First bike ride of the year.

This morning, I went for my first bike ride of the year. Actually, it wasn't really the first; I have ridden my bike to Klättercentret. But this was the first bike ride on the hilly trails in the forest.

I rode over to Järvafältet to help do some work maintaining the mountain bike trails that criss-cross the forest. We put little bicycle signs on trees to mark the trail. We also removed debris from the trails and tried to drain water away from the trails so they aren't quite so muddy. Here Lotta and “Tolvan” dig a drainage ditch.

And here I am clearing muck out of the ditch. The ditch worked well and drained most of the water off of the trail. On the right is Oskar, another mountain biker I met today.

After a few hours working in Järvafältet, I rode around Brunnsviken and then back home. It was a nice cool day, and the sun even peeked out from behind the clouds and warmed things a bit.

Near the boathouses at Brunnsviksbadet, I caught this photo of a tiny blue flower, one of thousands covering the ground by the shore. For more flower close-ups and nature photography, visit my other weblog, Cygnus.


Sunny Friday

Danne & Danne after lunch in Barkaby on Friday.

And Mister Cool himself, Tobbe. On the phone, no doubt, with one of his many important customers.


Spring is here!

New expansion at Klättercentret

A bit more than a week ago, I made my first trip to Kl�ttercentret since returning to Sweden. They've completely redone one wall and added a big vertical extension to the roof, complete with large windows! It looks really great and I'm looking forward to climbing on the new 26 meter wall once it's complete.

There's also a new mini-gym under the stairs.

Here you can see a couple of the walls and the bouldering area in the back.

The area upstairs has a nice overhang with some tricky routes. I'm a bit out of shape but my grip strength is still quite ok. Very few of the routes I remember from 8 weeks ago are still there. It's nice to chart one's progress by trying the same routes each week, but it's also nice to see new routes being added.

Self portrait

Hello from IBM's headquarters in Sweden. Spring has arrived here and the sun has been shining for each of the past few days. The days are also getting longer again and this definitely has a positive effect on my mood. It's nice to be able to walk outside without spending 10 minutes getting dressed. Ah, summer is just around the corner!


Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen.

Hello from sunny Copenhagen. I'm staying in a room on the top floor of the Hotel Neptun on Sankt Annæ Plads, about a block from the busy harbor area. There, a long street by the canal (Nyhavn) is lined with outdoor restaurants, bars, and cafés. Hundreds of people were sitting outside enjoying the lovely sunshine and a few lovely beers.

I walked through a park and around an old castle, and then walked down one of the main shopping streets in the city center, where I purchased a shawarma (a Lebanese type of kebab/gyro sandwich). Now I'm back in my room relaxing.

The drive down to Copenhagen took longer than I expected, but was otherwise uneventful. The bridge over the waterway dividing Denmark and Sweden is so big that it's hard to get a feeling for how big it actually is. It just seems like any other part of the highway. In fact, the speed limit goes up on the bridge compared to the speed limit on either side.

I'm taking some photos with a small single-use camera I purchased in the supermarket this morning. I'll post them online in a week or two, once I've had a chance to get them developed and scanned.

Tonight I'll probably go to a jazz club I passed by on my walk. The only problem is that Copenhagen doesn't seem to have prohibited smoking in bars and clubs yet, so I'll have to endure the second-hand smoke if I want to enjoy the music. C'est la vie.

Hostile work environment

I'm in favor of laws that punish employers who harass employees. Harassment is wrong regardless of the nature of the harassment (i.e., it doesn't have to be sexual in nature to be harassment). But I have long been a critic of the so-called hostile work environment clause of the sexual harassment statute because it does not explicitly require a quid pro quo (i.e., a demand for sexual favors in return for favorable treatment) for an action to be considered harassment. This vaguely worded clause encourages frivolous lawsuits by people who are merely uncomfortable or insecure with adult topics of conversation, and not actually targets of harassment.

