On the way back from Åre

We're on the train heading back to Stockholm after a terrific weekend of downhill biking in Åre. We had excellent weather both days -- cool, but sunny. I met a local on the lift up the mountain and learned that this past weekend was they've had in Åre in over a month. So we got lucky! The trails were a bit muddy on Friday, but we had a great time anyway. The cable-car to the top of the mountain was running too, so we got in a few runs on the rocky peak above the tree line. On Saturday it was a bit cooler and quite windy, so the higher lifts were closed and we stuck to the wooded trails on the lower part of the mountain. I was stuck with a not-so-great bike the second day because the shop accidentally lent out my bike to another person. The rear shock didn't rebound fast enough, so fast trails with lots of bumps were just no fun at all. But I made the best of it, and did trails that seemed best suited to the bike -- slower, steeper, more technically challenging trails. I even went over the steep root-encrusted drop-off that scared me so much last year. In fact, I did it twice this time around. It won't be as scary next year. It gets easier every time.

I collided with a young girl at one point, and that gave me a scare. I was biking down one of the gravel roads that cuts across the mountain. The girl was walking down the road about twenty meters ahead of her family. I passed her parents and brother without incident. Then as I was about to pass her, she suddenly panicked. Without looking, she ran across to the other side of the road, directly into my path. I hit the brakes and veered to the side but couldn't avoid hitting her with my right handlebar. I crashed into the bushes below the left side of the road, but quickly got up to see if she was okay. She was face-down and crying, and I did my best to console her until her parents arrived. He mom helped her stand up. She was frightened and scraped up a bit, and she'll probably have a nasty bruise where the handlebar hit her; but otherwise she seemed to be okay. I apologized profusely to her and her parents. They were very understanding, having seen the whole thing happen in front of them.

In our group, there were some minor scrapes and bruises, but no major injuries. Lots of photos were taken by me and Kalle, another D200 friend of Patric's who was also along on the trip. I'll post some of the best ones tomorrow or the next day.

Update: My photos are online. Åsa’s photos are too!

Update 2: Calle’s photos are also now online!


Downhilll biking in Åre

It's time for the second of my annual autumn trips to Åre for downhill biking!

In a couple of hours, I’ll meet Matt, Lisa, and a few of Patric & Åsa’s friends at the central train station in downtown Stockholm. There, we’ll catch the midnight sleeper train up to Åre. We shall arrive seven hours later, just in time for sunrise. Once in Åre, we’ll have a bit of breakfast, rent downhill mountain bikes, and charge our lift cards (the same RFID-chip-containing cards we use when skiing at Åre in the winter). Then we’ll hit the mountain!

The downhill biking trails weave through the woods, weaving back and forth in switchbacks. The bike trails are therefore typically not as steep as the adjacent ski slopes. But like the ski slopes, the bike trails are graded according to difficulty. Some of the black-graded trails are quite challenging indeed. I don’t plan to take any unnecessary risks or to ride in a reckless fashion; but I do plan to push my limits a bit and see what I can do.

I will take my laptop with me and see if I can upload a few photos during the weekend. I am not planning to bring my camera up on the mountain though — at least not while biking. I might go up once on foot just so I can get some good photos of my friends.

Time to pack. Talk to you again from Åre!


Training at Skytteholm

Hej from lovely Ekerö! I'm here at Skytteholm for three days of training to help me get up to speed in my new job at IBM Software Group. We just finished our second day, and I'm sitting at a table by the window in the small cabin where we've been meeting. Right now I'm looking out over the long sloping hill down to the Lake Mälaren about five hundred meters to the Southwest. The evening sun is casting a warm light on the land, illuminating the brown, green, yellow and orange leaves of the maple trees outside. In a few minutes I'll walk down the hill to the hotel and for dinner. Tomorrow is the last day, and although I am enjoying the time here on Ekerö, I am also looking forward to returning home to Stockholm. I have taken a few photos, and I'll post them when I get back!


Michael’s week in review

It’s a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon here in Stockholm. It’s cool out — about 15° C, but the sunshine makes it feel a bit warmer. I just finished my morning cup of coffee and I thought I’d sit down and write a bit about the week that has just passed.

