Odd & Annoying Survey Methodology

Our municipality has contracted a survey firm to evaluate the after-school activities for children that it supports. Circus school, piano lessons etc. Questionnaires have been sent to (some? all?) enrolled children.

My kid is in three of these activities. I got three almost identical questionnaires, interpreted them as a mail-merge glitch, responded to one and threw two away unexamined. Then I was nagged about those two.

If I were running the survey I would purposely avoid collecting data on the same kid for more than one activity.



I found this lovely portrait on Wikipedia. 18th century portraits almost exclusively show people with European looks. But here a Russian painter has painted a Kalmyk girl in 1767. The Kalmyks are a Western Mongolian group living in south-west Russia. The girl looks just like Juniorette’s buddy whose parents are from Afghanistan and Korea! This picture presses all my dad buttons.

Her name was Annushka and she was a serf and protegée of Countess Varvara Sheremeteva (later Countess Razumovsky). In the picture, the girl is holding a portrait of the Countess. The painter, Ivan Argunov, is a major figure in the history of Russian art — and was a serf of the Countess’s father, Count Pyotr Sheremetev. One of Moscow’s airports is named for this wildly rich family.

Boardgaming Retreat

This past weekend saw my third annual boardgaming retreat: 48 hours in good company at a small Nyköping hotel during the slow season, all meals included. Me and my buddy Pieter took a walk upriver to the first bridge and back past the castle ruin late on Saturday night, but otherwise I spent my waking hours in the gaming/dining room.

I played eleven sessions of nine different games. To give you an idea of how popular each individual game is, I’ve included its current BGG rank. For instance, Indonesia’s “98th” means that right now there are only 97 board games that the largely US-based users of Boardgamegeek.com rate more highly than that game. I’m not quite so enthusiastic about it myself.

  • Oregon. Ranked 540th. A Norwegian abstract game with a thin coat of 19th century Frontier theme. Short and sweet.
  • Chaos in the Old World. Ranked 47th. Each player assumes the role of a chaos god vying with his buddies for domination of Games Workshop’s fantasy version of Renaissance Europe. Oddly you don’t kill or corrupt the civilians much. The game’s graphic design is ugly but the mechanics are fun.
  • Sid Meier’s Civilization. Ranked 40th. This is the second, more successful attempt to make a boardgame out of the wildly successful computer game of the same name which took some inspiration from a classic 1980 boardgame that takes 14 hours to play. The best new game I learned at the retreat.
  • Indonesia. Ranked 98th. The board is a big drab map of Indonesia, divided into a myriad small districts. You move square cardboard chits and little colourful wooden boat markers around. Game money changes hands. Nobody really knew the rules, it took over five hours and I was bored to tears.
  • Glory to Rome. Ranked 70th. I brought a recently redecorated and much prettier edition of this intricate card-based logistics game. It was designed by Carl Chudyk who later released the excellent Innovation. Good fun, not too long!
  • Castles of Burgundy. Ranked 23rd. A dry, drab and abstract game which is largely concerned with the movements of hexagonal cardboard tiles, which, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, is odd because on the whole it isn’t the small hexagonal cardboard tiles that the game is supposed to entertain.
  • Yggdrasil. Ranked 336th. I brought this fine French cooperation game about Norse mythology. “Oh how prog rock” said one participant when he saw the board art. Sadly the forces of chaos overran Asgard.
  • King of Tokyo. Ranked 145th. It may only be simplified Yahtzee with a deck of cards and some giant monsters, but the art is so good and the in-yer-face-ness of it all so entertaining that we had to play it twice in one sitting.
  • Gem Dealer. Ranked 6605th. Short and bland.

I blogged about the gaming retreats of 2010 and 2011 too.

We Can’t Figure Out Theodicy Either, Swedish Church Admits Frankly

All the monotheistic religions have a problem known as Theodicy or The Problem of Evil. Simply put, it’s the question “How can there be evil and suffering in the world?”. The religions in question posit that their god knows everything that happens, so he isn’t ignorant of the shit that’s going on. And they posit that their god is endlessly well-meaning and loving, so he isn’t the one inflicting the evil and suffering upon hapless humanity. And they posit that there is nothing he cannot do if he wants to, so he isn’t watching powerlessly as evil and suffering happens. But evil and suffering does happen. So logically speaking, it appears that all the monotheistic religions are wrong about what their god is like.

To my mind, theodicy is the only argument anyone can ever need against these religions. Because the Problem of Evil has a simple solution: that there is no omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent god. So I got to thinking – in apologetics (the art of defending a system of religious beliefs against counterarguments), shouldn’t theodicy be the top item on the agenda? I became curious as to what stance Sweden’s largest religious organisation, the former state church, takes on theodicy.

