March 31, 2005

Life's little mysteries

Brad Collette asks me about what facts there are that I can't explain, the things that nudge my mind, inconvenient truths, whatever.

1. When I get on the train in Lund I am in the last car. The station in Malmoe is one-way, so the train has to switch directions to drive out again, meaning I am in the first car after Malmoe. But then sometimes when I get to the station in Copenhagen (Noerreport or North Gate) I am in the last car again!! I just don't get it. These train conductors are like street hustlers hiding peas beneath walnut shells. I suspect that they are somehow able to stage a diversion (at Svaagertorp station? Oerestad?), and then connect a new wagon on the front of the train and remove one from the back. But how do I get proof?

2. The book I am reading is never in the place I thought I put it.

3. Our son Anders is one and a half and can shriek like a steam whistle. When he does that it is simply impossible to think-- all higher functions cease instantly. And I become willing to do simply anthing to get him to stop making that noise. I understand that I am reinforcing the behaviour, but what would you do? Isn't it worth picking up the toy he threw on the floor or giving him another piece of apple or avacado? And how do I get him to stop kicking me in the stomach when I am changing his diaper?

4. With regards to global warming, while the surface temperature has increased, the temperature of the tropopause has increased too which is not completely in line with simple radiative transfer theory. This has lead some critics to say that climate scientists don't know what they are talking about. But I suspect, and I'm not alone in thinking this, that what is going on is that the increased surface temperature has lead to an increase of transport of tropospheric air into the stratosphere (through the tropopause), thus warming the tropopause.

March 30, 2005

A peculiar people

My blogging guru and best man Tim McGuire (see Primate Brow Flash link to the right) has posted a link to a great article by a guy named Frank who writes the blog Slacktivist. The article quotes C. S. Lewis:

“The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”

Here is the link to the full article:

Also in the Slacktivist blog:

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things," Philippians 4:8

March 29, 2005

There's only two kinds of people in the world.

The view from the other side.

From an old song by the Treefrogs:

There's two kinds of people in the world don't you know
Those that move away and those that stand on the porch and watch them go

And I guess I'm one of those moving away people.

Hardcore blogger Francesca has asked what it is like to be on this side of the transformation of going from being single and carefree and having time for passtimes to being a harrowed parent, wage slave, mortgagee, husband.
Well, I hope my friends and family understand that they still mean as much to me as they always have, its just that a lot of the time I am too busy to tell them that. This blog is my attempt to get at least my nose into the tent representing a social life.

Having a family is great, it brings you into intimate contact with the big questions, like what kind of a world do I want to live in and what am I teaching my kids by my words and actions. It is a focus and an anchor, 24/7. And it takes precedence over a lot of other things-- I may have been less of a good friend to my friends & family lately? Not for me to say really.

I've always known I would have to fend for myself which is why I guess I am a moving away person. Away from a more than pretty decent family in MN who I should visit more often, towards independence and self-sufficiency and my own family

The fork goes on the left

I've translated a column from the Sunday paper:

Patients in Poland should not forget their silverware
By Kjell Albin Abrahamson, Sydsvenskan, Sunday 27 March 2005'

As a heart patient I have made a few brave attempts to be admitted to the cardiology unit at the Ystad hospital where I live. Unfortunately I have always failed. This time I didn't even try, but instead, checked myself into a Polish hospital. I knew through familiy and friends that when you enter a Polish hospital, you should not only bring your own pajamas, slippers, robe and toiletries, but also your own toilet paper and provisions. The daily milk soup with rice or macaroni does not exactly make your taste buds jump up and down in unison with culinary delight. When the nurse came to my bed with the first meal she stared at me in surprise and broke out, 'What, don't you have any silverware with you? How are you going to eat!?' 'Have I come to a Siberian prison camp instead of a Polish hospital?' I shot back. In reply to my retort, I was given a quick lesson in Polish reality. Every last pine cone in Poland knows that you have to take your own silverware with when you check into the hospital!

Otherwise, the routines are the same at hospitals everywhere. A crucifix is the only decoration on the wall, just as in many countries. A new thing though was that after they have taken your temperature in the morning, a priest comes through to give the patients the Lord's blessings. My ailing heart was analyzed for two days by the hospital, and finally they reached a verdict. 'You need to have a coronary angiogram. We suspect that it is five minutes to midnight, the time of your third and final heart attack.'

