Blog updates and a new look

I'm making some retroactive updates to the blog and adjusting the date of each entry so that it appears in the correct place chronologically. Some of these entries correspond to events from days or weeks ago. You might have to scroll down a bit to see them.

Also, I have finally switched to a sans serif font for the blog's main text elements. I have always preferred sans serif fonts for their greater legibility, and this change is long overdue.

More updates are coming soon.


It's been a busy and eventful week, and I'm glad that Friday has finally arrived.

Last Friday I learned that there was some training going on this week in Copenhagen and that I should try to attend if possible. I finally got approval on Saturday, and made travel arrangements late Sunday night. I awoke at 5:30 Monday morning to catch the 7:10 flight down to Copenhagen. There I joined several other colleages and atteneded a workshop related to my new job. On the first day we broke into teams and did a roll-playing game where each team played the roll of a different department within a company. The point was to illustrate some of the challenges faced by our customers and to show how IBM software can help our customers handle those challenges. It was fun and informative. Monday night one of the IBM VPs bought us all dinner at a nice restaurant near the harbor, and after attending some more presentations on Tuesday, I flew back to Stockholm.

Wednesday night I went to the first salsa lesson of the autumn. I was still recovering from a cold so my balance was a bit off. Oddly enough, I found that I could do right turns okay but that left turns made me dizzy. The body isolation lesson (right after the salsa lesson) was even more challenging. Our instructor Marina made us work on moving just one part of our bodies at a time, like moving the right shoulder back and the left shoulder forward. She is so good at this sort of thing that she makes it look easy. It's not!

Thursday night was the second of Sacuye's salsa socials of the season. I joined Erlend for a quick dinner. Erlend and I get along really well and seem to have a very similar world-view. For some reason, though, we don't meet very often. So it was nice to get a chance to sit down and just visit for a while. We ate at an Italian restaurant on Hornsgatan not too far from the dance place. I had an "American style" deep dish pizza. It was unlike anything I've eaten in the U.S., but it was good and filling. After dinner, we walked to Chicago for the social. It was fun and not as hot and crowded as last week. Apparently they've installed a better ventilation system that brings in fresh air from outside. I took some great photos of my friends and fellow dancers; I hope to post them soon.

There's a boulder open competition at Karbin tonight, and I will take part. The previous boulder open was a lot of fun, but I probably didn't perform at my peak because I was climbing with an injured foot. I expect to do a bit better this time around. The folks at Karbin have been a bit lazy about posting the results from the last competition. With any luck the results of both that one and tonight's competition will be online within a few days.

Lastly, Lotta forwarded this video to me and I wanted to share it with you. It's a recording of four Norwegian guys singing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, accompanied by a single accoustic guitar. The last man to sing was the winner of the Norwegian Idol contest. I really enjoyed it and I hope you do to.

Now I'm off to the food court at Kista Galleria now to have lunch with Tobbe. Have a good Friday, everyone!


Going to Austin for six weeks

I found out today that I'll be going to Austin for a six week assignment at the IBM International Technical Support Organization. I will be participating in an ITSO residency, helping to write a Redbook on an upcoming release of Tivoli Workload Scheduler. TWS is an IBM software program that I've worked with for almost a decade. I've particpated in several of these residencies in the past, and have always enjoyed it.

Austin is where I grew, up and my parents still live there; so the residency will afford me the opportunity to visit with family and friends. For six long weeks, I'll be able to work during the day and hang out with my loved ones during the evening and on the weekends.

The timing of the assignment is perfect. The residency will end in mid-November, so I plan to extend my stay a week or so using a saved vacation days. This will allow me to spend the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday with my extended family, who will all be in Texas for the occasion. I must say too that I'm looking forward to being able to escape from Sweden for a while during the time of year when the weather here is the most miserable.


Making friends, judging character, and trusting oneself

Anyone who has met me knows I'm a friendly person. However, I haven't always had many friends. When I lived in Austin, I had only a few very close friends. And more recently, when Lotta and I split up a few years ago, I realized that most of my friends were people I knew through her. I didn't have very many friends of my own here in Sweden.

As a sort of declaration of my own independence, and of my determination to remain in Sweden, I set about making a real effort to meet new people and make new friends of my own. I took up salsa dancing. I picked up rock climbing again after many years away from the sport. I got to know some of my colleagues better. And I even met total strangers on the subway or on the internet.

Making friends is a skill. It requires a bit of finesse, especially with Swedes, who can be tough nuts to crack. In Stockholm, most people's circle of friends consists of people they met in school and people they know through work. It can be a real challenge to break into this circle even if you have a lot in common with someone. Sometimes it almost feels like you have to have gone to the same high school as a person to be considered that person's friend. I moved to Sweden in my late 20s, so I didn't have that opportunity. If I went back to university, I'm sure I'd meet a lot of nice people that way.

