Saturday, March 13, 2004

And Yet... 

The majority of the people of Spain clearly understand what's going on, even if a smattering of Spaniards (and half the Europundits) remain behind the curve. That's good news.

Suicide, Thy Name is Pacifism 

This story, which appears representative of the mood a broad swathe of Europe, absolutely bewilders me.

MORE than a thousand people held a protest in Madrid today to blame this week's bombs in the capital on the government's unpopular decision to support the US war on Iraq.

Let's walk through this together. 3000 men, women, and children are vaporized one sunny September morning in 2001. In response to this barbaric and unprecedented attack, the United States declares war against its perpetrators.

The Spanish government supports the U.S. War on Terror, including the unpopular war with Iraq. Opponents of that policy insist that either (a) Iraq is irrelevant to the War on Terror, or (b) whether or not Iraq is relevant, the War on Terror is wrong-headed in principle or execution, or both.

The Taliban are toppled and Afghanistan develops a constitutional government. Saddam Hussein is toppled and Iraq is developing a constitutional government.

Bombs go off in Madrid, killing 200 civilians.

And we're going to blame... the people fighting terrorism? This strikes me as being exactly analogous to blaming a woman for her own rape. See, if she hadn't worn those sexy clothes and told that guy to leave her alone, and resisted his advances, he never would have raped her—all she did was make him angry. Right. Let's not fight terrorism, because we'll only make the terrorists angry.

Breaking news: the terrorists are already angry. They're going to kill, and kill, and kill until we all live in some insane Islamofascist totalitarian state—or until we've eliminated them.

(Yes, I realize it may not have been Islamofascists in Madrid, but that's not the point. The point is that the notion of one man's terrorist being another man's freedom fighter has got to be done away with completely. A terrorist is a terrorist, and the terrorists of the world need to hear and see a single and unanimous message from all the legitimate governments of the world: cease, or die.)

Sticky Saturday 

One more week until spring...

You can see what kind of whether we had in Copenhagen today. This shot is from later in the afternoon, but earlier in the day it had been snowing. My industrialist wife, the DMG, had been having a hard time at the factory this week, so on Friday I'd agreed to come in and give her a hand when she went in today. The inclement weather was therefore welcome: who wants to schlep around a factory on a sparkling springtime Saturday?

I may not have previously mentioned that the DMG works at her father's factory. She does. He's trying to bring her and her sister into the business. It's not entirely clear to me whether he's trying to ensure the company stays in the family or inflict some long-deferred punishment for the crimes of their youth, but they're both working for him now: the DMG about fifteen miles north of town at his headquarters in Farum, her sister way out in Chicago.

Their family business is fairly complicated. Suffice to say they are mostly in the business of making the machines that make a significant proportion of the world's chopsticks, ice-cream sticks, tongue depressors, and so on. In some cases, they have actually entered the realm of production. For instance, bird sticks. What is a bird stick? This is a bird stick:

For the birds.

A very large shipment of these birdsticks will be going out toward the end of next week. While she and her father worked on a big machine in another room, I was asked to apply red caps like the one you see above to the ends of thousands and thousands of uncapped bird sticks. The caps are what allow the sticks to be suspended in a birdcage: the groves of the cap will "grip" the bars of the cage and hold the stick at a perpendicular angle to the bars on which it's mounted.

It's been a long time since I spent an afternoon on a factory floor—about a dozen years. If my performance is anything to go on, it will probably be at least as long before I'm invited back.

Here's what I was supposed to do: take an uncapped bird stick and jam the stick-end into a funneled aperture at the business end of a very cool machine, which would then slam a cap onto it and spring the stick back at me. (I'd show you a photo, but then the DMG would have to shoot me.) I would then take the capped stick and place it in a blue tray. Each blue tray could hold about 120-150 bird sticks. An industrial pallet can support about 60-80 trays. They need about 15 full pallets. Suffice to say that all those pallets times all those trays times all those sticks equals a damned lot of capping.

I did my best for several hours, with the following result:

(I didn't do the yellow column.)

