My friend Asanthika Imbulpitya got caught in the Auckland rain yesterday morning on her way to AUT University. She wrote this piece later about the kindness of a stranger with a blue umbrella who stopped to help her…
Monday 30th May 2022
I’m not usually the one to write stories, and I’m not particularly good at it, but I felt it was important to remember this at least for myself as a memory.
The day in Auckland began with heavy showers that were expected to turn into thunderstorms (that’s Auckland in the winter for all of you!). It was such a horrible condition that I wouldn’t have gone out except for the meeting I had. I stepped out with my broken umbrella, a jacket that had seen a couple of Auckland winters, and a coffee mug in the other hand.
It was a 15-minute walk to the university, but with my luck, and in classic Auckland winter form, it began to pour after only five minutes. In my head, cursing my existence, clutching my mug (even in my sad state, I only wanted to rescue the coffee!) I was waiting to cross the street when I noticed a shadow in my peripheral vision. I turned to find a stranger holding his blue umbrella for me with a smile because I couldn’t hear anyone talking.
Despite becoming wet himself, he shared it with me till he took a different turn. When I finally expressed my gratitude, all he said was, “We are all human, no problem!” I kept thinking to myself, “Isn’t this how it’s supposed to be?” This world would be a better place if we all took a moment to remember that, despite our differences, we are all human.
Dear stranger, thank you because of you I went to my meeting a little less soaked and with a heart full of positivity!
What matters at Rockweather: research teaches you to use the right tool for the problem …
Tuesday 25th January, 2022
My library here at Rockweather has a near optimal air flow from the far side of the house. However, that cool air is, by definition, delivered by the wind. Hence doors slam a lot…
All that study during my doctorate has taught me one thing; you need to think until you understand what the real problem is. Then you need to find and use the right tool for the job …
So, since that is a physics problem, we need to apply an appropriate physics solution. I sought advice from the most authoritative physicist in history after Newton. Thank you Professor Richard Feynman … your solution works perfectly and I think you would have approved.
A few years ago, I wrote down two questions before meeting with a friend for coffee. He is one of the most creative people I know, a designer and an engineer with a wicked sense of humour.
The questions had been turning over in my mind for awhile. Over coffee, he took each question and shared honestly how he felt about them. It was one of the most enjoyable times I have ever spent, one-on-one with a friend looking ahead …
They are very simple questions:
Looking ahead, what is:
Your most interesting or exciting thing to look forward to (preferably on the near-term horizon) ?
What is your greatest challenge or difficulty facing you now (or approaching on the near-term horizon) ?
Since that time, I have shared these same two questions with many other people. Some I knew well, some were new acquaintances. Almost every time, the questions have guided us through some fascinating discussions.
Sometimes, they open up some painful places that were ready to talk through. More often, they have made us realise just how many opportunities were in front of us. In this time of change during COVID-19, when nothing is remotely “normal”, we all need to think more creatively and optimistically about the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Norway and Sweden are big on recycling. In Luleå, each grocery store had a plastic bottle drop-off machine called a panta that you could return packaging to before you entered the shop. Rather than give out cash, each machine would print a receipt that you could later scan at the checkout and get a discount on the total. It seemed to work so well.
I watched people arrive with big bags of drink bottles and then go in to do their shopping. I later found out that there is a linked supply chain where manufacturers participate to recycle plastics they manufacture. In 2016, it was estimated that Sweden recycled 84.9 percent of its aluminum cans and plastic bottles. That was a total of 1.8 billion items or an average of 177 per person per year. The pay-out when you return a container ranges from one to two krona (NZ$0.17 to NZ$0.34).
On Christmas Day in Oslo, Norway, Jane and I felt like Burger King for Christmas lunch. Like Sweden, the Norwegians are also into recycling but I could not help noticing that people seemed to take their spoons with them after they had eaten. No wonder; they looked big enough to use as snow shovels ….
Research and lockdown sometimes feel remarkably similar …
17th December, 2020
New Zealand went into several different stages of lockdown during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. However, for a student like me, not much seemed to change. Being sent home to … er … keep doing research … was not really much of a change or a burden.
Please do not misunderstand me: I realise how hard it was for so many people with changes to their routines and income. This pandemic was a disaster in every sense. However, in the midst of it and in the intervening months following our release from lockdown here in New Zealand, I have seen examples of how people around me thrived. I saw all sorts of creative approaches for how to figure out what the “new normal” was supposed to look like.
One approach that has worked for me for a long time is called Pomodoro. It is a technique that helps me focus on a task for a set period of time, take a controlled break, and then resume without losing the flow. My pomodoro time during a typical day looks like the program below:
If you are not a coder, just try reading it as plain English. The first stage is about getting organised. Retreat away, turn off all interruptions (Facebook, Instagram, my smartphone, email, WhatsApp, … you get it …). Coffee is essential. OK, so tea works but not as well …
I find a pomodoro length of sixty minutes works for me. Some people find twenty or thirty minutes works best for them. Experiment until you find out your optimal work-chunk size. Then, the loop starts:
Keep doing that until the interval is complete. No sneak checks of social media or email. That’s cheating. Believe me, unless something out there is on fire or one of your children managed to flush a sibling down the toilet, it can wait. Your creativity is allowed to take precedence.
Sometimes, my daughter Michaela and son-in-law Luke lend me their dog Axl Rose for company during the day. He loves these cycles since almost every pomodoro cycle involves a quick walk around the block for us if he is here. He quickly settles into the rhythm; dogs just get this stuff instinctively.
It’s not complex. The secret is to figure out how not to break your concentration and stay in the flow. I only take a short break each cycle. It is often in those breaks, walking, making fresh coffee or letting Axl chase the neigbour’s cats out of our garden, that I see solutions to problems that I could not see sitting at my desk.
Over the last few years, I have taught this technique to a lot of my students. Give it a try! This YouTube video is a great introduction to Pomodoro.
The video mentions that background music without lyrics can be helpful. YouTube has this great collection of the Best of Chopin you can try.
Never underestimate the power of a small bear with a good screwdriver …
December 13th, 2014
Everything was running just a bit too slow around here, the end of my first year at AUT. Eclipse clearly needed a bit more room to wriggle so I had a talk with Luke, Bottomly and Jeremy.
Bottomly nodded wisely, got out the Rockweather credit card and went hunting at PB Tech on-line.
A serious memory upgrade to my system began along with the sound of screws getting dropped into the innards of the machine. These are the times I just let the experts do their thing while I make them coffee.
Never underestimate the power of a small bear, a good screwdriver and a strong expresso …
At a university, sitting an exam is not the hard part; sometimes it is harder to get your exam paper and marks back …
November 23rd, 2020
I had a most interesting time at the AUT University exam hand-back on this day back in 2013. It was the end of my second semester here and I had taken four papers, three of which had final examinations to sit.
I talked to the Nice Lady who was on the door at the Exam Hand-Back room. “Hello, my exam number is shown as ‘Not available‘ on your list over there. When is the next hand-back time?”
“There isn’t one …”
“So…what happens next?”
“I do not know…which paper do you want back? ” So I showed her the paper number and she said…. “No, you are wrong. That ‘Not available‘ does not mean that.”
“Ohh .. So what does ‘Not available‘ mean then? Is my paper not available yet?”
“But it does not mean that …”
“Right”, says the very confused Badger..
She had me sit down and fill out a Yellow Form. I went into the Hand-Back room and sat where she told me to. The Nice Lady came over and took my form. … sat there … sat there … still sitting …
About five minutes later, the Nice Lady came back and asked me why I was still sitting there. I politely explained that she had taken my Yellow Form but not given me my exam paper yet.
“Oh”, says the Nice Lady. “I filed your form.”
“Ahh … OK … so what happens now?”
