Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Psycho metrics

You may think that this blog is about the differences in measuring systems between the UK and the US. And in fact, I plan to include that later in the blog. But the title comes from something else entirely...

I had a job interview a couple of weeks ago. Well, sort of. As it turned out, there was no job (the recruiter didn't mention this, but I wasn't surprised.) That in and of itself is not remarkable. But before the actual interview started, I had to fill out a computerized form. It was a psychometric test, and is rather popular in England. Some psychometric testing can last the better part of a day, but this was a self-professed 8-minute form. To get an idea of what the form is like, have a look at this Web site. Take the test and find out the results if you'd like. The test I took was a bit different, in that instead of phrases, it had single words (adjectives) and I was instructed to choose the words based on my work personality. I found the words very interesting, and even though I hadn't taken one before, I could see the English cultural influence coming through. The funny thing is that they gave me the results to read through (what wasn't so funny is that they gave them to my first interviewer at the same time). The results are written as though they are a job performance review, so in reading them it's as though the writer has observed you in action.

So what about my report? Well, imagine the report produced via a computer program from a word choice form that you filled out in 8 minutes while waiting for a job interview in a very hot and humid conference room. Now, add to that the fact that your work specialty is one that the company needs but doesn't understand nor does it support, so you're constantly trying to bring attention to it and educate people as to how to implement it. Plus, um, I am American, and this is an English perspective. I hadn't had the chance to look at the report when my first interviewer looked up from the report and said "It says here you're difficult to manage." I laughed. And then naturally followed up with the usual "I can provide references from my most recent managers and I'm sure they would not agree with that statement." That there was my first exposure to the wonders of psychometric evaluation. My second exposure (because clearly I couldn't sit there and read the evaluation while the interviewer was sitting there) was when he said "And you like to be the center of attention." I nearly choked, "No, not really, but I try to bring internationalization to the center of people's attention". Sheesh. Did I mention this guy didn't seem to have much of a sense of humor?

There are lots of details I could mention (like the recurring them of words such as "conciliatory", "obliging", "easygoing"), but it would likely bore you. What I would like to say is I've never been very keen on such pat evaluations. I remember in my first job, my team leader decided I was a "driver driver" under some evaluation system, at which point I think I lost my momentum. Work for me is not really a place to exert my personality. The way I figure it, someone is paying me. Now, they're only gonna pay me as long as I'm worth it. And I'm only worth it if I make the company more than I cost them (pay + benefits + office space + etc.). So my motivation is always what I perceive to be what's best for the company. In other words, the "ego" is the company. And so, even though internationalization (abbreviated i18n) is not a popular topic with many folks in the company, I insist on bringing it up, because that's what I'm paid to do. I'm not in it to be the most popular worker, or i18n would never happen. However I recognize that people need to get along in order for i18n to happen. And so, what it boils down to is that my demeanor changes with the situation. Sometimes I'm conciliatory, sometimes I'm forceful, sometimes I'm outgoing, sometimes I'm quiet. And it may all happen in the same meeting. Personally I would expect any professional to be the same way. That's the advantage of being a human being, you're not stuck with some pre-programmed behavior(behaviour). And so my dislike of these canned analyses. As a human, if you try to peg me, I will change. But the companies around here seem really keen on this sort of thing...

Anyway, back to metrics, and things that really can be measured. Like paper, for example. Having worked in international for as long as I have, I'm well aware of the differences in paper sizes between the US and, well, most of the rest of the business world. That is, letter vs. A4. But there are things you don't really think too much about in terms of the ramifications of that size change. For us, it was the realization that our filing cabinet, schlepped all the way from the New World, doesn't really quite fit A4 papers. We can just squeeze the paper in, but not the envelopes or folders or anything much bigger. Woops.

