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Seamus K - Irish tech industry expat living in Sweden.

Being photographed professionally

Anyone following Brexit will probably have seen this horrible photo by now.

Crunch meeting in Brussels on the 9th of December

From left to right: David Frost – UK Brexit Negotiator, Boris Johnson – Prime Minister of the UK, Ursula von der Leyen – President of the EU Commission, and Michel Barnier – EU Chief Negotiator.

On the right von der Leyen, and Barnier are sharply dressed, and look professional. On the left, well, the UK team look like a pair of farmers who are in the big city to receive an award for their pig breeding program.

Plenty of other people have talked about the horrible optics of this, so I won’t*. I want to just briefly talk about how you stand when being photoed for business reasons. It is something that happens to me from time to time in my professional career – at conferences, customer meetings, after interviews. You get asked to pose to a shot. It can be a little awkward trying to figure out how to look the best.

At the start of my professional career I was given a few pointers for when delivering presentations – men should not put their hands in their pockets, women never try and adjust your bra strap. But mostly you figure this stuff out yourself unless you are sent on some proper PR training.

The difficult thing is what to do with your hands? At the side seems so odd I never do that. It always seems the easy and natural to put then behind you as Johnson, and Frost have done. But as you can see, it emphasises your chest and belly, and will be unmerciful at exposing your tailoring.

Putting your hands in front of you doesn’t seem natural. Who stands like that normally? And is a little odd to look at when you think about it. But for a business/professional photo like this it is clearly the far better choice. Even the fact that Barnier is doing something odd with his fingers is hardly noticeable when the eye is drawn to stretched shirts and suits, and straining buttons.

I will remember this the next time I am asked to pose for a photo.

* What is really odd is that as high profile public figures, Johnson and Frost have presumably been on expensive training programs about public speaking, presentation, and PR. But they still ended up looking like this in public?

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That gives me a great idea…

This video talks about the use of virtual sets for TV series.

A cheaper, better way to put together sets.

The first time I had heard about this being used was for First Man. Ryan Gosling is sitting in a model of the cockpit, and the sky beyond is projected. So the light on his face and the reflections on the helmet glass look real -as they are real – smudges, scratches and all. This is not something it would be easy to do with CGI.

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, flying the X15 high in the athmosphere

All this got me thinking. If I got a 60″ 4K LED TV I could put it behind me for video calls, and then stream videos like this. Static images are so last year…

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Landing your space craft

I am a bit of a SciFi geek. I like good “speculative fiction” in whatever the form. And when it comes to TV and Film I do love me a good space ship landing. It’s great when a director takes the time and effort to do a good landing. You get to see the transition from a stable orbit, down the gravity well, and onto the surface of an unknown world. This is spectacle, this is dramatic. And it is something that only SciFi can do. Though of course not all Sci Fi does do it. Star Trek typically just has its characters appear on the surface of a world – famously for budgetary reasons.

I wanted to show three great examples of the evolution of the art of the spacecraft landing from film. Each one uses the landing to make a transition in the story. They all go for an approach that emphasisies technology, and at least a passing claim to realism. Landing a space craft is a serious business, undertaken by serious trained professionals. They are there to do a job, and they will do it properly, because that is what will maximise the success of the mission.

First up is the Saucer Landing from Forbidden Planet – 1956.

The professional crew of the UniteD Planets cruiser skillfully take their ship down to the surface of an unknown world. Of the three it is the most high-tech ship even if the production is the most dated! Bonus points if you recognised Leslie Nielsen.

Second up is Aliens 1986.

The planet landing is a staple of the Alien franchise. It is never a trivial thing for the crew to do. And it marks the transition where the nervous but determined characters are comitted to the unknown on the ground. Its clear there is no simple way back now. “Aliens” is the most militarised of the Alien films. The military trope of the invasion or beach landing is is similar but different to the space craft one. Aliens brings them both together. The clipped chatter of the pilot, the rugged ship, all tell the story of going from the space environment to the planet. This is a job for professionals, and that is what these people are.

The last example is one of my favourites. But I am cheating a bit. It is not from a work of fiction. It is Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon in First Man 2018.

Yeah this is a dramatisation of how the lunar landing actually happend in 1969 (almost mid way between the two fictional depictions). The presentation is modern (do blow up the 4k video if you can), with close up personal camera shots, only one long shot of the space craft descending, and an excellent athmospheric sound track. But it is a classic space craft landing sequence.

