Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween in Sweden

Grab a warm sweater or safe blanket and sit thee down fore thine flickering computer screens, dear friends, for I am about to weave a bone-chilling tale, the likes of which may well travel like a demon through your dial-up Internet service and petrify you in your very home.

While it is not my intention to sow seeds that may haunt you until you drag your last dying breath, I'm afraid this bewitching yarn may run the risk of such a catastrophic result.

This account shall take you to a horrifying land where forbidding shrieks of terror can be heard from every direction. Where dead souls roam the earth, dragging trails of blood, unaware of the howls produced beyond shallow graves by nearby corpses. Where a pungent stench is the aroma of the embalmed being reanimated to breathe new life. Where decomposed, undead phantoms and waist-high ghouls walk hand in hand with Strawberry Shortcake and Batman.

If any brave soul out there has such gigantic cojones that they are daring to continue reading this, I can only presume that even those lionhearted mortals have long since shit their pants in quaking fearfulness. Yeah, I'm a real good writer. Don't worry about it.

The foreboding landscape I speak of is a dreadful, barren wasteland known not as Transylvania in the 1600's, but rather shockingly as suburban Middletown, Kentucky. The date of this ghastly nightmare is 1970-something. I don't remember exactly. Seems like it happened about once a year around this time.

When I was a kid, Halloween was the shit.

It fell on the scale somewhere between a major event and a neighborhood production. The night was filled with things to see, hear and eat. Some people would elaborately decorate their houses with spiderwebs on the handrails and grave stones in the front yard. Others would put stereo speakers in the windows and play records of scary sound effects like wolves howling, creaking doors, demonic laughter and swirling winds.

Once the knocks on the front door started just after dinner time, the flow of kids never stopped. ("Was that the doorbell? Well, I'll be! It ain't even dark out yet.")

Our neighborhood was packed with kids in crazy costumes every Halloween night. Going from house to house, each opening door was greeted with the familiar refrain in a chorus of little kid voices: "Trick or treat!" Ninety-nine percent of the time it was a treat in the form of candy.

On rare occasions it was both a trick and a treat. An adult dressed as a zombie or the Frankenstein monster would be hiding in the bushes, waiting until some unsuspecting and defenseless children dressed as Rainbow Brite and GI Joe were just inches away. At just the precise moment, all it took was a spontaneously shouted "Boo!" to scare the living shit outta all them little bastards.

My friend Chris and I in 2004,
as Tony Clifton or something.
For American adults who dress up for Halloween in modern times, it's all about the ironic homemade costume. Something timely will do. This year, presumably "Dead Michael Jackson" will be popular.

In recent years, I've seen a bloodied Sigfried & Roy with an attached stuffed tiger, a human-sized iPod, and a blood-covered Dexter. Margot Tenenbaum and Osama Bin Laden are often around. Vampires, zombies, hillbillies and dead Kennedys are timeless get-ups. Maybe the scariest costume last year was Sarah Palin.

Among the adults, you can always expect to see Britney Spears in her schoolgirl outfit and a few sexy nurses. Enough can't be said for the opportunity Halloween presents for girls to dress like sluts. A lot of "ladies" take advantage of this night to let out their inner exhibitionism.

The weeks following Halloween are high-season for social networking sites. I don't have any statistics on this, but my guess is that the number uploaded photos and page views probably goes through the roof. "Holy shit! Did you see Brad's girlfriend in that Daisy Duke costume? I tagged it, bro."

Back in the 70's, more often than not, we dressed up in ready-made costumes bought at a local store like Ayr-Way or TG&Y. You can see a prime example of some of these top-quality disguises in this considerably-less-than-high-definition image from Halloween 1973.

Posing in our Middletown living room in front of the Sears & Roebuck console phonograph are my brother (a call center management consultant) as Satan; my sister (a violin luthier and repair specialist) as Raggedy Ann; and me (an amateur Swedish picnic planner) on the right as like a cat or something. Our names are written on the huge, plastic treat bags. Plastic bags are always great to keep around your kids.

Behind my brother on the left is a JVC 8-track deck and behind my sister on the right is a hand-painted family heirloom vase that we lived in constant fear of knocking off the stereo when horseplay and roughhousing commenced.

Those costumes were exactly as Jerry Seinfeld described them in his stand-up act: ill-fitting, pajama-style outfits accompanied by plastic masks with tiny air holes. These masks are held on one's head by the world's thinnest rubberband that is stapled to the mask. It never fit right and that rubberband/staple combo had an average lifespan of 8 minutes.

