Category Archives: Humor

Anne-Cath Vestly on where children come from

anne-cath-_vestlyAnne-Cath Vestly (1920 – 2008) was a much loved Norwegian author of children’s books, who challenged many of the prejudices of her time by writing about non-stereotypical families where the mother worked and the father was home, children who lived in high-rises rather than in saccarine little houses, etc.

In 1953 she was reading a story on the radio program “Barnetimen” (The Children’s Hour) about the little boy Ole Aleksander whose mother was going to have a baby. Telling children how babies came to be was considered shocking at the time, so this created an uproar, even death threats. As she said, it seemed to be the grown-ups that were bothered – the children wrote her letters telling her not to feel sad.

She also did radio programs for grown-ups, so her response was to write a short story about a little boy who is going to have a sibling, and how he found out about it. And just the other day, I met a little American boy who was very confused about how someone could have a baby without being married (apparently, he thought it was the marriage ceremony that produced the offspring), so I decided that a translation into English of Anne-Cath’s story was in order. Totally unauthorised, of course, errors are all mine, but very much in her spirit. (And you can find some of her books in English – at astonishing prices – at Amazon.)

A Children’s Hour for Grown-Ups

Anne-Cath Vestly, 1953

Once there was a small boy named Anton. He lived in a small house in a small town with his father and mother. One day, just before dinner, his mother was knitting a small jumpsuit. Perhaps you know what that is?

Anton was sitting and looking at the knitting – for a long time. Then he said:

— That is way too small for me, Mum.

— So you think it is for you?, said Mum, and her face suddenly looked a bit peculiar.

— Isn’t it?, said Anton.

— No, this for a little baby, said Mum. Would you like it if we had a little baby?

— Oh yes, could we? said Anton. But, Mum — how can we get a baby?

Mum was quiet for a little bit, and then she started to knit very fast. Then she said: Those babies … we buy them out in the countryside.

— Out in the country they sure have many things, said Anton. I wish we lived there, because then we could go and look at those babies every day.

— Yes, said Mum.

— But Mum, when we were in the country this summer, do you remember that lady in the red house? She went to the city, and when she came back she had a baby?

— Oh yes, said Mum, those who live in the country go to the city to buy their babies!

— Oh, said Anton. So I was bought in the country?

— Yes, said Mum.

— Was I expensive??? asked Anton.

— Oh, not too bad, said Mum.

— When are we going to go and buy that baby? asked Anton, and now he was really excited.

— Not too long now, said Mum, but, you see, you cannot come with us.

— Why not? said Anton. I bet I could pick the best baby for you!

— Now, you should not ask so many questions, said Mum. You were really cute when you were smaller. You didn’t ask so many questions then…

— Couldn’t I talk then? asked Anton.

Right then, they heard Dad coming home, and Mum ran out to the hallway and whispered to him: Now I have finally told him about the baby!

— Great! said Dad, coming in. Hello, my boy! I guess you are really excited about whether it will be a girl or a boy the stork will bring?

— The stork? said Anton.

— Yes, don’t you know that it is the stork that brings the small babies? It flies all the way from the Nile with the little baby in its blanket, and then it flies over all the houses and drops the little baby right down to us.

— Well, um, said Mum, I just told Anton that we buy the small babies out in the country.

— Oh, said Dad. Well, I, at least, came with the stork. I remember it distinctly.

— Come and have dinner, said Mum.

After dinner, Mum and Dad wanted to rest for a while, and Dad said: Con you sit in the living room and mind the house for a while, Anton?

— Yes, said Anton.

In a little while, there was a knock on the door. Anton opened, and there was old Aunt Agnete.

— Is you mother home? she asked.

— Yes, she is home, but she is so very tired, so she is resting.

— Is she now, said Aunt Agnete. Can’t be too long now, she murmured to herself.

On the table was Mum’s knitting. Anton looked at it and said: Aunt Agnete, you know what? We are going to buy a baby!

— So you know? said Aunt Agnete. Her face turned very peculiar for a while, then she cleared her throat and made her voice almost normal and said: But you are not going to buy one, little friend. Don’t you know that the little babies lie in a large pond, up in heaven above the skies. There they swim around all the time until they find that they want to come down to us, and then they glide down one quiet night and snuggle into their bed under the duvet. And when you wake up next morning, there is a baby there!

— Where you born that way? said Anton.

— Yes, said Aunt Agnete.

— Can you swim? said Anton.

— No, I can’t, said Aunt Agnete. She taught it was a bit odd that Anton was not more interested in the babies she talked about, but she was mistaken.

