January 31, 2006

do be do be do


According to shamanism the universe is filled with heavenly bodies peopled by spiritual beings. The world is like a saucer, with a hole in the middle leading to the Netherlands. The earth is supported on the back of a colossal monster whose movement causes earthquakes. The earth has a navel upon which stands the cosmic tree.

According to Jainism the world is eternal and uncreated, and reality has five basic elements: soul, matter, space, the principles of motion and the ceasation of motion. The Digambaras add a sixth element, time.

20th century cosmology tells us that the universe is in a dynamic state, continually expanding since the big bang 15 billion years ago. No-one can say whether it will collapse or continue to expand.

The spatial geometry of the Einstein-de Sitter universe is Euclidean, but space-time is not globally flat.

Main course

I am living in a parallel universe, in the sense that I am moving in the same direction as all of you but I am displaced geographically, linguistically and (not-so-much-but-even-so) culturally. And what fun it is in my universe! There are so many things that are different, and some that are the same. For example, in my universe there is universal medical care, curbside recycling, great public transportation (when I'm not complaining about it), no billboards and much less advertising in general, green belts, bike paths and parks (everywhere! No kidding!), and you have to work really hard at it not to have a place to live. How much would you pay for this in ordinary stores!? But wait, that's not all. We also have really stupid politicians and irritating telemarketers. Taxes are high and the winters are long, dark and wet.

Linguistically I never talk with native speakers of English. This may be an advantage because it has helped me to pare down my language, focusing on the message instead of the means, and forced me to give up irritating cliches and ephemeral catch phrases.

The phenomenon is general-- everyone lives in their own universe. You are what you choose to eat, hear, see, think, love, do. What is the common direction?

January 29, 2006


Ouch. The last week has been a killer. A fearful foursome of geological forces has been eroding my majestic profile:

1. Any parent of a two year old can relate. Say no more! Please! It is only a passing phase. He has discovered his self and his will and he needs our love, even after two hours of screaming because he was supposed to open the door not me, or mom was supposed to pick up the spoon, not dad. It is only a passing phase. But at least he could let us sleep through the night?

2. Meetings every single day last week, plus two days of oral exams (at least these days I am examiner and not examinee). Not to mention visitors and students stopping by and a major expansion of our laboratory to coordinate.

3. First came the heavy snow. Then came the shoveling of the heavy snow. Then came the repeated lifting of the willful children, not to mention the clothing of the willful children. Then came the crucifying pain in my neck and shoulder. Today I have a range of motion of 27 degrees (horizontally or vertically) with moderate pain and much stiffness, and today is a good day.

4. I have not had a single train this year that has been on time. Snow caught in the switches. Brake troubles. Frost on the wires. I hate to enter a meeting late, with an apology, even if the fault lies with DSB, Skaanetrafiken, SJ or Banestyrelsen. On Friday I thought I would drive in and save the trouble, and maybe get home early for a change. Instead the road to home was blocked by a tragic 13-car chain collision and the 1-hour commute took me 2.5 hours. It felt like I was back in Los Angeles, except with Volvos and snow instead of SUVs and sunglasses.


Here is the story of the wonderful cabbages I grew in our garden one summer. I was thinking of the subject of cabbages while preparing lunch today-- oh it was good, diced sausage fried with onions and shredded cabbage, served on the worlds densest full-grain sourdough rye bread. I bought the cabbage in part because I thought I might make another batch of homemade sauerkraut. So far I haven't found the time. But the real reason I bought the cabbage is that I was telling F about how I had once said that I don't care so much about having piles of money when I am retired. I need the money now, when the kids are young and we need a house and a car and we have our health and are getting things started. What I declared was that when I am retired, I just need a few cabbages and a few carrots and I am going to spend my time sitting in the sun writing cranky letters to the editor. F replied with a story about emporer Diocletian. They asked him to return from retirement and he refused, saying they should see the size of his cabbages!

So, we used to have a garden lot when we first moved to Sweden. I think the idea came from Germany to begin with, as a social project to improve the quality of life of urban apartment dwellers- anyway, all over Europe you can find these garden collectives. You lease a lot from the city and can build a little shed or cabin and grow some vegetables. And we were there all the time, improving the soil, growing pumpkins and squash and potatoes and onions and kohl rabi and strawberries and don't forget the beets, carrots and parsnips. And one year I planted cabbages and boy you should have seen them grow! Big as baby's heads! Half a dozen beautiful green snowballs growing in our lot. And then one day we came to the garden lot and there had been a massacre. A couple of hares (we found the pawprints of the evil-doers) had shredded the cabbages. From the looks of things they had not eaten a thing but just shredded their way to the center of every head, and then hopped away. I am not by nature an angry man but these butchers really made my blood boil. At that point I could understand our neighbor when I was growing up, Mr. Tuttle, who used to sit at his kitchen table with a 22 and shoot the rabbits in his backyard garden. Sure he was a cranky old man, but keep your paws off the cabbages!

