Category Archives: Readable

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?

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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.