Friday, 13 September 2013

An extended break.

Another extended break taken, I am afraid. Sometimes, life jumps in the way of blogging. But I'm planning on picking it up again.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Cognitive or cultural ? Behaviour in business & science

There are a myriad of scientific (pyschological, sociological or anthropological) works published over the years which seek to define the differences between 'base' human behavioural responses (cognitive) to stimuli from 'culturally' behavioural generated responses (cultural) to the same responses.

One of the most (in)famous experiments is the Milgram study  'Behavioural study of obedience' the findings of which Milgram summarises as follows :
 Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.
There have been other studies on the same line - all of which come up with essentially the same overall conclusion about humanity's willingness to follow orders over personal morality. But every study was executed in the Western world.

Within psychology, anthropology and sociology, there has been historically been an acceptance that there are base cognitive reactions that are common globally. This is being challenged by a growing wave of studies which highlight the flawed thinking behind this. A new paper “The Weirdest People in the World?” by Henrich, Heine, & Noranzayan and covered in this article really got me thinking about the impact of cognitive vs cultural behaviours.  The paper talks about how new studies are showing increasingly that what has historically been considered as 'base' behaviour is being challenged in the light of new experiments demonstrating cultural impact. It highlights the large proportion of studies being executed in the Western world - from which global assumptions are being extracted
A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.
It goes on to show that America & Americas - the largest source of such assumptions are not even viable as  the 'Western' norm :
As the three continued their work, they noticed something else that was remarkable: again and again one group of people appeared to be particularly unusual when compared to other populations—with perceptions, behaviors, and motivations that were almost always sliding down one end of the human bell curve

Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”
Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.
I have to admit the visual image of Americans as penguins and the streets of New York populated by armies of penguins amuses me- and it requires little stretch of the imagination when you think of the typical daytime population of Wall Street. And mentally migrating on from Wall Street, I started thinking about all the challenges I find in my daily working life in the IT Industry . IT has been shaped and changed dramatically in the last few decades by the rapid growth of outsourcing - leveraging the global economic differences in relative costs - to reduce expenditure whilst attempting to retain flexibility and capability. Outsourcing itself has a reputation for being challenging in the extreme to do successfully and conversations with Westerners who have been involved in outsourcing to Asia or beyond all seem to be peppered with nods of agreement as a familiar litany of woes gets recited and blithly blamed on 'culture'. That said, it has been lauded and dissected by many economic studies and business strategy documents from such leading academic bodies as Harvard, MIT, and the LSE, or commercial organisations such as Gartners or Forresters - so much so that for mid to large companies it is almost automatically accepted as the 'way to go'.

Culture has a major part to play in business life and the challenges of operating on a global basis : one of my recommended bible books to any new starter in multinational working is Fons Trompenaars' 'Riding the waves of culture'. That said, there seems to have always been an underlying assumption that the bone deep drivers of business are the same around the world. Now I question that : have business gurus and economists made the same mistake? Are the challenges faced in outsourcing, in running multinational companies more fundamentally complex than previously portrayed? Is the fact that we assumed we could 'outsource' American or Western norms and  'process' to those same norms inevitably impossible on the basis of the gap between base behaviours?

Does the impact of this mistaken enforcement of the 'American norm' go even deeper? Can it challenge the very beliefs behind our economic systems? Bhutan appears to believe so and chooses to measure itself in 'Gross National Happiness' rather than the more traditional 'GDP' : frequently joked about on the internet and media in general, but becoming of interest to the UN and other multinational bodies. I for one, hope it is adopted more widely.

I would love to see some studies sponsored by the top business schools that take the hypotheses behind the “The Weirdest People in the World?” study and revisits some of the seminal concepts behind business economics and activity in the light of it.

I wonder if the Milgram experiment would have had a different result if it had been done in a 'primitive' culture - and if so, what it says about Westerners as human beings.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The queen is going, long live the King

Last year was a pretty momentous 'Royal' year in the UK with Queen Elizabeth II's jubilee  with frenetic activity and press coverage. This year looks to be equally busy with another heir approaching  and I thought I'd escaped some of the Royal brouhaha by moving to Holland.

Turns out that I was wrong, as Queen Beatrix chose to abdicate in favour of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander.  Each year, the Dutch celebrate 'Queen's Day' on the 30th of April - marked by a Royal visit to two locations - but predominantly by the lifting of the need to have a permit to sell on the streets, or pay tax on the earnings. As a result, Queen's Day turns the entire country into a giant fleamarket, with a sea of shoppers in orange. This year however, Queen's Day marks the passing of the throne with all due pomp and cermony and will become King's Day (on a new birthday date) hence forth.

