Category Archives: Notes from a small country

The future of Norwegian education, if we only dared

If Norway marketed itself more effectively, they could suck the brightest and best students from the UK and America, improve their universities reputation and force the UK and US to rethink their education policies for the benefit of the people in all the countries concerned.

This from the excellent blog post “What caused you to move to Norway, Sir?” by Paul Beaumont.

I certainly think Norwegian universities could do just that. When it doesn’t happen, it is largely because of provincial thinking and lack of marketing acumen. This needs to change.

That is all.

A trendy walk through Oslo…

This video was actually quite fun to make:


My part is done in the offices of Masterstudies Marketing Group, to illustrate my point that if a small nation like Norway (or, for that matter, Europe) wants to compete on the world market, recruiting should be based on who is the best person for the job, not who fits in with the reigning culture.

Masterstudies, incidentally, is located in Oslo, is doing very well indeed, and has about 35 employees who collectively speak more than 20 languages. Two of the employees are Norwegian….

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.

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…

image

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

Finding Nemo, unsurprisingly, again

(Intially posted as a comment to Dave Weinberger’s blog, but expanded/edited into a bona fide rant here. Update, Feb. 13: Dave continues the discussion in his column at CNN.com.)

New England has just had a snowstorm, predicted to be of historic proportions, but eventually ending up, as always, as nothing much, except a staggeringly incompetent number of people (400,000 or so in Massachusetts alone) losing power. As a Norwegian currently in Oslo (but with nine winters in Boston (Arlington and Brookline)): New England snowstorms, despite their ferocity, are not aberrations of nature but a failure to prepare a systemic level.

It is just snow. Not a lot (well, a lot, but for a short time, as illustrated by the photo.) It shows up fast, and leaves again equally fast. It doesn’t stay the whole winter, from November until March, as it does here in the south (get it – south!) of Norway.

The fact that New England panics every time there is a flurry is due to lack of preparedness at the infrastructure level. In most of Norway power and telephone lines are underground, it is illegal not to have snow tires on your car after December 1st or thereabouts (if you drive in the snow with regular tires and go in the ditch, you are fined quite severely) and during my own and my children’s school days we have never had a snow day or any other interruption due to the weather (and we have plenty of weather). In Norway you cannot get a driver’s license without passing a driving-on-slick-surface course. The Oslo subway (or buses – what kind of drivers to you have?) has never been closed due to snow. I have never been to the store to stock up on batteries and water. (I have been to the gas station to buy gas for the snow blower ahead of a storm, though.) Our airport does not close down for snow, though there can be delays. In New England, there are public service announcements (from Thomas Menino’s office) saying “When clearing motor vehicles, remove snow around the muffler/exhaust system before starting the car”. How stupid can you get?

I just can’t get used to the New England oh-my-God-here-it-comes-again-flip-to-channel-5 attitude. I attribute this to lack of far-sightedness in planning – rather than taking the cost of modernizing the power grid and change the telephone lines to fiber all around, incrementalism wins. (Then again, I have found myself being the only driver (in a VW Vanagon with worn tires) on the 128, and the only person coming in  to work (in a Chevy Caprice).) Instead of driving responsibly you salt the roads until they are white and dogs can’t go out due to the pain the salt inflicts on their paws. Instead of having a public works division outfitted to fix things with proper equipment you resort to an army of contractors with F-250s barging out to power-plow 2 inches of wet snow that will disappear at 9am the next day anyway, just to get paid.

imageI drove (with wife and three kids) from Florida to MA during the blizzard of 96, which closed down NY and NJ. In Georgia, we saw 200 cars in the ditch, including an 18-wheeler cab-up in a tree. It looked like an 8-year old had emptied out his toy car crate. On an Interstate in North Carolina I saw a police cruiser (who had tried to cross from one direction to the other via those little police-only paths) nosed into and completely buried a six-foot pile, the blue lights forlornly spinning through the snow. Driving around Richmond, I saw people pass me doing 75 in their Cherokees on the highway, only to see them buried in a drift two miles later. In Washington (Metro population 5.6m, number of snowplows: 1) I drove around (in a Dodge Caravan with a not very advanced AWD system) a Chevy Suburban spinning on all four wheels as the owner moronically pumped the gas pedal. (Incidentally, the only institution open was the Norwegian embassy, whose employees arrived on cross-country skis.) When we got to the NJ border, we were stopped, as the turnpike was closed. I stupidly tried to argue with the cop that I was Norwegian, had 4WD, and was a former instructor in 4WD driving in the Norwegian army, that driving in the snow was easy if you went slowly and gently. He was, needless to say, not swayed. We spent the night in a motel.

Why doesn’t New England harden the grid and communications systems, put winter tires on school buses, mandate winter tires in snowy conditions, and just get rid of this stupid idea of snow days? It is winter, it happens almost every year. It is just something to get used to, minimize the consequences of and then get on with a productive life.

