Skiing Holiday, Broken Bone

Sweden is shaped like a ski, and people live mainly in the southern quarter, but in the other three-quarters there are many skiing resorts. I’ve been going there every few years since I was three. I’m not a competitive or particularly elegant down-hill skier, but I enjoy it and I can get down all kinds of slopes and I rarely fall.

In recent years my wife and I have taken the kids to one of the country’s southernmost skiing resorts, simply because if one of you is going to spend most of their time on the kiddy slope with a neophyte, then there is little reason to drive for seven hours one way. My wife had tired of Romme near Borlänge, so this year she did the booking and put us in BjursÃ¥s near Falun. It took us less than four hours to get there from Fisksätra, lunch break included.

BjursÃ¥s (“beaver sauce”) offers a modest number of ski lifts and slopes, and few of the latter are very long or steep. This was the year when Juniorette really became a serious skier, who ploughs down the slopes at considerable speed with little fear and few falls. And Junior is an excellent babysitter & skiing partner these days, so part of the time they zipped around on their own.

I don’t like gadget sports. I enjoy buying as little gear as possible, so this year I wore a cap I bought at the Great Wall outside Beijing years ago, a staff jacket from the VästerÃ¥s town paper that my wife got me when she worked there in ’99, a pair of gloves someone left at my house one gaming night, and faded jeans. But oldest of all was my actual skiing gear: given to me by my parents in ’88 and still sporting my childhood phone number written in my dad’s hand. Quality stuff, I just sharpen the steel edges now and then and I’m fine. The boots are actually the best I’ve seen, with a single open/close latch instead of the crazy Gigeresque alien armour current ski boots look like. (I remember now that I wrote about my gear last winter too.)

Anyway, to my dismay I broke one of my poles this year. I was in a sitting lift with a mid-slope station, and when me and Junior passed that station one of my poles got lodged against the wooden deck and bent. Aluminum cylinder, broke when I tried to straighten it. So goodbye 80s ski pole. Still, I did have one perfectly usable one left… So I went down to the rental shop and asked if they had any solitary ski poles of the right length. Sure enough, they did – and they gave me one for free. So now I’ve got mismatched recycled skiing poles and I feel pretty smug about not throwing away gear or money unnecessarily.

Distinctly non-smug is how I felt yesterday afternoon though when Junior came down a light slope at his usual sane clip, braked, fell over in front of me and broke his left arm. So we spent last night at Falun main hospital. But as my friend David the physiotherapist commented, if you must break a bone, break your radius. The ulna will keep it straight and it’ll heal just fine. In this case, we were particularly lucky about it: it’s a “green stick fracture” with no displacement of the bone ends at the break, which is pretty much the kind of fracture you’ll want if you must snap off your radius. And of course you’ll prefer to break your second hand, not your first.

Did you know that patients are no longer encouraged to carry their broken arms in a sling? Apparently this causes immobilisation, muscle atrophy and poor circulation, all of which prolongs and impedes rehabilitation. So Junior walks around with his plaster resting on his left-hand shoulder and uses his left-hand fingers for sundry small tasks. But he complains about difficulties when using the bathroom, and last night I washed his face for him the way I used to when he was a little kid.

Oh, and one of the slopes is named Pot Nook, HarsprÃ¥nget. Dalecarlian stoners…

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Snow Screwed Up My Travel Plans

I was at a Viking Period workshop in Birmingham until Wednesday noon. A sudden, major and sustained snow dump on the area south of London meant that I couldn’t go home the way I had planned: train to London, train to Gatwick airport, plane to Skavsta, bus to Stockholm, be home in the early hours of today. Instead I had to sleep at a B&B near Gatwick, and then strike out for home after breakfast.

Here’s what I’ve managed so far. Bus through the snow from Gatwick to London, train from London to Stansted airport where I type this, and now I have an air ticket for this evening to Gothenburg. There I will sleep on the couch of my friend Dr. Mathias Klang, and then fly to Stockholm tomorrow morning, if all goes according to plan.

My Birmingham trip was actually originally scheduled for April. But it got canceled because of a volcanic ash cloud…

I Was a Cash Cow in Gambia

In the preceding entry I gave a list of good stuff about a Gambian vacation. Here’s the flip side.