Inevitably, it was cold on Halloween night so you had to wear a coat over your costume. Reflectors started getting popular as urban legends and local news programs convinced parents to live in fear of everything, not just mummies. I can think of nothing more frightening than The Hulk wearing a winter coat. Count Dracula with reflective tape on his sneakers... why, I can hardly type this right now due to the fact that my hands are trembling in fear.

This second photo is Halloween Night in 1978. I'm the little American Indian in the front, sporting a genuine homemade costume that my mom crafted. (Note the reflective tape on the plastic pumpkin.)

Speaking of Indians, like a lot of cool things in America, Halloween was also "borrowed" from someone else's culture. Maybe the scariest thing about Halloween is that it is originally Irish. (sh-sh-shud-d-der) All those red-haired ghosts on their way to... never mind... The Irish heritage certainly would account for the carved pumpkin heads being called jack o'lanterns.

Those other turkeys in the picture are kids from our neighborhood. I don't want to brag or name drop, but Echo Bridge Drive had a pretty menacing, kick-ass posse going around every October 31st. In your face, Brookgreen!

2005: Carla dressed as Chris with Chris'
girlfriend Lindsay as a marching band leader.
The candy ruled. Well, most of the candy ruled. I remember there were always some cheap asses ("old people") who would hand out these lumps of some kind of bullshit candy that were individually wrapped in black or orange wax paper. They were like butter candy or something. I don't know anybody who liked them. They made Werther's Originals seem like Pop Rocks and tequila.

Some assholes would hand out apples or "healthy snacks." Whatever, squares. Go back to Russia. Occasionally, a house would gave out money. Spare change! I'm not making this up. ("Um, despite how cheap my costume is, I'm not homeless. My dad has a good job and he's standing right over there with the flashlight.")

On a holiday like Christmas, the kids were always comparing what everybody got, and somebody always got outdone. It wasn't like that for Halloween. We all went to the same houses and we all came home with pretty much the same giant bag of candy. Strangely, I haven't seen any conservatives opposing Halloween because of this communist equality streak.

Halloween 1971: mom (age 33), me (2)
and my brother (4) on the front porch.
When you got back to the house with all your loot, the trading would begin. Reese's and all the Hershey's candies were always popular. I really liked the Krackel bars and Hershey's Special Dark, but I wasn't really into Mr. Goodbar, so there would be some bartering in the house to get the best assortment. Homemade cookies made it into the mix, too, but still, nobody ever wanted those black and orange wax paper things. They were the Halloween equivalent of giving someone a fruitcake at Christmas.

Over the past week, I polled of six of my Swedish friends about Halloween. All six of these Swedes are young adults in their twenties or thirties.

The poll consisted of one simple question: How many times have you dressed up for Halloween in your life?

If I had asked this of my American friends of similar ages, the answers would probably range from "15 times" to "every year." For some people, like my brother and his wife (that's him as Colonel Sanders), I may even get a number higher than the respondent's age.

Two of the six Swedes I polled answered "never" and the other four answered "once." That's a total of four times during the entire lifetimes of six adults. So, combined, it's four times in about 175 years.

For all the ways the popular cultures in America and Sweden are the same - television, movies, music, comedy and a number of common holidays - Halloween has sadly been left out of the mix in Sweden.

Isn't it odd that a country which suffers through months of cold darkness - a foggy and mysterious land, where the sun has shone through the clouds nary a few minutes in as many weeks, and whose streets are crawling with vampires - hasn't embraced this night of terror?

Perhaps Swedish people feel that if you're already a vampire there's no need to put on a costume and act scary. Then again, I guess you don't see a lot of American kids dressing up as little witches and old men for Easter.

Halloween is beginning to be celebrated in Sweden, according to several people I've talked with, but it has really only begun to seriously take root within the past ten years.

On Drottninggatan ("Queen Street") in central Stockholm, there is a giant inflated ghost hanging above the street with a banner that reads, "Have a fun Halloween." That's a step in the right direction. And I got excited Friday night when I was out in Stockholm and I saw some teens and twenty-somethings dressed up. Get this: some of them were dressed as vampires. Shocking.

