerational mobility, etc.
  • Productivity growth level has slowed in Norway, as in other countries, because of the crisis. Could be a problem in the long run, especially since the productivity growth has slowed down more in Norway.
  • Wage growth a problem? Little slack, unemployment rate is low, hour worked low (this is a choice), not really a problem because it is running at full tilt. Bit of a puzzle because price signal in the labor market is subdued, not using labor market signals to tell people where to do.
  • Are you ready to pay the price for many schools, one in every village?

I had a question about Norway’s raising Gini coefficient and what the government could do to translate that into higher employment for the 20% of Norway’s workforce that is outside the job market, but did not really get an answer outside the issue of too high tax rates.

Disruptive is not quite as disruptive, it seems

Reuters has a great little tool showing the evolution of various buzzwords (via Boingboing). One of the worrying things is that “disruptive” is showing a remarkable growth:

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I see this tendency (as it is with most buzzwords) that anything new (be it a technology or something else) that replaces something old is termed “disruptive”. A disruptive technology or innovation, however, as coined by Clayton Christensen, is an innovation where the incumbent companies are the ones least able to respond to it. This tends to be because the new product or service has these characteristics:

  1. Your best customers don’t want it. These demanding customers (and you want demanding customers, right?) are willing to pay top dollar for a better product – hence you try to make your product better to suit them. You then ignore the customers who does not need, nor are willing to pay, for the performance.
  2. Its performance is worse – at least in the dimensions traditionally used to measure performance. In Christensen’s original example – the disk drive industry – the existing customers wanted hard drives with more storage and higher access speed. They initially ignored the physical size of the disk drive, allowing new companies to gain dominance as new, physically smaller disk drives became available.
  3. If you entered that market, you would lose money. A disruptive innovation attacks from below – with lower profit margins. A former CEO of a minicomputer company expressed it this way: “When the PCs came, we had a choice: Selling $200,00 minicomputers with 60% profit margins, or $4000 PCs with 20% profit margins. What would you choose?”

The funny thing is, companies launching new products keep calling them “disruptive” – do they really want to say that their products are undesirable, poor and offering low profit margins? They might want to say that, but in my view most real disruptors prefer to keep their mouths shut and build their profitability under the radar of their entrenched competitors.

In other words, if a product is launched as disruptive, it probably isn’t.

25 reasons to visit Norway

As some of our friends, who to our delight turn up almost every summer, have already found: 25 reasons Norway Is The Greatest Place On Earth.

I’ll add a 26th: The Gulf Stream, which ensures that the water in the Oslo fjord reaches 23 Celsius at least once every summer, and then I can swim (my wife will happily swim until it freezes over.)

And while we are at it, how about a 27th: Prekestolen (Pulpit Rock), not only for the view of and from it, but because it is devoid of safety fences, warning signs and concession stands. Caveat emptor…

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Notice: Regular carping about living in a small and remote country will resume shortly.

New workstation setup

This is quite bit on the “not really interesting to anyone else” side, but, anyway, I have gone off and spent quite a bit of my research budget on new hardware, specifically a new workstation for myself. As of a few days ago, I am the proud owner (well, user) of a fully spec’ed out iMac, rendering my home working space thusly:

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(I first thought about getting the new Mac Pro, but after reading this article and taking a more realistic look at my own needs I decided for the iMac.)

I have also installed Parallels, because a) I like Microsoft Live Writer, Komposer and a few other tools that are only available in Windows, because my employer demands Windows (yes, I am working on changing that) and because the Office package works better in a Windows environment, as I found out recently when trying to use Office for Mac and PC interchangeably in a mail merge setting and ending up doing everything twice. Parallels seems to work fine, with the exception of some keyboard issues (necessitating fiddling with configuration files and various three-finger keyboard combinations) and a not very intuitive screen management system. Oh well.

The build quality and performance of the iMac is quite something to behold – wonderfully crisp screen, makes my two older screens look quite shabby in comparison. Every other connection (network, Scansnap, Brother wireless printer Just Works, which is the way it is supposed to be. The Mac keyboard is nice to the touch, but the key combinations are a bit tricky, and reprogramming them to be more compatible across the two different environments will be, I suspect, quite a bit of fiddling in the years to come.

Anyway, I am now fully Mac’ed up, but with Windows compatibility, in a nod to the environment I primarily have worked in the last 20 years or so. The hardware quality of the Mac is extremely high, as is the design factor, but the software still leaves some to be desired – the differences are not great, but they are there, and I want the flexibility. One of my colleagues actually has a late model iMac and uses it almost exclusively as a Windows machine (he boots into Windows with Bootcamp). I would like to explore the native Mac apps (Pages, Numbers and Keynote, especially Keynote) but given that I write and develop things collaboratively I cannot base myself on them entirely.

My main reason for getting the iMac, however, is that I want to start fiddling a bit with video editing. I did an interview on the future of technology and computing in the next 5 years (in Norwegian), and asked to get the raw material for my own purposes – time to see to what extent I can use the technology to be in more than one place at once, flip the classroom, fiddle with a MOOC (or, well, more like a SPOC), or perhaps just animate some presentations. There certainly should be enough horsepower for the foreseeable future…and a rather cool home office. All I need now is an Aeron chair (ordered), a desk with a glass top with someone to polish it, a cleaner for all the dust and junk, a black turtleneck sweater, a head shaver and a personal trainer, and I should be well on my way to digital guru status.

Oh well, if it only was that easy…

Write, that I may find thee

A Google Dance – when Google changes its rankings of web sites – used to be something that happened infrequently enough that each “dance” had a name – Boston, Fritz and Brandy, for instance – but are now happening more than 500 times per year, with names like Panda #25 and Penguin 2.0, to name a few relatively recent ones. (There is even a Google algorithm change “weather report”, as many of the updates now are unnamed and very frequent.) As a consequence, search engine optimization seems to me to be changing – and funny enough, is less and less about optimization and more and more about origination and creation.

It turns out that Google is now more and more about original content – that means, for instance, that you can no longer boost your web site simply by using Google Translate to create a French or Korean version of your content. Nor can you create lots of stuff that nobody reads – and by nobody, I mean not just that nobody reads your article, but that the incoming links are from, well, nobodies. According to my sources, Google’s algorithms have now evolved to the point where there are just two main mechanisms for generating the good Google juice (and they are related):

  1. Write something original and good, not seen anywhere else on the web.
  2. Get some incoming links from web sites with good Google-juice, such as the New York Times, Boing Boing, a well-known university or, well, any of the “Big 10” domains (Wikipedia, Amazon, Youtube, Facebook, eBay (2 versions), Yelp, WebMD, Walmart, and Target.)

The importance of the top domains is increasing, as seen by this chart from mozcast.com:

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In other words, search engines are moving towards the same strategy for determining what is important as the rest of the world has – if it garners the attention of the movers and shakers (and, importantly, is not a copy of something else) it must be important and hence, worthy of your attention.

For the serious companies (and publishers) out there, this is good news: Write well and interesting, and you will be rewarded with more readers and more influence. This also means that companies seeking to boost their web presence may be well advised to hire good writers and create good content, rather than resort to all kinds of shady tricks – duplication of content, acquired traffic (including hiring people to search Google and click on your links and ads), and backlinks from serially created WordPress sites.

For writers, this may be good news – perhaps there is a future for good writing and serious journalism after all. The difference is that now you write to be found original by a search engine – and should a more august publication with a human behind it see what you write and publish it, that will just be a nice bonus.