My first trip to Africa, a week in Agadir, Morocco in the mid-1990s, was marred (but not ruined) by the locals’ constant begging and aggressive attempts to sell me stuff. I recently relived this experience in Gambia’s coastal resort district. The Gambians don’t beg. But everybody tries to sell you goods and services all the time, often making you feel quite besieged.

The room cleaner tried to sell my wife apples in the bathroom. The hotel’s tailor nagged us daily about arranging an outing for us. I’ve already told you about “Do you need a fish” dude. You soon learn to dread meeting any young guy in the street because he will invariably try to become your local guide and buddy.

One trick I read about in the excellent Lonely Planet guide for Gambia & Senegal and soon encountered in the street was “Hey, don’t you recognise me? I work at your hotel!” It is difficult at times to recognise all these brief acquaintances, and you may feel a twinge of post-colonial bad conscience at not being able to tell one young black guy in a rasta hat from another. But when I was asked this question (on day four) I replied, “My hotel? Really? What hotel is that?” And the guy guessed wrong.

Another time though I ignored my driver for several minutes despite his calls because he had removed his rasta hat and I thought he was just another random street hustler trying to get my attention.

But the encounter that really brought home the huge economic gap between myself and the locals was when I ran into, lets call her Liz. She worked at my hotel, a shapely and pretty young single mother with an outgoing manner and good English. Many Gambian women don’t get much schooling and are neither Anglophone nor even literate. But Liz has a good job and I guess she must be quite a successful Gambian despite being sole provider for a child.

The second time we met, Liz flirted shamelessly. The third time she cheerfully offered to become my mistress, perhaps in Sweden, proclaiming that she didn’t mind my being married. I replied that though I was flattered by the offer, my wife would most likely mind quite a lot, and that my wife is a very dangerous woman. Thus spurned, how did this young lady move on with the conversation? She asked me for a t-shirt “to remember you by”. I knew from other conversations that a used t-shirt represents a considerable value in Gambia.

I must emphasise that of all the Gambian ladies I talked to, Liz was the only one who made any lewd hints, and I don’t think she sells herself in the usual sense of the term. She probably quite liked me. But as a Westerner in Gambia, I was clearly seen by men and women alike mainly as a source of cash and possibly a ticket to Europe. And since I was constantly reminded of this, I sometimes wished we had gone somewhere else for our vacation. If we had, the Gambians would have been even poorer.

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Joys of a Gambian Vacation

Gambia is Africa’s smallest country, with 15 million people living on a flat stretch of river plain carved out of central Senegal. Besides peanut cultivation, tourism is an important source of revenue, and indeed coastal Gambia is one of the most Westernised parts of sub-Saharan Africa in this respect. I recently spent a week there with my wife and kids. Here are some of the high points of our stay.

  • Sunshine, heat, beach, hotel swimming pool. These were the main reasons for us to leave Sweden at all.
  • The locals are friendly, sociable, and not in the least deferential to tourists. Most speak good English (while in Senegal, for the same reasons of colonial history, people speak French). No apartheid at the pool side: people mix freely, not least because Gambian expats come there on vacation, stay at hotels and entertain their family and friends there.
  • Humble residential areas and grocery markets are just across the coastal highway for anyone who wants to learn a bit about life beyond the hotel walls.
  • Small nature reserves full of wildlife are just a short cab ride away. Monkeys, lizards, termite hills!
  • Birds are particularly abundant and various wherever there’s a spot of greenery. Bring binoculars!
  • Pop music sounds nothing like at home, being an eclectic mix of local polyrhythms, Jamaican reggae and US styles. Bring a small radio!
  • Amazing drum-dance-singing acts: we saw the Kucha Kassem Cultural Dance Troupe one night and were completely floored. And invited onto the floor, all four of us! Contact troupe leader Abubacarr Colley to find out about gigs or book drumming and dance classes: abukolley887@yahoo.com, +220 771 27 87.
  • Everything’s cheap once you’ve learned to haggle. An ample dinner dish and a bottle of soda at a decent restaurant is like $12.

A beach vacation in Gambia offers a lot of good stuff that you will never see in the Canaries or Morocco or Spain.