The Swedish church is a Lutheran denomination founded in c. 1530. My learned Christian friend Mattias explained to me that the church hasn’t really adopted any foundational theological documents since the 16th century. Those still current are collected in Svenska Kyrkans Bekännelseskrifter, encompassing “the three creeds, Confessio Augustana, the Schmalkaldian articles, Luther’s catechisms and a few other documents”. And apparently this body of theological writing does not address theodicy. Granted, it isn’t apologetic literature, but seen from my outsider’s viewpoint it is odd that smart men like Martin Luther and Philipp Melancthon would not see or acknowledge the logical hole at the base of their edifice.

I wrote to the Swedish church’s inquiries email address and asked them if the organisation has an official stance on theodicy. A theologian who chose not to reveal their identity replied (and I translate):

Theodicy has no simple solution. As Birgitta Trotzig put it, suffering is “a mystery whose depth and real dimensions are not available to the instruments of intellect alone”. She continues, “Suffering is a wound that should be kept open; a contradiction that must not be evened out; an insufferable unsolveability which humankind has no right to allow to be solved.” I feel that here, Trotzig has succinctly expressed that it is impossible to find a “solution” to theodicy.

The “answer” that can be given from the perspective of Christian faith mainly consists of showing how God, in Christ, has shared humankind’s conditions and suffered pain, degradation and death under the most degrading and horrifying circumstances.

This is no explanation but it demonstrates God’s love for humankind and God’s solidarity with humankind in her suffering. Christian faith further means that Jesus Christ has overcome evil through his life, his death and his resurrection. This is a foundation for the belief that we shall one day meet an existence where there is no longer suffering.

These are an individual Swedish church theologian’s views, not the party line — there doesn’t seem to be one. And as you may imagine, they in no way make this faith more reasonable in my eyes. Trotzig’s opinions that theodicy is intellectually ineffable and an area of forbidden inquiry amount to no more than replying “Never mind that” to the question. The idea that an omnipotent god would respond to people’s suffering not by ending it, but by trying out what suffering is like for a while, just re-states the basic problem: this being doesn’t seem to be anywhere near omnibenevolent after all. And promising a life without suffering not now, but in a supernatural future, both strains credulity and is kind of irrelevant. Theodicy asks “Why is there ever pain and suffering?”, not “When is this going to end?”.

So maybe Luther’s and Melancthon’s silence on the subject of theodicy actually shows how smart they were. This is not an issue that the wise apologist will bring up. Better ignore it and hope that nobody starts asking questions.

My Kid’s School Takes All Pupils On Festive Procession To Church

The former Swedish state church has been reasonably independent for twelve years. Now Juniorette’s school plans to send the kids walking in festive procession with flaming torches to the Swedish church’s local branch for an “Advent gathering”. Good fun no doubt, and Juniorette would probably be most displeased if I made her stay in school with the more orthodox among the Muslim kids and a temp teacher.

I don’t enjoy being pushed to make this call. So I’ve drafted a letter of protest to the headmistress where I point out that such non-educational favouritism for one of the country’s many religious organisations is inappropriate and illegal. The event will give the Swedish church free brand recognition and goodwill. I emailed the file to the other parents and offered them to make improvements and co-sign the letter with me.

One of the parents replied as follows.

There is something called an ecumenical meeting that you should read up on, Martin. Of course the children should take part in the torch procession. It is both fun and then being in the church is both beneficial and educational for most of them regardless of religious background. Secondly it is not illegal! Where in the school law of 1 July does it say so?

I find this to have some wider interest and I don’t want to spam all the other parents with this discussion. And so I’ve decided to reply here on my blog.

1. Ecumenical meetings by definition take place between people of different religious faiths. Not between religious organisations and the secular municipal school system. Secular schools should offer children an unbiased outsider’s view of all major religions, not offer one of them them free support under fun and festive circumstances.

I’m all for religious groups making ecumenical contact among themselves if it can reduce hate between them. But I would much prefer it if people would instead just leave those groups.

2. The school law of 1 July states (as have previous versions going back many decades) that Swedish schools must follow the state curriculum. The 2011 state school curriculum states in its second paragraph (p. 7) that Undervisningen i skolan ska vara icke-konfessionell, “Teaching in school must be non-denominational”. Whether an activity in school should be seen as teaching or not is usually judged simply on the basis of whether it takes place during scheduled school hours, as the Advent gathering does.

Pieces Of My Mind

These days I usually stick short updates of things I’m thinking about on my Facebook feed, and use the blog for longer pieces. But some of those snippets make me kind of happy, so here’s a selection of recent ones.