So yes, Swedes are picky when it comes to choosing friends. But they're also quite aloof and distant at times, so it can be a real challenge to break the ice and start a conversation with them. I have discovered that I have an advantage in this area: English is my native tongue.

When I introduce myself to a stranger here in Stockholm and start the conversation in English, I get a more positive reaction than a Swede who tried the same thing in Swedish would receive. It's partly that Swedes like to be courteous to strangers, and they enjoy every opportunity to practice speaking in English. But there's more to it than that.

Swedes need an excuse to be friendly.

Their default attitude is one of cold detachment, and they require a good reason to step out of this pattern. The excuse can be almost anything, but here are some examples I've observed:
  • having a shared interest or shared situation — like most people, Swedes are more friendly to a stranger if they feel that they have something in common with him or her. But random circumstance is often the only commonality necessary. For example, sharing the same subway car with an annoying drunk gives the other passengers a sense of shared adversity, and hence a reason to empathize with one another.
  • being on holiday or being in another country — Swedes outside their hometown are more relaxed. Swedes outside of Sweden are completely transformed. It's as though the cold demeanor in Sweden is kept in place by the collective assumption that everyone else expects one to behave in that way. Swedes seem to fear that acting in a different way would be looked down upon by their peers.
  • being drunk — It never ceases to amaze me how uptight Swedes lighten up after a few drinks. Normally quiet and reserved, after a few pints of beer or glasses of wine, many Swedes are gregarious and cheerful.
  • having a foreigner present — this is the excuse that I take advantage of. It's said "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." For Swedes, having a Roman around is good enough. If in a group of Swedes there is one foreigner, and especially if he or she is an English-speaking Westerner, the Swedes will switch to English and many of them will be friendlier than they would otherwise be. It's partly that they want to put on their best face and act as good ambassadors for Sweden; but it's more than that. They honestly feel more relaxed when a non-Swede is present.
When I realized that I had an advantage as an American and a native English-speaker, I stopped introducing myself in Swedish. Now when I meet people for the first time, I speak English. I let them know soon after meeting them that I also understand Swedish; but I often continue to speak English even if they then switch to Swedish. It's ironic that not speaking the local language has advantages. But of course a foreigner who didn't speak English wouldn't notice these advantages.

I've made lots of friends in the past few years, and I only recently began to realize how many. A while ago I joined Facebook, a social networking site originally open only to U.S. college students. Nowadays anyone can join, and in recent months many of my friends here in Sweden have joined. Facebook has turned into a way of keeping track of all the people I know. I now have almost 250 friends on Facebook, and I add more almost every day. I have started to use Facebook to make new friends too. After I meet a person once or twice, I will add him or her to my friends list so that we can keep in touch. For many of these people, we don't correspond much (or at all) directly with each other, but we can still see what the other is up to by looking at the news-feed every day. In a very real way, Facebook has come to fill a roll once played by the town square: it's a place where people can bump into one another, where they can just sit and people-watch, and where opportunities abound for networking and making new friends.

Already, I have made several new friends using Facebook. In some cases these were friends of people I already had in my friends list. In fact, I have found a few people who knew several of my friends of mine, but whom I did not know yet. I figured that if they were friends with several folks I already knew, then they might be people worth getting to know. I've also made friends there just by random chance. I have struck up email conversations with a few complete strangers on Facebook, and learned that the way a person responds to my style of friendliness depends a lot on the person.

Several folks were eager to add me as friends after one or two emails. Others added me right away after seeing that we share a common interest or learning that we have a mutual friend. Still others have preferred to keep their distance a bit, corresponding by email for a while or meeting in person a few times, and then adding me to their friends list only after we had established a rapport.

Then there was one woman who seemed nice in the beginning, but turned cold soon after. After a very brief email exchange, I added her to my friends list on the strength of our shared interests. She didn't reply directly, but instead posted the following status message to her public profile:
"...is wondering why people think it's a good idea to send friend requests to complete strangers."
Even for a Swede, that sort of reaction seems petty and fearful. But of course I don't know what sorts of experiences this person has had in the past, so I probably shouldn't be too quick to judge. When I told the story to a friend, she said "you are much more honest than most people which is confusing."

Honesty is confusing? I find honesty refreshing. However, I suppose Facebook is in this regard not too different from real life. There are a lot of dishonest people out there, and it's probably hard to tell what a person is really like without a face-to-face meeting. As Forest Gump's momma used to say, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get." Absent first-hand experience, people tend to draw on their past experiences. For many, this means assuming the best about people; but for some, experience has taught them to fear the worst. The vast majority of my experiences with people have been positive, and this no doubt had led me to tend to give people the benefit of the doubt.

This brings me to something I've been thinking a lot about lately. With each new person I meet and each new friend I make, I gain valuable experience in filtering out the stuff on the surface and seeing the real person underneath. As a result, I am a much better judge of character now than I was just a few years ago. At first, I didn't realize how good a judge of character I was, because I too was easily distracted by irrelevant superficialities. But I've grown to understand that when I trust my instincts about a person, I'm almost always right about that person.