To read the rest of the column, click on the word 'comments' at the end of this post.

March 27, 2005

Stranger in a strange land

It's taken some time to learn Swedish and Danish, and I have a lot left to learn. I've reached the point where I can take care of most routine business in these languages, by phone or in person. But it's one thing to make yourself understood and another not to stick out. You know, maybe my accent will be off, or I'll say something in a slightly strange way, or a word from another language will slip through the filters. It annoys me if I am talking to a sales clerk and they figure out I'm a native speaker of English and decide to switch languages-- it means I've failed the test. I wonder, what gave me away? Some words are especially challenging-- for example, I just can't say 'Happy Meal med Chicken McNuggets', 'Mexican Wrap' or 'Coca-cola' with the accent of a Swede speaking English.

It is also amusing/annoying to keep track of which words belong to which language. Danish and Swedish resemble each other quite a bit, but even so, 'black' is 'svart' in the one language but 'sort' in the other, a window is a foenster in Swedish but a vindue in Danish, and a 'week' is a Swedish vecka but a Danish uge (but note that the Danes have a 'weekend' but the Swedes a 'helg'!). Not only do they have different words in the two languages, but there are also a lot of words that are the same but have different meanings. 'Roligt' means peaceful or quiet in Danish but fun in Swedish-- there is a joke about the Swede who went to Copenhagen and asked the taxi driver to take him to a fun place and ended up at the cemetary. No, there is no sense to language.

A couple of Danes have told me that English is nothing more than a dialect of Danish. England was colonised by the vikings, most of them from the west coast of Denmark, and they left their imprint on the language. One example is our word for window, which is based on the Danish word meaning literally 'wind eye.' Another is that the Danes would say that the sheep are out in the pasture 'grassing' (eating grass), or in modern English, 'grazing.' (The Swedish word for a window, foenster, is a relative of the English word for thowing someone out the window-- defenestrate. They have a common Latin root.)

There are a fair number of Americans in Lund, most of them exchange students at the University. Two of the supermarkets in town now have a special American section. They are the same: three shelves stocked with French's mustard, Oreos, Reese's Pieces, Log Cabin syrup, Paul Newman salad dressing, root beer and marshmallows. This is the essence of my country?

March 22, 2005

A short pause

I am taking a short break from the blog. Can you believe that Karin and I will have been married for 15 years on March 24th? We are going on a short trip with the kids to celebrate. Probably won't write again until after Easter. Happy Easter everyone!

March 21, 2005


Some of the dogs I have known
In no particular order
One neighbor likes to walk his poodle wearing a Scottish wool cap and rubber boots. The poodle has a collar that blinks.
Another neighbor wears sweats and walks his two dachshunds down the middle of the street.
When my brothers and sisters get together they will talk about a spaniel named Goggles that my family had in Crookston. Apparently I ran over his tail with my stroller when I was a toddler. I can't recall.
My brother Lowell had a cool black lab named Nico that I used to get to take care of sometimes. In 7th grade art class I made a profile of Nico's head with clay and painted it with black glaze.
I remember staying at Maple Lake near Alexandria-- the farm where my Dad grew up with some nice little cabins by the lake. There was a German shephard there one time who would play fetch with really big rocks.
My Karkula cousins had a peppy little spotted dog named Snoopy that liked to lick people.
My Johanson cousins had a spaniel who jealously protected the homestead against all enemies.

March 18, 2005

The tapes in the car

The cover of the cassette may say 'Stooges/Voidoids' but don't be fooled. The tape inside is Meat Puppets/Dwight Yokum.

The cover may say 'Folkways' but the tape inside is Johnny Cash American Prayer and Bob Dylan, Highway 61.

But the ones that say Exile on Main Street and Buddy Holly Lives and Violent Femmes and Jonathan Goes Country really are what they say they are.

Can you tell that I haven't made any tapes in about 15 years?

March 17, 2005

Junk Mail

I just read an article in the New York Times about different methods people have for dealing with life's annoyances.

First there is a guy who saves the subscription cards that fall out of magazines and sends them back blank so the company has to pay the postage.