Still, there were times when I really wanted to go home to Sweden. It wasn’t just that poor Junior got the shits and took to his bed for two days with a high fever, nor that my back mysteriously seized up and kept me awake nights. In my next entry I’ll tell you about the main drawback to a Gambian vacation. Can you guess?

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“Do You Need A Fish?”

A Gambian moment.

We’re in an extremely dilapidated taxi that has stalled at the roadside, just a stone’s throw from Tanji village’s main taxi hub. Before getting into the car, my wife and I had to haggle for ten minutes with the drivers assembled there under the dull gaze of the village idiot. And then we were accused of rich white chauvinism by an angry man whose whole family the assembled drivers forced to change cars because of us. But now the car has stalled, and no amount of joining the two wires dangling under the wheel will get it to go.

All the windows are open in the afternoon heat. The driver is filling gas into the vehicle from a battered plastic container. There is a smell of fish and gasoline.

Tanji is a fishing harbour where the catch is smoked, dried and packed. While we wait for the car to possibly get going again, a white-bearded fellow in a pill-box hat comes up to my window, dignified and in no hurry, and asks me, “Do you need a fish?”.

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Rode Some Planes

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Last week I rode some planes: Stockholm – Brussels – East Midlands Airport – Brussels – Stockholm – Oslo – Stockholm. Two of the engines involved were kind of fun because of their small size. The movements of EU bureaucrats has created a market for short plane hops anchored in Brussels, and so the cheapest way for the rest of us to move about by air in Western Europe is often to join the briefcase carriers and change planes in Belgium. These were the machines:

If you want to know what model you’re riding, just check the seat-pocket safety folder. Sometimes several similar models are indicated, but the air hostesses will know which one you’re on.

Someone on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast recently pointed out that it was only 60 years from the Wright brothers’ first successful flight to the first moon landing. Quite something, huh?

Oh, and I finally got an explanation (don’t know if it’s the whole explanation) for why you’re not allowed to walk beneath the wings of passenger aircraft on the tarmac! A sign told me that it was because dirty water might drip from the wings and soil my clothing. I thought it was to keep insane gamers from tossing toy-soldier goblins into the jet motors.

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My First UK Job Interview

Compared to the Swedish system, academic recruitment is extremely swift in the UK. In Scandyland, it’s typically 7 months from the application deadline to the rejection letter, mainly because of slow external referees. The worst I’ve seen was 14 months. But in the UK, it’s all done in a matter of weeks.

I recently had the pleasure of receiving my first invitation to an interview for a UK academic job. Though in the end I didn’t actually get the job, it was overall a very friendly and pleasant experience. Before I describe my trip, I’ll relate a story told to me by one of the other applicants about a horrific job interview he once did in Ireland.

This guy was informed that he had made the short list, and was asked to show up at a certain door on campus at a certain time. He travelled to Ireland, found the door, and realised that it opened on an anonymous conference room in the campus computer lab building. This was nowhere near the archaeology department. He gave a test lecture and an interview, and then the Head of Department said goodbye. Back to the airport without even seeing the department, fly home, receive rejection letter.

My English experience was very different. On the first evening, a minibus taxi picked me and the other four short-listed scholars up at the centrally located hotel where the department had put us up. We went to the home of the Head of Department, where we were joined by a considerable number of departmental staff members. The HoD and his wife proceeded to wine and dine us all in royal style, and after an evening of laughter and camaraderie the taxi took us applicants back to the hotel.

The following morning I took a 45-minute sunlit walk to campus, found the department, was offered coffee, and then gave my test lecture to staff and students. To keep me from booing and hissing at my competitors (I suppose), I was then sent out of the lecture room and given a tour of the department by the friendly secretary. Afterwards I took a walk on my own around campus, looking at gardens and buildings and students, and had something to eat while the other four gave their lectures. At an appointed time, staff, applicants, MA students and PhD students all gathered among the display cases in the departmental museum and had sandwiches and pastries for lunch on the departmental buck, while we all mingled about and chatted.