The crew have to get from orbit to the surface. They have a ship that is built for the job, and they are the professionals at operating it. What they will find when they get there is important, but right now the focus is on the flight from space to the ground. It is made clear to the viewer that this is not a trivial process. It is going to need a spohisticated machine, capably operated by experts. It just happens in this case the depiction is of a real event!

I will finish with a side note . I am not a writer, but I suspect that the TV Tropes website makes many authors, and script writers cry. It’s a very comprenhensive listing of every plot device, story line, and narrative element there is out there. If you can think of it, then TV Tropes can probably show you dozens of examples of it in use. I did some digging there, but I have not been able to find a Trope listing for the space craft landing!

[2020 Target: 24/52. 12,536/25,000]

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How to use a sleeping bag

“Em, you get undressed, you climb inside, and you go to sleep. How hard can it be?” – you think. Well guess what smarty pants, for the most part you are er, right. But despite having used sleeping bags for years I have found there are a few things I didn’t know. Since I came to Sweden I have done a lot more camping, much of it below 10C, some of it in freezing winter conditions, so I have had to learn fast!

Personally speaking when I am hiking and camping my biggest worry for discomfort, other than spending the day getting rained on, is not being able to sleep because of cold. After some research, some practice, and some trial and error I now know what I can expect from a sleeping bag, how much I can trust it, and how to get the maximum amount of comfort.

Three things I have learned are:

  • What the temperature ratings for sleeping bags mean
  • How to get the bag to actually deliver on those ratings
  • And what else you can do to have a good night’s sleep

Temperature Ratings

Sleeping bags always used to have some sort of temperature rating on them. But it is only in recent years that these have been standardised. The European Standard has been superceeded by the ISO one which delivers pretty much the same number. All the reputable sleeping bag manufacturers now use this standard.

I will use my Haglöfs LIM +1 bag for this demonstration…

This bag, like any you get now days, has a temperature rating made up of three numbers:

  • Comfort: +6°C which is the external temperature that a woman will sleep in a relaxed position. So the “cosy” temperature.
  • Lower Limit: +1°C the temperature a man can sleep at when curled to conserve heat. The “practical” temperature.
  • Extreme: -13°C the extreme temperature a woman can sleep at without getting hyothermia. If you are using the bag at his temperature, you are probably in trouble, and you are almost certainly not having a good time.

The ratings are good because they take into account the differences between men and women. And they give you a realistic idea of what a sleeping bag can help you cope with. But achieving a good sleep at those comfort and lower limit temperatures doesn’t come automaticatlluy. Some work is needed!

Getting to the rated temperatures

When I first got my new down bag I was surprised that I was feeling cold and not sleeping well even at 5-10°C. At first I was thought the problem was the bag – down bags lose effectiveness if not stored correctly. Maybe it was that. Or was the bag defective? It took me a while to learn that the sleeping bag was fine, the problem was me.

Hitting the tempeartures given by the ISO ratings assumes a few things. To get those numbers you need to:

  • Use a sleeping bag liner. As well as helping keep the bag clean, it gives you a little bit more thermal margin.
  • Dress properly – you should to be wearing a single thermal base layer. I keep a wool top and leggings just for sleeping. And if it is cold I will have warm dry socks, and sometimes a hat. The thickness of what you wear will depend in how cold it will be and how comfortable you want to be!
  • Cover your head. The factoid that you lose half of your heat through your head is not true. But if your head is sticking out of the bag it make you a lot cooler. Make sure the bag is pulled over your head and the drawstrings pulled to keep it there.
  • You will also need a sleeping pad under you, and wind protection – either a tent or a bivvy bag, or even just a wind shelter.

It was this learning to layer inside the bag that really made a difference for me. That and ensuring that my head was not leaking heat.

Bag liner and thermals
My bag, silk liner, and merino wool sleep clothes

What else you can do

Two other things to add to the list. The first is touched on above – you need a sleeping mat. I know a lot of people use one to try and get a soft, comfortable surface to sleep on. But the primary purpose is to provide thermal insulation between you and the ground. I learned recently that there is work underway to come up with a standard for how mats are used (the “R” rating). It is not ready yet, though manufacturers are already providing some ratings. And I was able to use that information when I was going on Kungsleden to change the mat I usually use to my more thermally insulating Thermarest ultra-lite mattress.

Tent by a river on Kungsleden
Me camped by STF Sälka.