One girl had the most amazing fangs I have ever seen and she was wearing some of those hypnotic Marilyn Manson contacts. She even hissed at me when I walked by. It's kind of fuzzy after that. The next thing I remember, I woke up in the train, feeling very weak and I got a text message that Erika was eliminated from Swedish Idol. (Didn't much care for her anyway. We live in a Tove and Eddie house.) God, my neck hurts.

2005: Me dressed as my friend Matt.
In America, it seems that Halloween has been making a bit of a resurgence. That makes me happy because Halloween is responsible for some of my most awesome childhood memories. Part of why it was cool was because it wasn't actually a holiday. Nobody is off school or work for it, so if it fell during the week, you were allowed to go out in the neighborhood when it was dark outside. Also if it was on a school day, there was a chance that there would be a Halloween party at school and everyone would wear their costumes to school. It was all just extra fun.

I'm pretty sure it happened everywhere in the United States, but I know for sure that in my neighborhood Halloween came to a screeching halt in 1982. That year, the whole spectacle was essentially non-existent.

In late September and early October of 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died because the Tylenol pain reliever pills they took had been tampered with and poisoned with cyanide.

Halloween has always been the source of endless urban legends - everything from people putting razor blades inside apples (bad enough that you get an apple) to kidnapping children - but almost none of it was ever true. These seven deaths from product tampering, occurring just a few weeks before Halloween, sent a shockwave across America and shattered a lot of whatever innocence was still left after the 60's.

On the night of Halloween 1982, many houses in our neighborhood were dark and very few kids were out trick-or-treating. There were really only a handful knocks on the door. Halloween was never the same.

1974: My brother as a cowboy, neighbor as a skeleton, me as the Demon of Hell. Note the Cincinnati Reds helmet on the jack o'lantern.
There is an unforgettable Halloween scene in the Stephen Spielberg movie E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, in which the alien is being hidden, disguised as a ghost under a sheet. E.T. is as bewildered by the bizarre world he sees through the two eye holes, as any newcomer would be if unfamiliar with Halloween.

Coincidentally, that film was released in December 1982. The Halloween sequence had already been filmed by the time the Tylenol murders occurred and muted the festivities down to something decidedly less eye-catching than what's in the movie. I've often wondered if the film would have been any different had it been filmed a little later.

Subsequent years have seemed to gradually improve the level of participation in Halloween, but I think a whole generation or two of Americans missed out on how thrilling it was when I was a kid. That's why it makes me happy that it seems to be picking up steam again. I especially think a bunch of holiday-loving, creative people like the Swedes will be able to do some extraordinary things with it.

The Chicago tampering crime, incidentally, remains unsolved today (they "believe" they know who did it), so we may never know the name of the A-hole who ruined Halloween. Maybe I'm being too hard on this person. I mean, whoever did it, they didn't intentionally spoil Halloween for millions of children. They only wanted to secretly murder innocent people who had headaches. I guess there's no harm in that, right?

The Idea of North

It's beginning to get cold in Sweden. The first snow of the season, however fleeting, already happened a couple weeks ago.

Earlier this month, daylight hours in Stockholm passed below the 50/50 point. We are now at 10 hours of daylight and 14 hours of darkness.

I'm actually being very generous by using the term "daylight hours." We haven't truly seen rays of direct sunshine in a number of days. I don't even know what that number is. A week, two weeks? Who knows? If the sun isn't shining where I am then it feels like it's not shining anywhere.

I've been told by reliable sources that such a change in the weather happens every year around this time. What seems like the retreating of the sun is nothing to be alarmed about.

Scientists say the sun is actually just fine and shining as brightly as ever, we just can't see it directly from here. Experts say it's not just the weather, but a further problem which lies in how our planet rotates and tilts.

While places closer to the Equator are drenched in year-round sunshine and suffer no real differences in the length of their days, place like Sweden which are much farther away from this center line get a real variety depending on the season.

Hourly image from live webcam in Stockholm

The converging events of cold and darkness have brought me back to an important resolution I make every year when it starts getting cold. This year will be one more in a series of winters I have embarked into with this simple pledge: "This winter I refuse to be cold."

If this resolution means I don't leave the house wearing less than three shirts, two sweaters, long underwear, two pairs of socks, a coat, a scarf, a hat and special gloves, so be it.

Freezing in the cold is fully preventable and I see no reason to suffer through the chilling discomfort. It is simply not worth the pain if it can be avoided.

