On globalizing your contact information but still managing to confuse somebody

by on Dec.10, 2011 , under facilitative leadership, localization, random

My friend Ruth M Sylte has been doing a great series on how to internationalize your email signature and other contact information basics, and it reminded me of a funny communication breakdown that I once caused.

A tip for those with Asian audiences

First, a quick backgrounder:

Asian family names come first and given names follow. However, many Asians adapt their names for a Western audience, and Western readers who don’t recognize any of the pieces (e.g. don’t know that Park is a common family name) can’t be sure whether the name they’re seeing is in traditional order or has been adapted. And Westerners can confuse their Asian colleagues when they attempt to be helpful by putting their family name first.

Here’s the solution many global-savvy Asians and their observant Western colleagues have adopted: put the family name in upper-case, e.g.

  • PARK WonJin
  • Erin VANG
  • UCHIDA Noriko
  • Ruth Marie SYLTE

A comment about (Mr), (Ms), etc.

Ruth advises including a title in front of your name, modestly enclosed in parentheses, e.g. “(Ms) Ruth M Sylte.” This a common tactic for disambiguating gender.

For years I included (Ms) before my name for exactly the reasons Ruth anticipates: because I was tired of getting email to “Mr Erin” and “Mr Vang” from people who really had no way to know better.

However, this led to some amusing conversations with Americans who had known me so long that it didn’t occur to them that my given name “Erin” is not particularly common and is sometimes mistaken as a male name (and who also didn’t perhaps realize that women in high tech management positions are still enough of a minority to promote doubt among those who do know the name).

For example, this one:

Story time

Grant (gentleman who had been working with me for years, near the end of a meeting in my office): I noticed you put “Ms” in your email signature.

me: Yes.

Grant: What does that mean?

me: You know–Ms as opposed to Mr.

Grant: Oh. (Uncomfortably long pause.) You’re not saying Ms as opposed to Miss or Mrs.?

me: No, I’m just clarifying gender because I’m tired of being addressed as “Mr” by people who haven’t met me. (And people standing right in front of me, for that matter–yes, a woman can have short hair and be taller than you–but I didn’t bring that up.)

Grant: So you’re not clarifying marital status.

me: No.

Grant: Oh. (uncomfortable chuckle)

Grant says a few pleasantries and exits the office. My office-mate watches him leave, waits a safe moment, and then bursts into gales of laughter.

I raise an eyebrow, and John explains. He has realized what I have not: that while I thought I was explaining that my name is gender-ambiguous to colleagues around the world, Grant was trying to determine whether he could ask me out.

As it happens, I was single at the time as well as female. But there was another question that this perfectly lovely gentlemen neglected to consider, that it never occurred to me he might have even wondered about, and right there, we did it. Two American native speakers of English sitting a few feet away from each other in Chicago, Illinois, USA and observing each other’s body language and everything, still managed to have a total communication breakdown.

I don’t think there’s an email signature solution to that problem, though.

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Mandelbrot and music: on listening in fractal dimensions

by on Oct.25, 2010 , under random

Benoit Mandelbrot died this month. He was the guy who came up with fractal theory, which led to all those gorgeous computer graphics like this one, from Wikimedia Commons:

A Mandelbrot set

Last week, my friend and contradance bandmate Tina Fields wrote an essay about Mandelbrot’s ideas on her blog, Indigenize! I found it quite thought-provoking, and it surprised me how much I learned from her post, since I’m the one with the math degree. My next surprise was how Tina’s thoughts on this mathematician inspired me to think about listening to music.

This essay is in response to ideas she raises in her essay, so go read hers first and then come back here!

First I’d like to amplify her comment about coastlines by quoting this passage from Mandelbrot’s obituary in the New York Times, about how coastlines played a role in the genesis of his theory:

Dr. Mandelbrot traced his work on fractals to a question he first encountered as a young researcher: how long is the coast of Britain? The answer, he was surprised to discover, depends on how closely one looks. On a map an island may appear smooth, but zooming in will reveal jagged edges that add up to a longer coast. Zooming in further will reveal even more coastline.

“Here is a question, a staple of grade-school geometry that, if you think about it, is impossible,” Dr. Mandelbrot told The New York Times earlier this year in an interview. “The length of the coastline, in a sense, is infinite.”

In the 1950s, Dr. Mandelbrot proposed a simple but radical way to quantify the crookedness of such an object by assigning it a “fractal dimension,” an insight that has proved useful well beyond the field of cartography.