The DMG was not impressed. It shouldn't take more than 5-10 minutes to load one tray, she told me after I'd bragged about having knocked one off in just over fifteen minutes! I asked her how I could improve my time. She watched me work for a moment. Two out of every three sticks came springing back out of the machine at me like sunflower-gilded bullets, their unsecured caps flying alongside them, bouncing off me and onto the floor. With a dour eye she noted the hundreds of caps littering the floor around my feet. Sometimes the caps would ricochet back into the machine and I'd have to wedge them out with my fingers.

"You've got it set for the wrong size sticks," she said. She fetched a wrench, lowered the little ramp that guides the uncapped sticks toward the aperture by about one millimeter, and told me to try again. (She also suggested that I use a screwdriver or stick to pry loose caps out of the machinery, since that would dramatically improve the odds of my leaving the factory with the same number of fingers with which I'd entered it.)

The machine was no longer assaulting me with birdsticks, but even without the distraction and hazard of projectile bird treats I still couldn't finish a tray in less than eight minutes.

"Don't feel bad," my pregnant wife consoled me at the end of my (very abbreviated) shift. "You're new. I'm sure you'd be very good at it with a little practice." Then she hopped on a fork-lift and drove away with a smile and a wave, leaving me alone to tidy up the scattered caps, the dropped sticks, and the shattered remains of my masculinity.

But that's all right... I can still kick her ass at Stratego.

Friday, March 12, 2004


I took trains to and from my meeting this afternoon: the new Metro between my neighborhood and Nørreport, and the regional S-Train between Nørreport and the main train station downtown. (That's what it's called: Hovedbanegård, which means "Main Train Station.")

At least I meant to take the S-Train home.

I accidentally got onto the wrong platform at the main station on my way home. Instead of a rattling old red S-Train, I found myself boarding one of the sleek new commuter trains, destination Helsingør (Elsinore). I wasn't sure it would stop at Nørreport, but the DMG had told me all northbound trains out of the main train station stop at Nørreport so I tried not to worry too much about it—meaning I didn't get too anxious wondering if she'd actually meant any S-Train. She is, I reminded myself, my wife: she knows how literal I can be. If she said any train, by jingo, she meant any train.

Main Train Station, Copenhagen

There's something exquisitely exotic about boarding a train of dubious destination in a foreign country, even after you've lived there a year. The horrors of yesterday's Spanish train bombings didn't even enter my thoughts. Instead I felt an exhilirating sense of freedom: I could go anywhere, do anything. I was a free spirit roaming the Scandinavian wilds. I was a mystery to myself. I enjoyed that.

As the train accellerated out of the main train station and whisked right through Vesterport Station with nary a touch of the brake, I was utterly untroubled. In the worst case scenario I'd end up in Hamlet's old stomping grounds on a sunny Friday afternoon. Stoicism comes easy when you get worst case scenarios like that.

In the end I think I was actually disappointed as the train slowed down and came to a stop at Nørreport. I think I would have liked being "trapped" into an accidental day-trip up the coast.

* * *

Now that I'm home and thinking a little bit more about my experience, I'm a little troubled by the absolute lack of security on the Danish rail system. Here's what you need to do to board a Danish train: nothing. You don't even walk through a gate or turnstile. You just board it. Once in a very great while—it's happened two me twice in the last twelve months—someone in a blue uniform will walk down the aisle of a train and ask to see everyone's tickets. (There's a 500-crown fine if you don't have a ticket, so most Danes play by the rules.)

The Metro trains are fully automated: there are often no transportation personnel aboard them at all. I realize they don't feel as threatened as we did in New York—where I got used to seeing cops and guardsmen toting rifles around the bigger stations—but as one of our staunch allies in the war against al-Qaeda, you'd think they'd at least have increased their surveillance, or the visibility of their transportation cops.

I wonder if they're giving that a little more thought today.

Mortality & All That 

The weekend Almanac is up.

I didn't win a single hand of poker until the ninth game last night—and even then it was a split pot. My luck improved from there, though, and I won eight of the next 21 pots, ending up 40 crowns richer on the evening. I know this because for the first time ever we actually kept track of who called and won each game.