Next there is a guy who signed up on a no-junk-mail list, but still kept getting junk mail. He would write "Not at this address. Return to sender" on the letters, but the mail kept coming because the envelopes had "or current resident" on them, so the postman had to deliver it. So, he started stuffing the mail back into the business reply envelope and sending it back to the company, again so they would be forced to pay the postage. But he thought that this was not inflicting enough cost on the company, so he started cutting up magazines, heavy paper and small strips of sheet metal and stuffing them into the business reply envelopes to increase the weight.

From the article, "You wouldn't believe how heavy I got some of these envelopes to weigh," said Mr. Williams, who added that he saw an immediate drop in the amount of arriving junk mail. A spokesman for the United States Postal Service, Gerald McKiernan, said that Mr. Williams's actions sounded legal, as long as the envelope was properly sealed.

Fredrik turns 8

We asked Fredrik what kind of a birthday party he wanted to have, and he thought about it and said that he wanted to have a space party. The party technicians went to work. We sent out invitations with pictures of rockets and Jupiter's giant red spot. Karin cut out rockets with sparkly streamers shooting out the back and put them up in the windows. I printed out a bunch of pictures that we put up around the house-- the Starship Enterprise, the mars rover, drooling alien cyclops Kang from the Simpsons, planets, the space station and so on, and then on Sunday afternoon all the kids showed up. First we tested their space knowledge to see if they would make a good crew. How many planets are there? How big is space? What is the nearest star? We decided they would have to do, and assigned them different posts: alien interpreter, commander of laser cannons, comet stopper, director of space insects, and Fredrik was the space captain. Then we served a microscopic space dinner-- one tiny pill for vegetables, one for steak and one for potato, all of them vitamin enriched (just between you and me, the potato was a Pez candy and the steak and vegetables were thinly sliced red and green licorice). Then we discovered that aliens had hidden pods all around the house and if we didn't find them they would hatch and the house would be taken over by alien monsters. It was a lot of fun, but it was also a lot of work to keep track of 14 grade schoolers full of green space soda, rocket cake and ice cream. The kids were impressed by the rocket cake Karin made, and especially by the engine-- an aluminum foil cone with three lit sparklers. Then I rolled out a big piece of paper on the floor, the kind you use to protect the floor when you paint, and drew a huge space station on it. The kids got crayons and set to work drawing parts of the space station, and everybody got to draw their own planet. We played music from Star Wars in the background.

This morning at breakfast we were talking about the party and what Fredrik wanted to do next year. He thought about it, and said he wanted to have a mining party, with pickaxes and helmet lamps. 'Dad,' he said, 'you can start digging now!'

March 12, 2005

We worked hard

"We worked hard but every time things started to work a new plan for reorganization was put into action. I learned later in life that we have a tendency to meet every new situation by reorganising, and I learned what a wonderful method this is for creating the illusion of progress, while in reality it causes chaos, inefficiency and demoralisation. "

--Gajus Petronius, AD 66

March 11, 2005


One of the books on my shelf is the US Army Survival Manual, FM 21-76. I got it at the Caltech bookstore about 15 years ago, motivated by an affinity for the great outdoors and a desire to survive graduate school. It didn't have anything directly useful for that purpose ('Act like the natives'...'Vanquish fear and panic'), but it is full of great tips, like how to avoid shark attacks while lost at sea:

'The normal diet of most sharks is living animals. All sharks have voracious appetites...Roar or yell under water. Some divers report this will sometimes scare a shark away. Hit the shark with anything you have, but remember that using your hands will damage you more than the shark.'

There is even a chapter about weather, how to survive and predict it. According to the book, it is possible to hear and smell a low pressure system. They write that sounds are sharper and carry farther in low than in high pressure systems, and that sluggish humid air makes wilderness smells more pronounced. As a parent facing a daily matrix of sharp sounds and wilderness smells, I can only conclude that we are under a permanent low pressure system.

March 09, 2005

Recurring dreams

In one recurring dream I am in a byzantine building in Budapest, checkerboard tile floor, marble pillars, Escher staircases. Everyone is thinking and breathing mathematics and chess and eating goulasch, in blessed monastic silence.

In another I am in the sky looking over a living map of a mountainous peninsula. I search the terrain (which has a light cloud cover), through bays, river valleys, hills, and I think, the fishing must be really good right there. And then there I am fishing in a rocky mountain stream.

Of course, the most persistent recurring dream of mine is that the trains will run on time.