So I was pleased to read yesterday that the lawsuit brought by a former writer's assistant against writers of the hit Friends TV series and against Warner Brothers was found to be without merit. The plaintiff had claimed that the writers of the show had created a hostile work environment by discussing sexual topics in the course of the writing process.

The justice who wrote the decision put it succinctly:
We simply recognize that, like Title VII, the [Fair Employment and Housing Act] is not a 'civility code' and [is] not designed to rid the workplace of vulgarity.
Score one for common sense. I hope that this ruling sets a precedent that will discourage people from filing lawsuits just because they're offended by sex talk at the office. Otherwise, litigious prudes will create hostile work environment.

Friday night in Olofström

It turns out that the hotel does have internet access, but it ain't cheap. It costs 120 SEK for 24 hours. The connection is delivered wirelessly via Telia's Homerun service. It's really available only on the other side of the hotel, but I managed to get connected using my cantenna.

Night life is pretty much nonexistent in Olofström, so I figured that a few crowns for internet access would be worth it.

Tomorrow I'm going to drive down to Copenhagen, across the Øresund bridge. I'll see the town for a couple of days and then return here Sunday night. I'll teach for two more days next week and return to Stockholm Tuesday evening.

I've been to Copenhagen once, but I didn't get much of a chance to see the town. My friend Anne lives there, but she's out of town this weekend. Any suggestions on what to see while I'm in town?


Analyzing Systembolaget's Little Monopoly Analysis

For my non-Swedish audience, a little background information might be in order: Systembolaget is the state-owned company that has a monopoly on private retail sales of alcoholic beverages in Sweden. The debate over whether the monopoly is a good idea has been going on in Sweden ever since the first days of Systembolaget, when the system was developed as a temperate alternative to outright prohibition. In recent times though, Systembolaget itself has largely remained outside of the political debate, prefering instead to do the job with which it was entrusted and to do this job well. The company would frequently offer public service messages about the importance of responsible drinking and so on, but for the most part, it did not play politics.

Well, that was then; this is now.

Systembolaget now finds itselt under threat from within and without. First, public support for the aging monopoly has been waning in recent years. Second, the existence of the state-supported monopoly may violate European law. Systembolaget has probably never been in as grave jeopardy as it is now. Responding to the perceived threat, Systembolaget has now gone on the offensive.

In recent days, Systembolaget launched a campaign to attempt to bolster public support for the monopoly in a time-honored Swedish way: by treating Swedes like children.

The new television ads ask viewers to take "Systembolagets Lilla Monopolanalys" either online or by telephone. "Answer a brief questionnaire," the ads tell viewers, "to find out whether you support the alcohol monopoly or not."

Most people know where they stand on the issue without getting help from the monopoly-holder itself. I went online and answered the five questions. The only way to answer the questions is by selecting a number on a scale of 1 to 5. The labels at the ends of the scale vary from one question to the next but the same simple 1-5 scale is used for all five questions. Three of the questions begin with an introductory statement suggesting the "right" answer. Below I have translated all five questions. The introductory text is in italics.
  1. How important is it be for you to be able to puchase beer, wine, and spririts in your grocery store?
    1=not important at all, 5=very important
  2. One of the ideas behind having an alcohol monopoly is that alcohol is sold in a more restrained way, so that people don't buy more than they had intended to.
    Do you think it would be good or bad if there were volume discounts and other special offers on alcohol?
    1=very bad, 5=very good
  3. Another consequence of selling alcohol without a profit motive is that it's possible to offer a wide selection of, for example, wine in various price classes.
    How important is it to you to be able to find many varieties of beer, wine, and spirits to choose from in the same store?
    1=not important at all, 5=very important
  4. Is it important to you that alcohol is sold only with careful ID checks, so that it's difficult for teenagers to buy alcohol?
    1=not important at all, 5=very important
  5. According to a report from the Public Health Insittute, alcohol consumption would increase by an amount equivalent to 3.5 liters of vodka per Swede per year if the monopoly were taken away today.
    Are you worred that alcohol consumption would increase in Sweden?
    1=not at all worried, 5=very worried
When I had completed the questionnaire, I provided a telephone number for a call back from the recorded, packaged voice of Anitra Steen, general manager of Systembolaget. The call came about 5 minutes later. Her summary of my answers and her view of their meaning was so blatantly condescending and patronizing as to be almost laughable.

