A problem well described is a problem…?

I’m finally reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and it’s good. It’s really good. It’s so good I want to ration it, but then again, another good thing about it is that it’s a really long book, so I don’t even have to.

One thing particularly impresses me, not about his writing as such but about his project. I don’t know any other writer that so reliably hits the nail on the head in describing the inner and outer conflicts that we all, no doubt, experience, but which few of us know how to define. He did the exact same thing, to devastating effect for anyone who had the least experience of being part of a family, in The Corrections. The way you both hate and love your friends, the way you can both patronize and envy your kids, the way you want to be good but keep doing bad things – Jonathan Franzen is appallingly accurate in his descriptions of these conflicts, so that you both recognise the emotions, and are able to enjoy the sense of recognition.

I find it makes me want to ask him questions. I want to ask him how I can NOT be like the people in his books. How to sort through my emotions for those who are close to me? How to avoid acting on desires I know are beneath me? How to know, truly know, my own mind? How, in short, to live? Continue reading

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The friendlier face of physics

Whoever chose this picture of Nobel prize winner Saul Perlmutter to put on the television did more for the image of physics, and possibly for that of the Nobel prize too, than ten cheery pro-science educational campaigns. What a guy!

The democracy of consumption

Today I sat in McDonald’s in Nordstan and contemplated how much the place has changed since my mum took me there for treats after shopping trips when I was still small enough to take the pickles out of my burgers. The entire layout is different. Next to me, an employee was clearing tables, and I wondered how she felt about it. Had the designers of the restaurant had thought mostly about the comfort of the guests, or the staff, when doing the design?

Of course the comfort of the guests is important. But it’s equally important that the staff can move about freely, that it’s easy to clean up, and that the access to the bins and tray drop-off stations is easy, otherwise the restaurant will be congested and dirty and the customers will stay away. The needs of the staff are, possibly, as important as the customers’. But ensuring that they are able to do a good job isn’t the only reason to consider their needs. Continue reading

Tram love

Trams have been all over the news lately, due to the mysterious accident this weekend. Yesterday there was an article in the paper about a young tram driver. She loved her job, and spoke about the responsibility of driving such a huge heavy vehicle, and how people are careless because they don’t understand how difficult it is for a tram to brake and stop quickly. She said “Everyone should try driving a tram once, then they would understand what they’re dealing with“.

I think this is an excellent idea. Who hasn’t peered into the driver’s cabin on a tram and wondered what all those buttons are for, and how exactly they steer, without a steering wheel, and how the track switches work…? I am personally dead curious about this.

Forsman & Bodenfors, the excellent ad agency that works with Västtrafik, must be having a really hard time at the moment, since there has been tons of bad publicity for the company lately (due to their failure to improve a malfunctioning and unpredictable ticket system, and a purchase of new trams, most of never been seen out on the tracks on account of most of them being severely sub-standard).

I think the idea of an open day, when you get to drive a tram and a bus and learn about the technology, history and get to know the drivers, is exactly what is needed to help Västtrafik reconnect with their disgruntled customers.

It could be an annual event, a fixture on the Gothenburg calendar. Free fares for the day, open day at the tram depot, tram-driving experiences for kids and grownups, a competition to design new seat fabric or a painting for the ceiling of a tram, historic tram exhibitions, tram tours, driver recruitment with fun tests, a Guinness Book of World Records attempt at cramming the most people on board a tram (could make a funny TV spot as well), a FaceBook thing where you try to check in at as many tramstops as you can in one day… An event to make people love trams and buses again, get them excited and involved and feeling like they own their public transport system. And what better way to do that than to let them into the driver’s seat?

And of course, fix those trams and that ticketing system. First things first. THEN let people have a go at driving. And give that cute tram-driving girl a raise.

Random reinforcement

One of fairly few pieces of information that has stuck with me from first-year psychology class is this: random and unpredictable reinforcement creates stronger behavioural habits than reliable, predictable reinforcement. Birds who peck a lever for a reward of grain will keep pecking for longer if they only get a grain some of the time, rather than every single time. Or, put another way, people keep buying lottery tickets not despite winning being unpredictable, but because winning is unpredictable.