Remember that friend-of-a-friend I met online a few weeks ago — you know, the one who seemed nice at first but then gave me the cold shoulder? Well perhaps she reads this blog, because the day after I put fingers to keyboard to write that missive, she added me as a friend in Facebook. So the other day I gave her the benefit of the doubt and sent a nice long email. We shall see if it was worth the trouble.

Monday night I went downtown to for my boogie-woogie lesson. The dance is a bit like Lindy-hop, but different enough that I must concentrate so as not to fall back into dancing Lindy out of habit. It’s fun but I think I'm going to have to take more lessons to get good at this dance. The lessons are held in a dance studio about ten minute’s walk from Östermalmstorg. After the lesson, I sat in the sauna for a while. It’s getting cooler here in Stockholm, and I really enjoy taking a sauna when the weather turns cold. There is no sauna in my apartment building, so I have to take advantage of sauna opportunities as they come up. There’s a sauna at the IBM headquarters in Kista, and one in the office on Wallingatan. But I don’t spend much time in these offices, and as far as I know, there isn’t a sauna at the Kista Entré building where I currently spend most workdays.

There’s only one sauna at the dance studio, shared between men and women. On this occasion I was the only one there, so I didn’t have to feign modesty or cover up with a towel. Stina’s advanced boogie-woogie lesson is right after mine, so when I was finished with my sauna, she was almost finished with her dance lesson. I stuck around until she was done and we walked back to the subway station together.

Tuesday is my regular day for climbing, and this week was no exception. I tried a new 7a route at Klättercentret, and was humbled by it. I've only climbed one 7-graded route in my life, and that one took months of work before I was able to complete it in one go. I guess I shouldn't expect to be able to complete new 7s on sight. Not yet anyway! This was also Stina’s first time to come climbing with me. We had been planning to go climbing together for ages, but only got around to it this week. She did really well and I took a few photos of Stina climbing a 5c!

Wednesday evenings, I take two salsa lessons. This week I went to La Isla for a bit of social dancing afterward. A new friend named Katy came along. I had met her last weekend at my friend Johan's birthday party. She's from the ’States, and is doing a postdoc in finance at Handels. She and I are going for a walk in Hagaparken later this afternoon. I love Swedish people, but it’s nice to hang out with a fellow American once in a while.

Thursday night I joined a bunch of colleagues at the Stockholm Beer Fest. I managed to get a press card thanks to the huge camera around my neck. Members of the press drink free, so I had a good time. The festival has not just beer but also cider and whiskey, and I tried two interesting liquors distilled from beer. One tasted like a typical whiskey, while the other was more like a cognac. Both were new tastes for me.

Friday night I made another trip to Klättercentret, but this time did only bouldering. On the bus back to Bergshamra, I met a nice girl named Jenny. She’s studying chemistry and lives in the student flats in Kungshamra — the same area where my friend Eva lives. Eva and I are meeting for a fika at Café Sjöstugan right after lunch this afternoon.

Yesterday afternoon I went to Långholmen to get some photos of a downhill bike race there. Patric was one of the competitors, and I got some excellent photos of him and his fellow bikers. I’ll post them soon.

Last night I went to Lisa R.’s birthday party. When I arrived, there were a bunch of women there, but I was the only man there. Eventually as other people began to arrive, the ratio balanced out a bit. We drank wine and battled one another in the karaoke game “Singstar.” That was a lot of fun. It was nice to meet Lisa’s sister and her friends. They are as friendly as she is. One of her friends, Linda, turned out to be a skydiver friend of my friend Patric. It’s a small world! I also enjoyed hanging out with Linnea again. I hadn’t seen her since we went swimming in Årstaviken a month ago.

Tonight I’ll join Janaki for some dinner and dancing. We’re going to a new place we’ve never been to before. It’s always fun and interesting to try new places.

Monday through Wednesday this week I am taking training for my new job role. Then on Thursday afternoon, I'll take the train up north for a long weekend of downhill biking in Åre with Åsa, Patric, Matt & Lisa.


Weekend recap

I've just stepped out of the shower and brushed my teeth, and I'm looking forward to laying my head on my pillow in just a few minutes. I'm really tired after a fun and eventful weekend.