Anyone with a 4th-grade education can see that the questions and the introductions are worded in such a way as to lead the reader toward a particular answer. But the problems don't end with leading questions. The questions are also phrased in such a way as to ask the respondent to make a false choice. Many viable alternatives are not provided. These questions are a lot like Stephen Colbert's oft-repeated question:
"George W. Bush: great president, or the greatest president?"
As Malin pointed out, they're also a lot like another time-honored example:
"Have you stopped beating your wife? Yes or no?"

Frustrated by the experience, I wrote a nice long letter to Systembolaget's customer service folks and pointed out the problems with their "analysis." I received a curt but polite "thanks for your feedback" reply but no substantive response to the problems I pointed out.

Here are some of the "facts" stated and implied in the questions and the subsequent "analysis," plus a word or two about why they're fallacious:
Fact 1. The only way to get rid of the Systembolaget is whole-hog. If you get rid of the monopoly, you have to allow alcohol sales everywhere: ICA, Konsum, Hemköp, 7-11, ice-cream trucks, and toy stores.
Why it ain't so: It's also possible to do something like Colorado and Texas, where beer and wine are available at grocery stores, but strong types of alcohol may be obtained only at state-licensed liquor stores.
Fact 2. It's the state's job to protect people from their own excesses. One way the state can accomplish this is by making it cumbersome to purchase alcohol.
Why it ain't so: People are responsible for their own actions. It's only when someone begins to infringe on the liberties of others that it's the state's job to step in.
Fact 3. A company can offer a wide selection of goods only if it has no profit motive (i.e., a state-sponsored monopoly).
Why it ain't so: Yeah, like "Would you prefer a light gray or dark gray Trabant?" Consumer demand will ensure that popular goods are stocked. If customers demand it, merchants will supply it. And for rarer, less popular items there are always specialty shops and Internet shops. When it comes to variety, heck, the Central Market on Lamar Boulevard in Austin has a broader selection of beer and wine than any Systembolaget I've been to. Do you think they have trouble turning a profit?
Fact 4. The only way to enfoce ID checks for alcohol purchases is a state-sponsored monopoly.
Why it ain't so: Where do these people come from? Why not just enforce existing laws and dole out harsher punishments for law-breakers?
Fact 5. If Sweden did away with the alcohol monopoly, it would have to do abbruptly; Swedes couldn't handle cheap alcohol and society would collapse.
Why it ain't so: First of all, it doesn't have to be done overnight. The monopoly could be eliminated bit by bit, in phases. This would give folks a chance to get used to the changes. Secondly, people aren't stupid. They learn and adapt to new situations. Even heavy-drinking Swedes will realize their limits.

The last one deserves a bit more attention: Limiting availability of alcohol only increases its mystique and allure. Incidentally, this is the same thing that happens when one raises the taxes on alcohol. If the taxes were also lowered, Swedes would gradually adapt and drink less. Once the perceived value of the substance falls to meet the actual production value, people cease to be as fascinated by it. In countries like France and Spain where alcohol is much less expensive, people drink moderately during the week rather than binge drinking on the weekends. A beer or wine with one's meal on Tuesday is certainly better for one's health than a string of cocktails at a bar on Saturday night. But most Swedes don't drink in a moderate, everyday way because they think it's too expensive. Drink is something to be reserved for special, no-holds-barred occasions. Why do Swedes go nuts when they're vacationing in the Mediterranean? Because they've only a short time to booze it up before returning to exorbitant Sweden. Swedes will adapt.