“Um…not sure.” In my obvious ignorance I asked: “Well can you possibly get it out of the filing? Surely you filed it in alphabetical order?”
“No, these are exam conditions…I am not allowed to do that.”
“What? This is not an examination, it is an ‘exam hand-back’. I understood I was supposed to come here, do what I was told and receive my examination script back. I cannot change anything, only check the adding …”
“What was your paper number?”
“It is a six-digit number. It is Algorithm Design and Analysis. It is in the bag you asked me to leave outside the room. I cannot remember the exam number, but it is on the list on the door outside.”
“Then you will have to go outside and fill in another form …”
The obedient Badger went outside and filled in Yellow Form Number Two. Ten minutes later the same Nice lady on the door asks “Why are you back?”
“Please don’t ask …”
Again, I went in, sat down, gave the Yellow form to the same Nice Lady just like I did the first time … sat there …sat there … finally …got my exam paper
I took my phone out to add up my marks.
“Stop – You can’t use your phone in here” says the Nice Lady. “This room is under exam conditions. Put it away or you will have to leave.”
I put on my best stern Badger face: “Today, this is not a phone. Today, it is a calculator. I am using it to add up my marks … “
“I repeat, this room is under exam conditions. Put it away or you will have to leave.”
“Right, thank you. IT IS A MATHEMATICS PAPER. I AM A SKILLED MATHEMATICIAN. I WILL ADD IT UP IN MY HEAD …”
It’s your choice what you do with the lemons or Pak’n Save trolleys that irritate you …
Saturday 21st November 2020
Over the last month I have been camped in my library, writing the final academic journal paper for my doctorate. The view from the second story here is beautiful, with the white-noise of the wind as the only sound for hours at a time …
The days pass uneventfully, page after page gets written, rewritten and then rewritten again. I have learnt how to plod …
It was all pretty peaceful until some ‘inconsiderate person’ (President Trump might describe them more colorfully as a ‘loser’) abandoned a Pak’n Save shopping cart outside my house. We are a long way from the nearest store.
For a few days, it just hung around outside, blown around in the wind. I was intrigued how something constructed out of holes could catch the wind like that. Finally, it got blown over during a gale and just lay forlornly in the kerb.
Jane phoned the store but they showed no interest in retrieving one of their assets. That irritated me even more than the ‘inconsiderate person’ who had created the problem in the first place.
By Saturday afternoon I had had enough of moaning about it. Sometimes life is a lemon. That either makes you sour or do something to change things: I chose to take a walk with the trolley. As I passed hedges and gardens, I noticed for the first time just how many other trolleys had somehow escaped their servitude. Maybe there is something like the Underground Railroad that allowed American slaves to escape during the 1800’s going on here, where trolleys get together and escape in the dead of night. Was I really doing the right thing returning it to its Master ?
I reunited the trolley with some of its other bedraggled and rusting companions on the edge of the store car park.
With a silly grin on my face, I walked back home. Along the way, I came across a bin of free off-cuts of wood being offered outside a factory. Sticking out were the perfect pieces I needed to finish a shelf in my library. Maybe all this doctoral research is teaching me to become an alchemist: I think I just learnt how to turn lemons into timber.
In the darkness of World War II, Winston Churchill wrote “If you are going through hell, keep going…”
Sunday 15th November, 2020
After one of my conference or journal papers is accepted for publication, I take an evening or two to tidy up all my research notes and bind them into a folder. Perhaps it is for posterity: I don’t know. Either way, most of my research notes are hand-written. I love the feel of paper, my pens, pencils and steel rulers.
This evening was more like therapy, perhaps a sort of closure.
This journal paper was written from a place in my doctoral journey that was darker and lonelier than anything I have ever experienced before. The three volumes of notes that chronicle this time are the story of what it was like to get lost and know that you were lost. It is a view from outside the hole looking back in …
The paper started as the literature review that drove my PGR9 Confirmation of Candidature. That is an examination where a doctoral student’s research plan is examined and approved if it meets the required standards. A doctoral student then becomes a doctoral candidate. The research and writing for this paper commenced on 10th May 2017, a few months before I went to Sweden. Somewhere along the way, it turned into a Systematic Mapping Study, possibly because that type of literature review somehow became “fashionable”. It then drifted off to finally become something that was “informed by a Systematic Mapping Study..” when it was first submitted to the Journal of Systems and Software in November 2018. I was getting lost …
On March 14th 2019, we received a sound rejection by the editor and reviewers. They questioned so many aspects of the paper, but their feedback was the tongue-lashing I needed. The core problem I already knew I had was that the study was reporting nothing of interest. The field of fault diagnostics is so diverse that it is almost impossible to discern trends or patterns there. That is not what a mapping study is supposed to report; we had nothing of significance. I had disagreed with the decision to support our analysis with ISO 25010 Quality Attributes, but as a student under supervision, I went along with the advice I received.
During the re-write after the rejection, which took over a year, I fought my way back out of the hole. I pushed hard for the evaluation this time to be based on NASA’s Technology Readiness Level categories, something that made much more sense to me. This was my research and I learnt how to own it and push back graciously. I had also loathed the Elsevier LaTeX template we were given by the editors for for the draft version. It has a horrible layout and awful citation formats that even my co-author Professor Stephen MacDonell queried. So, I pushed through harder and found a much better Elsevier template, a more beautiful document for my tired eyes.
Exactly a year to the day after the first submission, we submitted again on 19th November 2019. You can see emails from Roopak and Stephen in these volumes, the frustration they felt with me and how much the writing was holding back other important research. Roopak stood by me, always creative. Stephen remained ever-encouraging, often helping to identify and tame the “elephant in the room” that lay at the core of the paper’s problems.
The acceptance of the paper by the editors on 25th March 2020 with only minor revisions was to break this drought. Looking at the final published version you can see how beautiful the paper looks. As I write this on 15th November 2020, the paper has been downloaded and read 53 times. That is such an encouragement.
Would I write a literature review like this again? No, never. If I did, it would have to be done totally differently. I love the background literature reading and writing I craft for my journal and conference papers, but would I ever do a survey paper like this again? I hope not.
I came to university to write about the things I was learning to build, to report the original (and hopefully novel ) research we were doing. I found the task of surveying the research of others to be soul-destroying, day-and-night, month after month. Mapping all their minutiae, counting their often tenuous trends, that’s not what I signed up for. Without my Christian faith, this paper could have driven me down a horrible one-way path that I might not have made my way out of.
My usual cry of “I love this stuff” was silenced for a long time by this work. Outwardly, I kept cheery, still loving the hours of teaching and working alongside all my colleagues and friends at AUT. However inwardly, the writing of this paper killed something precious.
Was it worth it academically? Yes: the literature review is still a rite-of-passage for all doctoral candidates. Is it a good paper now? Yes, it is a contribution to my field that is accepted by my peers, reporting results that I can stand by and defend.
Was it worth it emotionally? Yes: but in future would I ever let one of my students get into such a hole and be so broken for so long? Heaven forbid: definitely not. Was it a fault of my supervisors? No, definitely not because I have to own my own research. This is my journey and I am responsible for how it is walked. They cannot walk this or write this path for me.
Do I love this stuff now? Yes, it is a paper to cherish, a battle fought not well but fought to the end. That quote from Winston Churchill lifted and sustained me so often. During the darkness of World War II, he wrote: “If you are going through hell, keep going…”
So true.. and now I love this stuff again….
The view from the trenches with my faithful Rockweather Crew …
A new podcast series with the University of Auckland History Society…
Thursday 13th August, 2020
Michaela Selway and I have just published the third episode of our new podcast series for Tāhuhu Kōrero, the University of Auckland History Society blog site. This time we profile the life of Ada Lovelace, arguably the first computer programmer of the Victorian Age. The links for all the episodes are below.