March 07, 2005

Weekend update

Fredrik was playing a game called 'shark' at the school playground that involved putting snow on the slide so you went down really fast, and then the shark should break in between two other kids who are holding onto each other. We didn't get all the details. But after he had been home from school for a couple of hours he happened to mention that he had broken a tooth-- top right incisor, all the way across. So the next morning we went to 'folktandv?rden' (public tooth care) at 7.30 in the morning-- all kids in Sweden get free dental care. By 8.15 it was fixed with a nice white cap-- impossible to see. Sweden does some things right.

Anders will surprise us by talking sometimes, saying things like 'no banana' or 'Fredrik.' He has reached the stage where his complete and focused goal in life is to climb onto a chair or couch and stand up. Very dangerous. Keeps us on our toes.

Over Christmas we put a sheaf of oats on a stake outside the kitchen window. It was a big hit with the birds, and looking out the window is a nice alternative to looking at dirty dishes. So I looked out this weekend and there was a brown furry critter climbing in the sheaf, eating the seeds. What the heck? Not a squirrel. Too big to be a mouse-- yech, a rat! We think it is living in our neighbor's woodpile. A lá Caddyshack, I have started a campaign to get rid of the rat, and it does not involve piping. Reminds me of my days as a student in St. Paul when I discovered bite marks in a bar of soap by the basement sink of our house on Selby Avenue. The subsequent hunt is the only event in my life that has been immortalized by a poem, due to dear friend Eldon Potter:

Tim and Matt
killed a rat
smashed it flat
dead rat.

March 06, 2005

Breaking news from Norway

This weekend is the World Championship for a Norwegian winter sport known as 'Traedskidhoppning' or 'Tree-Ski Jumping.' The idea is to ski off of a natural object like a snowdrift and land as high as possible in a tree. It doesn't count if you fall out of the tree or if the tree breaks. Will post picture if possible.

March 05, 2005

The land of opportunity

I was talking with a taxi driver a while back. He was from Iran and he asked me where I was from. The US I replied, Minnesota. I said I had known a guy from Iran (at Macalester), Reza, that he was a chiropractor now and was making a lot of money. This guy told me that he was educated as an engineer, but that after spending five years looking for an engineering job in Sweden he had given up. In Sweden, middle eastern immigrants drive cabs, or make pizzas or kebabs, or collect unemployment, that's it.

The US has made a tremendous amount of progress in promoting equal rights and educating people about discrimination. Its not perfect, that's true, but some fights have been fought and won. That's not the case here.

March 04, 2005

We can take all that and more!

Tim McGuire asked me to write something about how the US is described in the newspapers here. I found something interesting in a paper called 'Expressen.' Expressen is not the journalistic cream of the crop. They do have a fun logo though, a wasp, they've 'got more sting.' Here's a translation of part of an article by columnist Marie Soderqvist (

USA, land without style and finesse

After spending about three months in lower Manhattan it feels nice to come home again. Being in America is like meeting a missed but tiresome relative. It is fun, but after an intense visit you start to see the bad sides of their personality: the noise, the bragging, the self-centeredness and the compact disinterest in everyone else. And as long as we're bringing these things up, their complete lack of table manners, bad taste and childish jokes wear thin. Compared to Europe, America is like a large country cousin who has not been raised properly, without style and finesse but with a contagious energy.

Last week the move 'The Prince and Me' had its premier in New York. It probably won't have a premier anywhere else except in Denmark, because it wasn't that good. The movie is about an ambitious farmer's daughter from Wisconsin who meets the Danish crown prince. The American way of showing that people are refined is to have them speak British English, which is what the Danish royal family does at home in their castle in Copenhagen. Languages other than English do not exist in the USA, with the exception of Spanish which has been forced on America by all of the immigrants from Latin America. The Danish prince comes to a university in Wisconsin anonymously, and succeeds in remaining unknown. Nobody is interested enough in the polite young man who can speak six languages and quote Shakespeare to reveal him. There is no other country on earth where you can meet so many people who are so monumentally uninterested in everything outside of their own sphere. After all, what is a Scandinavian kingdom compared to a Midwestern American farm?