On the other hand, most Americans work way too much, so perhaps it is just nature’s way of giving you a much-needed break. In the meantime, you are providing quite the entertainment at Norwegian TV, for which I suppose I should be thankful.

(Images from TriStateWeather)

Update Feb. 13: Somewhat related, here is an infographic (from Curtis Whaley via Boingboing) on how to walk on ice. Put on your tailcoats and waddle away…:

The banality of an attention-seeking killer

I have been following the opening of the court case against the mass murderer from Utøya in Norway. I really should not – I have better things to do – but it is hard not to, it strikes very close to home. I don’t know anyone directly involved (though, reportedly, 25% of Norwegians do), but the dry, factual and extremely professional reading by the prosecutor of the names of the victims and the circumstances of their deaths and injuries gets to me: Norway is a very small society, I know many people with the same last names, my daughter knows people directly involved, and the whole thing becomes very real. The court has seen films of people dying and a mobile phone call from a victim, where you could hear 10 shots being fired just outside the toilet door where she was hiding, but these are not included in the broadcast.

A psychiatrist describes the defendant as a psychopath with total lack of empathy – he cries when seeing his own Youtube propaganda video but tries to hide a smile during the description of his rampage. The sheer numbers and the cold-bloodedness of the defendant both then and now is deeply offensive. There have been two psychiatric evaluations of him, the first concluding that he was not responsible for his own actions, the second that he was. I think the second evaluation – in the first, the psychiatrists had little knowledge of right-wing environments and saw all his infantile anti-islam fantasies as a sign of madness in itself – will be the one standing.

Norway does not have life sentences or the death penalty. A “life sentence” is typically 20 years, for certain crimes (this one included) a 30 year sentence can be imposed. However, after a 30 year sentence, the prisoner has to be released – in fact, given good behavior in prison, a person has to be released before time. A second possibility is to sentence him to 20 years, followed by 10 years of “forvaring”, i.e. a continued prison sentence because the person may be a danger to society. This can be extended indefinitely, but is subject to a psychiatric review every 5 years. I think that is what will happen. It is probable that the Norwegian laws will be rewritten to include a life sentence for extremely serious crimes, but laws cannot be given retroactive effect.

I am deeply impressed by the professionalism shown by everyone involved in this – prosecutors, defenders and commentators alike. The main defending attorney, Geir Lippestad, took the job very reluctantly and holds a very straight face, but you can tell that he is disgusted by his client but determined to give him a defense as good as can be done – and to reign in his political tirades as much as possible. The press has been fairly careful in not showing too many details about the victims, but the sheer volume is a problem in itself – and the fact that the defendant gets the attention he seems to crave (he seems to have done this more to get attention than for any other results, political and quasi-religious justifications aside) – is rather revolting.

Oh well. Justice will be done, but it is at a very high price for the victims and their families and friends. The court case is held in a very dignified form, with the exception of the defendant, who obviously delights in the attention and will start his explanation tomorrow.

To me, he is not worthy of this court case and this country.

Norwegian movies for American friends

Most Norwegian movies are best enjoyed in Norway by Norwegians, but every now and then something comes up that is passable outside the borders. So as a service to my American friends, here are a few recommendations, all available on Netflix over the Internet:

The Troll Hunter is a mockumentary about three film students from the Volda regional university, who tracks Hans, a mysterious figure they first think is a bear poacher. It turns out he is an official, secret, government-employed troll hunter, charged with tracking down and killing trolls that escape their reservations (fenced in by power lines, no less).

Normally, I don’t like to watch movies about monsters and supernaturals – their many blatant falsehoods and gaping plot holes irritate me. The Troll Hunter, however, I watched with pleasure after being told about it by someone in the movie/media business. He raved about the performance of Otto Jespersen, normally a comedian, as the laconic and gradually more disgruntled troll hunter, fighting bureaucracy and trying to cover up the trolls’ cattle rampages by purchasing dead bears from Polish smugglers to be left near the scene. The film students are brilliantly naïve, and some of the lines are classics:

– Is it absolutely sure that we have no Christians here [trolls can smell Christian blood.]
– I’m a Muslim, is that all right?
– Hmm..don’t know.

The movie is rather low-budget, but with surprisingly good CGA of trolls of various kinds. The best parts are the carefully worked out troll details (including a great mock-scientific explanation for why trolls either turn to stone or explode when they are exposed to sunlight), and all the various mechanisms and technologies the Troll Security Service and Hans the Troll Hunter have come up with to manage them. Like most good Norwegian movies, it subtly makes fun of its characters, from the semi-ambitious film students to the stone-faced bureaucrats trying to hide the fact that trolls exist. It carefully balances satire with a just enough of a touch of action/horror movie to stop it from being too local or too snarky. Enjoy!