  • I never give money to beggars. Instead I make an annual donation to Stockholm’s biggest organisation for meals, showers, beds for homeless people. Right about when it starts to get cold and nasty outdoors.
  • Why is a Swedish dance orchestra playing a slow boogie version of “Anarchy In The UK” in my head?
  • OK guys, here’s the deal. An elite is a group of people. If you’re talking about its members, they are not “elites”. They are members of the elite. The plural of this word can only be used if you mean several distinct groups, as in “The political elites of many Western countries like Sponge Bob”. My buddy and his brother may be members of the elite, but they certainly are not elites. Learn this now. Thank you. That’s all.
  • “Wannabe scientist” is Möchtegern-Wissenschaftler in German! Ausgezeichnet!
  • The Big Two card game is known as da lao-er, “big dick”, in Mandarin slang.
  • Is it possible to know God in the Biblical way?
  • Grödinge parish used to be named Grodunge, “baby frog”.
  • I want to feed tamarind to tamarins sitting in tamarisks on the River Tamar.
  • Nerdy gamer clubs completely rule the Swedish system of publicly funded youth groups, once set up to encourage sports teams.
  • I’ve finally realised why Christian fundamentalists oppose gay marriage. First I kind of assumed that they find it much more palatable that gay people are sexually promiscuous than that they form stable pairs. But that didn’t quite sound right. Then it struck me. Christian fundamentalists hate the idea that anybody is having gay sex. And they think that nobody has sex outside of marriage. So if gay people can’t get married, nobody will ever have gay sex!
  • D’oh! A deer, a female deer
  • What would the Danish conference series Det Tværfaglige Vikingesymposium be called in English? Fag is easy as that is the same in English. Tvær is quer in German, that is, queer in English. So the conference is called The Queer Fag Viking Symposium. Cool.

Flute Clock Reborn

My part-time employers the Academy of Letters are charmingly unworldly in a muscular way. They’re not a government body and are beholden to nobody except King Gustav III who laid down their bylaws in the 18th century. He hasn’t cramped their style in quite a while. And they are quite comfortably funded indeed through various bequests and donations they have received through the centuries. The Academy is essentially an invitation-only club for professors in the humanities and social sciences, and their priorities are not of this world. Edit and publish the correspondence of a 17th century royal chancellor? Sure. Re-paint one of their manors in the baby pink colour it had in the 1820s? You got it. Renovate a 200-year old automatic flute clock that plays Mozart for five minutes every hour? Yep.

I attended a demonstration of the flute clock the other day. It’s a squat neo-classical obelisk-like cabinet with a clock at the top and an 66-pipe miniature organ in the base, built by Pehr Strand’s firm in Stockholm. All of the machinery is powered by a 43 kg lead weight that you crank up by hand. But for the past century it hasn’t been working. The clockwork was gummed up. Most of the organ pipes and the entire gear box were missing. Importantly though, the data storage medium was still there: a collection of log-like wooden rollers covered with little metal pins and staples. On each roller is a label bearing names like Haydn, Mozart and Naumann.

So when musicologist prof.em. Jan Ling comes across this piece of pretty but dead machinery in the Rettig collection (into which I run the constant risk of being acquisitioned, as my office is on the same floor), what does the Academy do? They commission an organ builder, a barrel organ builder and a watchmaker to renovate the thing. To replace the missing parts with period materials and make it work again. Make it able to play those rollers. But the rollers of this tech tradition followed no standard. Every machine was unique. The artisans have to reverse-engineer the whole thing, starting from the extant rollers and general principles known from similar surviving contraptions.

And they got it to work. At 14:55 it started playing, sounding fluty indeed, performing every little flourish of the Mozart piece on the roller slotted into it, before chiming three times. And when I heard it, I immediately thought of the Beatles. Because the 18th century technology of that organ clock survived through the 19th century, when the counterweight could be replaced by a steam engine, and those calliopes survived in English amusement parks into the 20th century, where some of the last ones were recorded on tape. And when John Lennon wrote a song based on a poster for a Victorian fun fair, George Martin got the idea to put a collage of calliope recordings into the song, “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”. That’s what the Academy’s flute clock sounds like.

People still build flute clocks! Check out Matthias Naeschke.

Fornvännen’s Spring Issue On-line

Check it out in full, for free!

  • Kim von Hackwitz on miniature Middle Neolithic battle axes around Lake Mälaren
  • Roger Wikell & Jörgen Johnsson on the re-discovery of a runic inscription on a cliff side near Stockholm
  • Herman Bengtsson & Christian Lovén on indications in Medieval church art about the contents of a lost longer version of the legend of Saint Eric
  • Jens Heimdahl on the medicinal use of henbane in 12th century Nyköping
  • Magnus Källström on the re-discovery of archive documentation of two lost rune stones near Uppsala
  • And an unusually pugnacious debate section