Category Archives: Readable

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…

Brilliance squared

Stephen Fry and Steven Pinker are two of the people I admire the most, for their erudition, extreme levels and variety of learning, and willingness to discuss their ideas. Having them both on stage at the same time, one interviewing the other (on the subject of Pinker’s last book, Enlightenment Now), is almost too much, but here they are:

(I did, for some reason, receive an invitation to this event, and would have gone there despite timing and expense if at all possible, but it was oversubscribed before I could clink the link. So thank whomever for Youtube, I say. It can be used to spread enlightenment, too.)

Beyond Default

71gkby-vpilDavid Trafford and Peter Boggis are those kinds of under-the-radar strategy consultants that ever so discreetly (and dare I say, in their inimitable British way) travel the world, advising enormous companies most civilians have never heard of about such issues as how to organise your internal departments so that they are capable of responding to technical change. (I should know, because I worked with them, first in CSC and then in the Concours Group, between 1994 and 2009.)

Now David and Peter have begot a book, Beyond Default, that provides a perspective on strategy and organisational change less built on fashionable frameworks than on solid experience. Their focus is on how organisations fail to see changes in their environment and develop strategies – real strategies – to adapt to them. The reasons are many, but most important is the fact that organisations have developed processes and measures to do what they currently do, and the focus on those particulars does not permit stepping back and seeing the bigger picture. Instead, companies carry on towards a “default” future – and, crucially, that future may be declining. Companies need to know what they don’t know and what they do not have the capabilities to do – and to acquire those capabilities when necessary. To do that, the authors advocate experiential learning – seeing for yourself what the future looks like by seeking it out, preferably as a group of managers from the same organisation experiencing and reflecting together.

The authors have a background as IT consultants, and it shows: They very much think of organisations as designed systems, with operating practices and (ideally) articulated operating principles. While eminently logical, this way of organising is hard to do – among other things, it requires thinking about organisations as tools for a purpose, and that purpose has to be articulated in a way that gives direction to its members. Thinking about your principles can make you articulate purpose, but it is very hard not to make the whole process a bit self-referential. Perhaps the key, like for Newton’s second law of thermodynamics, is to keep adding external energy, constantly identifying and understanding ramifications of technical and other change – a process that requires energy, if nothing else.

Both authors care about language and explaining and discussing what happens in a way that can be understood by the organisations they are trying to help. This means that they primarily use examples and stories, rather than frameworks (beyond simple illustrations), to convey their points. They end each chapter with a set of questions the reader can has him- or herself about the organisations they manage – and do not, in any way, try to offer simple solutions. As such, the book works best when it talks about how to explain strategic necessities and start on a strategic journey – through collective leadership, not “great man” charisma. It works less well when trying to explain strategic analysis, perhaps because the authors have too much experience to settle on a simple, all-encompassing method.

Well worth the read, not least for the senior executive trying to understand a new world and wanting an explanation held in a language that fosters understanding rather than just excitement.

The nastiness of immigrant fear

This piece (http://crookedtimber.org/2017/10/23/working-to-rule/) by Maria (Farrell?) is a long and very insightful read about the emotional impact on immigrants from the Brexit debacle – and more generally, about the nastiness of reducing immigrants (or, for that matter, any foreigner) to a number and a category.

Anyone who thinks being an immigrant, even a deluxe EU three million-type immigrant, is easy, should try it. We compete on equal terms with all comers, but with no social or economic safety net and, for many, hustling like mad in second and third languages. No dole, no network of couches to sleep on, no contacts and no introductions; qualifications from institutions you’ve never heard of, references from employers you aren’t sure are real but can’t be bothered to check, acting as daily fodder for stereotypical jokes we laugh off to show we’re one of you. You don’t hear us complaining about it because it’s just part of the deal. But when the terms of the deal change, and you tell us we’re social welfare parasites who are also, somehow, taking all the jobs and are the reason the country is failing, then the deal is probably dead.

