October 29, 2005

Stranger in a strange land part x

At work we got talking about what it is like to be a foreigner living in Scandinavia. People everywhere are curious to hear how they appear to outsiders. Set aside the idea that after 10 years here I am still an outsider-- that's a surtax I will always be asked to pay. A student said she thought I must be tired of hearing so much criticism of the USA. I replied that it especially bothers me when the people doing the criticizing are ignorant. You often hear arguments of the type, 'we wouldn't want things here (health care, education, consumer rights, commercial TV, etc.) to be like in the US.' And actually, we don't have it so bad over there:

1. Health care. Not hard to think of people I know in the US who are diagnosed as needing a new hip or cataract surgery, and then the procedure is performed, almost before you can say 'boo.' Here people wait and wait-- remember my post some months ago about the guy who went to Poland for heart surgery? The tag line was, if you are going to a Polish hospital, don't forget to bring your own silverware! (Additional comment: Americans pay more and get less than other advanced countries and the medical care is not justly distributed.)

2. Education. Sure higher education is expensive in the US but there are some benefite-- 17 of the world's top 20 universities are in the U.S. People plan ahead to pay for their children's education and for the most part, the children do their best to make the most of the opportunity. In Europe, politically, education is seen as a good way to get the unemployment statistics down.

3. Consumer rights. Product liability lawsuits work. Over here the government is in bed with the tobacco industry (and they are themselves the gambling industry and have a monpoly on selling alcohol), since it brings in so much money.

But on to my main point. I was forced to give an example of a way I thought Europeans were ignorant, and thought, well OK, here goes. Yes there have been significant problems with racial discrimination in the US. Europeans do not recognize or give credit to the US for the amount of work that has been done, individual by individual, to overcome these problems and the progress that has been made. One example comes from my hometown which became home to some Somalian refugees. I was visiting, and happened to read that the mayor had formed a committee to help the Somalians settle into the community. A group of Somalians work at the printing company where two of my siblings work. My very own dear mother was volunteering at an elementary school, tutoring Somalian children. And in Malmoe Sweden they recently wrote in the paper, the rate of unemployment among Somalian refugees is 90%. The folks at work told me that Danes and Swedes pay the highest taxes found, and so they think it is the government's responsibility, and that it is the government's failure that the newcomers have not been assimilated. In the US, God Bless America, for from perfect, people take responsibility and say to themselves well if it is going to get done I am going to have to do something about it. Ask not what your country can do for you. Which all brings me back to something Tim's father is said to have said: If you are not a liberal when youare 20 you have no heart, and if you are not a conservative when you are 30 you have no brain.

Don't stare.

I was sitting on the train yesterday and got my ticket out of my backpack, which was sitting on the floor between my knees. I happened to notice that the woman sitting across from me had terrible red burns on her legs, livid, mottled. I told myself not to stare, not to even notice. She was happy, animated, talking with her friends and laughing, and I thought what she must have gone through to reach this point, and what a big step it must have been to wear skirts in public. Then when she got up to get off the train I happened to see that she wasn't burned at all, but was wearing some perky red patterned nylons.

October 27, 2005

Why blog?

Why do I blog?

Dave Ploeg has raised the eternal question-- to blog or not to blog? Herewith my reasons:

1. A good friend of mine was going though a hard period and would spend time meditating, and one trick that apparently worked really well for him, allowing the journey inward to begin, was to think about his eyebrow. (Another fun meditation tip of his is to imagine you are breathing through your eyes with your eyelids closed.) I could only think that with all of these hard things happening left and right, how his eyebrows must be the one reference point keeping the whole package tied in a bundle. No eyebrows and puff! Stark raving madman. What I'm trying to say is that my blog is like an eyebrow.

2. I'm still mad at one of my older sisters for messing with my mind at my eighth birthday party so I got angry and frustrated and was embarassed in front of all my friends. What I'm saying is that writing is therapeutic, and that it turns out to be rather simple to write things you never thought you could say.

3. My work requires concentration and I can keep that up for a while, and then I need to look at pictures of clouds or read stories about 63 year old Episcopalian widows going over waterfalls in barrels. Then, after a breath of air, I am ready to go back in. Reminds me of a lady who worked in the chemical stockroom at Caltech. We'd go there to get things like rubber bands, methanol and Erlinmeyer flasks, and we were very determined. One day she said to me and a German postdoc, 'Guys! Come up for air!'

4. Every once in a while there is a moment of clarity, and in composing things I get to walk to places I wouldn't otherwise reach, and search memories that would otherwise dry out or fester. And the process of blogging involves other people, so it is inherently interesting and rewarding. (And thanks to F for those last two ideas!)

October 24, 2005

Annie Taylor

On this day in 1901 Anna Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old Civil War widow, became the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Annie said, "I prayed every second I was in the barrel except for a few seconds after the fall when I went unconscious." And, "Nobody ought ever to do that again."

October 23, 2005

Screaming men

Huutajat, a men's choir from Finland, makes my hair stand on end. They are a choir in the sense that they have a director and warm up their voices before performing, but instead of singing, they scream. You can download their version of the Star Spangled Banner from their website, www.huutajat.org.