— Have you forgotten how, then? said Anton. You knew how to swim when you were crawling around that pond…

— How you talk, said Aunt Agnete. Imagine, crawling…

— Maybe you were just swimming the breaststroke, said Anton.

— What a naughty boy you have become, said Aunt Agnete. Why don’t you go out and play for a while, I’ll mind the house in the meantime.

Anton went out, where he met old Martin who used to sweep the streets in the little town.

— Martin, said Anton. How were you born?

— I, said Martin, came sailing down the river on a board.

That night Anton lay awake thinking for a long time before he fell asleep. When he woke up the next morning, Mum had indeed gone, and Anton went out to play with a little boy named Lars.

— Mum has gone to the country to buy a baby, he said proudly.

— That’s not how it works, said Lars. Don’t you know that little babies are inside their mother’s tummy, and when they come out they are all finished with eyes and a nose and everything. Isn’t that great?

— Yes, said Anton. That is really great.

Then he sighed and said to himself: If only it had been that simple…

XKCD answers to everything

What If? : Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsWhat If? : Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

XKCD (i.e., Randall Munroe) addresses questions of all kinds in his inimitable fashion. Great fun and an inspiration in the spirit of Richard Feynman, allowing you to marvel not only at the author’s answers but the sheer inventiveness of the questions (including the “weird and worrying” ones. Highly recommended.

An oratory masterclass

“We no longer think the world will be saved by politics and rock’n roll. We now believe it will be saved by the life of mind.” “…playing gracefully with ideas.”

Watch this. If nothing else, study Stephen Fry’s technique.

Unfortunately, I own a lawnmover. Oh well.

(There is a Q&A session as well, available as separate videos.)

Trapping the wily professor

(This was published in European Business Forum, BCG’s attempt to create their own version of the Harvard Business Review, in 2004. Issue 19, to be exact. Reproduced here, lightly edited, because, well, it is very hard to find and I would like to make it available.)

Trapping the wily professor
A hunting guide for the enterprising executive

Espen Andersen, 2004

Recently, I attended a meeting of senior HR executives – primarily CLOs (Chief Learning Officers) – from large European companies. The participants were all engaged in designing and/or running various forms of management training and education in their companies, and a discussion about how to deal with outside suppliers – particularly business schools – came up. A key problem, it transpired, was getting the good professors to engage in company programs. While the schools were more than willing to sell their branded and packaged programs, most corporations wanted something tailor-made, designed to achieve a specific corporate learning goal. Furthermore, they wanted it tailor-made by the big names – that is, the professors the students were likely to know. This had proved very difficult. These were big, prestigious companies – why couldn’t they get the big, prestigious professors?

Coming from the supply side of this relationship, can see the difficulties these managers have – so I herewith offer a little guide to hunting down and keeping that rarest of animals, the business-savvy and interesting professor. A warning, though: This is not a task to be approached lightly. Hunting requires knowledge of the prey itself, its living environment, and its reward structures. It requires patience and a keen sense of observation, as well as an ability to communicate with the natives – or at least not to offend them too much.

First: Hunt professors on your turf, not theirs. The best place to hunt for professors is not through the business school sales channels. Instead, invite the professor to come into your company to give a short talk on some very specific point of interest – half an hour is fine – at some small executive meeting, with lunch and informal discussions thereafter. Pay the professor for the presentation. If there is no chemistry, you have listened to a (hopefully) interesting presentation and the professor has made a little money and is likely to think of your company with benevolence. Incidentally, the best referrers of professors are other professors – so use the occasion to extend your network. Carefully cultivated, most professors will come when you call and leave you alone when you want them to.

Second: Avoid the obvious blunders. This should go without saying, so the experienced professor-hunter may want to disregard this paragraph. However, any high-powered and dynamic business executive can unknowingly scare away the wily professor without meaning to – the equivalent of putting on aftershave before the hunt and then wondering why you never see any prey. Professors are academics, and you hunt them because they are. Consequently, never use the word “academic” to mean “irrelevant”, “hypothetical” or “impractical”. Never refer to them as “educators” (in academic cynical parlance, an “educator” is someone forced to live by teaching and writing readable articles because he or she can’t do research and write unreadable articles.) And never – never ever – ask them to include that interesting best-seller (“Who drank my café latte?”) you saw in the airport bookshop to their syllabus. Professors are extremely jealous of outside intellectual competition, and anyone preferring the Heathrow School of Management to them is treated with extreme suspicion, if not outright hostility.