And secondly, a tip from half Scot-half Swede, former soldier in the Swedish army… When he was doing his winter training in the north they taught them that sleeping bags do not make you warm. They just keep you warm. If you are cold when you get into the bag then you will have a lot of difficulty warming up. Instead Swedish soldiers are trained to put on all their clothes and run around, or do star jumps. Then undress quickly, and jump into the bag while you are nicely warm!

All the things I had learned were put into practice when I went to do Kunglesden last summer. I had 110km of hiking, and about 3 nights of camping to do. the forecast was for about 6C at night. I was a little nervous going north, as I didn’t want to be cold and sleepless on the trip.

I had my LIM +1 bag, a silk liner, the ultra-lite Thermarest, a tent, and some wool clothing for evenings. I slept soundly every night. Certainly at least as well as the two nights I spent in huts!

A stony campsite by the Kebnekaise hut.
Camping by Kebnekaise, where neither the stoney ground, or the cool nights kept me from a good sleep.

A more severe test was a came a few weeks ago at the end of October when I went hiking and camping in an early cold snap. A friend and I were staying in a wind shelter with temperatures down -2°C. As the temperature was below the the rating of the LIM bag, I supplemented it with second older bag outside it (I have tested that combination down to -8°C on my balcony in the snow)! Before going to sleep I warmed myself at the fire. And with the bivvy bag on the outside, and the wool thermals on me it was another sound night’s sleep.

Fire burning in front of a vindskydd, at night. Gear for 2 people set up inside.
Bivvying in a vindskydd in near Stockholm.

I first started camping in the wild in the mid 1990’s. So it has only taken me 25 years to figure out how to use my sleeping bag!

[2020 Target: 23/52. 11,882/25,000]

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Swedish myths and legends

This is a post about Swedish myths and legends. Not the ones about Thor, and Odin, and Freya. If you want Norse mythology Neil Gaiman’s book is quite entertaining. No, this post is about the stories that people far from Sweden tell about this country.

I once was interviewed by Google’s country manager in Ireland. He admitted that he liked to cultivate an air of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory about the place for outsiders. Sweden seems to have developed a similar aura. It is prosperous, well governed, and has an outsize impact on the world. But stuck all the way up here in the frozen north not many visit. So it has become a canvas for people to paint their own pictures upon.

It is the land of Abba, of blondes, of Vikings! It is a social democratic paradise! Or lately because of Covid-19, it is a beacon of liberty and freedom in a world gone mad with nanny-state health regulations! Funny how it is simultaneously a poster child for both the left and the right.

Those of us who actually live here can be amused and exasperated by this. As an expat immigrant who is still connected to the media back home, you do hear various questionable tales told of Sweden. I thought I should call BS on a few. In no particular order…

There are no strikes in Sweden” – I remember hearing this as I wondered whether I would be able to fly to Ireland because SAS cabin crew were having a dispute. While strike rates are low, only 7,500 days in total in 2019, Sweden does have them. But there are strong cross industry work agreements between unions and employers, so serious disputes are rare.

Sweden is moving to a 30 hour work week” – I wish! When I first started hearing this I would have been really happy with just working 40 hours a week. There was a lengthy trial. There were some positive results. But it wasn’t suggested this would become the norm for the country. The legend was born though! And now if I had 10kr (about €1) for every retweet or facebook share of it I probably would be down to a two day week myself.

One of Sweden’s better ideas – Fika.

Sweden is a tolerant and open minded society“. This is mostly true. Stockholm’s Pride week is a huge celebration of values that are still marginalised (or worse) in some places in Europe. But what if you are talking about vices? Alcohol is only sold in the state run Systembolaget shops with restricted hours, and high prices. There are strict laws for illegal drugs, with severe penalties for possession which are based on a zero tolerance policy and no distinction between hard and soft. And the approach to sex work is to criminalise the buyer, something which is, er, controversial.

Sweden has more public holidays” – I had a debate with an Irish Labour party researcher about this one. Yes Sweden has 13 public holidays this year, whereas Ireland has 9. Two of the Swedish ones are Easter Sunday and Whit Sunday which em, fall on Sunday each year. That takes us down to 11. However in Sweden (just like Austria when I lived there) the holidays are on fixed dates. With one or two exceptions, if they fall on a weekend they are lost. This year 3 of the days fell on a Saturday. So we will have 8 in total. And while it isn’t specifically Swedish, the person commented on having holidays evenly spread out during the year. Sweden cares not for such things! Our last public holiday was Midsommar eve on June 19th. The next one is Christmas day! You can do the maths yourself 🙂

All Swedes are blondes” – Sometime around 2007 a Swedish woman admitted to me that her blonde hair came from a bottle, and she was not unusual in that. That was the day my Swedish dream died, and I have never fully recovered.