To me, that’s the real genius of his discovery—viewing scale as a dimension. If we measure the coastline or the surface of the broccoli from a mile away we get a much different answer than if we measure it from close up and far different still if we measure under a microscope.

So what is scale, really, but a matter of perspective?

Let’s consider the metaphorical potential: if perspective is a dimension, how does it change the way we view truth about our world? You have some truth, I have some truth, and the differences are not necessarily contradictions but spectral variations along the perspective dimension.

Tina’s big gift to me in her essay isn’t so much her point about Mandelbrot’s focus on verbs rather than nouns, although I enjoy that, too, but her encouraging us to think about new things fractally. The first thing that comes to my mind is Beethoven. (Perhaps I should explain that besides working in statistical software and facilitative leadership, I’m also a professional horn player and hold degrees in music performance and music history.)

Beethoven leads my pantheon, and here’s a bit on why: his compositional technique is extraordinary, and the more you know about musical composition and performance, the more you hear in his work. In addition to doing all the usual classical things—the usual structural designs (four-movement symphonic architecture with movements in sonata, menuet or scherzo, sonata-rondo, etc. forms, linked in a progression of related tonalities, yada yada Haydn, blabbety-blabbety Mozart, blah blah Bach), German-Italianate phrases, symphonic devices of his environment and era—he throws in a few more tricks all his own, chief among them his idea of motivic development.

His every melodic gesture is built up from the smallest motives, e.g. his Fifth Symphony‘s four-note “ba-ba-ba-BOM!” opening. That simple four-note figure is sequenced, layered, mutated, and warped all throughout the first movement, each phrase a new assemblage of basic building blocks, each harmonic gesture arising out of layers and layers of sequences of this tiny musical block and several others.

You can easily find YouTube and other recordings of Beethoven 5 if you’d like to remind yourself how it goes, but I’d recommend buying yourself a great recording. There are many excellent options; one I’d particularly recommend is Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic.

All the composers of Beethoven’s time (and throughout most of history, with differing vocabularies, of course) have adhered to various conventions from the largest possible scale (the arc of their developmental style through their lifetimes) down through the structure of each opus, each movement within, etc., down to the smallest-scale assumptions about harmonic structure, idiomatic styles of individual instruments, and so forth, but Beethoven brings it all to a whole new level, honoring all those formal rules while also constructing everything both melodically and harmonically, both vertically and horizontally in each case, out of these tiniest of musical blocks.

(We later see Wagner up Beethoven’s ante with his Romantic adaptation, the leitmotiv, where each character, event, place, and even philosophical concept is represented by its own fragment of musical DNA, all these leitmotivs swirling in a pan-theatrical operatic swamp of continuous through-composition, rejecting while also embracing formal conventions in a megalomaniacal Gesamtkunstwerk.)

Struggling valiantly now to pull back from this tangent to return to fractal theory, I might suggest that we appreciate Beethoven and indeed all music along fractal dimensions. For many, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is, simply, its opening four notes and the loud romp to follow. The scale of observation is large; the perspective is simple. “Fun music!”

Indeed, who wouldn’t appreciate it on such simple terms? When I was hospitalized with pneumonia as a second grader, my parents brought me the best of all possible get-well presents: a portable cassette deck, including a cassette of the first movement of my favorite symphony, which dad had recorded by sitting next to the phonograph (mono, of course) holding the mic near the cabinet speakers while the needle rode its groove. I listened to that tape over and over during my several weeks of long days alone in a hospital room. I’m not sure what I heard, exactly, but I know that by the time I was discharged, I could have sung the whole movement. (I wish he’d recorded the whole symphony for me, because I’l never know the rest of it nearly as well.)

As I’ve developed as a musician, I’ve lost touch with how I used to hear music. I often wonder what normal people hear, and I like to ask people to tell me why they like certain music or what they noticed in a concert.I know that I used to hear the pretty music, and while I can tell you to the minute when it all changed, I can’t for the life of me remember what I used to hear.

It changed the summer after eighth grade. I was at orchestra camp, sitting in a muggy auditorium on a hot summer night, and probably intoxicated by the pheromones of my new friends. We listened to a piano quartet recital. First I noticed that I was hearing a group whose intonation was so tight, they made the freshly, expertly-tuned Steinway sound out of tune. All pianos are out of tune, but it was the first time I heard it for myself. Then I realized I was hearing four virtuosi playing the crap out of their instruments as both individuals and as a collective.