I have always been fascinated by the history of science, particularly in the period that Richard Holmes calls “The Age of Wonder“. This was the period from 1726 to 1830 that followed the Late Enlightenment. After Isaac Newton had opened up science with his laws of motion, astronomers like William Herschel gave the public a glimpse of the universe beyond our Solar System.
In this series, Michaela, Kathryn and I look closely at the women who were breaking into this new world of science that, up to that time, had been dominated by men. After the first introductory episode, we will profile Caroline Herschel, Ada Lovelace and then go on to look at Margaret Hamilton and Grace Hopper in the 20th century.
All the strange bits that did not fit into an earlier post..
8th April, 2019
In Norway, one of our guides was called Odd Jonny. His name has stuck in my mind: Odd Badger has a certain ring to it. Now, as we leave Iceland today, here are the odd bits that did not seem to fit into any of the earlier posts.
Elven maidens We discovered elven maidens twice in Iceland, one on a glacier in a flimsy wedding dress, complaining bitterly to her photographer to hurry up because she was cold. However, this one was the best..
Churches During Medieval times, Iceland converted to Christianity in a near bloodless movement led by the Viking leaders. We passed many, many small historical churches as we drove right around Iceland. However, it was the radical designs of new churches which surprised us the most.
Plumbing worthy of the Tardis In the Icelandic version of the Hotel California, we found a shower that would not be out of place in the Tardis. Later, in a small guesthouse on a remote farm, we discovered plumbing that could probably trigger time-travel.
The Punk Rock Museum Reykjavik has its own Punk Rock Museum, complete with its own spartan web site. With a nod to anarchy, it is actually located in the former public toilets in Bankastræti, in the city center. They were honored to have Johnny Rotten himself officially open the museum in 2016.
Health and Safety? Wooden scaffolding? What are you worried about?
The Best Record Shop in Iceland I had been saving my first opportunity to get to know Bjork’s music until I got to Iceland. Got to do this properly, eh? Lucky Records reminded me of Real Groovy in Auckland. Wall-to-Wall vinyl and a few small shelves for CD’s. Looks like the revolution where we all de-evolve back to using LP records and cassettes is going to succeed after all …
Finally, the first piece of advice we were given when we arrived in Iceland: “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes…”
See them sitting round the table, Smiling like thieves. Nothing in their pockets, Nothing up their sleeves, ohh-oh. Just a strange way of working it out. While the factories back home are churning out more, Missiles and bombs, enough to settle their score, ohh-oh, Such a strange way of working it out… “Reykjavik”, 1986
I remember writing that song while I was playing with my band Kirk in 1986. I was in the middle of my “writing-songs-like-Billy-Bragg” period, very skeptical of either Regan or Gorbachov’s chances of changing anything.
However, the idea of them meeting in Iceland intrigued me. Historians generally agree that while they did not agree on anything significant during that meeting in Reykjavik, what they talked about together ultimately led to the end of the Cold War.
Looking back now in 2019, compared to the way Trump and Putin bang their heads together today, I should have been less cynical. Jane and I are here in Iceland now to explore and the place still intrigues me.
We both completed a course from the University of Iceland last year that introduced us to the Medieval Icelandic Sagas. We got to read the first three major Sagas and understand the foundations of ancient Icelandic culture. Iceland is not like Scandinavia so this is a whole new place to explore.
Iceland feels cold, very cold this time of year … but it’s gorgeous here … this is going to be fun.
We joined the MS Richard With at Kirkenes to explore the fjords for six days. The Hurtigruten Shipping Company has sailed this route continuously since 1893.
This is not a cruise ship: no casinos, no slot machines, no top-deck swimming pool, dance classes or senior-citizen bingo nights. No, this is a cargo ship that stops at thirty-two ports on its journey and we are just a special class of cargo.
Everyone we talked to was here to learn about the environment and to help us do that, there was a fully-trained team of Norwegians that Hurtigruten calls its Expedition Team.
Among the passengers, we met an English parish vicar whose wife works for Pirelli. She explained the chemistry of tires to me in-depth and we discussed how Pirelli has learnt to remove all but one carcinogenic chemical from its raw materials. Later, a production engineer called Matthew would spend long hours with me on Deck 7 discussing factory automation within Industrie 4.0, wanting to know all about software design, telemetry and IEC 61499 function blocks. A recently retired biochemist explained how she started her postgraduate studies at 47, gained a doctorate and went on to teach in her universities laboratory for the next twenty years.
On deck, Jane and I met birdwatchers who, even without their binoculars, could spot a puffin flying among the guillemots and seagulls off the bow. There was only one verbotene subject on-board: Brexit. They were all heartily sick of the whole sorry business.
Each of the excursions we took over the 2,500 kilometers we traveled are worth their own page, but it could take me a while to write them all up. Enjoy !
In Bergen, Norway apparently it rains every day. On board the MV Richard Well people had said to us “You are going to Bergen? It rains a lot there…” The shuttle driver smiled when we asked him about it when we arrived: “Yes, every day.”
Bergen is stunningly beautiful, despite everything being constantly wet. Norway is made up of of over 50,000 islands spread along a coastline that stretches 2,600 km from Kirkenes to Bergen. Bergen looks like it is inland on the map above but that is just because of the islands in front of it before you Atlantic begins properly.
When I wrote about Kirkenes before, it talked about borders and how they had shaped the history of this country. Bergen is a reflection of what Norway looked like at that time since there was far less bombing here.
This place is full of the most awesome museums. Deep inside one, the Bergenhus Festningsmuseum, we got to see an Enigma machine up-close for the first time. On our last day, we went deep into the Norwegian Woods.
Understanding that this is not just about being a boarderland, it is about what remains.
22nd March, 2019
When I wrote about Kirkenes before, I talked about borders and how they had shaped the history of this country. This place is also shaped by what remains.
North-Eastern Norway became the staging area for the German assault on the Soviet Union. The target for the German Wehrmacht was the harbour city of Murmansk, just 200 km from the border. However, at Litsaelva, halfway between Kirkenes and Murmansk, their offensive ground to a halt. The Wehrmacht hardly made any further progress during the three years of hostilities that followed. Kirkenes found itself in a very exposed position, and was subjected to constant bombing attacks from the hard-pressed Soviet forces. The air raid sirens sounded more than 1,000 times in Kirkenes and the town was bombed over 300 times.
The worst attack of all took place on 4 July 1944, when 140 houses were left in flames following a merciless Soviet assault. Kirkenes became one of the most frequently bombed towns on the European mainland – second only to Valletta on Malta. During the bombing raids people sought safety in Andersgrotta, an air-raid shelter in the centre of the town that can shelter over 2,500 people.
As we started to explore Norway more deeply, we began to see how this country is also made up of what remains. Very little of Kirknes was left standing by the end of the war. As we would later see in other towns, what did remain was built around and incorporated into new buildings, re-using rubble wherever possible. The remains of a wall from the 1500’s that survived was blended into new walls and what you think is an old building is perhaps only seventy years old.
Lagom, that Norwegian concept of minimalism I am trying to get my head around, is perhaps part of this stoic rebuilding of what was ripped apart. There is no fat on the land here. Rather, it feels like there was an underlying desire to rebuild only what was needed. The picture below is from a restaurant we visited here. Perhaps it hints at what that minimalist mindset has become today.
Kirkenes is in the far north of Norway. I think Jane is becoming more polar-bear each day, realising how much she is enjoying exploring here in the “crisp” weather: it is -11º Celsius here tonight.
Kirkenes lies in the Norwegian municipality of Sør-Varanger, located as far north-east as possible in Norway, close to the Varanger fjord. It belongs to the northernmost county in Norway, Finnmark. With a population of over 9,000 spread across 3.6 million km2, the municipality lies on the Russian and Finnish borders.