So if it's snowing in October and there are already 14 hours of darkness every day, that presents a relevant question: Just how far north is Stockholm?

I've often wondered exactly how far north a lot of places in Europe are compared to places in the United States. For instance, is Berlin farther north than New York?

To answer these terribly important, pressing questions, I have prepared the chart on the right side of this page.

Each degree of latitude on the globe is a space of 60 nautical miles or 69 statue miles. That equates to about 111 kilometers.

In the chart, I've highlighted where I am now in Stockholm, my hometown of Louisville and other cities of interest around the world.

It turns out that Stockholm is nearly 1,400 miles (2,250 km) north of Louisville. If Stockholm were in North America, it's position would be very far north into Canada or Alaska. It is farther north than the Aleutian Islands, but not quite up where Anchorage is.

If Louisville were in Europe, it would be in Spain, south of Madrid.

Though some people in America consider Louisville to be a Southern city, most would never say Washington, DC, is a part of The South. The space between DC's latitude at 38.8° and Louisville's at 38.25°, is a difference of only about 38 miles.

It's true that both cities are, in fact, south of the Mason-Dixon line which places them in the area that has traditionally been considered The South, but again, both cities are barely south of that line.

St. Louis, Missouri, another city not typically considered southern, is on a line between Louisville and Washington at 38.6° latitude. St. Louis lies only about 24 miles (39 km) north of Louisville.

I recently ran into a girl in Stockholm who was from Mississippi. Hard to believe, right? I felt like she had me beat on the surprise factor. Being from Mississippi and stomping around Sweden made being from Kentucky seem a little less surprising.

When she asked where I was from and I said, "Kentucky," she quipped, "Oh, the Fake South?" Ha! "Thank you very much," I said.

We congratulated each other apparently in the same way a lot of people have congratulated us individually throughout our lives, "You don't sound like you're from Mississippi." "Well, you don't sound like you're from Kentucky." Of course, we are both from cities which made it easier, but for both of us, avoiding a southern accent was a conscious choice and we opted for the non-regional American dialect.

The "Fake South?" What a nice thing to say about Kentucky!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bunny Power!

Sweden may have just taken a major step toward ousting Japan as the cutest country in the world. Stockholm is leading the charge.

While some of the world's big cities are infested with disgusting rats, wild rabid dogs and other pests, one of the main animal control problems in Stockholm is bunny rabbits. (I know, right?)

Surprisingly, the rabbits running rampant in the Stockholm area are not native to Sweden. These furry little guys are the result of generations of offspring from abandoned pets. It's a man-made plague. A soft, fuzzy, lovable, lettuce-eating, man-made plague.

It seems that someone, somewhere set their pet bunnies free into the wild or perhaps - as I like to imagine it - there was some type of high-stakes jailbreak. A group of renegade rabbits escaped to freedom, shedding the shackles of their socialist captors. Bidding farewell to their lives of oppression in sparsely decorated Scandinavian apartments, these conies sprung to sweet, sweet liberty in search of all the ankle-high greens they could sink their two front teeth into. It was a genuine hare-brained scheme. (I'm sorry.)

In the years since Stockholm's bunnies burst into their freewheeling lifestyles, it has been nothing but crazy Bohemian madness in the forests and public parks. The rabbits have been multiplying like, well, like rabbits.

Today, the fluffy devils are everywhere and they're huge. "Huge" as in a huge problem and they are large animals. They're not quite as big as my friend Harvey here - he's six feet three and a half inches, let's stick to the facts - but the rabbits in Stockholm are big nonetheless. They're substantial, strong animals and not at all like the little guys in pet stores that you can hold in one hand.

In an effort to address the problem, the City of Stockholm has employed a crack squad of specially-trained rabbit assassins to hunt down and annihilate these armies of adorable monsters. The city's War On Bunnies has been a relentless assault spanning many years.

Armed with "special" rifles, according to media reports, a task force is deployed each year to control the population and forcefully implement the Final Furry Solution. Last year in Stockholm's public parks, more than six thousand rabbits met their makers at the hands of this elite squad of bunny snipers.

You can see part of one of these special guns and the lurking feet of one of Stockholm's mysterious hit men in this photo on the Aftonbladet site.

So what becomes of all these velveteen cadavers? During the early years of the War On Bunnies, the culled carcasses were simply discarded in landfills. In 2006, however, an EU directive put an end to these heroes' burials in public dumps. Shortly thereafter, the decision was made to begin using the bodies as biofuel to produce electricity and heat people's houses.