When I first visited Systembolaget's web page to find the "monopolanalys," I half-expected to find questions to spark debate, pique interest, and raise alternative points of view from both sides of the table. Instead, I found self-serving propaganda that seems to be based on the assumption that Swedes are ignorant and impressionable juveniles.

But I know that Swedes are smart; they can take care of themselves, and they see right through this sort of crap.

Systembolaget, get out of the propaganda game. You're not politicians, so don't play like it.

Hello from Olofström

This morning I awoke at 5 so that I could shower and have a bite to eat before catching a taxicab to the airport at 6. In my rush to pack a few last minute items for the trip, I neglected a couple of things that, in retrospect, would have been nice to have included:
  • a raincoat or umbrella
  • my camera
Because no picutres will be forthcoming, I'll have to make do with words.

The hour-long flight from Stockholm's Arlanda airport to Ronneby on the Southern coast of Sweden was smooth and uneventful. That is to say it was nice. The only annoyace was a stubborn windowshade that refused to close, relegating my left shoulder to constant sunlight the whole way. It was a bit too warm. I finally managed to force the shade down 10 minutes prior to landing in Ronneby.

The airport doubles as one of the few remaining bases of the Swedish Air Force. As we landed and taxied to the small terminal building, I saw seven of what I thought might be F16s parked on the tarmac. But on second thought, they were probably Saab JAS-39 Gripens.

I picked up my rental car, a Ford Focus Flexifuel, and drove the 50-odd kilometers West and then North to Olofström. The town of Olofström is quite small, with just one main street going through it. I'll be here for eight days to teach the TWS courses to some of the fine folks in Volvo's IT department. I have seen some familiar faces here. This morning, I recognized four people from a course I taught two years ago in Stockholm.

On the way back from lunch, it started to rain. A right downpour. As I began to type up this entry, I could hear the rain on the metal roof above my head. Then as abbruptly as it had begun, the rain stopped.

Aside from Volvo IT, a big part of Volvo's manufacturing is also done here. I haven't seen the factory floor yet, and I probably won't have call to do so; but I did see a warehouse full of dies for the metal press used to stamp out parts from sheet metal. Doors, hoods, fenders, you name it. These dies are the size of mide-size cars and weigh several tons each. A 20-ton gantry crane is parked — perched, really — over the end of the warehouse, waiting until it's needed.

This afternoon I'll set up the computers that we'll use for the course that begins tomorrow morning. With any luck the hotel will have internet access and I'll be able to post again tonight.


Tulilps outside Lotta's place

And at last we come up to today. I swung by Lotta's place to drop off the cats again because I'm going to the South of Sweden for a little business trip. Here are the tulips sprouting outside Lotta's balcony. Beautiful!

Lotta's new place is quite nice, and gets a lot of lovely afternoon sunshine. Here she is posing with a decidedly indifferent cat.


Kungsholmen stroll

Yesterday I also went downtown to meet Danne & Jenny for dinner. After a hamburger at Buger King, we walked over to Kungsholmen and took a little stroll around the island. Here is the famous Stockholm city hall, stadshuset.

Beetween the building and Lake Malaren is an open area with paving stones, flower beds, and statues. Flanking steps leading down into the lake, and standing above "no swimming" signs are a pair of statues, male and female. Here is the male, with Gamla Stan and Ridarholmskyrkan in the background.

Opposite him is his mate, apparently a nude dancer. She is set against a backdrop of Västerbron and a lovely sunset. After running the marathon, which goes over that bridge twice, I don't think I can ever look at it the same way again. ;)

Here's another view of our Dancer gazing wistfully at the city.

At the East end of the building lies the tomb of Birger Jarl.

Beyond him, Södermalm.

Our walk took us past the old Jewish cemetary, which was placed on Kungsholmen long ago because at the time it was not allowed to bury non-Christians within this city limits; and at the time, Kungsholmen lay outside the city of Stockholm.