The UK in particular is one messed up set of metrics. They are stuck somewhere between Imperial and Metric systems, trying to convert but apparently unable. Now, folks in the US about my age may remember attempts to convert to the metric system, with lessons in school and even ads on television. Yup. We know how effective that's been. But the general public in the US is not hovering between the two. Let me give you some example of the mishmash of systems here. Distance is in miles, speed limits are in miles per hour (thankfully an English mile is the same as a US mile). But gas(petrol) is sold in liters. Some folks still talk in miles per gallon (unfortunately an English gallon is not the same size as a US gallon), some talk in miles per liter (and that's a shocker - "Oh, my car gets about 9 ...") Beer is served (and milk is delivered) in pints, but the cans you buy are half-liters. A pint here is 20 ounces, as many folks know, but did you know that an English ounce is smaller than a US ounce? I only learned this a couple of years ago myself, despite my profession. (A UK ounce is 28.4 ml, a US ounce is 29.57 ml.) Here there are no quarts, rather a gallon is 8 pints. I don't know what a "cup" means in recipes here, though most quantities of dry goods in recipes are by weight, in grams. However if you're talking about your own weight, you're talking in stones (a stone is 14 lbs.). Lengths are in centimeters, mostly, though occasionally you hear about feet and inches. I never hear yards used - I guess it's just as easy to use meters. People still talk about gills (1/4 pint) for measuring liquor (UK gill = 142 ml, US gill = 118.3 ml), interestingly the measure in England was 1/6 of a gill (almost 24 ml) whereas in Scotland it was 1/5 of a gill (over 28 ml). The usual bar measure now is 25 ml, so it's a boost for England but a letdown for Scotland, and a mondo letdown for Americans considering the way I've seen bartenders pour shots (29.6 ml).

Back to recipes - you see, silverware isn't the same size as in the US. Teaspoons here are really tiny, almost a demitasse size, whereas tablespoons are enormous, closer to a soup spoon size. I had to dig out my US measuring spoons for US recipes (those who know me are laughing - I'm not one to measure too closely nor follow recipes all that well, but still). And there is the weighing of things. My mum-in-law has a scale that I can use, though I'm still unaccustomed to having to use yet another measuring implement.

Add to all these things the currency difference - things are in pounds, although you do see a lot of prices in euros - and I'm constantly converting things in my head to something that I can understand. I can't deal in large numbers of centimeters; I convert them to meters or divide by 10 then multiply by 4 to get inches (though I still have trouble with someone's height in meters). Liters are easy, as that's the one Metric item we in the US get exposed to on a regular basis. Grams are fairly easy too, as it's pretty much 400 grams to the pound. But the price per gallon thing is painful (in more ways than 1, considering it's now, uh, 92p/liter, 3.785 liters/US gallon, that's 92 x 3.785 = GBP 3.57/US gallon, USD 1.80/GBP, so 1.8 x 3.57 = USD 6.43/US gallon - gulp!)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Organic Food Festival in Bristol

On September 4th I dragged my husband and took my daughter to the Organic Food Festival in Bristol. Amazing. There were loads of companies, not just showing their food products, but also clothing, bedding, skincare, haircare, and similar products. Most booths were not just showing but selling their products, too. It was almost farmer's market like in some areas where fresh vegetables and meats were sold. Free samples were occasionally available (never enough for me!), and there were several companies selling organic ice cream (although remarkably I only bought 1 cone). And some wonderful chocolate companies, namely The Chocolate Alchemist (making chocolate out of other things?) and Montezuma's Chocolates. It was a warm day, and so it got a little uncomfortable inside the display halls. Many of the booths were outside or in tents, which was considerably cooler. The event was very well attended; last year it was estimated that 40,000 people came through. I'm convinced that a good 40,000 were in the enclosed hall when I was struggling to get through, carrying my daughter (hubby would not set foot in that hot humid building). It's gratifying to see how many companies and products there are, many of which are right in the UK.