Third: Don’t devolve problems to intermediaries. Typically, the CLO seeking a management education program interacts with a relationship manager from the business school. This person is pleasant, nicely attired and means well, will sell you the standard programs and tell you what you want to hear, but is incapable of trapping the wily professor on your behalf. If you want a program out of the ordinary, talk to the person most critical for its success – and that better be the professor, because if program responsibility lies with the salesperson, you are in trouble. That being said, the school’s relationship manager is very useful as a support person – so let your own support person deal with him or her, and make sure that the minute any content issues spring up, the problem is escalated to you – and the professor. (And, by corollary, don’t fall into the trap of becoming an intermediary yourself, as when a business colleague needs a program and asks you to set it up.)

Fourth: Ask not what the professor can do for you, but what you can do for the professor. Professors are not motivated by money. Actually, that is a whopping big lie – they certainly are, but it needs to come in a form palatable to the world they inhabit. Doing executive education does not help a professor in his or her career – at best, it earns him or her non-tradable brownie points for helping the school. What counts in the academic hierarchy – at least officially – is publishing what to the layman appears as unreadable articles in obscure journals read by few and remembered by even fewer. These articles are created through back-breaking work and qualified through an evaluation process that makes Purgatory feel like a day at the beach. To do the work, the professor needs money, in the form of research grants. To get through the evaluation, he or she needs data, obtained by getting access to corporations. If you can give the professors research money and access to data (i.e., your company,) they will happily create executive education programs as part of the research process. They will even teach them. (It is possible to bag a few professors through money alone, primarily the younger ones, but on a repeated basis this will yield a lower quality of prey).

Fifth: It is not what you say, it is what you do. The above will attract and retain professors, but will not earn their undying love. To achieve that, you need to follow through and do what they say. Professors seeing their theories listened to and applied will do anything you ask of them – sit on your Board, talk to your executives, co-write career-enhancing articles with you in trade magazines and even listen to your suggestions for making their theories better. The danger herein lies in that you may go native yourself – and what a tragedy that would be.

So there you are – to bag a professor, start by wining and dining them, paying them for a small presentation, then lure them with money and access to provide you with tailor-made and interesting executive programs. It is easy. You can start now. My email is here.

A day in the life of a Computer Expert

(Julie linked to this article, which made me remember that I actually wrote something similar in 1989 or thereabouts, when I was running user support for the Norwegian Business School)

Report from the trenches: Scenes from the life of a computer expert

The onslaught of user-friendly personal computers, where the user points and clicks his or her way to computational satisfaction, is hailed by many as the beginning to the end of the in-house computer expert (also known as the Local Guru). As this field report will show, there is no reason to look at the classifieds yet. Relax, guys.

The dominant source of computer problems is finger trouble. Finger trouble is the term computer experts (loosely defined as anyone who knows the approximate location of the power switch) have coined for problems inexperienced users get themselves into by way of the keyboard. While this source of job security and discretionary income may be reduced due to graphical user interfaces, there are still plenty of hardware errors to keep us occupied. Hardware errors are part of the everyday life of all computer experts, and show no sign of abating.

Let us examine a typical case, in order to gain an appreciation of the current state of things: The setting is a medium-sized company with high ambitions, a ubiquity of PCs and a Computer Expert (hereafter called E.). E. is sitting in his office, consumed with the difficulty of reaching level 42 in the 486 version of the “The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy” when the telephone rings. Having recently cleared his office, E. manages to find the telephone before the caller gives up. The voice in the other end informs him, with audible consternation, how that darned printer, again, won’t do what it’s supposed to. Can E., with his long-standing reputation as a technical wizard, do something about it? The Voice (hereafter dubbed V.) assures E. that the matter isn’t pressing – but if he has the time…. (Somehow V. manages to convey a message of great need, sort of “you just take your time, we don’t mind sitting here rolling our thumbs and wasting the company’s money etc.”). E., when airing a suspicion that the equipment in question probably isn’t switched on, is informed by V. (with audible consternation) that they have in fact been using computers for several years now etc.

The setting 10 minutes later: E. arrives in the manner and style of a 20th century doctor making a house call on a farm far away from civilization (or like a veterinarian in Yorkshire). From every nook and cranny the office personnel come running to witness an Expert’s modus operandi (please bear with me if I’m carried away a bit here). E. eyes the printer and sees that the cable between it and the PC is present – and that the switch, indeed, is turned to ON. Still, the thing is as dead as a post- Format C: hard disk.