Borders … That seems to be a key part of their history here. Conflicts have forced people to move time and time again for hundreds of years. Whole populations have been displaced, some like the first-nation Sami never to return to their home territories. I wrote about that aspect of Norwegian history before when we visited Narvik last year.
At the Varanger Borderland Museum, they describe this place as a “Boarderland without borders. Already 10,000 years ago people lived around the Varanger Fjord. People have moved west and east, between sea and inland winter spring and autumn.”
Kirsten Basma tells the story of her families escape to Russia in 1942 in her father’s brother’s boat. The trip took 26 hours on the sea with a storm raging, two families with seven small children. The children and the women lived in a barrack for three years while their fathers were with the Russian partisans fighting against the Germans. Later, she was sent alone to Sweden:
“Apples were painted on the ceiling of the room where the children slept, and was kept in their imagination and helped to forget the hunger. Sweden is a protected land to live in compared to many other countries in the world, and we need to be reminded how it is to live in a war.”
The Wessel photographic archive
Ellsif Wessel (1866-1949) arrived in Kirkenes with her husband in March, 1886, where he took up the position of the district’s new doctor. Pursuing her love of photography, she often traveled with her husband on his rounds, bringing her cameras, tripods and boxes of glass negatives.
Over the next fifty years, she built up a photographic archive of life in Kirkenes as it evolved from being a small subsistence community into a highly industrialized mining town. All of her original glass plates were destroyed when her house was bombed in the final stages of World War Two, but what remain of her 600 to 700 prints provides one of the few records of this time.
It was snowing when we landed in Oslo today. I remembered a long-ago conversation with one of my senior students, sitting with her on a cold day like today. Teaching in the heart of Otara, South Auckland, I had felt for the first time what it was like to be the alien. I was the young, fresh-out-of-teacher’s-college white guy deep within a Polynesian community of the 1970’s.
“Miss Tennet-White, she triestoohard to be a Poly sir. Why can’t she just be herself, eh? “
Teuila wasn’t being rude or condescending. Red-headed and pale-skinned, Miss Tennet-White peppered her conversations with confidently-delivered yet awkward Samoan and Tongan slang. Adopting long, floral, island-dress, she appeared to be desperately trying to fit into a culture she admired so much. Meanwhile, I had quickly learnt to ditch my formal neck ties; they really did not work there.
In Stockholm and Luleå last year, I discovered Mys, a cultural practice that is uniquely Swedish yet which permeates a lot of Scandinavia. It is Hygge in Denmark. Think warmth among family and companions in the depth of winter. One of the things I want to understand on this trip is lagom. Think minimalism done without the hippy sentimentality and you are on the right track.
Only, as I began to catch up on my reading over here, I found that since 2016, many British have adopted hygge the way they took to IKEA furniture. Sales of woolly hand-knitted socks and candles have skyrocketed. The Guardian article hereis scathing. I never greet people I meet here with “Hei, hei“. They assume you are Swedish and you quickly find yourself apologizing, asking them to repeat what they have just said in English. More than that, the double hei is reserved only for close friends and family,
When we find something that resonates with us, that seems consistent with our existing lifestyles and beliefs, critical thinking should not just go out the window. Letting a practice or belief change us should be a conscious decision. Admiring a culture is one thing, but you do not have to go around trying to talk like the Swedish chef from the Muppets, even if that is what a lot of Scandinavian people sound like here.
I love watching people walking in the streets in Europe. These people and places are supposed to affect us. That’s why we came, to experience and appreciate the diversity. I wrote in the earlier article on mys that:
“Mys is also solitude but not loneliness. It is not mindfulness either but it resonates with my own ideas of fellowship and grace, the being alone and at peace with your Father as a believer. Perhaps finally comfortable in your own skin too? “
So, as I spend time reflecting here on my study journey so far, I am wanting to build a new resilience to get through the next year of my PhD, Honestly, I am finding study at this level hard. Fun, but very demanding. Learning to downsize and become more minimalist has been liberating but it takes effort. So, let’s figure out if lagom can help with that.
I have been working from the Rockweather library for the last few weeks and it has been absolutely deserted around here until today. There was a knock on the door early this morning and I could see a small girl, maybe six or seven years old on the doorstep holding a courier parcel.
The driver of the courier van was watching her from the roadway. Clearly today, he had an assistant to do all the running.
“Hello.” I said. “You are very tall for a courier. Is that for me?” “Yusss” she replied in a husky, deep voice. “Do I need to sign for it?” “Naaaah, I jus need yous name, eh.” “It’s Barry.” “Barry?” she asked, her eyes widening. “Barry the Fish?” “Err, maybe” I ventured. I had no idea what she was talking about. “Like, the REAL Barry the Fish?” “As I said, maybe…” I smiled. She gave me the parcel, ran down the path and shouted to the driver: “Dad, I met the REAL Barry the Fish !”
I watched her father smiling as he waved and they drove off. I still have absolutely no idea who “Barry the Fish” is <laugh>.
I love this stuff…
Postscript: Later, Janice Willis brought me up to date. Apparently, there is a children’s cartoon called “Barry the Fish with Fingers” written by Sue Hendra:
I love it when the Rockweather Guys trip over something during the day that inspires them. Jeremy found this today and they were deep into a discussion on creativity when I arrived:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”
Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.’ ” (Jarmuchsch, 2013)
The core of what they were discussing was where do intellectual property rights begin and end at this time? If you choose to publish something do you, in practical terms, really have any property rights left? How should we respond in fairness to creatives who are trying to make a living off their work?.
Learning how to be solitary is central to the art of loving…
December 31st, 2018 to January 3rd, 2019
Last year, Jane and I spent the end of 2017 deep in the snows of Sweden. There, on New Year’s Day in 2018, I wrote about Mys on the train travelling to Stockholm. This year, we spent the last days of 2018 and the first of 2019 in the far north of New Zealand at Glinks Gully, near Te Kopuru.
The bach at Glinks Gully has been the shared retreat of John and Anne Robertson-Bickers and their relatives before them since the early 1920’s. I first visited the area in 1978 on a cold winter’s weekend. Later, Jane and I got to know John and Anne through our children.
This is a place to unwind as the place gently wraps itself around you. You spend long hours talking with all the people who pass through this sanctuary. With fifty kilometers of beach in both directions, it is a place to walk together or in delightful solitude for hours….
Learning how to be solitary is central to the art of loving someone. When we can learn how to be satisfied while alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape. Paul Tillich wrote that “Language has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone and the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone” (Tillich, 1959).
I walked eight kilometers alone on my first day in one direction and then another eight in the opposite direction the next day. The beach is wide and flat, with seemingly endless dunes that reach out to the cliffs far above the beach. The seagulls who decided you are intruding on their solitude object raucously as you approach, always aborting their dive close to your head as if changing their minds at the last minute. Eventually, they decided I was mostly-harmless or stupid, flying off in a noisy huff.
Solitude gives you time to recharge.The bach is filled with captivating people. This time, there was a carpenter, a social worker, two trainee airforce pilots and a commercial pilot, a heavy-vehicle trainer and a department of conservation biologist. Add to that a musical theater director / conductor, four dogs and a mechatronics engineer who builds land yachts to sail on the beach here in his spare time. Anne herself covers so many bases, ranging from flugelhorn player, maker-of-scones, grammar-wizard and multi-linguist. Then there was a retired cabin crew member with her new baby. Deeply fascinating people with deep, rich stories to tell. And I hunger for stories…
No conversation in this place ever seems trivial… except perhaps some of the ones I start <grin>:
“Sarah, I was thinking while I was out walking…. I don’t have a Spotify account: is there a karaoke channel on Spotify?” “I don’t think so…” Sarah looks at me quizzically, perhaps wondering where this will lead. “Only I was thinking… if there is… all those people sitting in their bedrooms alone singing into their hairbrushes…all those wanna-be Elvis’s and Celine Dion’s… it kind of beggars the imagination, eh?” “I didn’t think you owned a hairbrush…” Sarah comments.