January 23, 2006

Hot hot hot

So, now its official, 2005 is the warmest year since the invention of the thermometer, and likely for much longer than that. Figure from Uncle Sam: http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/2005/

January 19, 2006

Happy birthday, Ben!

Its some fun to note the three-hundredth birthday of Benjamin Franklin, for 60 years a British subject and the First American, the only one to sign of all the important documents leading to our nation. I have special sympathies for Ben because he is the youngest son (he had 16 siblings!). Franklin was noted for his curiosity, ingenuity and diversity of interests. He invented the Franklin stove, the medical catheter, the lightning rod, swimfins, a glass harmonica, and bifocals. Here are some favorite quotations from his creation, Poor Richard's Almanack:

Let thy discontents be thy secrets; if the world knows them it will despise thee and increase them.
Drive thy Business, or it will drive thee.
He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.
Setting too good an example is a kind of slander seldom forgiven.
Avarice and happiness never saw each other, how then should they become acquainted.
Write with the learned, pronounce with the vulgar.
Let thy Child's first Lesson be Obedience, and the second will be what thou wilt.
Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
If you'd have it done, Go: if not, Send.
Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that's the stuff life is made of.
If your Riches are yours, why don't you take them with you to t'other World?
A good conscience is a continual Christmas.
There is no little enemy.
God heals, and the doctor takes the fee.
Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Laws too gentle are seldom obeyed; too severe, seldom executed.
If you'd know the value of money, go and borrow some.
When befriended, remember it. When you befriend, forget it.
Up sluggard and waste not life, there is sleeping enough in the grave.

January 17, 2006

Making sense of it

When I was 17 I told a friend named Joe Mamer that I wanted him to look me up someday and that if I had ended up in a job where I was sitting behind a desk that he was supposed to shoot me. I voiced similar opinions regarding other middle age activities such as listening to jazz, teaching and sipping wine. Joe, you oughtta see me now! Here I am at the ripe age of 39 asking the same ripe questions I did 22 years ago-- Who am I? How did I get here? What does it all mean? Last week I ran into a student who was in my physics of molecules class last year. She said I looked depressed. Yes I said, I have too much teaching and my son is sick and I have to prepare three presentations for an institute retreat this weekend. I saw her again yesterday and she said I was looking a little better. 'Just take all your troubles and put them on Miss Reeler's shoulders!' she said. How kind! Then she and her pals asked how it was that an American like me ended up in Denmark. I said that there are two reasons. The first is that I fell madly in love with a Swede and the second I said, I was just going to put on her shoulders. If I don't understand it myself, how could I ever hope to describe it to someone else? My Mom told me once that her Mom once told her, towards the end of her life, that it seemed like everything in her life had happened for a reason.

The Retreat

Just got back from a weekend retreat for all of the staff at my department at the university. We discussed education, study reform, recruitment. I gave no fewer than three talks, one on our international program, one on my new course on the physics of molecules, and one on the master's degree program in atmospheric chemistry.

There are few things more taxing, mentally, than listening to a foreign language nonstop for an extended period. I can understand Danish fine, and vocabulary is not the problem. The problem is their wacked pronounciation, necessitating constant razor-sharp attention. How to describe it? Danish sounds like an extreme form of dutch, full of glottal stops, pauses, elisions and aspirations. The Swedes say that Danish is not a language, but a condition of the throat. After two days of Danish my mental processes resemble those of a flatworm.

Here's from a letter I wrote to a colleague but didn't send, concerning the talk I gave as 'international coordinator':

A few stray thoughts after the meeting. Nice meeting by the way!!
I was teaching this week and as you know Anders was sick and it was my wife's first week of work at a new job. So there was not much time to prepare. And as far as I can remember this was actually the first time I have ever been asked to stand up and say something in front of my colleagues. So what I think is that my talk was competent but that's all that can be said. What I did do was play to the audience and I know they are a bunch of conservative critics. Time was limited so I took the safe route. What I didn't do, and should have done, was to sell the program. Instead of saying we've got a building full of people at the central administration coming up with bright ideas and we get stuck with the work and the consequences (which is true, but even so), what I should have said was here is an opportunity for our students to experience the world's best educational institutions and it is an opportunity for us to have real contact and collaboration, which will help our research and our reputation. In addition it will help our economy. I implied these things, but they should have been the center of my talk.

January 16, 2006


Here is today's word from A Word A Day:

sipid (SIP-id) adjective

Having a pleasing taste or flavor.

[Back formation from insipid, from Late Latin insipidus, from in- (not)
+ sapidus (savory), from sapere (to taste, to know). Ultimately from
Indo-European root sep ep- (to taste or perceive) that is also the
source of sage, savant, savvy, savor, sapid, sapient, and insipid.]

-Anu Garg (gargATwordsmith.org)

"CBS adds two new comedies to the mix this year, moving the insipid 'Major
Dad' to Friday nights to make room for John Ritter and Markie Post in the
slightly more sipid 'Hearts Afire'."