Then my trumpeter friend leaned over and said, “You know, we’re never going to hear music like normal people again,” and for only a moment I wondered what he meant. I spent the rest of the concert hearing, seeing, feeling the compositional structure, the interplay of themes, the exploration of key areas, the work of the individuals and their ensemble, and on and on. The only limits to the depth of scale in my listening were my musical intelligence and attention span.

That night was my awakening as a listener. In the decades that followed, my musical intelligence has evolved tremendously, but I still find that the richness of what I hear is limited only by my abilities and attention span.

So, locating my metaphor in the area of musical perception, I might suggest that our listening has a fractal dimension. Anyone can hear the sounds. But our perspective—the granularity of our musical knowledge and the intensity of our focus—determines in how large a range along the fractal dimension we perceive the music; how much we hear of the infinite possibilities depends on how large or small is the scale of our listening.

How do you hear?

As I said, I’ve long since forgotten how I used to hear music. How do you hear music? What do you hear in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Do you have any musical training? How does this affect your listening (or not)? I’d love your answers, reactions, ideas—please comment!

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Tuna noodle hotdish recipe

by on Aug.30, 2010 , under random

My recent Multilingual column mentioned tuna noodle hotdish. For those readers who aren’t familiar with this snowbelt classic, here’s a recipe.

This is an old standard for Norwegian-Lutherans in the USA snowbelt—it’s what we make when our neighbor’s recovering from surgery, or when a friend has just had a death in the family, or when we need to bring something for the church potluck, or if it’s a cold night and we’re hungry.

It’s not a fancy recipe—and that’s the whole point. It’s cheap, easy comfort food.

  • one can of tuna
  • one 12 oz bag of egg noodles
  • one can of cream of mushroom soup
  • a few slices of Velveeta
  • salt
  • pepper
  • oregano
  • potato chips

Prepare one package of egg noodles in boiling, salted water according to directions on the bag. Drain. Add tuna, cream of mushroom soup concentrate, about half a soup can of water, Velveeta, salt and pepper, and oregano. Stir, return to heat, and heat through. Correct seasonings. Top with crumbled potato chips.

Variation: top with potato chips and heat in oven-proof casserole at 350˚F for about 30 minutes.

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North America from the outside in and the inside out

by on Aug.30, 2010 , under localization, random

This article was originally published in slightly-edited form by Multilingual magazine, September 2010 and is reprinted here with permission. Erin Vang would like to thank Multilingual for graciously consenting to republication of this article in the GlobalPragmatica blog.

In 1998 I planned a trip to Norway and set about educating myself. In addition to the usual stack of guidebooks, language books, and cassettes, I picked up a copy of Norway: Culture Shock! A survival guide to customs and etiquette. I hate being the Ugly American when I travel, so I wanted to learn some of the little niceties that would help me blend in.

I enjoyed the book, but it felt inside-out and backwards to me somehow—all kinds of behaviors and cultural details that I considered normal were explained as if they were completely bizarre. It was astonishing to me that, for example, the book went to the trouble of explaining that you shouldn’t ask Norwegians how much money they make. You shouldn’t expect Norwegians to divulge much about themselves to strangers, or even for that matter to friends. When visiting a Norwegian family in their home, you should decline offers of food and drink at first and only relent after repeated offers are made. Further, an offer of “coffee” doesn’t mean a hot beverage. “Coffee” means a full lunch spread, with open-faced sandwiches, a variety of side dishes, perhaps some fruit soup, and at least an assortment of cookies if not cake for dessert. If you’re lucky, there will be leftover dumplings and ham, sliced and fried up together.

Well, duh! That’s normal, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

I should probably mention that I grew up in the snow belt of North America in a series of small towns settled in large part by Norwegian and German immigrants and still populated mostly by their descendants, who tell Ole and Lena jokes and would call a Norwegian-Swedish couple a “mixed marriage.” It turns out that I grew up with a Norwegian sensibility about things.

Eventually I turned to the “About the author” section in the back of the book and learned that she was an Asian woman who had married a Norwegian man and moved to Norway.

So the book was inside-out and backwards for me! Ostensibly it described Norwegian customs, but I learned more about which Norwegian customs seem odd to an Asian and in turn what the Asian norms are. I also learned how my sense of normal differs from the rest of North America, because the very things she pointed out about Norwegians are the traits that have made me stick out since I left the snow belt.

North America from the outside in

I’ve since had the privilege of traveling quite a bit in Asia and Europe as a localization program manager, continuing my inside-out cultural learning over dinners and drinks with my localization teams and in-country colleagues.