But… being alone gives you time to recharge because, yes, all this human interaction expends a lot of energy. You need time to pause and process all you have talked about or risk losing it.
You reflect more when you are alone, getting in-touch with your emotions. Writing about Mys last year, I talked about “… finally getting comfortable in my own skin..”
“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made like new.” Ursula K. Le Guin – the Lathe of Heaven (Le Guin, 2008)
You stop looking for validation.Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… they encourage us to expect to and want to be stroked and Liked when we are clever, witty, funny or sad. No, we ought to be able to become comfortable enough in our own skin and not need that kind of endorsement to feel good about ourselves. There are times when we are quite capable of validating ourselves, especially if we have a Christian faith that gives us a deeper perspective on our self-worth. Self-worth that is rooted not in ourselves but in what our Creator has forged within us.
So, Brave New Year folks. 2019 will demand courage from us all.
References: Le Guin, U. K. (2008). The Lathe of Heaven: A Novel. Simon and Schuster. Tillich, P. (1959). The eternal now. McGraw-Hill.
I can’t survive in academia without faith and my friends; that is why my AUT Embedded Systems Software (EMSOFT) research group is a lifeline for me around here. They help keep me focused and balanced as we support each other. They are also the source of huge doses of humor..
They had a 12:00 noon NZT meeting today in New Zealand and I joined them by Skype at 12:00 midnight, Lulea time. My friend Maryam Gh was passing the meeting room at the time and snapped this photo through the door <laugh>.
The last time I worked away in the US for an extended period was in 1996, At that time, I carried a bulky dial-up modem and connected back to home base through Compuserve to stay in touch….barely… oh my… how things have changed.
A typical day teaching and studying at AUT can bring surprises and often, new stories…
Monday, 30th August, 2018
There is nothing “normal” about a day at my university. That’s why I love this stuff…
8:00 am on a cold, cold Monday morning. I have been up since 4:30 am but not my students. For many of them, that early in the morning? No thank you…do the hands on the clock even go to a place called “4:30 am”?
Each time before my lecture starts, I walk up and down the aisles, greeting students, sometimes by name. It takes a while to learn them all but by the end of the semester, familiar faces stand out. Especially the ones who make an effort to get to know me back.
This morning, a small group of my Chinese students are talking quietly together at the back of the lecture theater. I hand one of them a copy of the notes and smiling ask “How is your project going?”
“Awww… we is up stuffing…” says the student.
“Up stuffing?” I ask, surprised that he might be having problems this early in the semester. “Do you mean you are stuffing up something?”
“Yeah.. we up stuffing stuff.”
“What is going wrong? Can I help you?”
“No, no nuffing wrong. We just up stuffing.”
“Oh…wait… do you mean you are learning new things? We call that upskilling.”
“Yeah, sorry.. we are upskilling….. is all good.” he replied, laughing with a wide grin.
Note to self: need to change the title of the “Personal Upskilling” assignment to “Personal Training” …
Postscript: When the assignments were delivered on 17th August, I found this delightful log in my Turnitin Inbox:
Auckland city early in the morning has some delightful corners..
Each morning when I walk up from Britomart through Lorne St in the darkness, I pass an optometrist called Mortimer Hirst. Month-by-month, I stop and watch when the displays in their shop window change. They have gone from rock-and-roll Barbies, to squirrels and construction-site-Ken’s, endlessly creative.
This morning, the window had changed again…
As I turned after photographing it, a man with a coffee in his hand spoke to me: “Do you like my display?”
“It is gorgeous. I was just photographing it to send to a friend in Wellington. She would appreciate your humor too.”
“Thank you” said Ton, introducing himself. “I got in here at 5:00 am to get this one installed. I’m off to work in the US so I had to get this one finished in time.”
“The one with the squirrels in glasses a few months back was so clever. Thank you for sharing these.”
Many years ago, my mother asked me to look after her gorgeous Mitsubishi Eclipse GS sports car while she was living overseas. Late one winter evening, I drove it down to the local chemist’s shop. I had been fighting the flu all week with no success and I had had enough of it: time to medicate the problem.
Sitting back in mum’s car, while reading the instructions for the medication, someone tapped on my window. A lady was staring at me through the glass as I wound down the window.
“What are you doing my car?” she asked.
“Uh, your car?” I replied.
“Yes, my car….”
I looked around. The handbag on the passenger seat was definitely not mine….
“Sorry, I have no idea” I apologized as I got out of the car. Directly behind this car was an identical rust-brown Mitsubishi with my mother’s licence plate number. Apparently we both had the flu and she graciously accepted my apology as I showed her how my keys opened both her car and mine.
Sitting in the darkness back in my mother’s car, I heard another knock on the window. I wound down the window to see the same lady staring at me.
“This really is my mother’s car.”
“Yes, we have established that. I have another problem now…”
“You locked my car when you got out.”
“Yes, I do it by instinct.”
“Sorry, but I must have left my keys in my handbag when I went into the chemist. Could you please let me back into my car?”
This post has been sitting in my draft folder waiting for the “right time” to post it. Today, one year on, seems like that right time.
April 20th, 2017. What matters at Rockweather: the P50 underground bunker
In the early months of 1999, my company EDIS was given an opportunity for significant growth because of a need our largest client had. They used our software to run an in-house e-commerce network that we had built for them, beginning in 1989. With the millennium Y2K issues causing world-wide concern, they wanted to “outsource” the network to us. Our shared client base was growing fast and we would need a proper datacentre…. so we built one in the basement of my home, out in the suburbs, and named it P50.
At its peak, there were twenty-five telephone lines running down our driveway handling thousands of transactions a week into our computers. P50 is half-underground and was full of servers and communications gear. My six-year old son Ben’s teacher asked her primary school class one day “how many computers do you have in your home?” Most students said one but Ben though it was eighteen. I am not sure she believed him <laugh>.
There are many more stories, achievements and statistics from that time but there is one that means the most to me. We once had a consecutive run of 465 days with zero-downtime. The streak was broken by a brief telecoms outage that was not our fault that really annoyed us…
Today, P50 is empty and freshly repainted. EDIS moved out into much bigger premises years ago and now outsources its own servers in much larger network centers. But, it all started down here…and one division of New Zealand’s largest construction company trusted us to build an e-commerce network center for them, hidden away in the suburbs where no one would ever find it. That probably would not happen in today’s business environment but who knows? New Zealand is still a very creative place.
This building has now been sold and it is time for us to finally move out so I am spending one last time down here alone. With the door closed, it is still cold and deliciously silent. I remember the day in mid-1999, when the builders had finished and the first coat of paint was dry. I sat here in the same position by myself, absolutely joyful, thankful for our new toy and thinking “I love this stuff…”
I really hope the new owners build a massive model railway layout down here <laugh>…
Each day, I just need to start early, clear all the interruptions off my desk quickly and get into my writing. I know I am privileged to be here at AUT and this view reminds me of that each day. It also reminds me of where I started, so long ago. The buildings of the University of Auckland can be seen outside my window but that is not where I am; I am here, now.
Around me, I am surrounded by the photos of the people I call heroes in my world; Margaret Hamilton was the only female software engineer working at NASA during the Apollo Missions. Her work was probably the most important component of the systems that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon at a time when hardware was everything and software was just “women’s work“. Grace Hopper was arguably the mother of computer languages as we know them today. Ada Lovelace, Babbage’s muse and probably the first computer programmer. Caroline Hershel, the first woman ever to receive a stipend from the king to support her research work on comets. She was also the first woman supported by a few visionary males in the otherwise male-dominated Royal Society.