I was then shown by the secretary to another building, where I was interviewed by four men in suits. Two of them were the HoD and an associate professor, with both of whom I was at this point on a friendly first-name basis. The third was a professor from another faculty, and the fourth was the Head of School (an organisational level between the department and the faculty). As far as I can tell the interview went reasonably well, though I forgot to brag about my new-media prowess and my collaboration with amateur archaeologists, and I got some bad-cop questions from the Head of School. To the latter, I of course came up with excellent ésprit d’escalier replies afterwards. And as my friend Tor had warned me, it was a little confusing to be asked about things that I had already given full info on in my written application, a copy of which each suit-clad man was holding.

But all in all, I don’t think it was poor performance either at the lecture or at the interview that lost me the job. The HoD explained to me that all five on the short list were more than employable. He even quipped that if he were to apply for jobs today with the qualifications that secured him his first academic job back in the 70s, he wouldn’t even make the short list. Though few of my age can beat my publication record, I do have very little formal experience of life as a university lecturer. When I explained to the Head of School that co-editing eleven years’ worth of Swedish archaeology’s main research journal teaches a man one or two things about admin, he just smiled thinly and said, “You know, that sounds more like fun to me”.

All in all, though I didn’t get the job, my trip to England was made quite a heartening experience by the friendliness and consideration of everyone involved. I came away feeling not rejected, but as if I have actually climbed a rung on my rickety career ladder just by being considered for a UK job. I don’t reveal the name of the place here because I have a vague feeling that this would be a transgressive act. But if anybody involved is reading this, please accept my heartfelt thanks for the great way you all took care of us applicants! And to the person who did get the job, my best wishes.

Update same evening: A student just wrote me and said they were disappointed that I didn’t get the job! YES! Now I am a proud man!

Update next day: And another one! “I am very disappointed that you did not get the position within our department. Unfortunately, so are a number of other students. We all wanted you to know that you were great and we very much enjoyed your presentation and your approachability.”

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TAM London, Sunday

I type this during the last act of TAM London, Alan Moore, who is being gnomic in a basso north English working-class accent. Interesting character, a little perversely irrational (“I worship a 2nd century snake goddess”) while leaving no doubt that he’s keen as a whip.

The day began with a talk by Randi where I learned that he was friends with Richard Feynman! I knew that though my acquaintance with the Amazing One I’m only two steps from Alice Cooper, but Feynman as well – wow!

Science writer Marcus Chown then gave us his ten most mind-boggling physics facts. Good stuff! He could have skipped the scifi slide show and 70s pop tunes though.

D.J. Grothe gave a long “skeptics policy” talk, outlining his position in the accommodation/confrontation debate and taking a centrist stance. He suggested that what really unites the skeptical movement isn’t shared opinions about factual matters but shared moral values. Does a pro-science critical-thinking approach automatically lead to liberal humanism? Maybe.

A panel about the new media chaired by Rebecca Watson gave us the views of Tracey Brown, Gia Milinovich, Kate Russell, Martin Robbins and Neil Denny. Interesting stuff, though I was seriously distracted by Mrs. Milinovich’s looks. That woman should wear a burqa! No, I mean, really I don’t expect her to wear anything. Errr, that didn’t come out right either. Anyway…

An interview with feminist erotic comic artist Melinda Gebbie came across as completely irrelevant to the conference’s theme. But it was interesting in itself and I’m sure it helped the conference’s demographics greatly, so I’m all for it.

We then saw a new video “interview” where Tim Minchin and Stephen Fry were talking at the same time, both coming across as highly intelligent and well-read and funny skeptics, though hard to make out individually.

Jon Ronson interviewed Graham Linehan, writer of hit TV shows Father Ted and The IT Crowd, and they talked largely about Twitter. Fun and interesting!

PZ Myers gave an excellent talk about the accommodation/confrontation debate, one of the few during which I felt no need to fiddle with my smartphone. He recommended ridiculing stupid adversaries. I agree, though I prefer to do so in a quieter and more ironic manner than he does. Of course, my road to work isn’t cluttered with anti-abortion billboards like his is.

And then on came Alan Moore.

TAM London, Saturday

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Unusual to use an off-line computer. The wifi in the Hilton London Metropole is ridiculously expensive, so I use the complimentary service in the lecture hall and have none in my room.