What particularly strikes me about Japan is its quiet, compact order and elaborate attention to manners, and upon returning home from Japan I’m always startled by how big, messy, and casual we Americans are. We think nothing of taking a sip of a beer as soon as it arrives, and if we pause for a toast, it’s just “Cheers!” with much noisy banging of glasses, and no attention to whose glass clinks higher or lower. We walk down office hallways talking in full voice, we’re more likely to call something sarcastic into our colleagues’ open doors than to notice whether they’re busy, and by the time we’ve gone past three people’s offices, we’ve walked past more space than a dozen comparable Japanese office-workers would use, and all of it is messier.

Over dinner in Korea one night I learned what I’d never noticed before in years of sampling Korean music, dance, and theater: that it reflects millenia of sadness. Korea’s long history is full of invasions, wars, cultural loss, and great deprivation. Korea’s classical and folk arts express the reserved, wary sadness of a people ravaged for tens of centuries by neighbors in every direction. A Korean attending an arts festival in North America would be stunned to see singers smiling, actors laughing, dancers frolicking, and performers of all types making joyful eye contact with their audiences. Korean arts serve a more important purpose than entertainment and fun: they remember loss and struggle, they record perseverance, they offer perspective about daily challenges in a context of surviving the unsurvivable.

North Americans think we are familiar with Chinese food until we actually visit China and are confronted with the real thing. Theirs is a cuisine of poverty, making the most of scarcity by using parts of the animal we call scraps, using plants we call “weeds,” and using elaborate techniques and richly layered flavors to make them all palatable. We might think that “American food” would seem simple and decadent to Chinese visitors, but in fact they are as perplexed by our foods as we are by theirs. The thing that puzzles them the most? That our foods come in big hunks and separated piles—think of a dinner at a typical American steakhouse, where your plate comes with a huge hunk of meat, an enormous baked potato, and a pile of one vegetable, all arranged so that nothing is touching. I was startled to discover that the foods my Chinese colleagues preferred were those that mingled meats and vegetables in one dish, all in one-fork pieces, such as a casserole. Their comfort had nothing to do with the flavors and everything to do with shapes!

North America from the inside out

What most North Americans probably don’t consider is that we are all outsiders in North America. Our planet’s third largest land mass after Asia and Africa is home to twenty more nations besides the biggest three, Canada, the United States, and Mexico. We are all outsiders in twenty-two of those countries. Narrowing the focus to just the US, our nation’s young history is one of myriad immigrant and native cultures settling tiny pockets of a vast continent. Cultures have blended to a certain extent with those of the other peoples in the vicinity, and the resulting regional identities persist to the present. The lines are starting to blur in the age of national and global television, radio, and internet, but the potential for cultural conflict and misunderstanding is far greater than many people realize. I’ll share a few of the more amusing examples from my own life.

When I left my Norwegian enclave in the snow belt and arrived in Chicago for grad school, I couldn’t figure out why my friends never offered me anything to eat or drink when I visited. It wasn’t until some fellow Norwegian-Lutheran-Minnesotans from my alma mater joked about our common tendency to turn things down three times before accepting that I realized what the problem was. My friends did offer me drinks and snacks, but out of Norwegian-American habit, I always said something along the lines of, “Oh, I’m fine–no, thank you.” But that was that! My friends didn’t realize that the first three times you offer something don’t count!

I spent about a dozen years working for SAS and traveling frequently to corporate headquarters in Cary, North Carolina. Much later I found the Culture Shock! series book on the American South and finally began to understand some of my experiences there. When my colleagues had responded to one of my ideas with, “Bless your heart!” they weren’t gratefully commending my cleverness—they were saying, approximately, “Oh, you poor baffled freak… you just don’t understand anything.” When they called me “Yankee,” it wasn’t a slight as I thought; they were just acknowledging that I was different. When I jokingly called myself a “damn Yankee” once, I was corrected with a smile: “You’re not a ‘damn Yankee’! You’re just a Yankee. Damn Yankees are the ones who don’t leave.”

We’re all outsiders

When a friend of yours grieves a death in the family or is recovering from surgery, do you send flowers?

What on earth for? What good are the flowers going to do anyone? Where I’m from, we make a tuna noodle hotdish complete with crumbled potato chips on top, and we bring it over to the house, hot and ready to serve, in a casserole carefully labeled with our last name on a piece of masking tape. We do this whether we like tuna noodle casserole or not, because it’s what is done.

Being an outsider in North America is not a privilege reserved for visitors from other countries.