It does beg the question - if one looks around near a Royal residence will you find a collection of 'carefully maintained, no longer required due to retirement' bric-a-brac for sale? The odd 'worn once, dress coronet, does not fit new owner'? I, for one, plan to go shopping for bargains!

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Snow, cold and far too early thawing...

Europe has been deluged with snow for the last two weeks, and a bitterly cold snap. It's been many years since I have lived in such an old house and experienced some of the drawbacks of pre-central heating construction. I've developed an amazing ability to spring gazelle like from bed and dive almost instantaneously into my clothes. I've learned to squirrel the next days underclothes under the pillow to impart a modicum of warmth to them and Louie the Cat is developing a smug look as he gets to break the bar from travelling upstairs as a result of his regular hotwater bottle duties. Calls of nature have become short and sweet, as each visit entails a brush with potential hypothermia, and definite frostbite on parts of one's anatomy.

All this said, I am sad that the weather has warmed up and the snow has left. I wanted it to stay for a few more weeks as the Netherlands was gripped for a few short days with speculation as to whether this year would be the year the Elfstedentocht ran again.

The Elfstedentocht is a skating tour almost 200 km in length, following a route along frozen canals, rivers and lakes visiting the eleven historic Frisian cities: Leeuwarden, Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker, Dokkum, then returning to Leeuwarden. The finishing point of the Elfstedentocht is a canal near Leeuwarden, called the "Bonkevaart", close to the landmark windmill, De Bullemolen, Lekkum. The tour is only if the ice is, and remains, at least 15 centimetres thick along the entire course as about 15,000 amateur skaters may take part, putting high requirements on the quality of the ice. There is also a professional standard race for 300 skaters which requires snap decisioning to partake in, as the announcement of a 'go' is made a mere 48 hours before the race is run.

As of 17 January 2013 the last tours were held in 1985, 1986 and 1997, so the prospect of a possible go decision causes a flurry of anticipation.Even the military and emergency services get warning of possible duty roster changes.

Sadly, it's not going to be this January. We may get another chance in February, so I'm doing many snow-dances in preparation.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Etymological snobbery....

There is a certain type of book, often emblazoned with 'Mills and Boon' on the cover, which is richly populated by dashing heroes and swooning high class but impoverished heroines. These colourful characters (particularly in the historic sub genre) are frequently graced with double barrelled surnames in an attempt to insinuate class or position in society.

I'm currently stumbling my way though the mispronunciation (and frequent misspelling) of many such double barrelled names here in Holland, and this set me wondering why the english author has this view that double barrelled = status ; and whether or not it is true here.

I started by asking my housemate where his surname - van Buren - originated from, and promptly dived into a complex world of tussenvoegsels, the importance of capitalisation, and the risks of poking fun at bureaucrats. Historically, the Dutch operated a system of patronymics.... Pieter, son of Jan was Pieter Janssen , Jan, his father, was Jan Hansen etc. Perfectly viable in small close knit societies, but a nightmare if you were an invading general and wanted an easy way to keep tabs on your new subject : enter Napoleon, and his 1811 ruling that all Dutch must have a registered surname.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people opted for similar patterns to those of medieval England...the smith became Jan Smit, the fisherman became Pieter Visser. Many opted to be known by their home location - 'van' meaning 'of' or 'from; 'van de' - 'from the' : these intermediary words being the tussenvoegels. 'Buren' is a little village in the Netherlands, and there are many other surnames that can be similarly linked. There are also a fair smattering of surnames given mockingly to the census taker, and their descendants bear that cross today - 'Poepjes' being the inevitable 'Poo' or 'Zeldenthuis' describing the individual's wandering ways- 'hardly home'.

So, case disproved, huh? Double barrelled doesn't mean posh in the Netherlands. However turns out it can mean posh, and there is a way of telling. If a name is written in full, or with an initial, the tussenvoegsel is not capitalised : Pieter van Dijk or P. van Dijk. If the name is written with an title such as Dr or Mr but no initial, then the tussenvoegsel is capitalised - Mr Van Dijk. BUT if the individual is classed as nobility, the tussenvoegsel is *never* capitalised - thus indicating status.

I foresee novels filled with lovelorn heroines subtly leafing through their would-be beloved's post, in an attempt to discern if all is 'capital' abroad......