With a supreme air of confidence E. grasps the power cord and begins to pull. A veritable birds’ nest of cables appears (the premises were constructed long before information technology made its cheerful appearance in organizational life). Dangling inside the cable web is a power plug, its prongs conspicuously devoid of physical contact with anything electric. E., with an air of quiet achievement, lifts it high in the air for examination in a gesture reminiscent of a surgeon in a 1950’s war movie (the scene where the bullet has just been removed from the young soldier’s chest).

The reaction of V. and colleagues at this point depends on a number of variables, chief among them their rank in the organizational hierarchy. The range of reactions varies from “how could I be so stupid (again)” to “who the hell loosened that plug”. Suddenly the preferred topic of conversation is anything but office automation – frantic discussion of the quality of the local cafeteria coffee ensues, accompanied with a noticeable rise in body temperature above the 6th vertebrae.

E.’s reaction depends mainly on the tone of the initial telephone conversation, the distance covered in order to reach the culprit, and what he could have done instead. (The number of times this has happened before might also have some effect, but as V. normally has a choice between several E.s it is not likely that the scene will repeat itself with the same E. very often.).

If E. is a really experienced technical wizard, he will refrain from sarcastic comments, quietly lay down the power plug, and disappear into the sunset. The lonely hero has done it again. He has for the nth time shown who is the boss – who is in command of this omnipresent technology, incomprehensible to mere mortals.

But he knows this cannot last. There will come a day when the users will check for loose power plugs – a day when no carefully choreographed searches beneath desks will be enough to sustain his reputation as a technological superhero.

That will be the day he will have to learn how to change printer paper.

The solution to American unemployment…

(Flash thought as I am listening to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee talk about Race Against the Machine at the MIT Center for Digital Business research conference – an excellent event, by the way.)

The core issue identified in Race Against the Machine is that technology improves faster than humans. Consequently, a rising number of people get automated out of a job. Previously, that has not been a long-term problem, because new industries have sprung up to hire. Now, however, the new industries hire very few people (haven’t checked the facts, but someone said that Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon collectively have about 100,000 employees, which is the job growth needed per month to keep up with population growth in the US workforce.)

So – we need to find new areas where we can hire lots of people, to do jobs that, at least as of now cannot be automated.

Here is my tongue-in-cheek solution:

1. The US has a rising (or, perhaps, expanding) obesity problem.

2. Obesity is expensive, since obese people disproportionately consume health care.

3. Take all the unemployed, sort them into a) thin and b) thick.

4. Hire group a) to be personal coaches to group b).

5. Pay for it with the savings in health costs.

Great, job done. Now for some real work…

(On a serious note, first-line health care is probably an area that could consume a lot of workers. On the other hand, it will also experience many job losses – health care is vastly inefficient in the US now, primarily because it is so cumbersome to administrate and pay for.)

Update 5/24: I was wrong – personalized weight loss coaching is now available as an app.

Academic corniness

Ever so often, traces of humor peek through otherwise dreary and often self-important publications. Here is a smattering:

  • Doug Zonker’s Chicken chicken chicken paper, of course. Youtube version here, though in this case the paper clearly is better than the movie. Annals of Improbably Research, 2006
  • Tom Malinowski, Sarah Holewinski, and Tammy Schultz (2011) Post-Conflict Potter, Foreign Policy August 11
  • Dooley-Dickey, K. and J. Satcher (1991). “Doctoral Disorder of Adulthood.” Journal of Mental Health Counseling 13(4): 486-491.

Feel free to add suggestions!

Trapping the wily professor

I wrote this piece in 2004, and it was published in European Business Forum, a journal sponsored by Boston Consulting Group, which since has disappeared (the journal, not the company!) Hence, I am making it available here in my blog, for your reading pleasure:

Trapping the wily professor
A hunting guide for CLOs
February 2004

Recently, I attended a meeting of senior HR executives from large European companies. The attendants were all engaged in designing and/or running various forms of management training and education in their companies, and a discussion about how to deal with outside suppliers – particularly business schools – came up.  A key problem, it transpired, was getting the good professors to engage in company programs.  While the schools were more than willing to sell their branded programs, most corporations wanted something tailor-made, designed to achieve a specific corporate learning goal.  Furthermore, they wanted it tailor-made by the big names – that is, the professors the students were likely to know.  This had proved very difficult.  These were big, prestigious companies – why couldn’t they get the big, prestigious professors?

Coming from the supply side of this relationship, I have little problem understanding the difficulties these managers have – so I herewith offer a little guide to hunting down and keeping that rarest of animals, the business-savvy and interesting professor.  A warning, though: This is not a task to be approached lightly.  Hunting requires knowledge of the prey itself, its living environment, and its reward structures.  It requires patience and a keen sense of observation, as well as an ability to communicate with the natives – or at least not to offend them too much.