I have to get ready for a meeting; I'll post more over the weekend.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Correction: Kisses, Not Balls 

Laura from Green Boogers posted a comment to the effect that the creamballs I had said were called "negro balls" in colloquial Danish are referred to as "negro kisses" in Finland.

As it turns out, that's what they call them in Danish too, as the DMG pointed out (and I neglected to post) the other night. I not only regret the error—I want to take sole responsibility for it. I was indeed informed that they were called "negro kisses," but the speaker had paused after saying "negro" to search for the word "kisses." In the brief space of that pause I had offered "balls" as a guess—which caused laughter (precisely because it was so wrong), which distracted me from the speaker's correction: not balls, kisses.

I'm now going to drop the subject altogether for fear of what Google may make of my blog... but Laura has a funny and relevant post on the subject.

Catch Up 

I've actually had a decent amount of work to occupy me in the last 24 hours and have a busy day ahead of me tomorrow, so I want to get caught a little caught up on my blogging before the DMG comes home, we chow a quick dinner, and I head out for my regular poker game.

First of all, I was pleased to read in the Journal's "Best of the Web" from yesterday that Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page has spoken up on behalf of a certain African-American ketchup and pickle heiress:

If Kerry wins the presidency, at least his wife would be our first African-American first lady. Theresa Heinz Kerry... may not be black, but she's a lot more African than most Americans.

So there you have it: a prominent black columnist has finally called bullshit on America's rush to proprietary hyphenization. Thank you, Mr. Page.

Secondly, if I freaked you out the other day by mentioning our "near miss" with a catastrophic asteroid hit, you can comfort yourself with this article from Space.com: Avoiding a Crash Course in Planetary Defense.

Thirdly, it's not a bad time to visit John at Iberian Notes, who's been blogging real-time coverage of the bombing aftermath. I also saw that I got a nice link from BlueRidge, and also that she's got a really cool shot of a goat up now. (All her photos are great, but I especially dig the animals.) But I get irritated by blogs that are just breezy references to other blogs, so I'll knock it off now.

The Guardian ran a big puff profile on Garrison Keillor on March 6. I learned more about him in that one article than I ever knew about him previously, and I actually worked for him once. It was an interesting experience. I'm biting really, really hard on my tongue when I say that—and a little vein in my neck is pulsing wildly. Let it go, Greg, let it go.... But for all the, er, interestingness of our acquaintance, I still admire his writing immensely. I leave you with some of his 1990 reflections on Denmark, which absolutely shame me for the drivel I continue to spew about this weird little nation:

You can talk about death, God, sex, politics, your kidneys, anything at all. You can say how boring Denmark is, what a bunch of arrogant drunks they are, how you really much much prefer Swedes, and the Dane will not take it personally. He or she will hear you out and politely tell you you're full of road apples. Or half-full, as the case may be.

The lunch over which this conversation takes place is almost always the same: herring on rye bread with a shot of aquavit, followed by fried fish and a slice of roast pork with a hard salty rind and a glass of beer, then a slice of blue cheese, and coffee. This sense of order is what makes freedom possible. There are eleven political parties in Denmark because there is only one way to eat lunch. You don't eat at your desk or as you drive and you don't walk down the street munching a hot dog. You eat at a table with a napkin and a knife and fork and candle. This gives you the freedom to be a Marxist, if you wish. Go ahead. Be as radical as you like. Your old aunts will still love you. But even as a Marxist, you have got to remember to send them a card on their birthdays.

Danes can be offended by neglect, by silence, by tardiness, by selfishness, but they are never personally offended by anything you say, so long as it's not about the Queen. You should not say bad things about her. There are, after all, some limits. If there weren't limits to freedom, how would we know how free we are?