You might ask why I have no pictures of male heroes on my wall. I could put some up but generally, they had a far easier time in the world. No, each of these ladies pushed up hard against a glass ceiling and broke out of the mold the world of their time wished to impose on them. That took courage, tenacity and a lot of grace.
So they are honored on my wall and they inspire me each day to move out of my comfort zone and stay focused. It is my way of paraphrasing what Paul wrote in Hebrews 12v1 :
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
In my last post about If nothing changes…, I looked at one way to narrow down a situation to identify the root cause of the problem. Once you have a clearer idea of what the real problem is, the next step is to work through it in a structured way using something like the time-honored SPOT technique (Situation, Problem, Opportunity, Tatics).
Some of my students and clients find that working their way through the details and specifics of a single problem harder that looking at the big picture. One of the biggest mistakes they can make during that exercise is not identifying the real root cause of the problem. The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) expressed it like this:
When a team is discussing a single problem or a group of perhaps unrelated problems, a worksheet can sometimes be really useful. It’s real strength is to capture their discussion and thinking in a systematic way. Then, at the end of their time working through each of their issues, there is a simple document trail that shows what they all agreed on:
The first box only has room for one sentence. Once they can state the situation the problem has led them to be in, without technical terms or jargon, they have made the first step towards it’s resolution. Stating the situation first and forcing it to be only one sentence long is important. Lengthy, rambling statements are of little use; the aim is to state what the real result of the problem is. For example, if a piece of equipment has failed, it is easy rant and rave, complaining about vendors and budget constraints when really, the real situation is simply: “The support group email server application has failed.”
The second box is a little larger. What problem has that situation caused? If they can state that in just two sentences, then we are a little further along: “The application automates their help desk email follow-up replies. Doing that manually is difficult.”
In two steps, we have stopped moaning, complaining and sharing irrelevant information around the table by stopping talking around the problem and stating what the problem is. More importantly, we have probably determined that it is actually a problem that needs solving. Or, we know that it does not need to be solved. A problem only needs to be solved if it is causing a situation that is unacceptable to one or more people. When you get down to root causes, some things that first appeared to be problems are just noise, the background evidence of some deeper problem. If you solve only the noise, you have only hacked at the branch; the real problem has not gone away….
The next step is brainstorming ideas. Note there is no box for that since every suggestion, no matter how obscure or apparently dumb, is off-the-table. Discussing what to do after the situation and problem have been articulated is really important since without first establishing those two key statements, you have no way of determining the difference between the root and the branches; they all look the same.
The final step is crucial; agree, as a team, what is to be done. Write down what you agreed and then make sure someone, and only one person, is willing to lead the problem resolution. They can co-opt in people to help them but my experience has been that if one person takes responsibility for getting it done, then things will get done without finger-pointing “I thought they were going to do it..” later.
Here at my university, we had a long-standing issue with the wording of a course descriptor. When I took over the course, I found an email trail of the Examination Board who had raised the problem every semester for the past three years. However, no-one in that meeting had taken responsibility for assigning the task of fixing it to anyone. It took one brief editing session to fix it, two emails to get it to the right person and in the next board meeting, they signed it off. Remember the title of the last post: If nothing changes, then nothing changes.
It really was that simple. I used the SPOT form to make sure I understood what the problem with the wording was by talking to the person who had raised the issue originally. I then found out who could approve the change and what I needed to do to submit it for approval.
I was pleased so many of you contacted me about the piece I wrote about Peter. I promised some of you that I would write about my meeting with Gabriel in a cemetery. This story is so intriguing that I could not possibly make up anything this good.
Coming home late from a church meeting in the 1970’s, one of my best friends Ken was killed when a drunk driver drove sideways into his car. Ken had married Francie only two years earlier and our small circle of friends was devastated.
Ken had been an awkward sort of guy, loving, kind but who found it desperately hard to form strong friendships with people. Francie somehow came into our circle like some heavenly gift. So different and yet somehow alike, they became inseparable.
Over the next forty years, I lost track of Francie as she put her life back together and moved out of Auckland. One of her friends called me after she died to invite me to attend her internment at Purewa Cemetery in Auckland. During some terrible family squabble and rejection that no-one there could fathom, Ken had been buried there without Francie’s knowledge or permission, causing her pain that took a long time to heal.
Many of our old circle of friends were there. Ken and now Francie had been cremated and we stood near the small hole that the Purewa staff had dug beside Ken’s newly-discovered grave. One of our group had done some clever detective work and found that he had been interred with an incorrect name in the graveyard’s registry.
The plot was down in one of the lowest valleys towards the back of Purewa, shaded by trees. As we talked, not quite sure what the order of service was going to be, a young man in a white shirt walked over the brow of the hill carrying a basket. Smiling, he mingled with the guests, greeting them one by one.
When he got to my small group, I asked if he knew Francie. “No” he replied.
“My name is Gabriel but I am not an angel” he laughed and I noticed that everyone had stopped talking to listen.
“I work up at the crematorium here. I absolutely love my job but I noticed that people often do not know what to do to inter someone here. They also often regret not having petals to scatter over the grave. So, when I see groups like you, I take my basket and gather flower petals that have fallen on my way here. I love helping people like you.”
Sure to his word, Gabriel stayed while we sang hymns acapella and he shared his basket of flower petals as we each sprinkled soil onto Ken and Francie’s shared grave. United finally, it seemed like the perfect finish to a love story that had been sundered by such tragedy.
At the end, Gabriel used a trowel to put the grass sod back onto the gravesite. He shook people’s hands and quietly walked back over the hill.
I tapped my friend John on the shoulder laughing: “I saw you looking as Gabriel left. Were you expecting him to disappear in a flash of sunlight like I was?”
His wife Janet was nodding, obviously thinking the same thing.
“I really did…” said John. “I wondered if he really was the Angel Gabriel, in-spite of what he said.”
Like Peter from my previous reflection, Gabriel seemed to be a man who had found his perfect calling, helping people to celebrate the end of someone’s journey. People who love their jobs like that cannot help but make a difference.
Sometimes, God arranges for us to slam head-first into our most deep-seated prejudices. He often does that in ways that are so creative and effective, showing us something that has been right in front of us for so long in a new light.
While moving into my new library, I re-discovered this entry in one of my old diaries…
Visiting my mother-in-law in her rest home today, I found her unwell and distressed. It affected me in a way that I did not expect and I later left upset and uneasy too.
Her rest home is a labyrinth of narrow corridors. More than once in the past, I had wandered around confused trying to find the front door. I was the boy they never trusted with the compass on Boy Scout tramps, for reasons that quickly became obvious to my pack leader.
Half way along a corridor I stopped because a resident was blocking my way. He put a hand on each of my shoulders and looked at me face-on: “If you are trying to get out, the code is 412E” he said, wide-eyed behind his glasses.
“Great…” I thought to myself. “My mother-in-law now lives in a loony bin and I am bailed-up in this corridor with a madman who wants to help me escape. Typical…”
“You’re lost…” he continued. “I’m Peter. I didn’t get enough oxygen when I was born so I live here now.”
“Hello Peter” I replied.
“I only have one job in this world” he explained.
“What is that Peter?”
“To tell everyone that Jesus loves them. That’s all I do. Do you know that Jesus loves you?”
“Yes I do Peter” I whispered. “But to be honest with you, today it kind of feels like I had forgotten that.”
He took me by the hand and led me through the corridors without saying anything more. When we got to the front gate, the code 412E worked just like he said it would and he waved as I walked away.
Over the last few months of my mother-in-laws life, I got to know Peter better. His mother had looked after him all his life and when she became too frail, they had both moved into the same rest home. The manager shared with me that Peter was probably his greatest asset around the place. He was the one who would just sit alongside residents whenever he sensed they needed company, listening to them as a comforter.