First: Hunt professors on your turf, not theirs.  The best place to hunt for professors is not through the business school sales channels.  Instead, invite the professor to come into your company to give a short talk on some very specific point of interest – half an hour is fine – at some small executive meeting, with lunch and informal discussions thereafter.  Pay the professor for the presentation.  If there is no chemistry, you have listened to a (hopefully) interesting presentation and the professor has made a little money and is likely to think of your company with benevolence.  Incidentally, the best referrers of professors are other professors – so use the occasion to extend your network.  Carefully cultivated, most professors will come when you call and leave you alone when you want them to.

Secondly: Avoid the obvious blunders.  This should go without saying, so the experienced professor-hunter may want to disregard this paragraph.  However, any high-powered and dynamic business executive can unknowingly scare away the wily professor without meaning to – the equivalent of putting on aftershave before the hunt and then ondering why you never see any prey.  Professors are academics, and you hunt them because they are.  Consequently, never use the word “academic” to mean “irrelevant”, “hypothetical” or “impractical”.  Never refer to them as “educators” – in academic cynical parlance, an “educator” is someone forced to live by teaching because he can’t do good research.  And never – never ever – ask them to include that interesting best-seller (“Who drank my café latte?”) you saw in the airport bookshop in their program curricula.  Professors are extremely jealous of outside intellectual competition, and anyone preferring the Heathrow School of Management to them is treated with extreme suspicion, if not outright hostility.

Third: Don’t deal with intermediaries.  Typically, the CLO seeking a management education program interacts with a relationship manager from the business school.  This person is pleasant, nicely attired and means well, will sell you the standard programs and tell you what you want to hear, but is incapable of trapping the wily professor on your behalf.  If you want a program out of the ordinary, talk to the person most critical for its success – and that better be the professor, because if program responsibility lies with the salesperson, you are in trouble. That being said, the school’s relationship manager is very useful as a support person – so let your own support person deal with him or her, and make sure that the minute any content issues spring up, the problem is escalated to you – and the professor. (And, by corollary, don’t fall into the trap of becoming an intermediary yourself, in the case when a business colleague needs a program and asks you to set it up.)

Fourth: Ask not what the professor can do for you, but what you can do for the professor.  Professors are not motivated by money. Actually, that is a whopping big lie – they certainly are, but it needs to come in a form palatable to the world they inhabit. Doing executive education does not help a professor in his or her career – at best, it earns him or her non-tradable brownie points for helping the school. What counts in the academic hierarchy – at least officially – is publishing what to the layman appears as unreadable articles in obscure journals read by few and remembered by even fewer.  These articles are created through back-breaking work and qualified through an evaluation process that makes Purgatory feel like a day at the beach. To do the work, the professor needs money, in the form of research grants.  To get through the evaluation, he or she needs data, obtained by getting access to corporations.  If you can give the professors research money and access to data (i.e., your company,) they will happily create executive education programs as part of the research process. They will even teach them.  (It is possible to bag a few professors through money alone, primarily the younger ones, but on a repeated basis this will yield a lower quality of prey).

Fifth: It is not what you say, it is what you do.  The above will attract and retain professors, but will not earn their undying love. To achieve that, you need to follow through and do what they say. Professors seeing their theories listened to and applied will do anything you ask of them – sit on your Board, talk to your executives, co-write career-enhancing articles with you in trade magazines and even listen to your suggestions for making their theories better.  The danger herein lies in that you may go native yourself – and what a tragedy that would be.

So there you are – to bag a professor, start by wining and dining them, paying them for a small presentation, then lure them with money and access to provide you with tailor-made and interesting executive programs.  It is easy.  You can start now.  My email is at the top of the page.

Pitfalls for the US speaker in Scandinavia

This is an slight update of something I wrote in 2006, adding a few points and incorporating some of the (very good) comments from back then. [Notes: Small updates April 25, 2014. Some of the examples are getting a bit long in the tooth (incidentally, another expression that doesn’t travel well.)]

