Wednesday, December 13, 2017

In a mirror, darkly

Just before midnight, our Boeing 737-700 “Tyra Haraldsdatter” landed in the cold, almost tangible, silence of Umeå. Alone in the Polar night, I waited for my taxi as the “external world” slowly faded away.

Then, today at lunch, a deafening roar suddenly made the windows rattle. I looked out and saw a formation of 12 fighter jets racing out towards the Baltic. For a split second, I thought that war had come. Then, I realized that it was just time for the traditional Christmas tree formation flight.

Mirror universes; I blog beef with pesto and red wine from Argentina. But then again, the Democrat Doug Jones defeats the Republican Roy Moore in staunchly conservative Alabama in the wake of #metoo. Perhaps we will always be oscillating between the highest and the lowest in each of us? On the plane up from Frankfurt I found parts of a poem by Michael Ondaatje that I had written down in my Moleskine:

“All this
darkness and stars
but now
under the Napa Valley night
a star arch of dashboard
the ripe grape moon
we are together”

If nothing unexpected happens, I will remain on the ground for a little more than two months. This also means that I am ready to sum up my 2017 travels. With Russia cancelled, the only new country this year was Tanzania. In total, I visited 10 countries and flew 60,172 miles (which is 15k more miles than last year). 

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Western Cape

After experiencing endless lines and crying passengers at Heathrow yesterday, I have now safely returned to the golden age of air travel. Equipped with a glass of wine from the Western Cape and the Monocle Winter Weekly, I am more or less at terms with my failed foray. Sometimes, there are detours worth taking in life. 


Monday, December 11, 2017


From Aloft Beijing Haidian to Atlanta or SFO, there is something deeply confusing with hotel rooms that look identical across continents. For the moment, the windows come with the half-abandoned warehouses and factories of East London.

In China, Aloft was like a sanctuary when the cultural shock became too overwhelming. Today it was just the cheapest hotel closest to London City Airport. Still, it brings back memories of long evenings with endless manuscripts and a highly globalized teddy bear.


Lifecycle emissions

Nature Energy just published a new study on the life-cycle emissions of different low-carbon energy sources which shows that nuclear, wind and solar all have significantly lower life-cycle emissions per produced kWh compared to fossil fuels with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). In the study, nuclear is calculated to produce 4 grammes of CO2 equivalent per kWh (gCO2e/kWh), solar 6 gCO2e/kWh and coal with CCS a whopping 109 gCO2e/kWh. Yet, since some of the authors are based at the climate institute in Potsdam, I was not surprised to learn that they have calculated the numbers for nuclear based on the use of gaseous diffusion plants although this is an incredibly energy-intensive process that has long been obsolete. Thus, taking more modern enrichment methods into account, the numbers for nuclear would probably look even better compared to renewable energy sources.

In any case, I should be happy that they at least recognize that nuclear is a low-carbon energy source. Though I may be wrong, it seems like more people are beginning to reconsider nuclear in light of how serious climate change has already become. 

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Like the spore drive malfunctioning, it was perhaps inevitable that my luck would eventually run out. A few centimetres of snow and British Airways decided to cancel 25% of its flights out of Heathrow, meaning that instead of the W in St Petersburg, I have to contend with an icy day at Aloft in Docklands. Hopefully, Lufthansa will have better luck tomorrow morning so that I at least get back to Umeå and the boys.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2017


A decade ago, I read an article entitled ”When Will the Chinese People Be Free?”. In it, the American academic Henry S. Rowen argued that growing economic prosperity would automagically make China “Partly Free” by 2015 and “Free” by 2025 (using the labels from Freedom House). What difference ten short years can make...

When working in China, I often got the question how I could “support” such a regime by living there. While I understand where that question is coming from, my answer has always been that more engagement is better than less. As long as one avoided certain delicate topics such as Tibet or the Falun Gong movement, I was in fact surprised by how open both the Chinese students and the other faculty members were about the dysfunctionality of authoritarianism.

Now as I find myself writing about Russia, similar questions have returned. However, far from discouraging me, they have made me even more convinced about the need for new positive narratives about Russia’s role in the world. Otherwise, just like at a preschool, if one kid is seen as a troublemaker, that may quickly become the only role that kid knows how to play.

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Monday, December 04, 2017

The very words I live by

One cold morning in November, I was sitting in one of those faculty meetings, looking out at the blue skies, thinking that something had to be done to improve the overall Bond factor in my life. Pretending to take notes, I did what James would have done, that is to book a ticket with British Airways from London to St Petersburg (which at 8.500 Avios and £18 in taxes is a steal).

With the visa now processed by the Russian embassy in Stockholm, my two days in St Petersburg will indeed be “shoot in and out” to borrow the words of Bond. Last time I offered a Bond quote here was in the summer of 2008 so I think it is allowed, boyish as it may be. While the actual trip will be more work than play, I am excited to get at least a glimpse of that colossal country that for so long has captured my imagination.

In other news, it is safe to say that the kids loved Stockholm. Living in a small city like Umeå, it is easy to forget what a treasure it is to have real museums, especially with a kid as inquistive as Eddie.

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Saturday, December 02, 2017

The Arctic

A month into my fourth winter in the Arctic, the weekend brought long-awaited sunshine and perfect weather for “snowracing”. The last weeks have been unusually taxing with deadlines for several important applications but, hopefully, the end of the year will be somewhat less insane. Already tomorrow, we are taking the kids down to Stockholm to see my sister. And then it is soon time for Pilgrm and Russia.

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sieben Nächte

Sometimes you read something in a newspaper that is immediately fascinating: a bestselling German book, ultra-romanticism and Blade Runner. Outside tons of snow are falling, turning into rain as the afternoon fades into night, and back in my office I just received a new massive batch of exams to mark. But hopefully, I will find a moment to dive into my new book.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Chickweed Wintergreen

There used to be a time when I was living in Gothenburg but spent most of my days on trains going back and forth along the west coast of Sweden. Back then, I was in the final stages of my PhD at Lund University and from all those indistinguishable train rides I remember equal measures of writing block and creative flow. Yesterday, as I took the high-speed train from Umeå to Stockholm, I was fortunate enough to only get the upside as in one long captivating flow. By the time the train passed through Uppsala, I felt almost ready to submit my teaching portfolio for review.

Once in Stockholm, I applied for a visa to Russia, did some essential paperwork and had a fabulous dinner with Ally high above the November dreariness before taking the night train back to Umeå. A thousand kilometres later I am in my office reading poems by Harry Martinsson, “Chickweed Wintergreen”. Sometimes it is good to take a break.

Never luxuriates.
Yet manages, sparingly
and neatly in the moss.

The flowers are delicate
but know nothing of the sweet pliancy
  you would foist on summer
The determination of the fragile
is no less than that of the oak.

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