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 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 in the country.

— In the country they sure have many things, said Anton. I wish we lived in the country, 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!