Here are some pointers for US management speakers wanting to avoid the most obvious pitfalls when visiting Scandinavia (or even Europe in general), in no particular order:

  • Don’t blindly use big-name US companies (Walmart, General Motors, General Electric) as examples without explaining who they are. Outside top management echelons, consulting companies and business schools faculties, most people will only know their brand names (incidentally, for GM in Scandinavia, that is largely Opel, in the UK, Vauxhall) and not the companies themselves. Some well known US companies frequently used as management examples (Nordstrom, Verizon, Comcast, Best Buy, AT&T, USAA, Sears, Netflix) do not operate outside the US, at least not with their normal brand names and standard business processes.)
  • Never use the US mobile telecommunications industry as an example of something good or advanced (or, at least, be very careful). Mobile communications in Scandinavia (and Europe) generally outshines the US mobile phone industry – you can essentially get into your car in Northern Norway and drive to Rome while continually being on your cellphone. Try that in the US. (This comparison isn’t fair (and the difference is shrinking), there are many pockets of innovation in the US cellphone industry, but most people will judge the industry in terms of connectivity and coverage when they go to the US themselves.)
  • Be very careful about using banking examples – US banking is seen as very backward by Europeans, because of the continued use of paper checks, something that disappeared in the 1980s and 90s in Europe. In reality, the US banking industry probably leads the world in technical innovations, but services between banks are not nearly as integrated as in Europe – and therefore are seen as backward. Plus, European banks have a wider range of services in the payment area – services that credit card companies and PayPal do in the US.
  • The same goes for airlines and trains – most Europeans don’t understand that the US railroad industry – in my opinion second to none in the world – transports goods, not people. And Europeans certainly don’t like US airlines. Not that most Americans do, either. (Yes, I know much of this has to do with government subsidies and lack of competition. But impressions are formed from actual use.)
  • Be careful that you don’t talk about Europe as a single country like the USA. There is much more variation between countries in Europe than between states in the US – language, history, culture, attitudes, economics, etc. Check each country on Wikipedia (particularly economics if you are speaking to a business audience) and make sure you know which country you’re in (and where your audience is from..)
  • Don’t refer to going to church (for example, refer to someone as “we belong to the same church” or similar). In Scandinavia less than 10% of the population goes to church regularly, and religion is a very personal thing. Openly referring to church will make many in the audience think you belong to some strange cult.
  • In general, Europeans are less inhibited in the off-color joke department than Americans –  not that it takes much – but there is considerable geographical variation. However, this apparent frivolity comes with subtle pitfalls: If you tell something that can be construed as demeaning to women, for instance, it will fall very flat even in an all-male audience. The telling of off-color jokes should not be attempted unless you really know your audience (or if you possess an English accent more pronounced than Stephen Fry’s.)
  • In general, Scandinavian business people are less formally dressed than Americans during daytime, but they dress up (or keep their business suits) for dinner. Quite the opposite from the US, so don’t change into jeans for that after-work bash. Unless you work in software, which is thoroughly Americanized. (This is changing – if in doubt, ask. Precede it with an “In the US we do this, what’s the custom here?”)
  • No US-only sports metaphors! (Which, incidentally, for most US speakers will mean no sports metaphors.) Though Europeans know what American football, baseball and basketball is (especially basketball, NBA has quite a following via cable and Internet), don’t rely on them to know them well enough to understand individual terms such as touch-down, loaded bases or rebound (though they might understand “slam-dunk” from context.) So, unless you are thoroughly familiar with soccer, handball, cricket (UK only) or – in Scandinavia – cross-country skiing, ski jumping or biathlon, don’t use sports metaphors. They simply are not used as much in Europe as in the USA.
  • Be careful about Star Trek and Star Wars and various references associated with US TV series – they may be known, but check that first (and this is changing). In the UK, the sci-fi cultural peg of choice is Dr. Who. Good luck to you.
  • Some opinions seen as merely “conservative” in the US are considered fascistic or simply crazy in most of Europe. The “right to carry arms”, anti-abortionist sentiments, or religiously based politics is viewed with distaste, if not horror, by most Europeans. Mentioning that you are a member of the NRA will (for those in the audience who knows what that is) position you as a person with a frighteningly loose grip on reality. (Nevertheless, some countries in Europe have more gun ownership than in the USA, but we are talking perceptions here.)
  • Never suggest union-busting or de-unionization or trying to stop people from forming unions as a strategy. It is illegal, against the culture, and against anything considered good management by almost every Scandinavian manager. In most companies in Scandinavia, relations with unions are cordial, collaborative and valued.
  • By the same token, saying that you should fire large groups of people (or, indeed, individuals) very often just isn’t practical advice. In most of Europe, you formally cannot fire people unless they are doing something seriously illegal or are underperforming by a really large margin. Moreover, you have to follow a lot of very time-consuming, legalistic procedures before you can get there. You simply have to work with people to a much larger degree. (And you may think it is stupid and limiting, but that is the way it is.)
  • Be a bit careful about naming prominent people as “friends” and referring to them by their first names. In Scandinavia, “friend” implies a fairly high level of intimacy, usually reserved for the private sphere – and then, you probably wouldn’t refer to them in a management speech. “Warren Buffett is a friend of mine, and…” or “As Steve Ballmer said the last time we met…” will tend to make you look boastful and leave people unimpressed – unless you can show that your conversation has made them change their behavior and that you really have influence.
  • The terms “corporate”, “company”, “enterprise”, “division” and SBU have fairly precise definitions in the US. Not so in Europe. Most Europeans do not understand the difference between Vice Presidents and Directors – as a consequence, most people called Directors (on their English-language business card) in Europe are actually VPs. The guy with the title “Director” might just be CEO. Or just a director.
  • Don’t expect to score points by mentioning your distant Norwegian ancestry (or even worse, Swedish when in Norway – ref. the Europe-is-not-one-country bullet). For some reason, this does not build much “common ground” with Norwegians. You can score points on your Nordic ancestry if you manage to be specific and show some actual knowledge, but the “my great grandfather migrated from Wormland, and it feels great to be back…” will just make you look out of touch.
  • The following concepts are not understood by most Norwegians: Gallons, feet, miles, mph, degrees Fahrenheit, Thanksgiving, the distinction between “state” and “federal”, TiVo, “right on red”. “Leverage” is a rather peculiar word: It has no good definition in Scandinavian languages (and it took me years to understand it and use it properly). The same with “ubiquitous” – so if you say “ubiquitous leverage”, nobody will have any idea what you are talking about. Not even you, methinks.