People in the UK and the European Union in general are very aware of their food origins. Not just how they're grown but where they're grown and how well the growers are compensated. In other words, there's a lot of attention paid to Fairtrade as well as British grown. Non-genetically modified is also rather important. Organic gets a bit difficult for many farmers because certification costs are significant and organic farmers tend to be smaller. We've talked to a couple of farmers who don't use industrial fertilizers nor pesticides, but haven't bothered to certify. So if you know the farmer, you can get what is organically grown produce even though they can't name it as such. And knowing the farmer isn't so difficult here.


Saturday, September 03, 2005


Following on with my blog on marrows, I thought I would talk about squash. The thing is, if you ask for squash in the UK expecting a vegetable, you're in for a surprise. Squash is a concentrated liquid fruit drink mix that you mix with water, sparkling water, or lemonade (I'll get back to lemonade later). Typical flavors are blackcurrant (practically synonymous with the brand Ribena), orange, grapefruit, apple and blackcurrant, and tropical fruit. They need no refrigeration, even after opening. Needless to say, they are not 100% fruit juice, more like 10% (HiC anyone?). You can buy a "high juice" squash which is 50% fruit juice, and, to me, tastes a lot better. Squashes are not the only concentrated liquid drink mixes - they also have something called cordials. Near as I can tell, cordials are like squashes except they're made with herbs rather than fruits (although it looks like some companies call their squashes cordials because it adds a certain panache). Common flavors are elderflower, ginger, and lemongrass. I'm very partial to the elderflower cordials myself. Cordials seem to be more concentrated, and are like a syrup.

I like these beverages for many reasons: the smaller refrigerators mean that things not needing refrigeration are very convenient; the lack of automatic icemaker means that I have to drink water at room temperature, which is none too appealing, but the squashes and cordials make water much more interesting; there is a bigger variety in beverage flavor options than in the US. Not only are squashes and cordials available in more flavors than I am normally able to buy in US stores, but due to their additive nature, they can be combined with all sorts of drinks to make interesting combinations. And since they're not refrigerated, we usually have a few flavors open in the pantry (more on flavors in a minute). I find that I like to add the elderflower cordial to lemonade. Except that lemonade isn't lemon juice mixed with water and sugar here. Lemonade is a sweet carbonated drink with a hint of lemon, similar to 7up or Sprite. What I haven't been able to determine is what they call American style lemonade here. It's simply not around. I've asked a few people, and no-one seems to know.

Having a small child has also led to a discovery here. When I am at someone else's house and I ask if they have juice for my daughter, they invariably say yes and produce a bottle of squash. Bear in mind that the average squash is about 10% fruit juice. People don't seem to keep juice around, and think that squash is pretty much the same thing. And to add insult to injury, many of the drinks (and other products) list "No added sugar". There is still sweetener in the product, I assure you; what it means is that the sweetener is aspartame, saccharine, or some similar. Personally I'd rather give my daughter sugar than artificial sweetener, but the reality is I just want fruit juice.

Back to flavors: The English seem to like a number of unusual beverage flavors. I've already mentioned elderflower and lemongrass. The other day I bought a 2 liter bottle of dandelion and burdock soda. I don't even know what burdock is, wait I'm looking it up. Well, no wonder, it's a native English plant. For those of you who are curious, dandelion and burdock soda tastes like a syrupy Coke flavored with anise. One of the squashes we have is orange and barley water. Even ginger drinks comes in many forms besides ale; you can find ginger beer (also rhyming cockney slang for queer), wine, and cordials.

The only thing missing from this smorgasbord of beverages is ice. People here don't often have automatic icemakers, which comes as no surprise, seeing as it usually isn't overly hot in this country. But I grew up in the land of iced tea where temperatures were the upper 80s/lower 90s with humidity in the 90s (all Fahrenheit) for about 5 months of the year, and I am used to having ice in my drinks, with the accompanying automatic icemaker. And so I have vowed that when we go to buy a fridge, it will have an icemaker. Some things I refuse to give up }wink{.