There is a great documentary about the group called Screaming Men, by Mika Ronkainen. In my favorite scene an icebreaker crashes to a halt. Empty cold silence, nothing but ice and wind. The choir climbs over the side of cold steel hull (in tuxedos) and lines up in front of their director, and performs. Incredible!

October 21, 2005

Tobacco company memos

Here are some great quotes from tobacco company memos:

The fragile, developing self-image of a young person needs all the support and enhancement it can get...
-RJR analysis

Younger adult smokers are the only source of replacement smokers....
RJR, Feb. 29, 1984

...the lower age limit for the profile of young smokers is to remain at 14.
RJR, April 7, 1971

If you are really and truly not going to sell to children, you are going to be out of business in 30 years.
..owners of Liggett Tobacco Company

We don't smoke that sh**; we just sell it. We reserve that for the young, the black, the poor and the stupid.
RJ Reynolds executive

October 18, 2005

First impressions

The noodle is fallible, but here's how I remember my first introduction to Bruce Pavalon. Its a Friday night and we go to the basement of a house on St. Claire Avenue in St. Paul to hear a Macalester band called Intestinal Scrape. Plastic cups of beer, wooden stairs down to the cinderblock cellar lit by a single bulb hanging from a wire. Bruce is the drummer, keeping the beat on the door from a Zippy's Pizza delivery car.

In the next great introduction I will change a name to protect overzealous youth. Late some fall night, walking along the street in St. Paul with Kate and Molly Hobberly (and Tim I think) and we're talking about cats. Molly gets upset when she hears we had declawed Muffin, my cat when I was a kid. I explained it was to protect the furniture and wildlife but that wasn't good enough. 'How would you like it if we castrated you!?' she said. It's good that she said that or I am sure I never would have remembered her from Adam.

It didn't seem the right time to explain that the big thing to do when I was a kid was to collect beer cans. All us 11 year olds would bike around town all summer collecting strange and unique cans from softball fields and hedges. One time we found a place that I can only describe as beer can collector heaven-- an old barn on the north side of town-- the floor was a foot deep in beer cans. And what cans! Cone tops! Virtually rust-free steel cans! Antique treasures. But back to the main story-- one day Pete Lawmann and Jon Hanson and I went to the fairgrounds looking for cans and one of us pulled a grocery sack full of kittens out of a steel garbage drum. They were near death, four little kittens, white with black spots. We took them to the vet's and the kindly nurse helped us give a little liquid to the semiconscious dehydrated small things. Pete's mom let us keep them in their garage and we nursed them back to life, feeding them milk from a baby bottle. Tiny fuzzy little kittens who liked nothing better than to follow us around in the tall grass of a newly mowed lawn. After the kittens were a little older each uf us in the beer can syndicate got one-- we had matching cats. Muffin was the runt of the litter and never grew larger than a kitten but she wouldn't let anyone push her around. I remember her chasing squirrels up trees and chasing dogs off our yard. Even without front claws Muffin could take care of herself. Molly should have known that claws are a state of mind.

October 16, 2005

Top Insults

Here are the best insults I have heard.

Once Bruce Pavalon told me that The Replacements were a band for suburban high school kids, like from Apple Valley. Ouch! Bruce, how could you say a thing like that!

An ex-girlfriend once told me that the only reason I wanted to be a teacher was because I liked telling people what to do. A seed of truth?

And the third insult is from something I read a long time ago that said that clothes from The Gap are for people from Armpit, Nebraska who want to look like they are sophisticated. This one also hit the mark I'm sorry to say, even though I'm not from Nebraska. I've gotten some nice clothes at The Gap, including my favorite summer shorts and one of my favorite shirts.

October 15, 2005

Christian XI

Denmark is celebrating the birth of a son early Saturday morning to Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary. I came to the lab today and heard the news from Carsten, a Dane. 'What's his name?' I asked. This was a really silly question and I only get away with stuff like this becasue I am a foreigner. Every last pine cone in Denmark knows that the names of the Danish Kings (the world's oldest monarchy) have alternated between Christian and Frederik since Christian I took the throne in 1448. The future monarch has several names: Christian (naturally) Frederik (for his father) Henrik (his grandfather) John (Mary's father). Mary formerly Donaldson is from Tasmania and her father is a mathematics professor. She converted from her original Presbyterian church to Lutheranism, the state religion of Denmark. The Danish royal house is the oldest in the world, with an unbroken line of succession that can be traced to Canute (father of Gorm the Old), who was crowned in 917.

October 13, 2005


I was rereading a text about atmospheric chemistry today. Air quality is at its worst in the summer when slow-moving high pressure systems wander by. The high pressure system creates a temperature inversion, trapping emissions near the surface. One of the best ways to ventilate this surface layer is through convection, like in a summer cumulonimbus cloud. Which got me reading about storm cells, and then about supercells which are like turbocharged cumulous clouds delivering softball sized hail and tornados. Here are some terribly beautiful pictures of supercells in the American midwest.