Swedish has achieved gender equality” – Yes, Sweden is ranked as amongst the best in Europe. There are more women in the Swedish parliament (46%), company boards (over 30%), the gender pay gap is narrower (women receive 95% of men’s pay), and there is generous parental leave which includes a requirement for men to take time off. But more can be done. Women still take more of the burden of child rearing, of housework, and they still face disadvantages in the workplace.

Sweden’s Healthcare System – In Ireland you will often hear the complaint that the health care system is “third world” – there are waiting lists, long queues at A&E, people sleep on trolleys. “If only we had a system like Sweden” they cry. Well when I broke my wrist ice skating in 2017 it took 7 hours from contacting the health sevices to getting out the door with a cast. I am told that is about the usual. A year ago I spent 17 hours in A&E! Around 02:30 am they wanted to admit me to the hospital, but they had no beds. I was to be admitted on paper, but would have to sleep in the waiting room. Sound familiar? The system here is very good. I have no complaints about the quality when I have needed something for me or my family. But it has a load of its own problems too (getting to talk to a GP is considerably easier in Ireland).

Sticking with healthcare, it has been the year of covid, COVID, Covid-19, Covid. And because of Sweden’s different approach to managing the pandemic there have been a load of stories around the world about what Sweden is doing and why. Though many of the people writing them do not seem to have checked with Sweden on what is actually happening on the ground. So some Covid myths…

There were no shortages in Sweden” – I was told that Sweden had not experienced any product shortages in Spring 2020. Hahahaha. Despite the fact that Sweden produces about 3 million rolls of toilet paper per day – we had panic buying and loo roll shortages as well.

Shemves without toilet paper in a Swedish supermarket
March 22nd – People can only buy one packet at a time. And they are still sold out. Empty shelves behind too.

The biggest Covid myths have been about how exactly Sweden has tackled the pandemic. And unlike the other myths these are more of a right winger thing. I have seen it said “There are no lockdowns”. “There are no restrictions”. “Sweden is pursuing a ‘herd immunity’ strategy”, and so on. This is one area where Swedes get defensive. They feel the national approach has been misrepresented, Sweden’s particular circumstances downplayed, and they are being used to justify other’s agendas. I would say they are right.

Sweden has implemented restrictions, they just have differed from the full lockdowns elsewhere. But their situation is different too. Half of Swedish households are single occupant. There is a broad, deep social welfare net to protect workers who are ill – so people have no hesitation to “stay home if you are sick“. The Covid campaign is directed by a respected expert, Anders Tegnell, and Swedish people mostly follow the guidelines without grumble. The focus has been on a sustainable long term management of the pandemic – measures that people can live with for 12-18 months.

There are issues of course. The disease badly hit elderly homes and immigrant communities. Infection and death rates have been higher than in surrounding countries. Dr Tegnell has said he should have recommended more was done in the Spring. Right now we are experiencing a second wave, and restrictions have been tightened. But in general when you talk to Swedes they feel that: first they are happy with how things are being handled. Second Sweden’s approach works for Sweden, they would never suggest they have the answer for the rest of the world. And third, this is a long-term campaign. It is only at the end will people be able to properly assess how effective it has been.

One thing that everyone is very clear on, is that Sweden is NOT following a “herd immunity” strategy. They are not letting the disease run through the young and healthy (claiming a few thousand along the way) in order to protect the vulnerable. If that was the plan, you can see it isn’t working too well. It’s estimated that about 20% of Sweden has been exposed to Covid at this stage. Herd immunity needs about 70-80% of the population with antibodies. It would take over 2 years at this rate (and tens of thousands of deaths) to acheive it. So no, that is not the Swedish Covid strategy.

I think Sweden is a wonderful country. There is a lot about it I love. The people and the political system here have done a great job building what is a pretty fair, just and equitable society. Which of course is why it scores so strongly on different indices of Human Development, Democracy, Corruption, Quality of Life, etc.

