Category Archives: Humor

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.