Awwww... Can you believe it? Even the electricity in Sweden is cute!

Now the world's cuddliest execution squad collects the hunted corpses and freezes them in cold storage units. Eventually they are shipped en masse to the western Sweden county of Värmland where they become light and heat for electrical customers. Konvex, the company that converts the bunny carcasses into biofuel, does the same with all sorts of other dead animal bodies amassed in the country.

Find the bunnies in this picture from Ikea. Hint: they're glowing.

I'm sure you can imagine the reaction of animal rights activists and the sort last week when it was publicized that some of the electricity in is being produced by the burning of bunny rabbits.

Henrik Sundström, chairman of the Swedish Vegetarian Society (Svenska Vegetariska Föreningen) told Aftonbladet, "It's as bad as eating meat. No, even worse." He added, "I would not like to live in a place that is heated like this." Man, is he gonna shit when he finds out that Soylent Green is people!

The considerably less affected Leo Virta, president of Konvex, explained to the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, "It doesn't matter to us how the animals die. The difference between a rabbit and a calf is not so great. They're dead animals. We can't bury them anymore and so it's better that they are turned into heat for people."

Of course, I'm translating all these quotes from the newspapers. These people said all these things in Swedish which made their outrage and defensiveness even more endearing.

Leif Lundell of Karlskoga Energy and Environment told Svenska Dagbladet, "These bodies can't be buried, so now we can use them for biofuel instead of burning fossil fuels... They need to go somewhere."

Truer words have never been spoken. They really do need to go somewhere.

I've been vegetarian for almost twenty years but not because of animal rights or anything like that. I just don't like the idea of putting a body in my mouth. I think that's pretty gross. However, I'm not too concerned about dead rabbits being the juice that runs my MacBook (better than coal or petroleum, right?) or if my shoes have leather in them. Since I buy a pair of shoes less than once a year, maybe my diet offsets the damage my shoes are doing. The two pairs of shoes I own are both going on two years old. I'm not wearing fur coats or eating at steak buffets every night, you know, like most graphic designers do.

I'm not really sure there is a right answer to these problems. I mean, do you want thousands of giant, non-indigenous rabbits eating everything your city? Of course not, but you dont want snipers hunting rabbits and burning them either. You can't spay and neuter thousands of animals in the wild, but you have to do something.

Oh well, despite knowing everything and being an authority on most topics, I don't have the answers to this one.

But as long as we're burning rabbits for electricity, is there any way the Energizer bunny could be thrown into the fire? Is that too much to ask? I think everyone can agree it's time for that one to go.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Language of Rock

When you're living in the United States, or any English-speaking country, it's easy to forget (or not even realize) that a large share of the world's popular music is sung in English. This includes not only the music that is exported from the US or the United Kingdom, but also a big percentage of the popular music that is produced locally in non-English-speaking countries.

Nearly all the songs you hear on the radio in Europe are in English, the songs in Sweden's version of Idol, as well as the extremely popular annual singing/writing/production song competition Melodifestivalen.

But English as the default language of entertainment is not limited only to popular music. It crosses over into independent rock, alternative and virtually every form of music that has substantial appeal to wide audiences.

This topic always reminds me of the first time I played a show with my band outside of the United States. (Impressed? It only took four paragraphs today before I was able to make this about me.)

Back in 1996, still wet behind the ears, we unsuspectingly wheeled into a small pub in Karlsruhe, Germany. We were shocked that night - and for the rest of the tour - that all these German punk and indie bands were singing in English. We had never come face to face with this phenomenon before arriving in Germany and the same turned out to be true in Italy, Austria, Switzerland and every other country we visited on the tour.

Some of these musicians, whose native languages were German, Italian or whatever, were challenged to carry on a conversation in English and even then, spoke with very heavy accents. When singing, though, their lyrics were as expressive as any comparable American band and their English was just as clear.

For us, a busload of Americans struggling to pronounce entschuldigung, the whole thing was truly fascinating.

In 1996, it was something I had never thought about before and it blew my mind. This made no sense to me.

If music is an expression of what you're feeling, wouldn't you want to create it in the language you speak naturally and most easily? Wouldn't that give you the most power and versatility to express yourself? Of course, it would, but there was a larger objective at work and other forces involved.