Scientists of the world, unite!

It is time to come out of the closet: I am a geek. For example, I am really enthusiastic about electronic gadgets-- and I'm not talking about things like iPods or laptops. These common tools can't hold a candle to a gated integrator or the beauty of the photomultiplier tube. I found a truly lovely piece of electronics at the electron storage ring today. Not only does it have the old vacuum tube style numerical display, but it was built in the Soviet Union in 1978! I wish I could read Russian so I could understand what all the knobs do. I am guessing that the title of the instrument has something to do with spectrophotometry.

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October 11, 2005

The pursuit of happiness

I read in the paper yesterday that a vice president of the Morgan Stanley investment firm visited Sweden. He came to say that Europeans need to consume more, and that Europe and China have been underconsuming for quite some time. What to make of this bold accusation?

Then there was a great article in the New York Times about the country of Bhutan. In 1972, newly crowned King Jigme Singye Wangchuck considered the problems to be found in developing countries that were focusing exclusively on economic grownth. Therefore, instead of thinking about the Gross National Product, he decided to concern himself with the Gross National Happiness. The King decided that Bhutan 'needed to ensure that prosperity was shared across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government. ' He was able to lengthen the average life expectancy in the country by 19 years between 1984 and 1998, and the country is now preparing to shift to a constitutional system with an elected government.

Now, what exactly did the founding fathers mean when they wrote about 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'? I don't think they were talking about the joy of shopping, but instead, more fundamental virtues.

What does the well-developed consumer economy of the US deliver in terms of happiness? Not life expectancy. Residents of many countries that consume less than the US report themselves to be happier.

There must be another dimension!

October 06, 2005

The Swedes' Ridiculous Cape

Here's a translation of a letter to the editor from today's paper:

The US has borrowed one of our submarines, with crew, in order to learn how to hunt diesel boats. Despite all of the technology that they have, they still have enormous problems finding our little wonder of Swedish ingenuity. A little submarine that is half as long, weighs a third as much and has a fourth the crew, no big cool nuclear reactor but instead a diesel engine, and still they cannot find her. When we see this happen out in the world, isn't it about time for us Swedes to throw off the ridiculous cape called the Jante law, stand up straight and proclaim, 'By the devil! Aren't we good at building submarines!'

(By the way, today somebody wrote to me, Therefore I would have been interesting to meet you. The alarming thing is that the first time I read it it made perfect sense.)

October 03, 2005

Sublime K9

This was once recognized as the world's best joke.

A dog walks into a telegraph office to send a message.
The telegraph operator says, 'OK, go ahead.'
The dog says,
'Woof, Woof, Woof,
Woof, Woof, Woof,
Woof, Woof, Woof.'
The telegraph operator says, 'You know we have a special today, buy nine words get the tenth word for free. Would you like me to add another 'Woof'?'
The dog replied, 'But then it wouldn't make any sense!'

October 02, 2005

The sheet bend is an old friend

I have started taking Fredrik to the city library as a fun father-son project. On our first visit we got our library cards and picked out secret four digit codes. Fredrik checked out a horror story for children written by Oscar Wilde-- Ghost of Canterville or somesuch, and a book about spiders. The second time around he got a great comic book about the Nordic Gods and is learning about Tor and Tyr and Frida and Odin who live on the 'home farm' and fight giants.

I found a great book about knots for myself, a true classic, The Ashley Book of Knots. It contains no fewer than 3854 knots, from the Adjustable Bend to the Zigzag Ring Hitching. From the introduction,

When I arrived at a proper age I went to sea and served my apprenticeship in knots aboard the whaling bark Sunbeam....Under Captain Smith's tutorship I progressed rapidly in knots and marlingspike seamanship to a point where even my teacher admitted that if I persevered and retained my health I might someday hope to grasp the rudiments of the art. When I had learned all that he offered I repaid him rather shabbily for all his kindness by slipping forared in the dogwatches and picking up, at the forecastle head, three knots with which he was unfamiliar.

To me the simple act of tying a knot is an adventure in unlimited space. A bit of string affords a dimensional latitude that is unique among the entities....If we move a single strand in a plane, interlacing it at will, actual objects of beaury and utility can result in what is practically two dimensions; and if we choose to direct our strand out of this one plane, another dimension is added, which provides opportunity for an excursion that is limited only by the scope of our own imagery and the length of the ropemaker's coil. What can be more wonderful than that?

I have been walking around the house for about a week now trying to tye Monkey's Fists and Turk's Heads. I can make a fairly decent Monkey's Fist now. My wife takes the view of Dr. Johnson:

Knotting outght to be reckoned, in the scale of insignificance, next to mere idleness.
-Dr. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary

Here is Clifford Ashley's description of knot number 1201:

Although handsome, this knot is somewhat ponderous and I would hesitate to recommend it for anything less than a meeting of the Garden Club itself. The purpose of the knot under the circumstances would be to provide roped-off areas so that guests might be spared the embarassment of trampling on the flower beds.

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