Category Archives: Up close and personal

Still here?

No blog post since May 4… Well, my excuse is that a) I got sick for a couple weeks, which has slowed things down, and b) I then embarked on a 3-week teaching/speaking/travelling marathon that consumed all time, was very interesting and will earn me an SAS Gold card as soon as the points get processed.

Over the last three weeks, I have taught a four-day executive EMBA class at BI, two full-day PCL sessions for Harvard Business Publishing (at ESSEC in Paris and ESADE in Barcelona, both very enjoyable), participated in two oral exams, given presentations and facilitated sessions in a few companies that shall remain nameless, and held a session on technology tools for teaching for my colleagues. One more whole-day session to go, and then summer can begin.

For various reasons I have been working from home almost the whole semester, acquiring the odd hours and sloppy clothing habits of a hermit scribe (except when videoconferencing, where a hastily added shirt and some clever camera positioning is required). You can get very addicted to your cluttered home office and the view from the front window – and find that tutoring students over Skype is, if anything, more efficient than being in the office. It only takes me 30-45 minutes to get to work (car, bus or bicycle) but I have begun to see the 1.5 hours wasted as an unbearable intrusion on my productivity.

But you do find that there are wide discrepancies in people’s attitude to video- and teleconferencing. Consultants, engineers and some academics barely bat an eyebrow when I suggest Skype. Others – including some foreign clients – absolutely insist that I have to be there in person, even for fairly routine matters. Some official meeting don’t do teleconferencing, for some reason. And don’t get me started on the bureaucratic hassles of various exam-, medical and visa-related matters, which apparently were designed for parchment, quill pens and post diligences.

SAS appThere is progress. After some hiccups my SAS app worked beautifully, meaning that paper boarding passes and check-in lines (even at machines) is a thing of the past. I relearned where the lounge is at Arlanda airport. I rediscovered my system for where to store things so I don’t forget them, and started feeling like a flying consultant again.

And for three weeks, it was rather fun. Now I am happy to go back to the reclusive hermit style. Ahhhh…where was that white wine again?

Boston Marathon Bombing

This hits home – it is very bad. Boston is our family’s second home town, where our youngest was born and the other two had formative years (as did we all.) Boylston street certainly is familiar and so is every Boston reference and place name now being repeated on CNN.

I am impressed by the police and various spectators and marathon officials – they immediately run to help the wounded, acting very sensibly, quickly coordinating to gain access to the bomb site and get to the wounded.

Let’s hope the aftermath of this event is characterized by the same calmness, relevance and restraint. The bombings in Oslo and shootings at Utøya two years ago gave rise to very solemn reactions and a surprisingly thorough and measured debate about immigration, extremism and the role of religion in Norway – as well as a thorough examination of security routines and the response of the police (which, unfortunately, was not as quick and coordinated as in Boston.

Let’s hope this can be an event to learn from, whoever the perpetrators may be. The Boston Marathon is very much an outdoor celebration – people happily cheering the runners along the route and everyone having a great time. It would just be too sad to have it changed and locked down by the insanities of people who think violence will gain them anything at all.

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…:

Four is a little, four is a LOT!

imageMy friend Cheska Komissar is quite a character. Not only does she make a peanut sauce that restores my faith in humanity, she is also the bubbliest person alive and, as of a few months ago, a children’s book author. Her delightful Four is a little, four is a lot is just the thing to get someone turning four – and wondering, as children do: Is four a lot or just a little?

The book has four illustrators (of course), but you would be hard pressed to see the difference in styles – though the collaboration has been remote, the drawings are remarkably close in coloring and style and the underscores the text excellently.

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So, count up the number of three-year-olds you know, surf you way over to the Four Dollar Books website and get the requisite number of books (at four dollars each, of course.) They also have birthday cards featuring illustrations from the book – and the combination will be both four-midable and four-tunate…

Highly recommended!

Great apartment, car and furniture in Brookline

Update June 25th: The apartment is now rented, but the furniture/kitchen stuff and car is still for sale…

Update July 31st: All gone, I am afraid….

I am currently on a sabbatical at MIT, will go back to Norway around August 1. I’ve lived in Boston for a total of bout 8 years, so I have some experience procuring and furnishing apartments – and now I am looking for an academic family/couple/some friends/colleagues who would want to take over my (rented) apartment with furniture and all. I also have a great car for sale.

IMG_4056The apartment is, I think, about 1,700 square feet (158 square meters, gross figures, including a large walk-in closet / attic that can be used as a bedroom in a pinch.) The rent is $ 2400 a month (not including electricity / gas / oil, but my American friends think it is a bargain.) The apartment is located in the top two floors of a four-story house in a small dead-end street (18 East Milton Road, CambridgeBrookline, MA, but maps.google.com shows the wrong house, it is the second last on the north side of the street). Very safe area with an excellent “walk IMG_4057score“. The distance to Brookline High School, an excellent high school with many international students is a 5 minute walk. According to the landlord, there are two good grade schools nearby. The MBTA (subway) is four minutes away. It takes about 10 minutes to Boston University and the Longwood area (where all research hospitals), 25 minutes to MIT, 30 minutes to Harvard. I bike to MIT in 19 minutes, slow enough that I don’t break a sweat.