The original plan for Friday evening was to go climbing and dancing with Åsa R. Unfortunately, she found out at the last minute that she had to work late, so I changed my plans a bit. I skipped climbing at Klättercentret and had dinner at home instead. I was actually partly relieved to have a little time to catch my breath and wind down a bit after work. Around 10 o’clock I went down to La Isla for a bit of salsa dancing. Some other friends who had planned to show up never did, and the place was really dead. Lots of the folks from the Stockholm salsa dancing crowd were on a Baltic cruise this past weekend, so maybe that's why the place was so empty. Elin was there with her new dance partner Paolo, and I danced a few dances with her. I also saw Niklas and Suzanne there — two of the folks from last weekend’s Sailsalsa after-party. After a while I saw that Janaki was there with some of her friends. We danced a bit, but after just a few dances, the D.J. started playing only reggaeton and disco music. We decided to try another club, Mojito, instead.

Mojito was packed, but not as crowded as the last time I was there. Plus, with the cooler weather, one could actually breathe. It wasn't a sauna this time, but it was still hot and sweaty. We danced until closing time. It's fun to dance at different clubs because each one has its own crowd. The crowd at Mojito is definitely Cuban and Central/South American: much more relaxed and easy-going than La Isla, but also a bit less serious about dancing.

Saturday I spent most of the day just lounging around and relaxing. I went outside for a while to take some photos of the flowers in Vibeka’s garden. I had mixed success because of the clouds that obscured the sun much of the afternoon.

In the evening I took the commuter train out to Johan K.’s parents’ place in Spånga for his 28th birthday party. I met some nice folks at the party, including Tennessee native and MIT graduate Katy, who moved to Stockholm two weeks ago to begin her post-doctorate work — something related to finance and mathematics. Inger and Eva also showed up after a while. It was through Inger (and Elias) that I met Johan three years ago. A few hours into the party, a bunch of folks went down to the basement playroom to compete in a dance-based video game. One plays by dancing around on a mat on the floor that's connected to the game machine (a Playstation 2). It was a lot of fun, and Johan’s sister was the best of all of us. I dind’t realize how late it was getting, and before I knew it, the time was after 3 in the morning. The trains had long since stopped running, so I called a cab to take me home. During the drive home I chatted with the friendly driver, a man from the Kurdish region of Iran who has lived in Sweden for 30 years. I finally got to bed around 4.

Sunday morning I was awakened around 9:30 by a phone call from Åsa B., reminding me that the “IBM Day” at Gröna Lund was about to begin. IBM reserved the amusement park between 10 in the morning and midday, and bought tickets for all of its Stockholm employees who wanted to come. I managed to make my way down to the entrance on Djurgården just after noon. Once inside the park, I met up with Åsa and Patric and went on a few rides with them. We rode the blue roller coaster and then rammed into one another in the bumper cars. Åsa and Patric had been in the park riding the rides since just after 10, so after those two rides, they went home. Left to amuse myself, I rode the roller coaster again, and then rode the fun catapult tower that shoots you up to the top of the tower (sort of like an inverted free-fall tower). It was quite cool outside, and after a while it started to rain. The cold weather and a slight hangover discouraged me from riding any more rides, so I took out my camera and started taking photos. I took a few photos of people and the rides; but mostly I photographed the park’s nice flower arrangements. I was reminded then that I had met a girl on the subway a few months ago who told me she worked maintaining the flowers and plants at Gröna Lund. I can't remember her name, but I do remember that she was friendly. The flowers were lovely, so she must be doing her job. I'll post some of those photos soon, by the way. I also met a fellow Nikon SLR owner (and soon-to-be Mac owner) who was there taking photos of her friends. Her pictures from today are already online, so you can take a look at them to see what the weather was like today.

After a couple of hours at Gröna Lund, I went down to Karbin for a bit of climbing. I had expected to see one friend there, but she never showed up. Instead though, I ran into lots of other friends, including Sara, Elin, Emma and Ewa. I wasn't really in top form, so instead of climbing intensely, I make more of an effort to get some good climbing photos. I went up to the top of the wall, tied in with a sling, and took a bunch of photos pointing down as my friends climbed up. With the help of a new friend named Joachim, I also got some photos of myself. Also climbing with us was another new friend named Jessica. She comes from Canada, and despite being relatively new to climbing is very good at it.