An Accidental Mentor 

Today's very bloggish Almanac has been posted. Added bonus: the astonishing true story of John Chapman, applephiliac.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

If You're Not Afraid, You're Not Paying Attention 

Funny to think that Kierkegaard breathed his last before contemplating the nuclear bomb, the weaponized virus, or this:

Some of America's most respected astronomers weighed a call to top NASA authorities -- and ultimately the White House -- to report that a large asteroid was streaking toward Earth and could hit within days. The call was never made, but the scene was real -- played out during what one veteran researcher called a "nine-hour crisis" on the eve of President George W. Bush's Jan. 14 announcement that he was restarting the United States' manned space program to return to the moon and then venture on to Mars.


In the event, the asteroid was much larger than astronomers first thought -- about 500 metres wide -- but it safely cleared Earth by at least 12 million kilometres, about 32 times the distance between Earth and the moon.

As Glenn Reynolds observes:

The good news is that if we move ahead with more ambitious space programs, we'll be in a much better position to deal with such threats within a couple of decades, meaning that our present window of vulnerability doesn't have to last. And beyond that, the eventual settlement of outer space will disperse humanity sufficiently that no single disaster can wipe us out. As I've written before, the earth is too fragile a basket to hold all of our eggs. By moving life and civilization off the planet, we'll address this threat, and others known and unknown.

Reason enough for space settlement all by itself? Probably so.

You know the way people always dream of being a little wealthier than they already are, because all their problems would be solved? Then they get a little wealthier and find they're no better off, because in addition to increasing their revenues they've also increased their expenses? That's not a bad analogy for my Theory Of Eternal Catastrophe.

If you were a cro-magnon schlep living in a French cave, you never knew when some saber-toothed tiger or something was going to show up and make you an entree. If you were a pre-modern tribesman living in some little village, you were probably never more than one dry season away from famine. In the historical era, we know the whole litany of horrors: the more condensed, complex, and cosmopolitan the species Man has grown, the more devastating the catastrophes. A terrible flood that wouldn't have killed more than a few hundred villagers back in the day can now kill thousands, even tens of thousands, thanks to our habit of congregating in centralized, vertically amplified spaces.

What's my point? Say we settle Mars. Say we settle the hell out of it: golf courses, strip malls, slums. Say we settle it to the point where there are actually left-wing activists running around the Martian surface demanding an end to the "earthification" of the red planet.

Sure, a catastrophic asteroid impact on Earth wouldn't be quite the catastrophe it would be right now. But that wouldn't be such a big concern any more. Instead we'd worry about planet-eating interstellar monsters, a black hole consuming our whole solar system, stuff like that.

We're all gonna die eventually, many of us horribly.

Let's not dwell on it.

Kid Stuff: 1000 Words 

This photograph was on page 2 of the free Copenhagen daily Urban yesterday.

I can't say anything the photograph doesn't say already. Yes I can. A culture that champions masked men strapped with dynamite, hands M-16s to children, and. . . No, my first instinct was right. I'm not gonna say a goddam thing.


Todays' Almanac is all about Lego. But even if you take a pass on the Almanac (please don't), be sure to check out this fantastic site: The Brick Testament.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

The Race Card 

The other night we were having dinner with family. For dessert there was vanilla ice-cream. Also on the table was a box of "cream balls," golfball-sized domes of chocolate-coated cream. Some of them were sprinkled with coconut flakes. Creamballs are a popular ice-cream condiment in Denmark. You can even get them on cones. They look like this:

"Do you know what these are?" I was asked.

"Sure," I said. "They're great."

"Do you know what we call them?"

"Flødeboller?" I asked. ("Creamballs?")

"Yes, but this particular kind, these are called 'negro balls.'" The person addressing me cut himself off. "Oh!" he exclaimed, "we don't mean it like that! Not, well, you know, not that kind of balls..."

Everyone smiled at me. I didn't know how to react.

"We don't say things like that in the states," the DMG observed aloud. "You don't say 'negro.'"

"Ah, of course," was the response. "You would call these 'African-American balls?'"

The DMG and I winced in unison. The question was genuine and there was no malice aforethought. I can assure you there's not a racist bone in the questioner's body. It was yet another reminder that not all cultures are as heterogeneous as ours—or as wary of other people's feelings.