Humourous graph if Europe.
“Basically every map showing data on Europe” Tom Moylan @moylato

It is not paradise though. It has challenges too – political, social, economic. And you try finding decent bagels, or Barry’s Tea here. Also I am told the Guinness is generally shocking.

Many places can learn a lot from Sweden. But simple lift and shift rarely works. The unique Swedish society, and history, and geography, and economy come together to make Swedish solutions work in Sweden. But it does help if the wonderful Swedish idea you want to adopt, or the Swedish outcome you want to achieve is actually real, and not just another myth as tangible Odin himself.

[2020 Target: 22/52. 10,740/25,000]

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Things that Samháin is not about

No, the “veil between the world thinning” is a 20th century invention.

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The Decline and Fall of the USA

A while ago a friend re-tweeted this article on the decline and fall of Rome

I liked the descriptions of how it would have looked to a “Roman” as one of the most powerful empires in history collapsed around them during the course of their lives. For many it was a barely noticeable process of change:

The fall of an empire—the end of a polity, a socioeconomic order, a dominant culture, or the intertwined whole—looks more like a cascading series of minor, individually unimportant failures than a dramatic ending that appears out of the blue.

Patrick Wyman

“Is our end nigh?” is a common topic for people in powerful states. Reading Charles Emmerson’s “1913-The World Before the Great War he often mentions how subjects of the British Empire, arguably at its height just before the first world war, were debating whether its greatest days were ahead, or it it had already begun its decline.

Right here and now such and article is of course about the USA. It has had a good century or so. And it faces a formidable rival in China. But the immediate drive has to be the troubled state the country finds itself in today. It has been shocking looking at the presidential election coverage this year. No one doubts that Biden will get more votes than Trump. People are asking wether that will matter. Or will it be let matter. The outcome of the election will depend on how brazenly one group can “fix” the result. We have reached a point where the media run stories about senior military figures discussing what to do if they are asked to prop up a president in a disputed election. What the fuck happened to America?

The Mother Jones article touches on some suspects for a potential decline: an inept President, plutocracy, the endless fruitless wars. Sitting in my comfortable chair over here in Europe I think the author missed one of the big issues – that the political system itself in the US is disfunctional and does not properly represent the people. We have reached the point where you can ask is the US is actually a functioning democracy? America’s preeminant position in the world has been built upon its economic and political might. But the latter is in serious trouble. And the problems are getting worse. The lessons of the rest of the world are that the decline of democracy will lead to an economic decline as well.

Take the weirdness of the electoral college as an example of the problems. It gave Bush the younger the presidency in 2000 despite getting less votes than his opponent. That should have been a flashing yellow light that there is a problem – but there was no significant movement to fix it. And so it happened again in 2016, but worse. It may happen again this year. Or Trump may get turfed out. But there is no question that people in the US are living with a system where the majority are forced to accept a (divisive, despised, unquestionably incompetent) candidate that a minority voted for.

By my nature I am a process engineer. I see a problem and I try to understand the system that produced it. What I see looking at the US is a broken system. One that no longer lets the people be represented properly. And the problems are getting worse. It was stressed under Bush, and now has been pushed to a critical limit with Trump. It may survive this time, but each test seems to encourage factions to push harder the next time, and a breaking point will eventually be reached.

The electoral college is just one of a range of problems with US politics and democracy. (Dis)honourable mention has to go to the two party system, gerrymandering, the vast quantities of money in US politics, voter suppression, the not particularly democratic upper house (other countries have this in their upper houses, but they limit the power the body holds), the fact that so many of the controlling positions throughout the system are held by political partisans (either directly elected or like the supreme court – appointed).

There are toxic levels of political polarisation amongst the public too. We seem to have reached a point where regardless of whoever wins the US presidential election in a two weeks, large sections of the public will regard the outcome as illegitimate. They will believe that the fundamentals of the sytem have been corrputed and overthrown by others, and will shout for revolutionary change to reclaim what they feel they have lost. Democracy depends on the vast majority accepting the legitimacy of the system, even when it does not deliver their side to power. That is under threat.