Max Manus (English title Man of War) is a movie about the Norwegian war hero and saboteur Max Manus, brilliantly performed by Aksel Hennie. The movie is the most successful Norwegian movie ever in terms of viewers – most of the population has seen it, and it is one of those films where the entire audience sits through the credits, in silence. The movie gives an (almost) historically accurate rendering of the life and times of Manus and his contemporaries, running sabotage in and around Oslo. (The main historical inaccuracies lie mostly in removing material as well as having to use different buildings than the originals, Oslo having changed quite a lot since 1945.)

Max Manus was the action-oriented, slightly irresponsible leader of the Oslo Group, one of the foremost resistance groups in Norway. He sees his friends gradually being killed by the Germans towards the end of the war, but manages to effect significant damage (blowing up troop transport ships, destroying the national labor archive) in return. The movie is action-filled and exciting, yet rather low-key: Some of the most exciting episodes, which would have made for excellent material, is deliberately left out. (One example is Kolbein Lauring (one of Manus’ close collaborators) escaping by gunfire and hand grenades from a patrol trying to arrest him in his home.) Excellent performances by Agnes Kittelsen as “Tikken”, Manus’ later wife; Nicolai Cleve Broch as Gregers Gram, Manus charismatic best friend; the German actor Ken Duken as Gestapo chief Siegfried Fehmer; and perhaps best of all, Knut Joner as Gunnar Sønsteby, the 26-year old (at wars end) brain behind most of the resistance in Oslo, who thanks to his anonymous appearance and brilliant memory could move all over Oslo and southern Norway managing hundreds of resistance fighters and more than two score false identities.

The movie draws very believable portraits of the various characters, showing their heroism and the toll the actions take on them, both in terms of comrades lost and nightmares endured. Most Norwegians have some memories from grandparents and parents telling about the war. Much of the movie is shot on location – the entire main street of Oslo was changed into its 1940 appearance for one scene, including flying a Nazi flag from the Parliament building. This makes it very real for most of us, including me (my grandfather was in the resistance and was tortured by the Gestapo, an experience which left its tracks, and was in a concentration camp from 1943 to the war’s end). Norway is a small country: I have met Gunnar Sønsteby on a few occasions, have walked the streets and been in some of the buildings where the actions took place, and when the saboteurs paddle in canoes to blow up ships, the go right by the house I live in. The movie is accurate, exciting, sad, and makes an impact. Highly recommended!

Elling, nominated to an Oscar for best foreign language film in 2002, is something different altogether. It tells the story of Elling (brilliantly performed by Per Christian Ellefsen) and Kjell Bjarne (equally brilliantly portrayed by Sven Nordin), two nervous middle-aged boys released from a psychiatric hospital to make their way in the world with the assistance of social worker Frank and eventually their neighbor Reidun and former poet Alfons. It is based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen, on of Norway’s foremost authors.

Elling is one of those movies that create language – you can refer to someone as an “Elling” or “Kjell Bjarne” in Norway and people will understand what you mean. Both men suffer from anxiety attacks and various phobias, and create little stratagems to manage their tentative entry into society. Elling is an overintellectualized shut-in with a mother complex and a cleaning mania, secretly dreaming about becoming an undercover poet. Kjell Bjarne is a shy giant, traumatized by abusive parents, who admires Elling and wants to listen to his fantasies, but also represents the voice of reason, entering into a relationship with the neighbor upstairs and helping Elling gradually explore the world outside their apartment.

The movie is howlingly funny in a very low-key fashion, making each of Elling’s small victories (managing to go to the store, having dinner in a restaurant, going to a poetry recital) feel as real to the audience as it does to the character. The characters are frequently humiliated, but manage to maintain a shaky dignity through it all, to a satisfyingly happy conclusion – helped by a seemingly aloof social worker who for once is not portrayed as a monster. If you feel down in the dumps, this is a terrific pick-me-up movie, enjoyable from start to finish.

File:Lilyhammer1.jpgHawaii, Oslo; Buddy and Lilyhammer I recommend with some reservations. The first is an intense magic reality movie about a character who feverishly tries to stop a bad event from happening. I remember it as great – but I don’t remember much about the plot. Buddy is a story about a group of friends who has to deal with sudden fame, again an enjoyable movie about which I have forgotten the plot – though I liked it. Lilyhammer is downright weird – a TV series about a New Jersey gangster (Steven van Zandt) who moves to rural Lillehammer, Norway, (chosen because he liked the scenery from the 1994 Winter Olympics) as part of a witness protection program. The concept is great, but I am not sure how well the jokes would play outside Norway – and I thought Little Steven’s performance a bit wooden and the jokes rather lame even in Norwegian. Norwegian rurals can be easy to make fun of, but they are not as inbred as comes over in this series. But it is is available – in fact, coproduced with – Netflix and, well, chacon ca gout, I presume.

And that is it – there are quite a few more (Flåklypa Grand Prix, Secondløitnanten, 37 1/2, Detektor) I have enjoyed, but I am not a film buff and this post sticks to what is on Netflix and I am reasonably sure you would like. So, go forth and explore…