When I was self-employed, I always used to break off for the day at 6pm, to watch the evening news. The news were my beckoning finish line, no matter how much work I had to do, and despite the fact that the news weren’t usually that interesting.

Why would I do that? What was I getting out of it? This morning, as I was thinking about this habit, it struck me that maybe the key to this behaviour lies in that “usually”. And it led me to ask: Do we watch the news because it provides random, unpredictable rewards? Continue reading

Meaning and landscape

I was in my mum’s bathroom the other day, staring at the towels. Both the bath sheets and the hand towels were striped, same colour but two different patterns. The handtowels were nicer than the bath sheets, but neither was as nice as the striped Missoni towels I’d been drooling over in a shop the week before.

I reflected on this, amazed that I could have three different opinions on three different kinds of stripe, even though they were virtually identical. How many striped patterns in the world, how many products? How many checks, flowers, sprigs, polkadots? And I can produce a judgement, an incredibly nuanced and decisive judgement, on every single one – pretty, ugly, dull, kind of nice but I wouldn’t buy it – based on the mysterious interactions of a myriad unique experiences, pieces of information, stories, ideas and memories, the result of which I call my taste.

Astounding.

Taste is about meaning. We humans create meaning incessantly, abundantly, extravagantly. We fill and cover our world with objects expressing a truly breathtaking variety of shades and nuances of meaning. Put us in the desert, in prison, make us bedridden, ill, lonely – we’ll still infuse whatever we have at hand, even if it’s only rocks, with meaning. Continue reading

Tacit knowledge and internal communication

“Collins showed that a particular laser (The ppTEA laser) was designed in America and the idea, with specific assistance from the designers, was gradually propagated to various other universities world-wide. However, in the early days, even when specific instructions were sent, other labs failed to replicate the laser, it only being made to work in each case following a visit to or from the originating lab or very close contact and dialogue. It became clear that while the originators could clearly make the laser work, they did not know exactly what it was that they were doing to make it work, and so could not articulate or specify it by means of monologue articles and specifications. But a cooperative process of dialogue enabled the tacit knowledge to be transferred.” From Wikipedia.

How you know you are in Sweden #2

Everywhere you go, people are having long and involved conversations about berries. Wild berries. And mushrooms.

In the US, going out into the wilds to pick berries or mushrooms would probably be referred to as “scavenging”, and regarded as a kooky eco-hobby on a par with keeping chickens on your inner-city balcony or knitting jumpers from your dog’s fur. In the UK, only a handful of hardcore “country” people would still possess the skills – and have access to a patch of semi-wild hedgerow – to pick a berry, much less make it into jam. Everyone else would rather stay at home, eating Twiglets and watching The Weakest Link, thank you very much. And in New Zealand, people are more likely to make jam from possums they shot in their back gardens, because there are no berries.

How you know you are in Sweden #1

Mass sing-along sessions get prime time TV coverage. Sometimes live. Don’t get me wrong, I love to sing and the more the merrier, but I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world this would be on TV. I guess it’s because they have artists on as well, so it’s a kind of variety show. And it makes for cheap TV, no doubt.

I also wonder if there is some sort of deep psychological appeal in the ritual humiliation that is a standard feature of these shows (yes, there’s more than one). The leader will go into the singing (or more often than not, mumbling-and-staring-at-their-music-sheets-and-trying-to-look-invisible) audience and thrust the mike under some random unsuspecting person’s nose. This individual’s reedy, off-key tones will then be broadcast, not just to the rest of the audience, but to the rest of the country, on national television. Few swedes cope well with this treatment, but undoubtedly it makes good watching for shy, standoffish, socially stiff people who long to experience some vicarious catharsis.

I read  a spot-on post on graylingbloggen.se recently, about bloggers who want to be paid to plug products, and why they shouldn’t be, because payment undermines bloggers’ credibility and turns them into just another advertising channel.

I thought about that yesterday, when I happened on this banner on a food blog:

Suddenly I wasn’t that interested in what this blogger had to say anymore.

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