I wonder if it really makes business sense to make people pay separately for the wifi instead of sharing the cost over all the guests’ bills. It is after all 2010. When I look at hotel rooms on the web I don’t go “oh look, free wifi included, what a selling point”. I just react badly when it’s not there. Still, being off-line does improve concentration no end.

Anyway, I’m in London for the second Amazing Meeting London skeptics’ conference, as a delegate for the Swedish Skeptics. I came here Friday night, did some socialising with skeptical buddies and went to bed early. Notable from an Sb point of view is that I met PZ Myers live for the first time after having been around him in the backstage forums for almost five years. As everybody always remarks, he is a charming soft-spoken man live. I even got to fondle his tentacle beard while Rebecca Watson shot the above pic. On the subject of curse words such as the coarse Swedish expletive “Devilish shit of Hell”, I explained to my company that the Swedish word for cunt originally meant “small fen”. “I take it you Swedes make sure they are generally moist, then”, observed PZ sagely.

Saturday was solid talks and socialising. My M.O. is basically to walk up and shake everybody’s hand within range, say “Hey, I’m Martin from Stockholm, Sweden” and chat for a while. My most exotic catch so far was a charming young couple from Istanbul, but I’ve talked to innumerable Brits and Scots and Irish and Americans and Scandies, a few Germans, a Belgian, a Dutchman, a Swiss lady, a few Italians, well, it’s really a blur by now. The crowd is a very good mix of age and gender, even some high school kids.

The talks.

Sue Blackmore was probably slipped some acid in her tea once back in 1970, attributed the effects to the paranormal and then spent 25 years doing parapsychological research before realising that it was all crap. A lot of fun to listen to!

Richard Dawkins thinks that just like the study of the Classics once formed the uniting anchor in a good education, so should the study of evolution today.

Cory Doctorow spoke eloquently about copyright.

Adam Rutherford entertainingly related his experiences taking the evangelical Christian Alpha Course.

The Amateur Transplants, a musical duo consisting of two doctors, played hilarious short send-ups of pop songs. For example, they interpreted Nora Jones’s 2002 hit song with the chorus “Don’t know why I didn’t come” just the way I always have. I mean, the way that wench looks you’d think a guy might put in that little bit of extra effort.

Richard Wiseman interviewed his old actor buddy Andy Nyman (of whom I had never heard) about his participation in a successful stage play (that I haven’t seen) and other projects of his such as writing and producing shows with Derren Brown (never seen them either), and I experienced cultural disconnect.

Karen James spoke about a project to build a replica of the HMS Beagle on which Darwin sailed in his youth, and I failed to understand why this might be worthwhile apart from as a lark.

Paula Kirby, a collaborator of Dawkins’s, spoke at length about how nasty a small English organisation named the Christian Party is, and then revealed that it got only 0.5% (or was that 0.05%?) in the last election. Pretty pointless worrying about kooks like them, I think.

Simon Singh, former lib-dem MP Evan Harris, Sense About Science director Tracey Brown and David “Jack of Kent” Allen Green did a panel on skeptical activism.

Robin Ince interviewed James Randi about old times and I experienced cultural disconnect again.

Well-deserved awards were handed out to Ben Goldacre and promising youngster Rhys Morgan. Holy crap, was I really his age when I lost my cherry? Probably months younger, actually. Well, we all mature at individual rates.

I had nice Japanese breaded pork with rice and veggies and soy for dinner with new friends.

Saturday evening’s Tim Minchin gig started out with a series of opening acts, of which the Amateur Transplants were again very good, and Jon Ronson’s rendition of some violent Insane Clown Posse raps over Tim Minchin’s beatboxing was hilarious. After a break, Mr. Minchkin performed three or four stellar songs, and then followed the premier of the animated film set to his stellar poem “Storm”. In my opinion the film is well made, in a neo-50s Power Puff Girls style, but does not add much to the whole thing. Finally came a very long chat amongst the filmmaker, the producer and Minchkin, toward the end of which the audience shouted for more songs and Minchkin said he was tired and didn’t feel up to it. Then people started leaving for pubs, but I too was tired and didn’t feel up to it, so I went up to my room and wrote this missive before crashing out.

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