After the young prince has spent a few days among real Americans in the country and learned to catch cows, fight like a real man and do an honest day's work, he is called back to Denmark to become King. But, he wants to bring his American farmer's daughter with him. But that's not what she wants, because she is modern and the little Scandinavian kingdom is too backwards. That's how the movie ends. Americans get the job done without dusty inhibitions while Europeans are pompous nitwits who need to learn a thing or two from the Americans, and not the other way around. Not even my ten-year-old daughter, who was the one who wanted to see the film, was ready to buy that description of reality. And suddenly, America felt just exactly as stimulating and foreign as the overconfident self-righteous country cousin.

(Matt again: This is typical-- I often encounter Europeans who base their opinions about the US on short visits and Hollywood movies.)

March 03, 2005

Junk Mail

I got a piece of junk mail today that was kind of fun for a change. Here's part of it:

Disappointment is a sort of bankruptcy -- the bankruptcy of a soul that expends too much in hope and expectation.

Talents are best nurtured in solitude.

Character is best formed in the stormy billows of the world.

He that is discontented in one place will seldom be content in another.

The oldest books are still only just out to those who have not read them.

The person who builds a character makes foes.

The difficulty is not that great to die for a friend, the hard part is finding a friend worth dying for.

The only people who never fail are those who never try.

Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.

March 02, 2005

Uncle Albert

Think of the great time Albert Einstein had in 1905, 100 years ago (he turned 26 in March of that year):

March-- submits groundbreaking paper on the photoelectric effect
April-- submits his PhD thesis on determining the size of molecules
May-- submits groundbreaking paper on Brownian motion
June-- submits groundbreaking paper on special relativity
August--submits groundbreaking paper on the size of molecules
September-- submits groundbreaking paper on the equivalence of mass and energy (i.e. E = mc^2)
October-November-- earns money tutoring a student on electricity
December-- submits paper extending theories on Brownian motion

The world is crying out for a screenwriter to tell us what Albert was doing in January, February and July.

March 01, 2005

Not fit for a bird cage

I love to hate newspapers. The 'South Sweden Daily Paper' (Sydsvenska Dagbladet, is wonderful for this purpose. They do a great job of subverting the news in service of social-democratic ideology and the creative egos of their journalists. How do I hate this paper? Let me count the ways:

1. They employ a small harem of photographers to take pictures at strange angles, often deliberately out of focus. They get bonus points for taking a picture of something as a reflection using water or a pane of glass. They put a graphic picture of open heart surgery on the front page (goes great with breakfast!), and last week a nice photo of a phallic snowman some students had built.

2. They choose the most obscure things to put on the front page, and the stories are always told from a strange viewpoint. Today's headline 'above the fold' was that 142 people (many of them young families) had moved from Lund to Kaevlinge in the past year. ('So!?' ) Another story was the impact of the new regional train schedule on a single person, a doctor, who would get 10 minutes less time with her family in the morning. The American ideal of objective reporting, often achieved by interviewing representatives of two sides of an issue, is nowhere to be seen. (As long as I'm ranting, this journalistic method can also be annoying-- whatever happened to analysis of issues as provided e.g. by the BBC? Can and should every issue be divided into 'pro' and 'con'? Many times there are David and Goliath issues where this style of reporting elevates a single crank to the same status as the entire National Academy of Sciences...)

3. The most grievous sin of the paper is their weather reporting, if you can call it that. I read the weather report and I am only a little wiser than when I started. Take today-- according to the Danish weather service we are in for at least a foot of wet snow, falling temperature, strong winds out of the northeast, drifting snow, a wild ride. Does Sydsvenskan expect their readers to understand all that based on a tiny diagram of a fluffy cloud and three snowflakes and a predicted high temperature of 0 degrees Celcius!?

4. You never know where to find anything. The Sunday comics (a single page-- Ernie, Dagwood and Calvin, that's it) could be buried anywhere from page A32 to D17. Likewise, the weather forecase and letters to the editor keep moving around.

The only saving grace of the paper is their political editor, Per T. Ohlsson. He is a pillar of common sense and liberal (in its historical/(traditional meaning) values concerning America and Sweden. An enlightened critic of the current regime (the Swedish Social Democrats have been in power for 60 of the last 70 years), 'Per T' has been a lighthouse for me during the last four years because he understands and is able to explain American politics to the Swedes. Another day I may tell you about another paper I loved to hate, the Los Angeles Times, and about the time we got rear-ended by none other than Per T. Ohlsson.

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