Hej från Göteborg!

I'm in Göteborg for the 2008 Scandinavian Salsa Congress. I attended last year, and had a blast, dancing with lots of fun dancers and taking hundreds of great photos. This year's congress is shaping up to be even better than last year's.

The congress is basically a weekend filled with three sorts of event: workshops, shows, and parties. During the day, salsa instructors visiting from all over the world hold workshops concentrating on one area of dance or another. One instructor might lead a workshop on footwork, while another teaches dips and tricks. There are four different ballrooms in the hotel where the congress is being held, so at any given time during the day, there are four different workshops going on. This means you can chose the workshops that interest you the most. Yesterday I took one on "salsa seduction," basically a bunch of dance moves involving close body contact between partners. It was fun and involved lots of dips, where the man dips his partner down and she leans back gracefully in a smooth sweeping motion. It's very cool when it works, but I'll have to practice before I am able to incorporate these moves seamlessly inyo my repertoire. These are moves that are best done to slow romantic music, and unfortunately most of the music played in social dance settings is quite a bit faster.

After that workshop I took another one on spinning. In the first half of the workshop, men and women practiced single turns individually. Then we worked in couples on a dance routine involving lots of double turns and fancy handwork.

After dinner, there were several shows on the stage in the big ballroom. Dance companies from all over Scandinavia and the world performed carefully choreographed routines in flamboyant outfits. Many of the performers were the same ones who held the workshops during the day. There have been some amazing dance performances the past two evenings, and it's amazing to see what really good dancers can do.

After the shows, the chairs are removed from the ballroom and the party begins. The parties are basically dance socials, but on a large scale. Three different ballrooms offer dancing with slightly different atmospheres. The DJs play different mixes in each place. In one of the rooms, the DJs played a mix of Latin dances including salsa, bachata, meringue, and reggaeton.

A lot of dancers skip the workshops during the day, and simply pay 200 SEK doe admission to an evening's shows and party. That's what I did last year. This year, however, I got a full pass to the congress for free!

Well, okay, it wasn't actually free. I'm working for it. When I arrived Friday night, I spoke with one of the arrangers of the congress, Adriana Mendes. Having seen my photos last year, she agreed to give me a full pass to this year's congress in exchange for letting her use any photos I take this year. Great deal for me, because now I can dance and take photos with her official sanction. I agreed to let Adriana take a look at the photos before I post them, so it'll be a week or so before I post most of them. Expect to see some of my photos on the official home page of the Scandinavian Salsa Congress soon!

I'm staying with friends Liza, Evert, Camilla & Maria in a cramped 5-bed room in a youth hostel a few minutes by streetcar from the hotel where the congress is being held. The hostel, Slottsskogen Vandrarhem, is actually quite comfortable, and has a nice and recently renovated sauna. I finished breakfast and offloaded photos from my memory cards to my laptop. I'll probably try to catch a couple more hours of sleep before heading to the hotel for a couple of the afternoon workshops.


A great way to spend a Friday

This morning I slept in. After yesterday, it was necessary. During the afternoon yesterday, I climbed with Åsa R., Claes H., and their friend Martin B. at Karbin in Västberga. We climbed a bunch of different routes on the roped routes and then did some bouldering too. Later, after Åsa and her pals had left, I climbed with Maria & Joakim for a while. I met Maria at Karbin about a month ago — probably at the boulder open competition then. Directly after climbing, around nine o’clock in the evening, I took the subway to Zinkensdamm and put in a few hours of salsa dancing. It wasn't the best night of dancing ever. Not quite sure why, but something wasn't quite right about the atmosphere last night. Anyway, I did have a good time and danced with many talented and friendly girls. Because Good Friday is a public holiday in Sweden, the dancing went on longer than usual last night. Whereas they normally stop the music at eleven, last night they played on until well after midnight. So I didn't get home until around one in the morning, and wasn't asleep until quite a while later than that.

So yes, sleeping in this morning was a good thing. After I awoke, I fixed a nice pot of coffee and also fixed my first batch of Krusteaz pancakes. I brought over a ten-pound bag with me when I came back from my trip to Austin in the autumn, but hadn't gotten around to using it until now. The pancakes were perfect — light and fluffy. I washed them down with some pineapple-orange juice, packed my bags, and went straight back to Karbin. This time, I met up wit Linda H. and her friend Anna. They're the ones who went out with me after last month's boulder open competition — lovely and charming ladies, and lots of fun to climb with. Yesterday, I had come very close to completing a 6c+ route of orange-colored holds. Today I was determined to have another go at it, and I did not disappoint myself! It was actually both harder and easier than I had expected. The beginning of this particular route is very challenging, and requires a lot of brute force. The end, however, requires just determination and perseverance. I rather surprised myself by completing it, but was really glad too!

Maria L. and her friends were at Karbin too, and I chatted a bit with them. Maria's identical twin sister Eva studies in Linköping, where my friend Lisa A. also studies. Eva was also at Karbin today, and it was interesting and fun to try to tell the sisters apart. Physically, they look almost exactly the same; but it seems that in some almost imperceptible way, each girl's personality somehow manifests itself in such a way as to distinguish her. Matters of intuition are often hard to nail down precisely. Suffice it to say I could tell them apart after just a little while.

After climbing, I took the subway down to Hagsätra, where I visited Daniel & Jenny L.'s new place. It's lovely, and big — quite a bit bigger than my place. They still have boxes to unpack, but it looks like they're well on their way to having a nice cozy place to call home. Danne and I watched videos and drank beer. Then he fixed some delicious marinated chicken legs. He wasn't totally satisfied with the result of the marinade, but to me, they tasted great. Daniel also sold me about twenty of his American DVDs; he has decided to concentrate on European directors exclusively. Now I just have to find room on my shelves for the new additions to my collection, as well as time to view them all.

Tomorrow I look forward to a nice, relaxing day. I don't have anything planned, save laundry and tidying up.


This is why Barak Obama is the right man for the job

If you haven't already heard it, I encourage you to listen to Barak Obama's speech about race relations in America, delivered yesterday in Philadelphia and entitled “A More Perfect Union.” In the speech, Obama tackles head-on the controversy of recent days, and does so with humility and eloquence. The speech was brave, forthright, and timely. I cannot imagine Hillary Clinton ever delivering a speech like this. If you agree with me that Obama represents the best hope for the United States and the world, please consider making a contribution to his campaign.


Credit card companies are evil

I have an AT&T-Citibank Universal Card. I use it to pay for stuff in the U.S., and the balance is paid in full each month from my U.S. bank account. This month I didn't have quite enough in my U.S. account to cover the bill of roughly $3,000. I had plenty in my Swedish account though, so I set up a wire transfer to move some funds from Sweden to the U.S. It's a good time to buy dollars too, because the price of the dollar has just reached an all-time low against the crown.

Unfortunately, the wire transfer didn't go through in time for the automatic payment of my credit card bill.

Now here's where things get evil. There was enough in my bank account to cover the minimum payment of $20. But because I had indicated a preference of paying the balance in full each month, the credit card company did not withdraw the minimum required payment from my account, and instead withdrew no funds at all, and placed an additional $39 "returned check" fee on my account, as though I was unable to pay my debt at all!

I called the customer service department and explained the situation to them. When I pointed out that the "returned check" fee they charged me was twice the minimum payment they could have simply withdrawn from my account, the representative offered to waive the fee.

I asked how much interest I would be paying on the unpaid balance. That's when I learned about yet another evil practice: when there were insufficient funds in my bank account to cover payment of the full credit card balance, the credit card company automatically raised the interest rate on my account to nearly 17%! I pointed out that the Fed has been dropping rates lately, not raising them, and at this point the rep again agreed to lower the rate back down to the still punitive but slightly more reasonable 10% level.

The credit card company has an automatic mechanism in place to punish its customers with fees and increased interest rates. I explained to the customer service rep that I wanted an automatic system that made sense for me:

Pay the full balance if sufficient funds are available; otherwise, pay the minimum amount due.

That sort of automatic system is not an option, she explained. She told me that she agreed that it made more sense and would be more fair. She also promised to forward my suggestion to her superiors. But with the company's profits dependent on such punitive policies, I see little likelihood that they'll offer such a service in the near future.

Before I concluded my call with AT&T-Citibank Universal Card customer service, I took a moment to thank the representative for her help and willingness to remove the fee and lower the interst rate. However, I also took the opportunity to tell her what I thought about her company's policies. I'm not hurting for money, so I could have covered the fees if I'd had to. Plus, I'm clever and attentive enough to be able to talk the company into reversing some of the damage when something like this happens. But what about people struggling to make ends meet each month? They're punished financially, making their already bad situation even worse. And they probably neither understand why nor have the knowledge to do anything about it. Like purveyors of sub-prime mortgage loans, credit card companies like Citibank are engaging in predatory lending practices, exploiting those least able to bear the burden. It's just despicable.

I'm going to start shopping around for a better credit card. Any suggestions?

Update 2008-03-22 10:00 UCT: I tried to pay the bill today, with the hope of having to pay as little interest as possible at the end of the next billing cycle. Sufficient funds are now available in my U.S. bank account, so I logged into the AT&T-Citibank Universal Card web page and enrolled in online bill payment. I clicked “make a payment now,” and was presented with this error message:

“Due to a recent returned payment from this bank account we are unable to process an online payment request from this account that this time. Please contact Customer Service at 1-800-423-4343 for assistance.”

So now they don't even want my money! Or more to the point, they don't want to make it easy for me to pay off the balance, because if I carry a balance for another month, I'll have to pay even more interest. Looks like I'll have to place yet another call to their long-suffering help desk.

Speaking of that, I received an email from AT&T-Citibank, asking me to participate in an online survey to provide feedback on my recent conversation with one of their customer service reps. I filled out the survey form and left pointed advice on how their service could be improved, also noting, of course, that the woman with whom I spoke was polite and did everything within her power to make me a satisfied customer. It's the system that's broken, not one person — and I made that very clear.

Update 2008-03-22 14:45 UCT: I just called AT&T-Citibank customer service again, to find a way to pay my bill. The customer service department accepts collect calls from customers who are calling from overseas, so this is how I placed the call: I dialled the toll-free Swedish number for the AT&T operator (+46 020-799-111) and placed a collect all to the international number for the AT&T-Citibank Universal Card customer service center (+1 904-448-8661).

It took almost thirty minutes on the phone with three different people in order to arrange for the payment to be made. The first woman with whom I spoke suggested that I pay the debt using my debit card. It's a Swedish debit card connected to a Swedish bank account, but I figured it was worth a try. Nope, no luck. I explained that I had already wired funds to my U.S. bank account specifically for the purpose of paying this bill, and that I would really prefer to pay it from my U.S. bank account. She said that it was not possible because of the previous “returned check” problem. Gaaah!

I spoke with her “supervisor” for a while, and initially made no progress. But after about ten or fifteen minutes, she finally checked with her supervisor, and came back with a solution. She would take my bank account information over the phone and the payment would be made on Tuesday. The information I provided is the exact same bank account information that they have on file for me. It's the same account from which the bill is paid automatically each month, and it's the same account that I configured via their web page this morning. But naturally, I had to provide each bit of information again over the phone. Oh, and she said there would be a $14 “processing” fee. A what? A fee to take money from me? I explained again that this is the same account they take funds from each month, and that I have never been charged before for this service. She agreed to waive the fee as a “one time courtesy,” because I am such a good customer.

So now it looks like I might even be able to use my credit card again in three days. And for those who are keeping score, I have through patience and polite perseverance talked my way out of:
  • the $39 “returned check” fee,

  • the exorbitant hike to 17% A.P.R. (now back at 9%, resulting in a savings of about $20), and

  • the $14 “processing” fee

By my count, that's $73 in fees and interest payments AT&T-Citibank would have liked to have gotten from me this month, but didn't. I feel truly sorry for those among AT&T-Citibank’s customers who are unaware of this sort of gouging or unable to sweet-talk their way out of the punishing fees.

Back from Andermatt

_MAL7593.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

After a fun and challenging week of skiing, I have returned home to Stockholm. I really need to take a few skiing lessons. I'm good on the groomed slopes, but really weak in powder and uneven snow. I also need to resume biking to keep my legs in shape and maintain my cardiopulminary endurance. Whew!

I took the photo above from atop the top station on Friday. To the left of the rocky crags you can see the right side of the valley where we did most of our skiing.

Snow has been falling in Stockholm since last night, when spent a few hours at Dubliner with Colleen and some of her friends. It was packed becuase of Saint Patrick's Day of course, and there was a live band playing Irish music. Fun!

Today the snow continues to fall in light fluffy flakes. Who knows? Maybe the temperature will even drop below freezing so that the snow can stick around for a few days.

Tonight it's time for a bit of climbing at Klättercentret. I've taken the ice tires off my bike, so I'll either take the bus or do the best I can riding my bike through the wet snow on my normal summer tires.


One last day in Andermatt

Today was our last day of skiing in Andermatt. It was cloudy in the early morning, but the sun came our around 10 and shone for most of the day. The temperature rose a few degress above freezing, resulting in heavier snow. But other than that, this was one of the best skiing days of the whole trip. We took lots of photos too, and I will upload them soon.

We joined a bunch of my IBM colleagues for a couple of drinks at the bar at the mid station on the mountain. Then I skiied with them down the moutain to Andermatt. The snow on the lower part of the mountain was by that point quite slushy.

This evening we had dinner for the second time at Di Alt Apothek restaurant. We had such a good dinner there a couple of nights ago that we wanted to return. The food was delicious but unfortunately the service left a bitter taste tonight. Things started to go strangely when three of us who ordered lamb received beef instead. We didn't think it was worth mentioning, because none of us had had our hearts set on lamb and the food was good despite not being what we ordered. Aside from the mix-up, the service in the restaurant was quite okay.

However, the staff treated us differently when we retired to the adjoining bar. We drank for a while and chatted with the friends we had made earlier in the week. After an hour and a half, the waitress rudely suggested that we order something else or leave. The bar was not crowded, and this is an establishment where we've had drinks every night this week and eaten dinner twice! To kick out erstwhile loyal patrons because they don't happen to be buying drinks that moment is cheap, greedy, shortsighted, and just plain tacky. The waitress could have asked us to make the seats available to other patrons in a more polite way. Ot better yet, the staff could have seen the obvious fact that making us feel unwelcome was not the best idea. Until tonight, I would have been happy to recommend the bar and restaurant to friends. Now I'm left feeling that the business does not deserve my recommendation or patronage.

Tomorrow morning we'll do some last-minute shopping and sight-seeing in the town and then pack up the bus for the ride back to Zürich. From there, we'll take the quick flight back home to Stockholm. After a week of skiing, I'm ready to be back home.


Another day in Andermatt

PICT0018, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

We had another full day of skiing on Gemsstock today (the name Gemsstock means mountain goat peak in German). It was cloudy and snowing all day, so we had to take it a bit easy. At times, it was so cloudy and snowy that we couldn't see each other even though we were just twenty meters apart. The poor visibility and the soft powder snow combined to give a surreal sensation. Several times I was skiing but couldn't really tell how fast I was going. Other times I thought I was moving, but I had stopped in the thick snow.

Today was not nearly as lovely as yesterday. In fact, the only photos I took today were at lunch and once we had finished skiing for the day. It just didn't make sense to get my camera out while skiing. The visibility was simply too poor.

So rather than post a photo from today, here's another lovely one from yesterday. The gondola in the photo goes from the mid-station up to the top of Gemsstock. From there, today as yesterday, we skied the off-piste area to the left of the tall ridge running along the right side of this photo. It was a lot more fun yesterday when we could see where we were going!

Tonight we at dinner at a lovely and tiny restaurant attached to Di Alt Apothek bar we've been visiting each evening after skiing. The restaurant and bar are situated under The River House hotel/bed & breakfast. All three establishments appear to share the same owner, management and staff. Both the bar and restaurant disallow smoking, and they offer free wi-fi and have good beer; so the bar has been a frequent after-ski hangout for us and for many of the other Swedes vacationing here this week. The food was so good at the restaurant that we booked a table for Friday night too. They have only eight or so tables, so it's pretty much necessary to book in advance.

I have created a new photo set for the Andermatt, March 2008 trip. Take a look!

Greetings from Andermatt!

PICT0020, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

We've had a great time the past few days. We arrived in the afternoon on Saturday, and just took it easy that day, acquainting ourselves with the layout of Andermatt, a village of 1,500 inhabitants. Andermatt once saw much more traffic than today, because it lies just below the pass of Oberalppass, once the only way to go from this part of Switzerland to Italy to the South. Nowadays, there are tunnels that shorten the trip, so those who do venture up to the higher altitudes do so for adventure, not necessity. A Swiss military base in Andermatt closed a few years ago, taking with it 500 soldiers who had previously contriubted quite a bit to the local economy. So Andermatt is in the process of redefining itself as an out-of-the way tourist destination and Mecca for snow sports enthusiasts. The people here are very friendly, and most of them understand (or even speak) a bit of English. I've had the opportunity to practice my German a bit too, which has been a bit frustrating, but fun too.

Sunday Matt and I joined a guided off-piste tour of the mountain's backcountry areas. It was exhausting but lots of fun. We found several slopes of untouched powder snow during the day. We were going with a bunch of guys who were quite good, so it was challenging to keep up.

Monday was a so-so day, with uneven snow conditions. We took the train up to Oberalppass at one point, because the top of Gemsstock was closed and we wanted to find some places to ski. But unfortunately, the lifts at Oberalppass were also closed due to poor visibility and high winds. So we sat in the bar there and had drinks with a bunch of IBMers who also happened to be there. Oh, that's an interesting thing about this trip. For the second time this year I have by coincidence booked a trip privately that was the same trip as one I could have booked through the IBM club. It happened in February when I met a bunch of IBMers at Kittelfjäll, and it's happened again here. My former colleague Maud is along with the IBM gang too, and it has been fun to catch up a bit with her.

Yesterday I joined a bunch of the IBM folks for some of the best skiing of my life. It had snowed all night the previous night, so there was a good meter or so of fresh soft powder covering the whole mountain. We went off-piste the whole morning, and were able to find untouched fields of powder snow by traversing across the valley. The sun came ouf around midday, and we captured some excellent photos. It's amazing how much more fun it is to ski when you can see where you're going!

It's been windy and rainy this morning, so I don't think the skiing will be as good today as it was yesterday, but we'll make the best of it. Matt, Lisa, Lotta and Johan are already up on the mountain, so we'll use walkie-talkies to try to meet up with in a few minutes.


Off to Andermatt!

Well, it's almost time for my ski trip to the Swiss Alps!

Tomorrow morning, I'll join Matt, Lisa & Lotta at Arlanda airport and catch the nine o'clock flight to Zürich, whence we'll take a bus to Andermatt. Matt's buddy from England will meet up with us in the airport in Zürich.

I anticipate an excellent week of skiing in Andermatt. It's a relatively small town, not as famous as Charmonix or Zermatt. There are a couple of ski areas in the vicinity though and I expect there will be more than enough there to keep us occupied for a week.

I hope to find a way to get internet access down there, but if experience is any guide, I might not be online very much of the time. I will of course take lots of photos. Expect to see some of them soon.


Ups and downs

I awoke this morning feelling much the same as yesterday—better than on Tuesday, but not really back to full health either. A light dusting of snow fell during the night, but had mostly melted by morning, leaving water and slush on the streets and sidewalks. The sky is partly cloudy and every once in a while, the sun pokes through, making the office here twice as bright. Despite the snow and slush, there's a feeling of anticipation in the air. Winter's almost past, and spring is on the way.

However, it's hard for me to feel enthusiastic. My mood is down at the moment due to some bad news I received last night. Last week, I applied for a new job that seemed perfect for me. It's a job that would let me combine my technical and creative skills, and would give me the opportunity to have a big influence and to help lots of my colleagues. For a while, it seemed liked I was on my way toward getting the position. I received positive recommendations from several colleagues, and the decision-maker told me I was the front-runner. Unfortunately, I learned last night that there are some obstacles that stand in the way, and now it seems that my prospects for getting the job are bleak. I was really excited about the job, and it's disheartening to let the dream go.

“There will be other jobs,” a friend reminded me. Yeah, that's right. But I'm still feeling down.


Time to come together

Barack Obama LogoOne month ago, I announced my support for Barak Obama. I believe he is the best suited to run the country in the coming years, and to undo the horrible mistakes of the Bush administration. However, last night’s results show that many Americans remain unconvinced. For this reason, I have given another $100 to the Obama campaign to help Barak get his message out.

I would like to ask for your support too. I have set up a personal fundraising page with the goal of raising $1000 for the campaign. Please join me in supporting Barak Obama.

Sick again

Well, those sore muscles and chills I felt Sunday night were harbingers of worse things to come. Monday morning I awoke at 05.41, almost unable to breathe because my face was so full of phlegm. I was able to do some work in the morning, but felt progressively worse as the day wore on. Tuesday, I managed to hual my butt into the office for a meeting with my manager, but went straight home afterward. My fever took a turn for the worse in the afternoon, and as a result I spent most of the afternoon and evening in bed. The fever finally broke in the late evening and I was able to get a solid 5 hours of sleep. Aside from congestion and a throat sore from coughing, I feel a lot better today. I’ve been able to work all day. I intend to try to get some more work done tonight rather than risk exposing my fellow salsa classmates to whatever bug I've contracted. If I still feel okay tomorrow, I might go dancing in the evening.


Climbing at Karbin on Sunday

_MAL7044.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

After brunch, Udo gave me an several others a ride to Karbin, where we climbed for a while. Diana, the American I met on the subway a few weeks ago, joined us too. I climbed ropes for a while with Diana, and was again impressed by her ability. She climbed a 5c without any trouble. Cool!

After Diana left, I climbed ropes with Sara for a while and then did some bouldering. I repeated several of the fun problems from Friday’s boulder open competition, including the one of blue-and-yellow holds in the above photo. (Thanks to Sara for taking the photo!) I also completed a black-graded problem of orange-colored holds that I hadn’t quite been able to manage during the competition.

Overall, the climbing went well despite the fact that toward the end of the day I began to feel like I was coming down with a cold. My neck and shoulders were sore, I was getting slight chills, and my head didn't feel right. After a while, I stopped climbing so much and resorted simply to taking photos. I’m particularly pleased with the photos I captured of Christian, Josefin and Jenni.

Here are all twenty-six photos from Sunday’s climbing.

Sunday brunch at Skånska Gruvan

_MAL6891.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

This week the Sunday brunch gang gathered at Skånska Gruvan on Djursholm. The weather was cold and rainy, and I walked from the bus stop without a hat or gloves. So by the time I stepped inside the building's thick brick walls, I was quite grateful for the cozy fire burning in the open hearth next to our table.

I had a chicken stew that, to be honest, I found rather strange. It had more apples in it than any other vegetable, and the spices were just plain weird. I cannot recommend that particular dish. The place was a bit pricey too. The ambience was lovely though, and the coffee was good and strong!

Here are twelve photographs from the morning.


Drinking with Linda & friends after climbing.

_MAL6750.jpg, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

After the boulder open competition, a bunch of folks retired to Judit & Bertil for a few celebratory beers. Linda and her friends Anna and Carolina came too, and I felt damned lucky to be in the company of such lovely and charming women. Here are twenty-two photos of the night’s revelry.

Linda’s off to warmer waters this week for a scuba-diving vacation, and I would be jealous if not for the fact that I’m bound for Andermatt in the Swiss Alps in less than a week. I haven’t been skiing in the Alps since I visited Andrea in the winter more than a decade and a half ago. It should be exciting!