I often found him beside the front door of the rest home, greeting people as they arrived or left. More than once, I heard his signature phrase: “Do you know Jesus loves you?”. This was not the cry of a madman; it was the calling of a person who had found and understood their purpose in life, and then begun to live it out day-by-day.
Chair photograph (c) Tom Deacon from http://www.voshart.com
Have you ever tripped over something that was so profound yet was so simple to grasp? A few years ago in Wellington I was clearing up a room after a meeting and noticed a screwed-up diagram in the waste paper bin. It contained a scribbled version of the diagram below that I later redrew.
Change is often hard but it has one inevitable characteristic: if nothing changes as a result of what we are trying to achieve, then nothing changes. So often, no matter how hard we push, things get stuck. This diagram is all about how to figure out why something in your particular situation is not moving.
The top line includes some of the things that are needed to make change happen. We need a clear vision of what we are trying to achieve and the skills necessary to facilitate the change. We need incentives for accomplishing the change coupled with appropriate resources. To carry us step-by-step through the stages we also need an action plan.
The following lines take away just one component from that recipe and show you at the end of the line why you might be stalled wondering why nothing is happening. With no vision, there is often confusion since people have no clear idea why the change is needed. When people lack skills to carry out their tasks, there is anxiety. When there is no immediate incentive to keep going, people stop.
Resources are an interesting component. I think of skills as being the capabilities my team already possesses within themselves. Resources are different. They are the skills, facilities or equipment that exist outside your team that you can call on when needed. One definition of being resourceful is having lots of favors you can call in when needed.
I said before that we are often lousy planners. That last line is the result of not having a proper action plan. That approach dooms us to make many false starts and retrace our steps in frustration.
The most useful way I have found to use this chart with someone is to go down the last column and ask them if any of those outcomes resonate with their current situation. We then work along that line, discussing what is happening in their case, seeing if any of the components are missing. We often then repeat that looking at other lines for other symptoms.
I have no idea who drew the original sketch diagram but it has become an invaluable and simple one-page tool that I have shared with clients and students many times. I hope it proves to be a great catalyst to help your team restart their stalled journey towards a goal that demands change.
The train stopped halfway between Malmö and Stockholm, turning a three-hour trip into six hours. No one complained; I could not see any frowning or frustration with the conductor. Later, my friend Josef would comment that perhaps that is just the Swedish way: they probably felt angry, he explained, but people here seldom express their emotions publicly.
Curled up in my railway seat with my book on Fridtjof Nansen, I was not complaining either. Swedish railway carriages are luxurious with lots of leg room (airlines, please take note…). The train crew left the coffee urns in our carriage well-stocked too. “It is an electrical fault” explained the conductor. “There will be many trains waiting to get into Stockholm station. I am sorry but we could have a wait…”
Mys. The Danes call it hygge and the Swedish nuance is roughly equivalent to cosiness or snuggly. Josef had not heard of it but then he is Hungarian so perhaps my clumsy explanation got a bit lost in translation.
The winter is something you all learn to survive here, the short-cuts to and from places, knowing where to pause in the doorways of warm shops for a few seconds. Just as they do in Germany, many leak warm air out into the street, trapped in the double-doorways. Unless you notice it, you miss the delight of warm air on a cold nose for a few seconds.
Implicit in mys is that winter here is not a time to hibernate but rather a time to snuggle down with a perfect chair and the book that you have been yearning to spend time with. Time to get things done. And hot chocolate: that is intrinsically part of mys too. It is something to do with hot chocolate releasing endorphins in your brain which are naturally calming: it also triggers changes to the microcirculation in your skin. Warmth yes but there is a deeper empathy being drawn out here though. Swedes write that they cherish memories of being outdoors as children and the steaming hot chocolate poured from thermos flasks. Families playing in the snow together. Gulnara had a delightful look in her eyes on December 1st as she explained that we were all going for AdventFika together, just up the hill from her snuggly office.
Out through the snow for apple torte, an open fire and friends talking while clutching steaming mugs of hot coffee. Yes, mys with coffee works too but it is not the same somehow. Then there was Café Lina next door back home later, the morotskaka. Think carrot cake but no, somehow different.
Mys is also solitude but not loneliness. It is not mindfulness either but it resonates with my own ideas of fellowship and grace, the being alone and at peace with your Father as a believer. Perhaps finally comfortable in your own skin too? At first, I did not notice myself mimicking the locals but Jane tells me I have started saying ja even though I consciously avoid saying hei when greeting people I do not know yet (Hei, hei is for friends). With the light already gone late on Friday afternoons, I found myself yearning to get back to my tiny apartment and get snowed in for two, uninterrupted days.
Mys: snuggled away with Bottomly, hot chocolate and a wicked research problem, not hibernating but thriving. Going out sometimes, wrapped up in great gear, still getting cold but the first step later back into an already warm apartment: mys.
That it rhymes with bliss cannot be co-incidental. I found myself slipping into this concept here long before it was explained to me so, close to the end of my time here, it is delightful to begin to understand it a little. I love this place and mys goes someway towards explaining the attraction.
Mys…does that resonate with you too? Bless you on this last day of 2017. Brave New Year friends.
Early the following morning after our trip with the huskies, Jane and I are getting fitted out for our next exploration. This time we are being much smarter. Our guide Mattias is checking each person in our party, making sure boots, mittens and coveralls are all the right size. “Yes”, he agrees with me “it is still baby-winter out there but it can get cold very quickly where we are going. I want you to have fun; you don’t have to get cold with it.” This guy immediately gets my vote as the #1 tour guide so far; there is no rush, get it right…
Soon after we leave, Mattias is still getting to know everyone. He only takes these tours a few times each week. The rest of the time he is driving the biggest, meanest model of Volvo dump truck in the iron ore mines at Kiruna. His truck is the heaviest made so far, carrying 90 tonnes of raw iron ore with a new custom Volvo design and drivechain. Jane and he swap truck stories for the rest of the drive; what else did you expect <grin>?
We are planning to ride Ski-Doo’s through the forest and tundra to visit the IceHotel on the Torne River. The Ski-Doo is apparently iconic here; since the 1950’s, the Canadians have claimed it as one of their greatest inventions. Mattias shows us photos of his personal one. He is grinning just as wide and enthusiastic as any bike rider or jetski enthusiast I know. The appropriate standard response appears to be much nodding and “ooooo” while he extols it’s virtues.
There are six of us travelling today on four Ski-Doo’s. Swedish Marital Tip#1; when your wife is this excited, let her drive first <grin>.
Later on across the plains, we will be hitting 50 km per hour. Apart from getting a cold hand, this would be the perfect mobile camera platform for a real expert.
Around fifteen kilometers later, we arrive at the IceHotel. That deserves its own page here with all of Jane’s photos.
Later, we drove back to where the others were ice-fishing. Unfortunately they had caught nothing but our host had that sorted already – fish anyway courtesy of Mattias’s home cooking.
Tea, coffee or this brew made from lingonberries. I had read about them; Nansen made hot drinks for his men in Greenland. Only he mixed it with pure alcohol. “Ah yes” observed Mattias. “Jet fuel….”
We love this stuff…amazing day and everything was warm.
Warning: This article contains descriptions of extreme cold that may be disturbing to some readers. Try this site if you would prefer some lighter reading.
It is 7:15 pm, deep into the Arctic wilderness beyond Kauppinen where it is now -28ºC. Jane and I are sitting in a traditional Sami tent, trying desperately to get warm again around the fire with Mary Poppins.
Daniella, her owner explains that nine-year old Mary is far from “practically perfect in every way“, unlike her namesake. “She is too old now to lead but she refuses to stay at home so I hook her into the traces and she runs just as fast as the other huskies. It is what she is born to do and she lives for it.”