The Danes all laughed at our political correctness, and I suppose I stoked the fire a little by talking about how Teresa Heinz-Kerry was born and raised in Mozambique but cannot call herself "African-American" because she's not... er, black. But, er, blacks who are three generations removed from Africa can call themselves "African-Americans" with a straight face.

This elicited roars of laughter and bewilderment.

I ought to have mentioned that it wasn't just the use of the word "negro" that was problematic. We would not, after all, call a yellow creamball a "Jap ball," or a red creamball an "Injun ball." Oh, we might have forty or fifty years ago, but these things are for the most part behind us now.

I might also have mentioned a lawsuit I'd heard about:

“Eenie, meenie, minie, moe; pick a seat, we gotta go,” says a Southwest Airlines flight attendant. This speech may violate the law, rules a federal judge. Hard to believe in a nation with the First Amendment — but welcome to the wild world of hostile-environment law.

Two African-American passengers are suing Southwest, claiming the “eenie, meenie” line violated antidiscrimination law. The original child’s rhyme, it turns out, ended with “catch a nigger by his toe,” though for decades it’s been rendered “catch a tiger by the toe” — that’s how I heard it in the 1970s, and how the flight attendant says she learned it.

“Because of [this] history,” Judge Kathryn Vratil held early this month, “the phrase ‘eenie, meenie, minie, moe’ could reasonably be viewed as objectively racist and offensive.” It’s thus up to the jury to “decide whether [the flight attendant’s] remark was racist, or simply a benign and innocent attempt at humor.”

...which suggests it's a little harder to be benignly and innocently humorous in America than it may be elsewhere.

All of that notwithstanding, what I really wanted to talk about was this gem from the Associated Press:

The head of a civil rights and legal services advocacy group wants Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry to apologize for saying he wouldn't be upset if he could be known as the second black president.

Now I have to explain to Danes why it was okay to refer to Bill Clinton as the first "black" president, in a country where we aren't even supposed to refer to people as "black"—and where, should John Kerry win, his African-American wife will not be the first African-American First Lady, because, you know, she's got that lily-white ass!

To paraphrase A.E. Housman, I guess that malt does more than Reason can to justify our ways to Danes.

Today's Almanac 

Mad about Mad: a moronic primer on Danish cuisine.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Too Much, Never Enough 

This afternoon I decided to back up a lot of my work onto a CD.

I experience a certain amount of anxiety whenever I burn a CD, because my old computer—a Pentium II 450—could barely handle the stress. About one in three CDs came out unreadable, and half the time the computer would crash in the middle of the burning process. Then I'd have to reboot, which could only be done by unplugging the machine on account of the power switch having broken in early 2001. It would then take about twenty minutes to cycle through all the start up routines and get back to the point where I could launch the CD-burning software again.

It was a hellish process. As a result, even on my new computer (a 2.6-GHz Pentium 4), I tend to close everything I can and brace for some down time whenever I'm about to burn a CD.

Today, however, I was feeling a little adventurous. My father had just sent me an email asking if I'd like to fire up Messenger and have a little online chat. I decided I'd go for broke and try chatting with him while I burned a CD. Lo and behold—it worked! Not only that, but it was quick. I was able to chat with my old man while backing up every photograph I've taken since the New Year, every word I've written since mid-January, and every financial transaction I've made since 1994.

That got me feeling pretty good about my computer, which eventually led to my actually thinking about it in some depth. Here I sit, typing a document that will, in mere moments, be accessible virtually anywhere in the world. While I type, I'm listening to a random mix of the roughly 350 musical CDs I've loaded onto my hard-drive. The printer sits beside us, awaiting the opportunity to print anything from a little line of text to a glossy, high-resolution photograph. I just received an email notification from my bank in New York that my most recent checking account statement is available for download, so later tonight or tomorrow I'll certainly download it and reconcile my checkbook, maybe even pay a few bills. Or maybe I'll look over the Times, the Journal, or the Trib. Or play a game.

I know I'm not saying anything new: yes, it's very nice what computers can do. We can use them edit videos, map genomes, write poetry, exchange photographs, design hospitals, manage our finances, shop for new homes, buy cars, book vacations, schedule meetings, listen to music, tune in to faraway radio stations, browse potential mates—yes, yes, we all know all that. That's not actually my point. My point is that I'm tired of doing my goddam laundry, I'm tired of vacuuming, and I never want to change another litterbox.