The rain was still coming down outside when I walked across the street to the bus stop. As I sat and waited for the bus to Liljeholmen, another fellow climbing walked up and sat down. We started talking and I learned that his named was Alexander. It turns out that he has an American fiancée and plans to move to Denver soon.

When I arrived home around nine P.M., The Bourne Supremacy was just starting on TV. I watched it on-and-off while answering emails and fixing dinner. That film is pretty good: better than the third, but not as good as the first.

Well, that’s it. That was my weekend. Lots of activities and very little sleep. Of corse spending half an hour writing a blog entry doesn’t help the balance of my sleep account very much, now does it? But what are you going to do? Over and out from Stockholm.


Biking and dinner with Stina

_MAL0011.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Last night after work I joined Stina for a quick bike ride around Brunnsviken. The weather wasn't particularly nice. It was about 15° C out, and the the cloudy sky drizzled cool rain on us as we rode. Still, we warmed up enough by moving that we soon took off our waterproof outer layers and continued around the lake. When we arrived at Hagaparken, we veered off into the park and continued into the city, across the bridge to Kungsholmen, and up the hill to Stina's flat.

There, in her tiny but serviceable kitchen, Stina prepared a lovely three-course dinner. For an appetizer, we had smoked ham & cream cheese on crackers; the main course was broiled salmon with a spicy pimento sauce; and for desert, warm cheesecake with blackberries on top.

We shared a bottle of wine and stayed up chatting until after eleven. We talked about a lot of things, including some of the topics of my recent musings on the blog. I told her about some of the recent frustrating experiences I've had trying to make new friends. In a moment of unguarded honesty, I admitted to Stina that when we first met at Kittelfjäll seven months ago, I didn't expect that we'd become such good friends. I've seen that sometimes my style of enthusiastic friendliness scares people off; for a while I thought that might happen with her too. That didn't happen though; perhaps I saw even then that she's as outgoing and positive as I am.

There are lots of reasons she and I get along. For one thing, we have a lot in common: dancing, an interest in science and technology, and a love of the outdoors. But more importantly, we share an optimistic and pragmatic world-view. A hundred shared interests make little difference if two people just don't see the world in the same way.

I'm coming to realize, at nearly thirty-five years of age, that life is to precious to spend with negative people. There are so many lovely people in the world, and it's sometimes easy to forget that. It's really nice to have great people like Stina in my life!

Hej Stina! :)


Kista Entré

_MAL1181.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

This is the indoor foyer of the the South building of Kista Entré. Now that I've moved to IBM Software Group, I spend most of my workdays in this office complex. IBM's offices occupy two floors of the north building, plus a customer demonstration and briefing center on the ground floor.

I haven't eaten at the foyer restaurant yet; my colleagues and I usually walk to the food court at Kista Galleria for lunch.


A rainbow

_MAL2224.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

I took this photo one week ago today after a sudden downpour gave way to equally surprising sunshine. A double rainbow filled the Eastern sky visible from my balcony. It was really lovely.


Late summer flowers in Stockholm

_MAL0899.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

A few days ago, we had a big rainstorm here in Stockholm. After the rain stopped, the sun came out. I don't like to pass up an opportunity to photograph the wet Earth illuminated by bright sunshine. So I grabbed my camera, stuck on my telephoto lens, and went out for a little walk.

_MAL0885.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

There were still some clouds in the sky, so the light was inconsistent; but I still managed to capture twenty photos of flowers in a nearby garden.

For more photos like these, view my Flora photo set.

Salsa weekend on Ljusterö

_MAL1608.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Last weekend I went out to Inger's summer place on Ljusterö for a couple of days of good food, good drink, good company, and of course, lots of fun salsa dancing. Inger arranges such a salsa weekend around this time every summer. The last time I was able to go was way back in 2004, when my parents were here in Sweden for a visit. We had fun back then and we had fun this time too!