Mary was obviously once an alpha and still commands the respect of the younger huskies. She is the only dog inside the tent warming herself by the fire and when we go outside, they do not challenge her.
Jane and I are frozen. We have ridden on the dogsled for nearly seven kilometers through the night. Our socks are too thin, our mittens too big and our extremities like many of the others with us are bitterly cold.
This is the coldest environment we have been in and we still have so much to learn. That is what exploring is about; this is not a resort in Fiji <grin>.
And with that comes a beauty. It was hard to photograph much but looking out across a dark forest illuminated only by Daniella’s headlight, the view is beyond description. We are out here to see the Aurora and the prospects are good. The Arctic sky is full of stars our cameras cannot capture; we are frozen but not depressed.
I can only remember one other time feeling colder. Ten years ago I was speaking at the Millbrook Conference Center in Arrowtown, New Zealand. About 10:00 pm that evening, I was walking back through the chilly, South Island autumn in just a suit and shirt, feeling just fine. Half way to my chalet on the far edge of the center, I got caught up in a hailstorm. Within a couple of minutes I was drenched and feeling nausious. I remember running to my door, fumbling with my keys in the darkness while trembling and wanting to be sick. A few minutes later I was standing fully-dressed in a warm shower thinking “I won’t be wearing this suit tomorrow…”
Perspective helps so much when we find ourselves in challenging places. On the sled as we headed back I remember thinking that I was very, very privileged. Scott and Amundsen survived at -40°C for months at a time with clothing far more limited than what we had. Also, just as I had at Millbrook, I had a hot shower to go back to and food that they could only dream of.
Our guide Mattias the following day was a little critical of our guides that night: “That was not right. The coldest I have to take people out in is -50°C, often for eight hours at a time. That’s why I checked all your gear individually before we left and I have been checking you all day. You do not know how to survive out here yet so mistakes can be deadly.” You can read about our day with Mattias in my next post.
No reward without some pain, eh? I love this stuff (noted while standing in a hot shower…)
Yesterday, we left Luleå and traveled north by train, deep into Swedish Lappland. About a quarter of Sweden’s surface area is in Lappland and we were heading for Kiruna. Luleå University of Technology has a department of Space Science here.
Always, it is is the light that captivates me here. The sun spends most of the day low on the horizon, so shadows cast in completely different angles to what I am used to in the Pacific. When the sky is clear, it is a deep, light blue. When there is cloud cover, you see amber and silver.
The journey by train takes only three hours, but when you step out onto the platform at any of the stops along the way, you realize that you really are far away in the wilderness.
Swedish people love their dogs. A recent twelve-year study of 3.4 million Swedish people suggested that dog owners had a 20 percent lower risk of dying compared to people who didn’t have a dog. For those who lived alone, that rose to a 33 percent lower risk of death (Mubanga et al., 2017). You see practical things they do here to make it easier for dog owners; on our train, there was a separate section just for owners and their dogs, separated by a glass divider.
For all the train-enthusiasts in my world, here you go….
References: Mubanga, M., Byberg, L., Nowak, C., Egenvall, A., Magnusson, P. K., Ingelsson, E., & Fall, T. (2017). Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death–a nationwide cohort study. Scientific reports, 7(1), 15821.
Today is my last day here. Honestly, I would be most happy to stay and just keep going.
This was my first research posting. That has proven to be a unique experience, both different to what I expected yet familiar. I was sent here to experience study at a different university and work alongside Dr Gulnara Zhabelova. She and I have authored research papers together over the last year with Roopak and it was great to come and see her world. We had particular problems to work on and I had responsibilities for delivering part of it. It felt like we got a lot done and we shall continue working through her winter/my summer until it is finished.
Yes we can do a lot remotely but there is really no replacement for coming and actually seeing her world. It gives you a fresh perspective, one that I have cherished. I think the staff here at Luleå are still surprised that I did not get sick of the endless snow. I keep explaining to them that I really am part polar-bear…
One of my PhD supervisors, Dr Jenny Gibb, spends part of her year travelling like this and I have been endlessly jealous of her adventures. She tells me stories of the people she has met and the students she has worked alongside. Placements like this are obviously quite addictive…now I have stories of my own to share. You also establish long-term collaborations with like-minded people. Ultimately, research is publish-or-perish so writing with other people you like is a huge advantage.
So, I could get quite maudlin and depressed but I won’t. I shall just post some of my best pictures from this trip. There are lots more to catch up on that I will post later. Now, this polar bear is off to explore the rest of Sweden and Norway….but.. probably not the ABBA Museum in Stockholm.
December 1st was the first day of Advent. I arrived early to find this brazier burning in the middle of the road leading to my office. Later that morning, we celebrated Advent Fika, a traditional meal of torte and coffee in the house pictured above, It is located on the edge of the campus among fragrant pine trees and is used for staff functions. Gulnara, Hasan and Chen-Wei took me inside this warm, traditional Swedish home environment, with a blazing log fire.
Last week I had the opportunity to develop a new course here and deliver the first three sessions. Thirty-one students, exploring the LaTeX typesetting language that I teach at AUT. We re-branded all the material for Luleå so that others could take it on and continue teaching it after I leave. In the process, I learnt a new LaTeX development system called Overleaf that I now adore; it is what I will be using to teach all subsequent courses. Beautiful, well-designed software.
Here, design and creativity are key drivers. While exploring a few days ago, I came across these student projects on display. I think I could happily work with a robotic vacuum cleaner if it was designed like this <grin>
I also had an opportunity to visit their FESTO robotic laboratory. We REALLY need one of these at AUT <grin>. I had to ask if anyone had programmed them to play soccer with tennis balls; the laboratory technician was a bit sheepish and assured me that they had not…
Right outside the FESTO laboratory is a student project laboratory. Yes, that is a high-performance bicycle they are designing. I stood and watched for a while, fascinated to see the interaction while they worked.
Sunday morning, up bright and early for matins and assignments. My wife Jane is on her way here, a wonderful long chat with my faithful friend Nic McClean via Messenger (thank you for helping to keep me sane up here – love you so much brother).
My cabin in the snow. It has always been a dream of mine to just get my head down in a cold climate, retreat and study with no distractions (except perhaps for the coffee shop Cafe Lina next door…). This time really is a dream come true.
How different my experience is to that of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, writing all those years ago in the Antarctic. The photo above is of him at his Cape Evans hut on 7th October 1911. He was doing pretty much what I am now, pens and pencils, keeping his journal. Only for him, unlike me, it would be many years before anyone back home could read his thoughts. I am so blessed.
Ernest Shackleton’s team had similar thoughts too when they were on the ice in 1915. This entry in Shackleton’s journal was contributed by one of his crew, Thomas Orde-Lees:
That is eerily prescient; he was imagining what a mobile phone and video messaging (“wirelesstelescopes“?) might be like in 2015. We take so much for granted today.
Now, to finish an assignment before the end of the day, take a walk with Bottomly, and maybe coffee late afternoon with my supervisor here Dr Gulnara and her husband Hasan. They love walking in the snow on Sunday afternoons…
I have spoken before about “arctic cabin fever” and the need to get outside as soon as you get up to shake off the dark and cold. Bottomly and I took a very early morning walk today, starting at about 6:30 am.
“I feel like I am at home here” Bottomly mused while we were walking. “Of all the Rockweather Guys, I suppose I am the only one who can genuinely claim to be a Polar Bear, what with being white and a bear.. Unlike you, I don’t need all that Icebreaker clothing you’ve got on either. I am a true native here !!”
“So you might have been born here, up near the Arctic circle?”‘
“Er..no” he quickly replied. “There is a label sown to my back that says ‘Dry Clean Only’ and ‘Made in China’.”
Cottages like this are everywhere in this area. The morning arctic sky was something I quickly grew to love..