And there you are. All this being said, you will probably be fine even if you break a few of these. We are after all, quite forgiving and will refrain from complaining. Instead, you’ll just be branded an American, and your opinions and suggestions filtered a bit…

(For suggestions or comments, well, that’s what the comment field is about!)

Tim Minchin’s Stormy dinner conversation

This video by the rather hard-to-control Tim Minchin is so brilliant that I just have to have it grace my unworthy and insignificant corner of the blogosphere:

And now I know where to point people who tells me I don’t know everything…

(via Gunnar’s excellent Norwegian blog). And here is a live, text-based version.

English is tough stuff

This poem by the Dutch writer Gerard Nolst Trenité is called The Chaos and is a frequent floater around the Internets in a slightly simplified form, sometimes attributed to "personnel at NATO headquarters". In the interest of anyone thinking they know English, it herewith reproduced (from the Spelling Society) in its full, glorious 274-line form:

The Chaos

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say – said, pay – paid, laid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak,
Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
Woven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.
Wholly, holly, signal, signing,
Same, examining, but mining,
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far.

From "desire": desirable – admirable from "admire",
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier,
Topsham, brougham, renown, but known,
Knowledge, done, lone, gone, none, tone,
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel.
Gertrude, German, wind and wind,
Beau, kind, kindred, queue, mankind,
Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.

Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
Peter, petrol and patrol?
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.

Banquet
is not nearly parquet,
Which exactly rhymes with khaki.
Discount, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward,
Ricocheted and crocheting, croquet?
Right! Your pronunciation’s OK.
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.

Is your R correct in higher?
Keats asserts it rhymes with Thalia.
Hugh, but hug, and hood, but hoot,
Buoyant, minute, but minute.
Say abscission with precision,
Now: position and transition;
Would it tally with my rhyme
If I mentioned paradigm?

Twopence, threepence, tease are easy,
But cease, crease, grease and greasy?
Cornice, nice, valise, revise,
Rabies, but lullabies.
Of such puzzling words as nauseous,
Rhyming well with cautious, tortious,
You’ll envelop lists, I hope,
In a linen envelope.

Would you like some more? You’ll have it!
Affidavit, David, davit.
To abjure, to perjure. Sheik
Does not sound like Czech but ache.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, loch, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed but vowed.

Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover.
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice,
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, penal, and canal,
Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal,

Suit, suite, ruin. Circuit, conduit
Rhyme with "shirk it" and "beyond it",
But it is not hard to tell
Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.
Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,
Timber, climber, bullion, lion,
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor,

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
Has the A of drachm and hammer.
Pussy, hussy and possess,
Desert, but desert, address.
Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants
Hoist in lieu of flags left pennants.
Courier, courtier, tomb, bomb, comb,
Cow, but Cowper, some and home.

"Solder, soldier! Blood is thicker",
Quoth he, "than liqueur or liquor",
Making, it is sad but true,
In bravado, much ado.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand and grant.

Arsenic, specific, scenic,
Relic, rhetoric, hygienic.
Gooseberry, goose, and close, but close,
Paradise, rise, rose, and dose.
Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
Mind! Meandering but mean,
Valentine and magazine.