What the hell is wrong with all our wunderkinds? Who are these idiots wasting their lives designing penguin-batting games, websites extolling the virtues of toast, and mood-monitoring software? Knock that shit off and give me the software to clean my clothes, vaccum my carpets, and take care of that nasty box of pungent cat feces.

Thank you.

Easter Brew 

Amazingly the DMG actually had a little energy Friday night, so we decided to venture out to a bar for an Easter brew after all.

I was giddy with enthusiasm as we left the apartment, but the DMG made short work of dimishing my enthusiasm. She did it with one flip comment on our walk to the bar. She referred to the beer in an Anglicized version of the Danish vernacular.

The Danish vernacular for påskebryg is p-bryg. It's perfectly logical: if we had Easter brew in the states, I imagine we'd end up calling it "e-brew" eventually. But the literal translation of p-bryg is "p-brew." Ask yourself how comfortable you'd be drinking something called pee brew. I don't care if it's a world-class, award-winning lager from deepest Bavaria: if it's called pee brew, goddammit, I'm not gonna drink much of it.

So I only had three.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Pointless News Bits 

Just because I feel badly about not posting over the weekend...

Denmark is trumpeting the speed of its mail delivery, and for good reason. According to the Copenhagen Post, "Post Danmark has topped the list of EU postal services for the second year running, in handling of letters sent to and from abroad."

This will certainly come as welcome news to my mother, who mailed a package of Christmas presents to us on December 16th that we received in mid-January.

Aftenposten has a great story that involves identical twins, a car, a "sea of beer cans," and a cop with a powerful flashlight. Ah, hell, never mind the link, here's the story:

The case in Nordmoere court could have been even trickier if a policeman had not witnessed the episode, newspaper Tidens Krav reported.

By training his car lights on the car and approaching with a powerful flash light, he convinced the court that he had not missed a beat between the time the car passed his and drove off the road just 20 meters away.

When the officer looked into the other vehicle he found two identical twins surrounded by a sea of empty beer cans.

The 43-year-old pair claimed that they had switched places before the officer's arrival. The twin that wanted to take the blame had previously lost his driver's license for life.

The driver, who was convicted for drunk driving, had a blood alcohol level of 1.7 per thousand.

The problem with having an identical twin as your drinking buddy is that you never have the benefit of drinking with someone a little smarter than you.

And lastly, men are from Ford, women are from Volvo...

So when Volvo rolled into the Geneva Motor Show this week with a car designed by women, for women, the reaction among the mostly male crowd can best be described as a collective grinding of the gears.

They gaped at the car's gull-wing doors, designed to make it easier for women to enter and exit. They clucked at the rear seats, which flip up like theater seats to store shopping bags. They lampooned a rubber bumper that swathes the car, protecting it from parking-lot dings and scratches.

No, really:

Some of the car's features benefit men as much as women. A computer records the driver's body measurements so that each time he or she climbs into the car, the seat and steering wheel adjust. The gasoline tank has a roller-ball valve opening, like a race car, so one does not have to unscrew a cap.

Other devices seem more women-friendly. The seat covers can be easily removed, giving the owner the option of changing colors and patterns. The head-rests have a gap in the center to accommodate a ponytail.

The doors, which swing up and out at the touch of a button, are the car's most eye-catching detail. Volvo's designers say they would be a godsend to a woman laden with shopping bags. Other carmakers dared Volvo to try to open the doors in an average-size garage.

The wrap-around bumper drew similar catcalls. Rosen said the car could tolerate "creative driving" in parking lots and other tight spaces, without having to be returned to the shop for repairs. Lutz said this perpetuated the image that women are worse drivers than men.

I don't know what it's like in Sweden, but I can't even imagine the DMG's response if I bought her a new car and said, "Hey, babe, those doors will be a godsend when you're laden with shopping bags."

Actually I can: she'd say, "So? You do most of the shopping."

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