A source of a lot of these problems is the US constitution. A powerful document which has inspired many other countries. It was ahead of its time. But that was at the end of the 18th century almost 250 years ago now. It is in many ways a fossil, full of political stuructures and compromises that suited an late 1700, post colonial, rural, slavery allowing state. Dick Cheney once talked dismissively about “Old Europe”. But this is a continent of countries that freely tweak and renew their systems of government. Germany’s dates to 1949, and was renewed with unification in 1990. France’s is from 1958. Ireland’s constitution is 82 years old, which makes it one of the older ones. And it has had 32 ammendments since it was adopted (most recently in 2019). That is an average of one very 2.5 years. The US has had 27 in 231 years. But 10 of them were from 1791. So the current rate of change is once every 21 years (and none since 1992 which was just a tweak about politicians pay). It can hardly be regarded as a dynamic modern text, adapting to changes in circumstances, or the needs of the modern world.

The US is not alone in having a disfunctional representative system. Take a look at the UK. First past the post (FPTP) is profoundly unrepresentative, and can barely be described as democratic. It also delivers extreme outcomes that solidify a two party hold on government. Despite all their (many many) sins, UKIP polled more votes (26.6%) in the 2014 European election than the other two mainstream parties. The EU, which they loathed, insists on proportional allocation of seats. So UKIP had more MEPs than any other UK political party. But UKIP under FPTP tey never managed to secure a single seat in the Westminster parliament. It is easy to argue that a quarter of the UK population were not having their voice heard in their national parliament. That is not right*.

To a European the two party system is one of the stranger aspects of US (and UK) politics. The two parties can be broad churches, but there are just two of them. They cannot represent the shades of political opinion that will exist in a population. And they realistically represent your only choices. Third party/independent candidates are rare. Compare that with the more pluralistic setup seen in most of the rest of the world where you can usually find a party that matches pretty well with your position.

It's a two party system, you have to vote for one of us! / Simpsons :: vote  :: system :: party :: Alien :: kodos :: kang / funny pictures & best
The Simpsons on the 2 party system

Plenty of people who have looked at the US feel that it could sustain 5 or even 6 political parties. Then citizens would have a real choice when they vote. And parties unable to assume they can deliver outright majorities would have to seek common ground with political opponents. The wishes and needs of most voters would be taken into account rather than the winner takes all approach today.

The need to form coalitions initially looks like weakness. But coalition governments are more representative of public opinion. The compromises they make to govern mean more people get (at least some of) their policies enacted, and the government is seen as more legitimate. That provides resilience to the system in the long term. Compare that with the posturing, and winner takes all approach in the US that delivers government shut downs, or fuck-you appointments to the supreme court even though the public is strongly against both.

So the system(s) are broken. What is to be done? There are signs that the democrats could get a clean sweep of Presidency, Congress, and Senate. If they did they would probably decide things are actually working, and only make cosmetic changes. Being a winner from a system, always dampens enthusiasm for change. And it is not like Biden is running on a platform of constitutional/government renewal. The Democrats proposing dismantling the 2 party system would be turkeys voting for Christmas. So I am not hopeful for change.

It will be a long time before there is proportional voting, voting standards and districts set by impartial independent bodies, and of course an end to the electoral college. Maybe an independent movement will appear demaning these changes, via a form of constitutional convention and citizens assembly. Or maybe a few centuries from people will speculate about the reasons how and why America lost its place and became another fallen empire for the history books.

* I would argue that this was one of the reasons for the success of the Brexit referendum. The was Yes or No. Every vote counted. For a very large number of the people (especially those that live in “safe seat” constituencies) this was the first time that their vote had as much weight as any one elses. So they were determined to use it, and to use it to give two fingers to the system.

[2020 Target: 20/52. 9,125/25,000]

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On Swedish cars, internet grocery shopping, and undertakers…

When I first moved to Sweden one of the things that surprised me was how this enviromentally aware, socially concious country is very very car centric. Out in the ‘burbs most people get around by car. The cities are ringed with retail parks accessible only by car. The average car size here is a lot larger than in Ireland. And the brands are fancier. You hardly notice the big Volvo XCs, or their VW, BMW, Audi equivalents. But then this is a country that makes cars. The rule of thumb is – “Countries that make cars, make them cheap (e.g. UK, Germany, USA). Countries that don’t make cars, make them expensive (e.g. Ireland, Denmark)”. 

Audi in a snowy landscape in front of trees

My first Swedish car- an Audi A6

On arrival in 2015 I bought a second hand Audi A6 2L turbo. Not because I was a petrol head that wanted a big luxury car. But because it was being sold at work, and was very good value. An Irish reader will go – “but what about the insurance?!?!?” And with good reason. If you contacted an insurance company in Ireland, newly arrived in the country, with no driving history for them to assess, and looked for a quote on a “luxury performance” car they would either:

a) laugh hysterically, before refusing outright to give you a quote. Or

b) give you one that would be a multiple of the car’s value, and involve handing over 1-2 of your children, as well as selling a few surplus organs.