And I bet you, dear, a penny,
You say mani-(fold) like many,
Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
Tier (one who ties), but tier.
Arch, archangel; pray, does erring
Rhyme with herring or with stirring?
Prison, bison, treasure trove,
Tr
eason, hover, cover, cove
,

Perseverance, severance. Ribald
Rhymes (but piebald doesn’t) with nibbled.
Phaeton, paean, gnat, ghat, gnaw,
Lien, psychic, shone, bone, pshaw.
Don’t be down, my own, but rough it,
And distinguish buffet, buffet;
Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.

Say in sounds correct and sterling
Hearse, hear, hearken, year and yearling.
Evil, devil, mezzotint,
Mind the z! (A gentle hint.)
Now you need not pay attention
To such sounds as I don’t mention,
Sounds like pores, pause, pours and paws,
Rhyming with the pronoun yours;

Nor are proper names included,
Though I often heard, as you did,
Funny rhymes to unicorn,
Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.
No, my maiden, coy and comely,
I don’t want to speak of Cholmondeley.
No. Yet Froude compared with proud
Is no better than McLeod.

But mind trivial and vial,
Tripod, menial, denial,
Troll and trolley, realm and ream,
Schedule, mischief, schism, and scheme.
Argil, gill, Argyll, gill. Surely
May be made to rhyme with Raleigh,
But you’re not supposed to say
Piquet rhymes with sobriquet.

Had this invalid invalid
Worthless documents? How pallid,
How uncouth he, couchant, looked,
When for Portsmouth I had booked!
Zeus, Thebes, Thales, Aphrodite,
Paramour, enamoured, flighty,
Episodes, antipodes,
Acquiesce, and obsequies.

Please don’t monkey with the geyser,
Don’t peel ‘taters with my razor,
Rather say in accents pure:
Nature, stature and mature.
Pious, impious, limb, climb, glumly,
Worsted, worsted, crumbly, dumbly,
Conquer, conquest, vase, phase, fan,
Wan, sedan and artisan.

The TH will surely trouble you
More than R, CH or W.
Say then these phonetic gems:
Thomas, thyme, Theresa, Thames.
Thompson, Chatham, Waltham, Streatham,
There are more but I forget ’em
Wait! I’ve got it: Anthony,
Lighten your anxiety.

The archaic word albeit
Does not rhyme with eight – you see it;
With and forthwith, one has voice,
One has not, you make your choice.
Shoes, goes, does*. Now first say: finger;
Then say: singer, ginger, linger.
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age,

Hero, heron, query, very,
Parry, tarry, fury, bury,
Dost, lost, post, and doth, cloth, loth,
Job, Job, blossom, bosom, oath.
Faugh, oppugnant, keen oppugners,
Bowing, bowing, banjo-tuners
Holm you know, but noes, canoes,
Puisne, truism, use, to use?

Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
Seat, sweat, chaste, caste, Leigh, eight, height,
Put, nut, granite, and unite
Reefer does not rhyme with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,
Hint, pint, senate, but sedate.

Gaelic, Arabic, pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific;
Tour, but our, dour, succour, four,
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Say manoeuvre, yacht and vomit,
Next omit, which differs from it
Bona fide, alibi
Gyrate, dowry and awry.

Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion,
Rally with ally; yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay!

Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess – it is not safe,
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf.
Starry, granary, canary,
Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
Face, but preface, then grimace,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.

Bass, large, target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, oust, joust, and scour, but scourging;
Ear, but earn; and ere and tear
Do not rhyme with here but heir.
Mind the O of off and often
Which may be pronounced as orphan,
With the sound of saw and sauce;
Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.

Pudding, puddle, putting. Putting?
Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
Respite, spite, consent, resent.
Liable, but Parliament.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, clerk and jerk,
Asp, grasp, wasp, demesne, cork, work.

A of valour, vapid, vapour,
S of news (compare newspaper),
G of gibbet, gibbon, gist,
I of antichrist and grist,
Differ like diverse and divers,
Rivers, strivers, shivers, fivers.
Once, but nonce, toll, doll, but roll,
Polish, Polish, poll and poll.

Pronunciation – think of Psyche! –
Is a paling, stout and spiky.
Won’t it make you lose your wits
Writing groats and saying ‘grits’?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel
Strewn with stones like rowlock, gunwale,
Islington, and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough??
Hiccough has the sound of sup
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

                                — Gerard Nolst Trenité

* No, you’re wrong. This is the plural of doe.

There. That should do it.