A case in point is a good friend I met about a year ago. She and I met quite randomly, but struck up an intense conversation almost immediately upon meeting. I knew after about a minute that she was the sort of person I could really like: friendly, intelligent, and forthright. I didn't know at the time that we would actually become such close friends; but my instincts were right on the money.

I have ignored my instincts in the past, and paid the price for it later.

Looking back over my life, I see that I have tended to second-guess and over-analyze in precisely those times when I was unhappy or troubled. When I am happy and confident, I tend to trust my own gut feelings more. Intuition is a powerful tool that can save a lot of time and energy. I'm learning to trust my instincts. What feels right usually is right, even if it's not immediately apparent why.

I asked a question of my friends recently: "What is the most important thing you have learned about people?" The answers are as varied as the people who gave them. I'll close by paraphrasing a few of them:
"Nobody's perfect."
"Don't trust anyone."
"People are often nicer than they try to appear."
"Your first impression is usually correct but you sometimes have to change your opinion about someone. Try to give everyone a chance."


Sunday afternoon with Lisa

On Sunday I went down to Gamla Stan and spent some time with Lisa 2. We lounged by the lakeside with a view of the city hall, and watched people and boats pass by while we chatted.

After a while, we walked up to Järntorget and had a cup of coffe at Sundberg's Café. The sun was shining, and I captured some fun photos of Lisa as she tried to hide from the camera.

After finishing our coffee, we walked across the bridge to Södermalm with the intention of going up the the walkway atop the cliffs overlooking Södermälarstrand. However, Lisa realized that she needed to run some errands, so we went shopping instead. I had been expecting to go climbing later in the afternoon with Åsa R., so I had a backpack full of climbing gear with me. I must have looked like a real tourist walking down Götgatan with a giant backpack on my back. A while later, Åsa called and said she wouldn't be able to come climbing. So I had lugged 15 kg around the whole city for naught. Oh well, I guess at least I got some exercise. With climbing off the agenda, I was free to hang out with Lisa a while longer.

Once Lisa had bought the items she needed, we walked down to Skanstull and then continued down to the dock by the water where I had gone swimming with Linnea & Kamilla a couple of weeks ago.

_MAL0856.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

The rain began to fall just as we sat down by the water's edge, so there was no swimming this day. The storm clouds did look impressive though, so I snapped a photo. I posted a total of seven photos from the afternoon.


My first 7b indoors

_MAL3694.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Tonight I completed my first 7b route indoors. It's the route of pink grips shown in this photo. The photo is from six weeks ago; I've been working on this route for several months. It was a real thrill to finally do it start-to-finish without stops or rests. Yay!


Friday evening 'after-work' with Lisa

Friday evening I took the subway down the Medborgarplatsen and met Lisa 2. We walked across the square and down to Tegelhuset, a nice and cozy place that offers a bit more solitude and greener surroundings than the noisy establishments directly on the sqare.

Oh, it occurs to me that this might be a neologism for you folks not residing in Sweden: When Swedes get together for drinks after the end of the workday, they call it an 'after-work,' using the term as a noun. This usage doesn't seem to exist in any English speaking countries, despite the fact that it's an English term. Interstingly, Swedes also say 'after-ski,' while Americans say 'après-ski.' Oh well; people are strange. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the 'after-work' at Tegelhuset...

Lisa and I sat at a table outside under an umbrella and some tall trees. We chatted over a couple of beers and had a great conversation. After a while, the sun went behind the trees and the temerature dropped noticably. Luckily for us there were space heaters hanging from the umbrella above the table, so we stayed warm.

I've only known Lisa for a few months, but I've already come to think of her as a good friend. She's definitely a kindred spirit, and is much more outgoing than the average Swede. She lived abroad for a time, so perhaps that explains it. Or maybe she was outgoing even before, and it was partly due to her extroverted and friendly nature that she had the guts to embark on her international adventures. Whatever the reason, she's my kind of person and I always enjoy spending time with her.

_MAL9696.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

On the way home, I struck up a conversation with a cute girl who was listening to an iPod and standing next to me in the subway station. Her name is Emilia and she's a fashion design student. We chatted for the few minutes that it took to go from Östermalmstorg to Tekniska Högskolan. She will go to New York City in October to study. I didn't have time to give her my contact information. I should really get some personal calling cards printed for this sort of occasion.

Here are all 14 photos from the day.


Can the rest of us have our planet back?

No, I haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth. In fact, I’m alive and well. I’ve been busy lately though, and haven’t had much time to post updates to the blog. I’ve been doing lots of climbing and dancing as usual, and lots of other fun stuff as well. If you look at my flickr photo stream, you’ll see that although I haven’t been making regular updates to the blog, I have been posting photos. Hundreds of them, in fact.

I’ll try to catch up with my blog postings soon. In the mean time, I wanted to share this little gem with you: Can the rest of us have our planet back?