We arrived in the early afternoon on Saturday and had a nice lunch of pasta salad. Johan and Håkan braved the cool water (in a wetsuit of course) for a bit of wind-surfing. Then we went inside and danced for a while. In the evening, we lit a fire in the grill and made our dinner. After dinner, we danced and danced and danced. Despite the cool weather, we did go for a late-night skinny-dip around 4 A.M. It was nice, actually, considering that we were overheated from several hours of non-stop dancing. We crashed shortly after that. I slept soundly!

_MAL2146.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

A few brave souls also jumped in the water the next morning to wake up. The water was around 16° C, so it definitely woke did the trick! We had breakfast, danced a bit more, tidied up the house, and then went on our respective ways back to Stockholm. It was a really fun weekend, and I'd like to thank Inger for her work arranging it! I created a new photo set for the 162 photos from the weekend. Enjoy!
Ljusterö salsa weekend 2007.

Boulder Open at Karbin

_MAL1188.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Friday the 31st of August was the last boulder open at Karbin and I'm just now getting around to posting the photos from the evening.

_MAL1317.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Here, Kjell tackles a tricky but fun black-graded problem. With his advice I also managed to complete it.

I wasn't climbing my best that night, and managed to complete only 18 out of 40 problems. I usually complete a few over 20. First of all, I was still recovering from a cold, so I wasn't really firing on all cylinders. Also, there were a lot of good climbers there. These days, folks are returning from their summer vacation, and with were more competitors, it's harder to place high in the rankings. I think the problems were pretty hard this time around too. I placed 16th, down a bit compared to my recent showings. All things considered though, I'm quite happy with my performance.

_MAL1400.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

After the competition, a bunch of climbers went to the Tre Vänner bar in nearby Midsommarkransen. There we had chips and drinks. Here I am with my climber friend Elin. Take a look at all 27 photos from the evening!

A sunny walk on Södermalm

_MAL7429.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

Recently, Elin and I had dinner on Medborgarplatsen and then took a walk on the cliff overlooking Södermalarstrand. She took this excellent photo of me with Gamla Stan in the background. Here are all the photos from that day.


Nifty novelties from Nikon in November

Last week, Nikon announced the impressive new D3 digital SLR camera. The D3 is Nikon's first foray into the full-frame DSLR market, with a new 35mm CMOS sensor developed in-house at Nikon. Previous Nikon DSLRs have incorporated Sony sensors. The 35mm sensor yields an effective 12.1 million pixels.

The camera also sports Nikon's new EXPEED digital image processing system, another technology apparently developed in-house at Nikon. As I understand it, this is Nikon's answer to Canon's DIGIC digital image processor.

The D3's strengths seem to be speed and low light sensitivity. It can capture 9 frames per second in full resolution and can capture images at an ISO equivalent of up to 25,600.

The superb photo equipment review site dpreview.com has a preview of the D3. The camera is estimated to have a retail price of 5000 USD when it arrives in November, putting it beyond my current means. I'm only an amateur photographer after all (I'll gladly accept donations though, so if anyone wants to finance my dream of owning a D3, please let me know!).

However, the new AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G will sell for a slightly-more-reasonable 1800 USD, and just might end up on my shopping list when I'm in the U.S. later this year.

This is the lens I've been wishing Nikon would make ever since I bought the D200 a year and a half ago.
Unlike the plastic 12-24 f/4, this new lens is made of metal and has the same build quality of Nikon's other professional lenses (such as the 70-200 f/2.8). It's also one f-stop faster, with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 throughout the whole zoom range. Lastly, it's a full frame lens, not a DX lens; so it will work on the D3 and subsequent full frame cameras from Nikon.

By the way, Nikon is calling the full frame format of the D3 "FX" to distinguish it from 1.5 crop factor "DX" format of all of Nikon's previous DSLRs.