IMG_4067The apartment has two bathrooms (one with bathtub, the other with a shower cubicle with door,) a large bedroom downstairs, large and very nice living room / kitchen, two bedrooms (one with a slightly odd layout, loft-like, but private) high. Large loft / walk-in closet, which can also be used as a bedroom in a pinch (for short-term visitors, for example.) Reserved parking for one car on the street – nice, since renting IMG_4063a parking space in Brookline can cost $ 80-200 per month. Oil heating, fireplace, nice and toasty (and cheap!) pellets-oven in the kitchen, hardwood floors downstairs, carpets on top floor. Bright and airy, painted white, very nice for having guests and parties.

Kitchen with dishwasher, two ovens, microwave, gas stove, sink with in-sink grinder (or whatever they call those things that chew up food scraps). Washer and dryer IMG_4058the bathroom next to kitchen. Dryer and washing machines are relatively quiet, which is not a matter of course in the United States. We have bought kitchen utensils from IKEA, and various electric kitchen weapons (toaster oven, blender, etc.)

Very friendly landlord who lives in the 1st floor and helps if you have any questions or issues. The apartment is flexible – fits nicely for a couple with 1-2 children. But it’s perfectly possible to be many – for Christmas IMG_4059we were, we were seven people (me, wife, daughter #3, and daughters #1 and #2, each with boyfriend) + two dogs for four weeks, worked really well.

I am hoping for someone in the same situation as me to come in – the plan is that you take all our equipment (full kitchenware, sofa, two armchairs, a kitchen table with chairs for six, two wide comfortable beds, two leather office chairs, lamps, vacuum cleaner, toaster oven, etc.) Everything is bought at IKEA at considerably lower prices than we have in Norway, and my price is half of what we paid (I have most of the receipts).

imageThe car is a silver 2002 Mercedes E320 station wagon with four-wheel drive (big advantage when it snows here) with seven seats (folding seat in the back), leather interior, air conditioning, automatic, built-in GPS, heated seats in front, electric memory front seats, sunroof, everything one could wish for. It has 150000 miles and I have had it maintained by the best Mercedes garage in Massachusetts, European Auto Solutions (www.virtualeas.com) in Waltham – these guys are so good it is a reason to get a Mercedes in itself. (I am rather partial to Mercedeses, have a classic veteran MercedesI bought here a few years ago.)

The car I bought for $7200, and I am hoping to sell it for around the same price, since I have put in approx. $2200 (new alternator and water pump, a few more fixes). There is little rust (Mercedes had some rust problems from 1999 to 2004, this is completely clean except for a spot on the back door.) Runs like a dream, lots of horsepower and comfort. The only drawback is that the left channel of the stereo does not work, I have not bothered fixing it, but EAS told me that a new stereo part (the amplifier) would be about $550 to put in.

We also have a men’s hybrid bicycle and a retro lady bike for sale, bought used, in very good condition.

So there you are – if you are in for a sabbatical in Boston, here is your chance to take over a ready-made apartment and not have to spend time running around shopping for basics. The apartment is perfect for Harvard, MIT, BU, Northeastern, many other universities, all of the major research hospitals in the Longwood area, and downtown Boston.

Send me email (self@espen.com) is you are interested.

Hawai’ian interlude

The week before last was spent on Hawai’i (Oahu, to be precise), courtesy of an old collection of American Airlines points, that fact that we are in the US and hence already have paid for half the flight, and a week’s break in daughter number three’s high school schedule.

The goal for the trip was simple: New Facebook profile pictures for father and daughter – standing up on a surfboard. To this end, we had signed up for two days of surf classes with Hawaiian Fire, an eminent surf school run by firefighters. Their classes take place on the southeast side of Oahu, at a beach where waves are consistent and the water reasonably shallow – as a novice, you can always jump off the board and stand on the bottom. (In practice, you want to be a little careful, always landing flat in the water, since there are rocks and corals on the bottom.)

To make a short story short, we both made it into vertical – daughter number three rather faster and better than her top-heavy father.

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And lastly, let it be said that despite, in certain aspects, feeling a bit like Las Vegas (at least the brand-name shopping areas of Waikiki), Hawai’i has a distinct culture, a refreshingly laid-back attitude, fantastic nature (we particularly enjoyed exploring the North Shore and the Tantalus/Round Top drive) and an extremely enjoyable climate. It is only to wonder that not many more people live there…

Waiting for Christmas (with help from Tim Minchin)

Tim Minchin, UK-based Australian comedian, composer and contrarian, performs what is my favorite Christmas tune, his “White wine in the sun”, which manages to be sentimental, smart, atheistic (or at least skeptical) and deeply felt, which I think everyone should be. Especially at Christmas, which is about so much more than religion.

And I am not just saying that because I am 3501 miles from home, with the family arriving for a prolonged Christmas visit, or because, just like me, Tim met his wife when he was seventeen and they stay together, but because this song describes the best parts of Christmas – indeed, the whole purpose of Christmas – quite precisely.

Looking forward to Christmas far to often is attributed to consumerism (at least for small children) or has to be legitimized through some religious reference, such as the inevitable pre-Christmas op-eds about how we are losing sight of what the holidays are all about, etc. etc.

So, this year as any other, I am looking forward to Christmas with our little rituals.

Just as long as it isn’t white. All our snow gear is in Norway. Snow would really let us have an American experience…