Saturday, July 7, 2012

Under the weather

I’ve been struggling with a sore throat, runny nose, hacking cough that is somewhere between a cold and hay fever for weeks now,  It doesn’t respond to meds for one or the other, and is feels aggravated by the wintry summer that we’ve been having.  I’ve tried putting it aside and shouldering on, but it feels like it takes revenge on both sleeping and waking hours.

The worst part has been struggling to talk without coughing.  My throat seems sensitive to breathing, and sometimes a sentence is the best I can manage.  Friday night was the Ignite event at Downing, the culmination of a week’s entrepreneurial boot camp.  I hadn’t been involved, but was invited to trade ideas with the participants.  I ran into several folks with cardiology / ECG projects that sounded interesting, but it was a challenge to get them from ‘something that nobody’s done before’ to ‘here’s the really unique bit’.   And, around that time, my voice gave out and I had to leave a card and excuse myself. from the dinner.

I had breathing difficulties during a wet summer in Maastricht a few years back, so I suspect it’s a recurrence.  The antihistamines put me out of sorts as well – they tend to make me irritable rather than drowsy.   So it’s been a time to take a blog break as well as to throttle back for a few days to see if I can kick this.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Life’s paintball games

paintball_is_a_way_of_life_business_cardPaintballing with Hezbollah describes western journalists’ attempt to understand the Lebanese military situation by engaging in, well, a paintball skirmish under a Beirut shopping mall.  It’s pretty good reading: unsurprisingly the terrorists cheat, bringing in flash grenades and capturing journalists for human shields (I’m not making this up).  Still, the journalists battle to a draw and get their insights (distasteful as some of it is).

I feel a bit the same way this this week, taking on two of my favorite shibboleths: Health insurance and Dutch lessons.

Major OwnageThe health insurance crisis was precipitated by letters from our provider saying a) they were still struggling with the coding of a claim from my surgery in Lugano three years ago, and b) that they were going to drop my daughter off of our health insurance at the end of the month.

Now, I’ve spent years exchanging mail and engaging with my long suffering Italian friends to facilitate BCBSs claims processing for Lugano.  My daughter had the misfortune to graduate college, at which point she become ineligible for my policy.

And I pay these folks $2500 / month, out of my own earnings, for this abuse.

I think we found solutions: the Swiss can’t find any outstanding claims and my daughter is continuing as a full time student, but we were honestly facing collectors and Medicaid, respectively.  I ended up returning to the new Affordable Care Act (ACA) to see what happened to the maxim that dependent children stay on policies until they are 26.

The act makes interesting reading: there is nothing in there that should raise anyone’s ire.  Even free-market Forbes calls it “little more than a successful effort to put an end to some of the more egregious health insurer abuses while creating an environment that should bring more Americans into programs that will give them at least some of the health care coverage they need”.

It is amazing (and stupid) that people should be so viscerally opposed to this law when they more likely support every policy buried inside it.

paintballMy year of Dutch study hasn’t produced stellar outcomes either.  I’m unquestionably better (and accelerating), but it takes time and persistence.  The inburgering has turned out to be wholly impractical, focused on job-search skills and classroom-centered.  Last night I found that my access to the online tutorials had been cancelled, six months ahead of expiration.

What (I think) I need is a way to have more conversations, in writing and in person, to supplement my reading newspapers and listening to broadcasts.  Friends have lives too: it’s not practical to impose hours of practice on them.  But I chanced onto an instructor who charges 7.50euro per hour to just sit and talk, correcting pronunciations and engaging in spontaneous give-and-take.

It’s working out very well.  When I’m in Maastricht, I go see her daily.  Otherwise, we write emails each evening.  Sometimes there’s a structured assignment, other times a discussion of a news story.  But it’s giving me a good leg up on composing a thought and expressing it, the hardest thing I’ve struggled with.

I think I must be the only American who comes to the Netherlands and pays for an hour with a Dutch woman just so that I can talk with someone.  My friends joke that it’s an over-50 thing.

A couple of other resources to consider (I buy and use all three myself, nobody asked or induced me to write this):  None are particularly expensive, all have demo modes that you can use for free to try the product.

vTrainverbix  babylon

vTrain:  A flashcard trainer – you can load it with your own word lists and oefenen, oefenen, oefenen.

Verbix: This is a web-based or desktop verb conjugation tool, great for composing zin using toen instead of dan.

Babylon:  A pop-up desktop translator that includes all three Van Dale handbooks.

And, as a bonus, Scientific American reports that translating a problem into another language may improve the quality of decision-making.

Okay, back to life’s paintball games…

Monday, July 2, 2012

Tilting at Europe

obama-romney-0615-web.rWhile I was in the United States, both presidential candidates gave major speeches on June 14 about the economy while campaigning in Ohio. What was striking to me is how both men chose Europe as their cautionary example, even though they were making exactly opposite points.