How anyone can think shutting yourself off from the world and fantasise about going back to a nonexistent 1960s idyll is in any way beneficial is beyond me. And this nastiness is not limited to Britain or Trump’s USA, far from it, Norway has its share of little people with big fears as well.

To get new ideas, increase the variety of sources, expose yourself to new experiences, and embrace that which you cannot understand.

Assuming you want new ideas, of course.

Science fiction and the future

I am on the editorial board of ACM Ubiquity – and we are in the middle of a discussion of whether science fiction authors get things right or not, and whether science fiction is a useful predictor of the future. I must admit I am not a huge fan of science fiction – definitely not films, which tend to contain way too many scenes of people in tights staring at screens. But I do have some affinity for the more intellectual variety which tries to say something about our time by taking a single element of it and magnifying it.

So herewith, a list of technology-based science fiction short stories available on the web, a bit of fantasy in a world where worrying about the future impact of technology is becoming a public sport:

  • The machine stops by E. M. Forster is a classic about what happens when we make ourselves completely dependent on a (largely invisible) technology. Something to think about when you sit surfing and video conferencing  in your home office. First published in 1909, which is more than impressive.
  • The second variety by Philip K. Dick is about what happens when we develop self-organizing weapons systems – a future where warrior drones take over. Written as an extension of the cold war, but in a time where you can deliver a hand grenade with a drone bought for almost nothing at Amazon and remote-controlled wars initially may seem bloodless it behooves us to think ahead.
  • Jipi and the paranoid chip is a brilliant short story by Neal Stephenson – the only science-fiction author I read regularly (though much of what he writes is more historic/technothrillers than science fiction per se). The Jipi story is about what happens when technologies develop a sense of self and self preservation.
  • Captive audience by Ann Warren Griffith is perhaps not as well written as the others, but still: It is a about a society where we are not allowed not to watch commercials. And that should be scary enough for anyone bone tired of alle the intrusive ads popping up everywhere we go.

There is another one I would have liked to have on the list, but I can’t remember the title or the author. It is about a man living in a world where durable products are not allowed – everything breaks down after a certain time so that the economy is maintained because everyone has to buy new things all the time. The man is trying to smuggle home a wooden garden bench made for his wife out of materials that won’t degrade, but has trouble with a crumbling infrastructure and the wrapping paper dissolving unless he gets home soon enough…

Does someone have to die first?

double-classroomBlogpost for ACM Ubiquity, intro here:

Digital technology changes fast, and organizations change slowly: First using the technology as an automated, digitized version of the old way of doing things, then gradually understanding that in order to achieve productivity and functional breakthroughs. We need to leave the old metaphors behind. For this to happen, we need new mindsets, unfettered by the old way of using the technology. I wonder if my generation has the capability to do it.

Read the rest at ACM Ubiquity: Does someone have to die first?

Friday futuristic reading

I am not a big fan of science fiction – way too many people in tights staring at big screens – but I do like the more intellectual variety where the author tries to say something about today’s world, often by taking a single aspect of it and expanding it. So here is a short list of technology-based short stories, freely available on the interwebs, a bit of reading for anyone who feel they live in a world where the technology is taking over more and more:

  • The machine stops by E. M. Forster is the classic on what happens when we make ourselves totally dependent on mediating technology. Something to think about when you surf and Skype from your home office. Written in 1909, which is more than impressive.
  • The second variety by Philip K. Dick details a future with self-organizing weapon systems, a future where the drones take over. Written during the Cold War, but in a time where warfare is increasingly remote and apparently bloodless there is reason to think about how to enforce the “laws of robotics“.
  • Jipi and the paranoid chip is a brilliant short story by Neal Stephenson, the only sci-fi writer I read regularly (though much of what he writes is historic techno fiction, perhaps fantasy, and not sci-fi per se). It is about what happens if technology becomes self-aware.
  • Captive audience by Ann Warren Griffith is perhaps not as well written, but I like the idea: What happens in a society where we are no longer allowed to block advertising, where AdBlock Plus is theft.

There is another short story I would have liked to include, but i can’t remember the title or author. I think it was about a society where everything is designed with planned obsolescence, where a man is trying to smuggle home an artisanal (and hence, sustainable) wooden bench, but has issues with various products, including the gift wrap, which decays rapidly once it has reached its “best before” time stamp…

And with that, back to something more work-related. Have a great weekend!

Sapiens unite!

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book (recommended by Grady Booch in his recent talk) attempts to give a brief history of mankind – specifically, Homo Sapiens, as opposed to Neanderthals and other hominids – in one book (a bit reminicent of Geoffrey Blainey’s A Short History of the World.) As such it is interesting, especially the early parts about the transition from hominids to collaborating humans and the cognitive revolution 70000 years ago. It is very clearly written – for instance, the chapter on capitalism and the importance of credit and creditworthiness is something I could hand out to my students directly as a brief explanation of what the fuzz is all about.) The book has been a success, and deservedly so – very rationalist, well informed, if a bit narrow in perspective here and there. The author seems to have a soft spot for hunter-gatherer societies (leading him to describe the agricultural revolution as a step backward for individuals, if not for the human race) and a digression on whether humans are more or less happy now (has historical progress done anything to our serotonine levels (answer: no, it hasn’t, which sort of renders the argument about agrarianism mot) veers towards ranting.

The best part is the way the author describes how much of history and out place in it now is based on inter-subjective fantasies – such as money, religion and states, which exist purely in our minds, because we agree between ourselves that they do.

And easy read, entertaining, and with quite a few very quotable passages here and there, for instance these on our bioengineered future:

Biologists the world over are locked in battle with the intelligent-design movement, which opposes the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools and claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who thought out all biological details in advance. The biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future.

Most of the organisms now being engineered are those with the weakest political lobbies – plants, fungi, bacteria and insects.

Recommended.

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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.

Elon Musk biography

Elon Musk: Inventing the FutureElon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashlee Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an interesting biography because Elon Musk is an interesting person. Very capable description of the various business ventures (including a very succinct analysis of why and how Tesla is disruptive to the regular car industry, and, even more so, SpaceX to the space industry. But much of Musk as a person remains an enigma, partly because Musk keeps his cards close to his chest. This is an attempt to create a balanced account of Musk as a businessman and person, and it is worth reading to get the background of what Musk has done and how he has done it. But I doubt if I will reread it…

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Book review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

SevenevesSeveneves: A Novel
by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like the premise – that the moon explodes and, inevitably, the debris will destroy the earth. Humanity decides to vastly expand the international space station to create the seeds (literally) for survival of most species. As with all Stephenson books the science part is believable and thoroughly worked out, but as with most Stephenson books, the characters are a bit woody and the descriptions a bit long. Better than Anathem, more fanciful than Reamde, but his best books remain Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Trilogy, in my opinion.

That being said, I gave this four stars because, well, there is an element of suspense, and I like the thoroughness of how he works through an idea.

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Update 30.6.15: Here is a podcast with Neal Stephenson discussing the book.

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 workaholic with a diary and many club memberships

More Fool MeMore Fool Me by Stephen Fry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Largely a diary of Fry’s life in the early 90s, after a recap of Moab Is My Washpot and The Fry Chronicles. Can get a bit tedious at times, but that is some of the point – the frantic descriptions of comedy, clubbing and cocaine and so much namedropping it starts to seem normal after a while makes it all the more understandable why a breakdown is in the works. Still, what a time he must have had.
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Words to live by

Since it is Friday, the beginning of a new year (and I need the quotation to answer a charge of being a technological optimist (guilty!)): Here are the concluding paragraphs of David S. Landes incomparable The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (Abacus, 1998):

In this world the optimists have it, not because they are always right, but because they are positive.  Even when wrong, they are positive, and that is the way of achievement, correction, improvement, and success.  Educated, eyes-open optimism pays; pessimism can only offer the empty consolation of being right.

The one lesson that emerges is the need to keep trying.  No miracles.  No perfection.  No millennium.  No apocalypse.  We must cultivate a skeptical faith, avoid dogma, listen and watch well, try to clarify and define ends, the better to choose means.