Along with the D3 and the 14-24 lens,
Nikon also announced a new 24-70 f/2.8 lens and the three new telephoto lenses, all of which sport Nikon's new nano crystal coat to reduce interior reflections. Incidentally, Nikon also announced the D300, the worthy successor to the D200. It will sell for the current price of the D200, and Nikon seems to plan to market the two cameras simultaneously; so no doubt the D200 will see a drop in price when the D300 arrives in November. The D300 looks like a very nice camera; but it doesn't represent a large enough improvement over the D200 to justify shelling out nearly two grand for the ugprade. I've only had my D200 for 18 months, and I am hoping it has a few more years of life left in it.

Speaking of that, I took my great little 18-200 VR zoom lens to the Nikon office here in Stockholm yesterday because the mounting ring for filters and the lens hood had come loose. A very helpful technician named Torbjörn fixed the lens while I waited. Unfortunately, there was a small problem: the ring was not put back on correctly. When I attached the lens hood, it wasn't aligned with the camera, so portions of the hood were visible at the near end of the zoom range. I took the lens back to Nikon today and Torbjörn quickly fixed the problem. To compensate me for my trouble, he also replaced the rubber on the grip of the camera free of charge. That's excellent customer service. With the new rubber on the grip, the camera looks almost brand new again.

Now if only I had remembered that my 18-200 lens was still under warranty! I bought the camera back in June of 2006, and I must have had this date in my head when I took the lens in for repair. I forget that I didn't get the lens until last November. So yes, it's still covered by Nikon's one-year worldwide warranty. I'll call Nikon tomorrow and see if they'll be willing to refund the cost of the repair. It was just 500 SEK, sure; but if I'm going to shell out 1700 USD for the new 14-24 lens, I have to save my nickels and dimes wherever I can.


Little Snitch looks very nice

I'm trying out the new beta of Little Snitch 2.0. The new version sports a much improved interface and an impressive network monitor window that lists the applications that are using your bandwidth, and the servers to which they are connecting. Very slick!


Weekend plans

Well, the boulder open was fun, but I didn't perform at my peak. Whereas I usually complete around 24-25 problems, last night I managed only 18. I came close to doing a few more, but I just wasn't strong enough. I'm still recovering from a cold and I guess not getting enough sleep the night before didn't help either.

I did one really tricky problem though that required leaning way out to the right and doing a toe-hook with the left foot in order to match with both hands on the next grip. I didn't expect to be able to do it, but I somehow managed. At each move I half-expected to loose my grip and fall off the wall. But before I knew it, I was at the top. I love it when that happens! An unexpected moment of joy.

Even though I wasn't firing on all cylinders, I had a good time. I took a break and chatted for a while with Elin, a climber I first met a previous BO. She was also getting well after a cold, and not climbing her best. So we sat near the entrance and drank a bit of coffee.

While climbing the tricky toe-hook problem, I made a new friend. The problem was located on the central pillar at Karbin, a 3-meter tall structure in the center of the room that's hollow and about 20 meters in circumference. It's possible to climb up to the top of the pillar from the inside and that's just what a couple of folks had done to get a better vantage point for taking photos of climbers. One woman has positioned herself right above the problem I was climbing, so I asked if she would take a few photos of me using my camera. It turns out that the 50mm f/1.4 lens I was using was perfect for that environment, so after taking some photos of me, I let her continue taking photos of other climbers using my camera. I still haven't looked at all the photos she took, but she definitely got some good ones. I introduced myself and learned that her name is Helena. She told me that she's very new to climbing.

After the boulder open was over (my name wasn't drawn for any of the prizes this time around), I joined Elin, Sara, David, Udo, Lisa, and a few other folks for a few beers at Tre Vänner in Midsommarkransen. We had a good time and I was so tired when I got home that I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

This morning I'm taking it nice and easy, having a cup of coffee and enjoying the lovely sunshine streaming in through my living room windows. It seems like Stockholm has been given a temporary reprieve from the cooler autumn weather that seemed to have moved in earlier this week. Well, actually I just looked at the thermometer and realized that it's only 10° C out. Oh well, at least the sun is shining!

Today around 11 I will join Johan and Elias and drive out to Inger's summer place on Ljusterö, where we'll spend the weekend. We might do a bit of swimming if it's not to cold, play some kubb on the lawn, cook dinner on the grill, and of course do some dancing later in the evening. The last time I went to Inger's place was a few years ago when my parents were visiting. That was a lot of fun!