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Putting disasters in perspective, or Our crappy economy isn’t so bad

by on Jan.13, 2010 , under JMP & JSL, random

Many people are depressed these days, for many valid reasons. The economy is still a disaster. Many of us are out of work and have been for a frighteningly long time. Many of us are clinging to scaled-back jobs. Many of us are worried about how long the work we’re grateful to have will last. When even the blue chip companies are slashing workforces and budgets and the banks themselves are declaring bankruptcy, we know our economy is a disaster.

Looking outside the devastated economy of the developed world, let’s consider the vastly greater struggles in the two-thirds world.

Terminology break! When people say “third world,” they mean “undeveloped or developing nations,” and these represent over two-thirds of the world’s population, so let’s stop saying that and say what we really mean: “two-thirds world.”

In the news today, hundreds of thousands of Haitians are believed dead after a major 7.0 earthquake hit, its epicenter right in the most populous part of an already fragile island. Most Haitians are black and live on less than US$1 a day. Putting this in perspective, fewer than 3000 people will killed in the horrifying 9/11 attacks. However, I fear that history will show the great failure of our humanity when the global public response to the crisis gets those metrics backwards.

Because I have spent several decades working in statistical software in various roles, I can’t help wanting to look at the desperation quantitatively. Here are two graphs that will probably startle most people—and, mind you, I mean the well-educated, privileged, mostly white people in the developed world who have the means to read my blog. First, let’s compare the death tolls from a handful of disasters that have filled our headlines in recent years. Before you look at the graph, which do you think was worse?

  • 9/11 terrorist attacks
  • Hurricane Katrina
  • Indian Ocean tsunami
  • Haiti earthquake
  • 2008 Earthquakes in the People’s Republic of China

And how do you think the economies of these places compare?

First, the scale of the disasters. For my North American readers: remember how devastated you felt watching the TV coverage of 9/11 and of Hurricane Katrina, please.

That’s right. The devastation of 9/11 and Katrina combined are trivial compared to any of the others.

Now let’s consider the economies of these places. Most of us know that USA’s wealth dwarfs that of most countries by most measures. A relevant measure for this situation would be the gross domestic product per capita–that is, the total economic output of each state or nation, divided by its number of people.


We all know that New York is wealthier than Louisiana, but did you realize that the New York-Louisiana comparison is almost meaningless in the big picture? Even the difference between those two tall bars dwarfs the size of the bars in the two-thirds world nations!

So now let’s put those two ideas together: let’s look at the wealth in each place lined up with the scale of the disaster in each place, as measured by GDP per capita

abilityRecoverThis composition of the most massive bloodbaths in big red bars lining up directly with the meager economic means of each place in tiny green bars is the most devastating graph of all. The biggest disasters have taken place where people are least prepared to cope with them.

There are many ways to help, and of course there are many craven imbeciles who take this opportunity to scam the people of goodwill with fraudulent donation methods. Here are some ways that have been vetted and determined to be reliable: http://www.google.com/relief/haitiearthquake

Here are some flaws in my analysis that could distract nitpickers from the clarion call to our humanity:

  • My national and state GDP data are from different years and sources, and they’re probably inflation-adjusted differently.
  • I’m considering these events to have taken place in New York, Louisiana, Indonesia, China, and Haiti, where the most deaths occurred, although other states and nations were affected.
  • The costs of 9/11 and Katrina were borne nationally, but the victims were (mostly) local, so I considered the state economies instead of the national economy.
  • Estimates of the death tolls in the two-thirds world are always much fuzzier, because the poorer you are, the less likely you are to be accurately counted.
  • Estimates of the death toll in Haiti are wildly premature. Some sources say “hundreds of thousands,” and while they might mean “100,000 give or take a few 10,000,” a careful speaker would mean the far more frightening “100,000 or 200,000 or 300,000” by that description.
  • It’s a little weird to measure ability to recover by comparing the GDP per person to the number of persons dead. The dead people are dead, and no amount of money will help them. But the people left behind are living in economies that are more or less capable of recovering.
  • These data are confounded, if you consider that poorer nations have a lesser ability to build safety into their communities. Wealthier nations have higher survival rates in times of disaster because their buildings are sturdier, more of their citizens live in buildings in the first place, their bridges and roads and so on are more prevalent and higher quality, their emergency responders are more numerous and better-equipped and -funded, and on and on and on. The ways in which wealth mitigates disaster and the lack of wealth compounds disaster are numerous and heartbreaking.

My data sources:

The analysis was my own, and I prepared all the graphs using JMP’s Graph Builder.

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