We saw a couple of interesting automobiles on our walk. This old Citroën caught my eye, but it wasn't the car we went to Kungsholmen to see.

No, that was Åsa's new Mini Cooper. We had a few drinks with her and P. at Lemon bar.

They weren't this serious-looking in person. Check out Åsa's sweatshirt from Indonesia!

Danne hid behind his beer. Typical!

Not quite in focus, but better than nothing!


I've mostly recovered from jet-lag after more than a week back in Stockholm, so it's time for a long overdue update to the blog.
Part of the reason I has taken me so long to adjust to the time zone is that I ran into a friend on the plane, and we kept each other awake the whole way from Austin to Stockholm. Zita is a frequent salsa dance partner of mine, and just happened to be returning from a radio astronomy conference in Austin on the exact same flights as I. We switched seats with some fellow travellers so that we could sit next to each other on both the Austin-to-Chicago and Chicago-to-Stockholm legs. We had a great time and got to know each other much better. It turns out we have many more common interests than salsa dancing. We both dig Firefly and Futurama. Now I just have to expose her to Babylon 5.

The on-board entertainment system wasn't working, so we were forced to entertain ourselves. The food and drink were quite sufficient to the occasion though and we talked until almost sunrise. Unfortunately, my plan of sleeping through most of the transatlantic leg didn't go off as planned and I was quite sluggish for several days.

My friends Danne, Jenny, and �sa met me for dinner that evening. Here is �sa mugging for the camera.

Lotta dropped the cats off ay my place in the afteroon. Sasha was a bit weird for a while, hissing at Alex and even at me. But after a couple of days she had calmed down and the two were getting along again.

Yesterday I took Alex on a long walk. After a while he didn't feel like walking anymore, so I carried him. I walked down to Brunnsviken, where we found two swans and two mallards in a patch of open water near the shore. Alex meowed. One of the swans hissed. Then Alex jumped down out of my arms and ran up the hill away from the water.

Warrily, Alex looked down from his perch. It took me a while to catch him. I don't think he particularly liked either the large body of water or the giant hissing bird. :)

Just yesterday there was ice — or at least icy slush — covering most of the lake. Today it's all open water. Spring is definitely here.


The County Line

Friday night my parents treated me to dinner at The County Line, one of Austin's oldest and most famous barbeque places. In my opinion it's the best barbeque in the world.

I've been going to The County Line for as long as I can remember.

There are two locations: the original one “on the hill” on F.M. 2244, and this restaurant “on the lake,” right where where Bull creek empties into Lake Austin. In the temperate months, it's possible to sit outside on the deck and watch the boats go by. If you choose to travel to the restaurant by water, you can moor your boat at the dock down by the water.

The decor might best be described as 1950s Texas beach house.

The portions are large and the food is terrific. The County Line smokes its meats for 18-20 hours, giving them a flavor unmatched by most other kinds of barbeque. Their brisket is the best I've ever tasted — lean, moist, and flavorful.

As you can tell, I like the food. I usually try to visit The County Line at least once or twice each time I go to Austin.

The folks at the next table kindly took this photo of us.

This is the big neon sign by the road, F.M. 2222.

If you're ever in Austin, I recommend that you pay a visit to The County Line.


Yesterday afternoon I joined my parents outside for a drink. We enjoyed the warm evening and the fading light. Tiki was sunbathing on a bench nearby.

Angel stayed out of the sun and perched on a cool rock near the waterfall.

Tom built this little stream on the West side of the house. It recirculates the water and there's a fish pond at the bottom.

Later on I drove to South Austin to visit with my new friend Laurel. I caught a few pictures of the sunset.

The light from the setting sun cast a glow on the thunderhead to the North.

The massive cloud was litteraly rolling in.

I caught this picture of lightning illuminating the cloud from within.