Monday, 21 January 2013

The differences between cats and dogs - & Louie

Most pet owners will empathise with the traditional differences between cats and dogs : a dog is a (generally) willing slave, following you about, permanently on the look out for scavengable bits of food, randomly coating you with glutinous, gooey, slime; and vocally expressing its view on life, the universe, and everything. A cat, on the other hand, treats you as its slave : you *will* provide it with tasty food at the appropriate time, it has ownership of all the warm cosy locations in the house, it ignores you completely unless it desires a scratch or some additional padding to curl up on, and generally has minimal desire to converse with you other than to inform you that you have offended in some form.

And then there is Louie the Cat. He is fixated in being as close to you as possible at all times (subject to the cat proviso of warm comfy spot available) and achieves this by selecting every possible awkward location to settle down in - between you and the keyboard, on you in just such a way that his tail obscures the centre of the t.v., on top of the crafting box *just* when you need access to something inside it. He is omnipresent (when food is around, with whiskers trembling just millimetres from your fork) and vocally demanding in expressing a continuous opinion on the world...particularly the disgraceful lack of a continuous stream of treats. And as for the goop factor, his finger chewing fetish ensures that almost everything you wear gets coated in a fine layer of cat slime.

Today, Louie has been ousted from his favourite seat on top of my PC. Previously, I had a lovely smooth expanse of  toasty heated black plastic, in perfect reach to allow a tentative claw to be inserted into my kneecap on a regular basis. This weekend, I finally got around to replacing the PC case - (incidently enabling me to switch the PC on and off as a result) and went for a case with two large mesh covered fans on the top. Will he decide that the warm air fluffing his fur is a price worth paying to continue his knee-accupuncture? Only time will tell.

Road mutterings

Today, I had a near miss. A little car decided to amble out in front of me with no warning, indication or space at half my existing velocity. This shouldn't have been a surprise, because that's daily driving on the M25 . But it was. Because here, people indicate, keep a safe distance, and pull over into the 'slow' lanes on a regular basis.

Followers of this blog know that I have been doing a lot of driving in Europe recently, and every country has its own 'style'. The Dutch are without question the politest and most consistent drivers I've seen. Are the Dutch a nation of paragons, I asked myself? The answer is no, and is far more pragmatic than that. Unlike the UK, which has invested a major percentage of its police road budget over the last twenty years in 'safety' cameras which generate revenue from a single snapshot of time without caring about the broader situation, the Dutch still have an active traffic police arm. They fine you if tailgate and drive too close to the car in front. They fine you if you fail to indicate prior to manoeuvring. They fine you if you sit in the wrong lane needlessly and block the traffic.

In summary, they hit your pocket hard if you drive badly or dangerously. And yes, they use 'safety' cameras too : I drive through 2 on my way to work - one is on the major junction/crossing in front of the Feijenoord football stadium, a road which is regularly deluged with flag waving fans. The other is on a segment of the ring road which has a *lot* of junctions on and off, and a variable speed limit. In places where they make a difference.

Oh, and the car that nearly hit me? Italian. When in Rome, drive like the Romans. I'd just forgotten that all roads lead to Rome.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Post Xmas snuffles & childhood foods

This Xmas break was kinda topsy turvey : with the new job starting on the 17th of December, I didn't get a lot of time to make winter plans - so I spent Xmas with the folks in Cambridge and watched Mum stuffing under the skin of the turkey with lemon butter . It made for a beautifully moist turkey, so that has been noted in my list of 'things to do to turkey"......

Back to Feijenoord on Boxing Day, and straight into one of the worst colds I've had in a long time...managed to keep the worst at bay for a few days, but by New Year's Eve, curling up on the sofa was as good as I could manage, and since then, getting out of bed just hasn't happened. An emergency doctors visit later, I now shake, rattle and roll with pills to keep the fever down, suppress the cough, and clear my lungs so I can breathe again. Hopefully this mass of medication will get me back on my feet in time for work on Monday. That said, there hasn't been much to blog about, since mostly I've been sleeping or coughing or spluttering.

Food wise, my appetite has completely gone and I've had to force myself to eat at all. As nothing has any flavour, it's been like chewing sharp craps of cardboard - so I retreated to a childhood food which is easy to swallow and at least is so fiery in flavour something breaks through the taste barrier...Gari & chilli sauce. Gari is ground up cassava which when reconstituted makes a slightly sour, slippery purée , which I dipped in a hot Surinaam chilli sauce. It's easy to swallow on a sore and swollen throat, and the chilli makes for a good holistic medicine.

Here's to getting back on my feet sometime soon.