President Obama called for a growth agenda, led by government investment in training and infrastructure.

In the fall of 2008 a financial crisis plunged the world into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Throughout history it has typically taken countries up to 10 years to recover from financial crises of this magnitude. Today the economies of many European countries still aren’t growing and their unemployment rate averages around 11 percent.

But here in the United States, Americans showed their grit and showed their determination.  We acted fast.  And our economy started growing again six months after I took office and it has continued to grow for the last three years.

He has warned that too much austerity weakens demand and increases unemployment, creating a downward spiral as seen in Europe.  England is what could happen if the Republicans win.

Governor Romney drew the opposite conclusions.

President Obama has us on a path to become more and more like Europe, with bigger and bigger government taking more and more from the American people, directing our lives and telling us how to run our enterprises.

You want four more years of that? You call that forward? That's forward over a cliff. That's forward on the way to Greece.

Romney often draws comparisons to Europe, saying “This President takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we Tilting at Windmillslook to the cities and small towns of America.”

There is a lot of windmill tilting going on here, both sides selectively using facts to build an imaginary enemy they can slay.  And, ironically, Mitt’s policy proposals put him much closer to European austerity programs than Barack’s.  This hasn’t gone un-noticed in the press either.

And, after a flirtation with austerity economics, there is a growing consensus in Europe that forcing government cutbacks and free market policies onto weak economies pushes them further into recession.  Voters in Europe are also rebelling, turfing out business-oriented leaders in Greece, Italy, France, and the Netherlands.

It’s kind of a laboratory for what might happen along either road, or to either candidate.

So, then as Europe turns towards growth policies, should Obama follow; should Romney flinch?

This is what troubles me:

If you believe we live in an age of abundance, then you should support growth policies. 

If you believe we live in an age of limits, you should support austerity.

The simple fact is that both candidates are putting forward policies that directly conflict with their convictions about the times we live in.

Our White House should reflect the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become.

But what becomes of America when policies are all about windmills and not about reality.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Collaborating across cultures

CollabThe Working Knowledge newsletter sent me an essay on Collaborating Across Cultures last week that I thought was really interesting.  It summarizes research by Roy Y.J. Chua, an organization researcher investigating how Western businesses build working relationships with China.

I’ve always found expatriate life to be professionally stimulating as well as personally enriching.  Interactions with Dutch, British, an Japanese scientists often surface new ideas, technologies, and perspectives.  These help me to ask broader questions, to recognize the limits of my own assumptions, and to adopt alternative solutions that improve the quality of my work.

This is also the starting point for Dr. Chua’s  research:

Innovative products and deals are developed when (cross-cultural) conversations bring together disparate ideas that have never previously been connected…resulting in novel combinations of ideas. 

He also notes that cross—cultural interactions foster reflective thinking about cultural assumptions and heightened awareness of novel aspects of foreign thought and environments, all of which can heighten creativity.

But the benefit is lost if the relationship degrades into miscommunication and misunderstanding, if people are unwilling to offer their ideas for fear of having them stolen or ridiculed.  In short, they have to trust one another for collaboration to work.

So if mutual trust is the key, then how do you build it between dissimilar people?

The study shows that trust comes more easily between individuals who share two qualities.  They can can each perceive and understand the other’s different social contexts, and they are able to select and adapt their speech, actions, and behaviors in response.

He gives this the unwieldy designation ‘Cultural Metacognition’, but it’s easy to see what it means in practice. 

When posed with a problem, someone who scores high in these qualities is adept at working out differences in how it’s is represented by two different cultures.  They can then use that insight to tailor their approach, building respect and rapport that facilitates finding a solution.

Building trust is thus important, but all trust is not created equal.  Cognition-based trust, respect for each other’s competence and reliability, is not the most important.  Rather, Affect-based trust, which captures reciprocal emotions, matters.  How do you feel about them; how much concern do you think that they have for you?  Do you feel like you are both on the same wavelength, that you share personal interests?  Do you have one another’s best interests at heart?

Researchers put this to test with a  simple experiment to see how well teams, each consisting of a cross-cultural pair, performed on a collaborative task.  Half of the teams were allowed 10 minutes to talk and get to know one another before they were presented with the task while the other half weren't.   The team given the personal time, that scored higher on measures of Affective trust, did better.  But the researchers also found that even if only one member of the team scored high in cultural metacognition, able to understand and adapt to the other, then creativity was also enhanced.

Their conclusions really drive home one point that I’ve always believed: that making time for small talk before getting down to business is vital for successful work.  But it also suggests that you have to enter the conversation with an open mind, listening and learning, if the conversation is to create lasting benefit.

The full article is available on Dr. Chua’s website or Chua, R. Y. J., et al. Collaborating across cultures: Cultural metacognition and affect-based trust in creative collaboration.
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (2012).

Photo credit to Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine