Category Archives: Ways Of Thinking

Self-reliance, Swedish style

Gamble with grandma

In the UK you must always give up your seat for an elderly person.

In Sweden, this is fraught with danger.

50% of older people will smile and accept. The other 50% will reject you with a snarl.

This is bewildering to a Brit, but self-evident to a Swede. So what’s the difference? Self-reliance. Some elderly Swedes consider it an insult to their independence. You are publicly shaming them with your pity.

You can’t tell who will smile and who will snarl. This makes offering a help a risky business. And not just with elderly people.

We were shocked at first at how seldom my wife got help from passers-by when bumping the baby buggy up and down the icy staircases in the centre of town.

Then we figured it out: fear of insulting her independence. She would have welcomed the help, but passing strangers were not to know that.

So, how to deal with this risk, this game of social Russian roulette?

Most Swedes prefer not to take the risk. Better to bury yourself in your phone and avoid the dilemma altogether…


For Swedes, unlike in the UK, Eurovision is not a complete joke

We have a 25-year-old childminder. She’s young and hip (unlike me since I still use the word ‘hip’). But when I asked what she was doing for her birthday, I was surprised by her answer: “Oh it’s super cool, my boyfriend got us tickets for Melodifestivalen!!“

Melodifestivalen is the Swedish qualifying competition for Eurovision. It takes place over multiple Saturday nights, is a fixture for families on primetime TV, and it culminates in a live final with an enormous studio audience (pictured above) in a tumult of excitement over who will be chosen as the Swedish entry.

If you’re from the UK, you might want to read that last paragraph again. Yes, I’m talking about the Eurovision qualifiers here…

The most famous aspect of Eurovision in the UK is the phrase ’nul points’ – meaning ‘no points’ – which refers to Jemini (2003). Her appearance was pointless in every sense. The British entry has only scored nul points once, but that doesn’t mean there has been a lot of success – the UK has finished outside the top ten for six years in a row.

This does not jive with the British sense of victorious entitlement. Finishing outside the top ten – or, indeed, outside the top one – triggers accusations of bloc voting among the ex-Soviets and rank disloyalty among the former colonies.

But having failed to beat them, the UK also refuses to join them. Instead we send decreasingly serious entrants to the competition. This year’s contenders, Joe & Jake, met on a second-rate TV talent show. Jake didn’t even make the live finals of the show.

This truly is a bad sign. Joe & Jake were described by The Telegraph as “two-fifths of an alternate universe One Direction. This may yet turn out to have been a terrible decision by the British public”. But, the paper continues, “it could so easily have been worse. They’re no Scooch, Daz Sampson or Jemini. And they’re much better than last year’s Electro Velvet.”

At least the UK is taking a year’s break from reanimating the corpses of aged popstars such as Bonnie Tyler* (2013, finished 19th) and Engelbert Humperdinck (2002, finished 25th).

Compare this with Sweden. The Melodifestivalen finale featured several of Sweden’s top popstars, artists with a real track record who have attempted over and over to win a coveted place in the main Eurovision event. It might be hard to beat this year’s Swedish entrant, Frans, who looks like an ugly Bieber but does sound a bit like him if you close your eyes for long enough.

The Eurovision final takes place tomorrow (16 May) here in Stockholm. Yesterday we went to one of the semi-finals. I hadn’t quite realised that this would be a contest between the smaller nations who need to qualify for the final. Sadly we missed Minus One from Cyprus and Jüri Pootsman from Estonia, but we were treated to Donny Montell from Lithuania and Ivan from Belarus, who was joined on stage by… himself, stark naked and singing to a wolf. It was absurd but also absurdly fun.

Two years ago, my wife and I went to an outrageous birthday party in Paris. A tall, striking, and bearded Parsien dressed as Conchita Wurst stopped the party and sang the 2014 winner’s song ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ with backing vocals from six fellow Frenchmen in spectacular drag. I can only hope that this year’s Eurovision winner lives up to that.


* I’m being a little disloyal here. Bonnie Tyler was actually amazing back in 1983: Total Eclipse Of The Heart (studio vocals only) / Bonus: Literal video description version

The Prodigal Sun

What spring means in Sweden

The arrival of spring wreaks a strange change in this post-pagan land. One glimpse of sunshine wakes the icy giant, and the entire country comes out of hibernation.

Real giants are slow to wake. They snork and snuffle and rub their sleepy eyes before stirring their limbs. For Swedes the process is barely a process at all – rather, it is a rapid and electrifying event, as though a wild roommate has dipped the sleeper’s fingers in left-over schnapps and jammed them into the plug socket. Last week it snowed. But this week, spring has suddenly sprung!

It has been a long wait. There have been desperate sunbathers along the waterfront every sunny day for two months. The picture above was taken in early March – the water was still covered in ice, and most sunbathers were wearing winter coats.

But now the almighty sun streams down into the worshipping city. It is greeted by a Swedish hug lasting several months. A Swedish hug lasting more than a few seconds is a bone-crushing experience. No-one will go in until September. After locking themselves indoors through the winter, now they lock themselves out.

Pallid Vikings swarm the streets and riverside cafes. Young maidens and even aged hags begin to blossom. The local Boulebar reopens. The broad streets are narrowed by bustling tables – who cares if you still need a coat, at least your bum won’t be frozen to the seat.

Fast-forward a few months, and the world has turned again. Spring is gone, long live sweet summer! We arrived here in late August. Bronzed skin, blonde hair, long limbs and easy smiles were everywhere.

But something in this sun-kissed paradise was not quite right. In the background, very faintly… what was that? Can you hear it? Tick, tock, tick, tock… the seasons’ clock. The countdown to winter begins on the day the sun arrives.

So time is short. Already the prudent country-dwellers were gathering food and firewood for the hard winter ahead. But the city Swedes pump up the volume and drown out the clock.

When we first landed, in a blaze of sunshine and summery sweat, the only hint that we hadn’t redirected to Los Angeles was in the eyes. A very slight dilation of the pupils, or a stare that lasts just a little too long… there is a mania that grips the Swede when summer arrives. He knows this is his chance. He will retire to his summer palace in the archipelago and toast himself like a salamander on a rock.

Swedish residents are advised to take vitamin D throughout the year. The sun’s true goodness is squeezed into a short period, so when it does arrive it must be taken in highly-concentrated doses. Now the nights are shortening, the sky is bright, and water sparkles in the sunlight. The mania will soon descend.


One call away from Cambridge

I had a fully-funded Masters offer from Cambridge, but I had to achieve a certain score in my History finals in order to get in.

I didn’t hit the required mark (missed by 2%). So I rang around the other universities on my list, and managed to get into Nottingham – a fantastic place in its own right, and in many ways a more suitable place for me at that time.

A year later, I bumped into the guy who would have been my supervisor at Cambridge and told him this story.

He was shocked: “Why on earth didn’t you call and ask if you could come anyway?”.

Good question. Back then it seemed obvious – someone else set the rules, so I played by them…

Ten years later, I don’t really believe in accepting parameters set by other people. I was told directly by senior colleagues that I had no chance of success when considering my last two jobs. I’m ten years older and maybe twenty years more bloody-minded :)

I may not have gone to Cambridge, but I did learn an awful lot.


More mishaps via the mailing list and @toddmgreen on Twitter.

Michael Jordan is a failure

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

~ Michael Jordan

A Thousand Tiny Details

Ooh, I miss really good chips. Swedes have not yet mastered the art of the crispy, creamy, truly delicious chip.

How hard can it be? Just chop up potatoes and fry them in oil. Simplest possible meal.

Except… well, maybe it’s a bit more complicated than that…

  • Which potatoes to use?
  • Chip size?
  • Chip shape?
  • Portion size?
  • Cooking time?
  • Cooking #times?
  • Cooking temperature?
  • Cooking oil type?
  • Cleanliness?
  • Cooling between vat and mouth?
  • And many more…

Even the simplest things are made up of a thousand tiny details.



Big Data tempts some researchers to believe that they can see everything at a 30,000-foot view. It is the kind of data that encourages the practice of apophenia: seeing patterns where none actually exist, simply because massive quantities of data can offer connections that radiate off in all directions. 

Apophenia is everywhere. 


Quote: boyd & Crawford (2011), Six Provocations For Big Data

Toast: NBC News

The Glasses Half Full 

Everything changes eventually.

A boy called Chris was teasing me about my glasses:

Do you read a lot of books? I bet you do.

Reading books was not cool at age 9 in St Albans. 

Wearing glasses was not cool at age 9 anywhere.

Fifteen years later I walked into a shop on London’s famous Oxford Street and saw an incredible sight: fake glasses on sale as a fashion item!

I knew I wasn’t cool back then. But I bet Chris wears fake glasses now.

Picnics in the rain

In Oman you can wait 6+ months for rain.

So when it does rain, people jump out of their cars to take photographs, students beg for class to be cancelled, and families picnic under the downpour.

Seems mad to me, living in the UK. In London it rains on 44% of days. Everything is seen differently by different people.

A friend’s dad told him:

Son, not everyone’s going to like you – that’s just how it is. Everyone sees you differently.

I found out last week that my friend had died. So this one’s for him.

Rest in peace mate x


Links: Rain stats, Oman blog and photo.

Initial idea came from From Our Own Correspondent, but I can’t recall which episode.

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Small numbers

This ammonite fossil is 170 million years old.

That’s a hard number to grasp, so let’s put it in context.

It’s just over 2000 years since we switched from BC to AD. For us, 2000 years ago is ancient history.

But 2000 years are nothing to this little fossil. What proportion of his existence do those 2000 years represent?

Not much: he is so old that the entire AD era – starting when the Romans ruled Britain, Augustus was on the throne, and Jesus was born – is only 0.00001% of his time on Earth.