Car insurance in Ireland is expensive*. It’s totally different in Sweden. Here the car is insured, not the driver. So my policy (fully comprehensive, and where anyone could drive the car) was about €900/year. Which I felt was pretty reasonable.

As an aside the A6 was a joy to drive on motorways. Not so practical in Swedish suburbs, and very thirsty when you did! It is no more though, and I am a bit more enviromentally sound today.

Back when I started this post in January (I discovered it sitting in my drafts folder) I was not driving. There was one big health related reason for that. And it was May before I got behind the wheel again. That was quite a pain in the arse. The suburbs of Stockholm are a place where things are easier with a car. But this being Sweden,  while a car may make things easier it is not essential. 

The local bus services are good. And the kids and I were able to adapt, even if we had to get up about 30 minutes earlier each day. Flexitime at work, an understanding boss, and remote working meant I could keep my employer happy. In this internet age it is possible to handle many things online. For the few we couldn’t – local friends, and sometimes family helped.

The biggest routine thing that needed to be taken care of was grocery shopping. But of course you can do that online. My usual supermarket is ICA, the largest chain here in Sweden. It works pretty much how you would expect. Order online, specify a delivery time and day, and pay the 99SEK delivery fee (about €9 – how does that compare to other countries)? As I have a loyalty card for them they can see my past purchases and their online site is quick to pre-populate the shopping cart with my usual stuff.

It’s convenient, really helped with my situation, and generally works well. Except when it doesn’t.

On the second order there was a couple of things I thought I had ordered, but figured I must have left them out. It was on the third order, when I checked, that I was sure I had problems. I found I was missing two loaves of bread, and about 1kg of mince (my plan was to make a load of lasagnes for the freezer). It was a little odd they were missed. These are big, and not exactly rare or unusual items. But hey, mistakes happen. I understand that. The real question is how are they handled by the company…

There wasn’t an online way of reporting a problem so I called ICA. They didn’t quibble about the report. They immediately put through a refund. But if I wanted the missing items I had to place another online order, and then call them to look for a refund of the delivery charges. 

Excuse me? They made the mistake. But I was expected to take three steps to get if fixed (as well as making sure I was at home when the replacement delivery turned up). That is not exactly outstanding customer service**. I pointed this out to them and while the CSR was sympathetic there was nothing she could do. This seems like a clear signal to check out their competitors.

MatHem is probably the best known one in the Swedish market. They are a pure play online delivery outfit – only around since about 2010. The expectation would be that an internet only company will have a different and more supportive attitude to their customers? I shall have to see***. 

In the Spring when I could not drive my slightly less enviromentally nasty automobile, I was on the bus all the time. And there is a high chance that is where I picked up (my probable case of) Covid. So I found myself at home, unable to go to the shops. And also unable to use any internet grocery service, as their lead times shot up to 2 weeks once everyone else was at home. What was an infectious person to do?

Fortunately I have good friends. They were able to pick up stuff for me, and drop it to the door. So if the virus would not get me, starvation wouldn’t either. One friend asked his girlfriend to do the drop as she would be working in the area. She left the bags at the door with some treats from her work as well. But you see she works for Fonus, one of the large Swedish funeral chains. 

Which meant that later when people asked me how I was doing I could also tell them that the undertaker has been and left her card and brochure! 🤣

* People are quick to blame the insurance companies for this. They may be making big profits (I don’t know), but I would place the blame at the liability law that allows the claims and the payouts. A different legal framework in Austria and Sweden means the Irish experience is not repeated – and *shock* the roads feel safer! But the Irish legal profession are doing very nicely out of the local system. And they have managed to avoid most of the public anger over “compo culture”.

** In general customer service in Sweden is good. Once you reach a human that is. There are horrible queues to talk to real people on phone support lines. But it is a world away from Austria. There the idea that a customer could make a complaint is met with puzzled confusion. And you can forget any chance of them actually taking some sort of action.

*** Word has it that MatHem is burning through their investors money while they try and make a profit in the online grocery business. I don’t have a problem with getting some VC/TechBros pay to deliver my groceries to me!

[2020 Target: 19/52. 8,034/25,000]

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