Ed Siegel; Monday: CBS is the Ticket; Boston Globe; Sep 14, 1992.

January 11, 2006

'nuf said.

I have been reading about the entirely sound idea Good Enough Parenting. Seems to be a big deal in the UK. The basic idea is, what minimum conditions ought to be part of every child's life? The motivation for GEP is to fight 'a rising incidence of crime, violence, and delinquency and an ever increasing prison population, together with concern about deteriorating discipline in many schools. In addition there is increasing evidence that family breakdown through parental separation, divorce, or single parenthood has deleterious effects on the lives of children.'

The one who put forward the concept of good enough parenting recognised that it is unhelpful and unrealistic to demand perfection of parents-- and to do so undermines the efforts of the vast majority of parents who in all practical respects are 'good enough' to meet their children's needs. It is also a standard for when a child should be moved to an alternative environment.

The basic components of good enough parenting are:

(1) Love, care, and commitment. Children need to feel that they are loved consistently and unconditionally, and attachment behaviour is the natural consequence of this. According to the experts, without love, children are at risk for 'affectionless psychopathy'.

(2) Consistent limit setting. Boundaries must be set to show what behaviour is unacceptable, with due allowances made for developmental stages. Enforcement involves clear actions of either reward or disciplinary sanctions to ensure compliance within these boundaries. "Good enough" control requires the setting of reasonable boundaries which are enforced in a consistent yet loving way so that the child eventually accepts the reality of the boundaries and incorporates them in its actions. Ideally the child learns to live within generally acceptable boundaries for behaviour, that is, becomes socialised. If the boundaries are inherently unreasonable or control is applied inconsistently or too punitively this will be damaging to the child's development. Many habitual delinquents have been the subject of an indulgent lack of discipline interspersed with unpredictable and sudden outbursts of harsh discipline.

(3) The facilitation of development. This third aspect of parenting involves fostering the child's development to enable the child to fulfil his/her full potential. This involves every area of functioning, from the physical and intellectual to the moral, aesthetic, and spiritual. The child has a fundamental need for a secure base from which to explore his/her environment. "Good enough" care involves providing rich and varied stimulation in early childhood followed by involvement and support for the child throughout later years until adulthood is reached.

The consequences:

Defective loving care and commitment throughout early and middle childhood is a barrier to normal attachment. This will be expected to produce an insecure personality with low self esteem, and problems with peer relationships, marriage, and parenting. One or more types of personality disorder may be the consequence, with the most extreme result being "affectionless psychopathy".

Children brought up without controls or with totally confusing controls are at risk of future conduct disorder, delinquency, and criminal behaviour.

Children whose early development is blighted by neglect and understimulation are at risk of subsequent educational failure and social handicap.

January 08, 2006

Four minutes of peace

No deep thoughts for the blog today. The sun is shining for the first time this year, this season. Just finished putting together a new TV table with instructions from Malaysia. Need to get things organized for the lecture I will be giving tomorrow on climate change. Also, I need to finish some mechanical drawings for a meeting with the machine shop tomorrow. Here is a picture of one of the pieces I am designing-- an end plate for our new photochemical reactor.

No deep thoughts but two shallow ones. On the stand I would have to admit that Madonna's music over the last decade has a strange hypnotising effect on me. Same goes for the monster truck channel, after a hard day's work. Either one works, for about four minutes.

January 06, 2006


The story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is fascinating. How is it possible for people sharing such a violent and horrifying past to move on, and share a country? The key is forgiveness.

Bill Moyers asked Bishop Desmond Tutu about the TRC; "But how could people who had been hurt so badly forgive their tormentor and become friends?"

Tutu said, "No, often they could not become friends. Forgiveness doesn't mean you become friends. You may need to say 'I forgive you, but I can never see you again.' "

When someone hurts you, in terms of simple justice, they have given you something--they have given you the "right" to hurt them back, to right the injustice-- an eye for an eye.

To FORGIVE at the most basic level, he said, is to relinquish that right: it is to say, "You hurt me and you have acknowledged it. I now relinquish my right to retribution. I will let you walk away, and then I never want to see you again."

Tutu said, 'The teenage daughter of one of the four African National Congress activists who were burned to death alive in their car, found out that the police were the perpetrators. We asked if forgiveness was possible. You could hear a pin drop in hall that was jam-packed to the roof. She said quietly, 'Yes we want to forgive but we just want to know whom to forgive'. How fantastic to see this young girl, still human despite all efforts to dehumanise her.'

'... when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred.'

'Retribution leads to a cycle of reprisal, leading to counter-reprisal in an inexorable movement, as in Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and in the former Yugoslavia. The only thing that can break that cycle, making possible a new beginning, is forgiveness. Without forgiveness there is no future.'

Finally, Tutu on leadership:

"The leader is the servant. So leadership is not having your own way. It's not for self-aggrandizement. But oddly, it is for service. It is for the sake of the led. It is a proper altruism."

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