I eventually arrived at the analogy that in the same way we accept great opera as being in Italian, or great love poetry being in French, great rock'n'roll is in English.

That's one explanation and perhaps a bit romantic on my part. Elvis Presley, The Beatles and other pioneers and greats of the genre may have initially established the language the brand is shipped in, but today it seems the reasons are more practical than simply English being the factory color of the canvas.

Another, perhaps more realistic explanation, is that English has become the de facto, default common language among the potential audience of listeners for many artists. This is true especially in Europe where there are so many different languages in such a small area.

Imagine if everyone in Indiana and Illinois spoke a different language than everyone in Ohio. Missouri and Iowa shared a language. Kentucky and Tennessee. That's the size of some of the geography we're talking about. It only makes sense to use a common code that everyone in all these places has at least some familiarity with. English, the language of rock'n'roll, is that universal code.

Many Americans may not realize (well, of course, the highly-educated readers of my heartwarming and compelling stories certainly realize it) ...but, many Americans may not realize that when people from Spain talk to people from Belgium, they usually speak English. When Swedes speak with Germans, it's in English. When the Dutch talk to Nigerians, or the Pakistanis talk to the Czechs, or the Peruvians talk to the Norwegians (rare, but it has probably happened), well, you can see where this is going. Just like in popular music, more often than not, inter-country communication is likely to be in English.

If you're a musician and you want to have any substantial success outside of your home country, it's basically an unwritten rule that your lyrics must be in English.

The same is often true for acting and writing. (You know, "writing" like in books. Remember those things? The old ones smell all musty. Probably why people stopped using them.)

Almost nobody in America knows who Mikael Persbrandt is, but in Sweden he is one of the actors. Like Pacino or DeNiro, Swedes refer to him just by his last name. He's that big. The address of his official website (which looks like one of the fake computers the FBI uses in movies) is even simply named persbrandt.com.

Maybe he has done some English language films, but I can't imagine why he would. I can't imagine somebody like him ever feeling the need to pursue such a thing.

Some people have unstoppable ambition, but if you're the biggest star in Vermont's language, why would you possibly want to start at the bottom of the film business in Florida? I mean, Persbrandt has his entire home country swinging off his lingonberries, why bother going anywhere else?

Homer: Wow, Mr. Burns... you own everything!

Mr. Burns: Yes, but I'd give it all away to have just a little bit more.

It's not necessarily irrepressible determination that moves people into the worldwide English-speaking market. If you're from Denmark and you're writing or singing in Danish, that limits the size of your audience to a population of under five million people, just slightly bigger than Kentucky.

After you remove all the people who will never be interested in your style of music or writing, the numbers get really small really fast. If you're in a punk band or doing something with limited appeal, you may already know all the people who will ever be interested. Even if you strike it big, that potential audience just isn't large enough to support a successful career, and there aren't enough cities of people who understand what you're saying to support the band on tour.

The Swedish pop group Abba sold over 300 million records in a language they didn't speak in their everyday lives. Their own language is only understood by 10 million worldwide, and that number was even smaller when Abba was a hit machine.

To post those kinds of numbers - hundreds of millions - they simply had to do it in English. They only could have done that in Swedish by selling a stack of 30 records to each person who speaks Swedish. Swedes love Abba, but not that much.

Dozens of hugely successful artists have taken the leap to English for this reason. Imagine riding in a tour bus, working in the studio, talking with your manager - doing all these things in your comfortable, native language, but as soon as the stage lights come on or the engineer hits the "record" button, it's all in someone else's tongue.

When they're just hanging out around the house, The Scorpions speak German. Björk speaks Icelandic. Shakira and Ricky Martin speak Spanish. Daft Punk speak French. Abba, The Cardigans, The Hives, Roxette and Ace of Base all speak Swedish.

(Now, I know what some of you are saying: "Roxette? Ace of Base? Jesus, I haven't heard anything about them in fifteen years!" I know, but I had to include them in the list of Swedish artists because they're like Denny Crum and Darrell Griffith are in Louisville. The people from these places think that everyone else in the world knows and cares about them.)

It's so seldom that a song with non-English lyrics becomes popular in America that I think it's safe to classify these songs as novelties.

I'm thinking about "La Bamba" by Ritchie Valens, "Macarena" by Los Del Rio and "Du Hast" by Rammstein. I'm actually having trouble coming up with any more examples than just those three songs. Suffice it to say that writing foreign language songs in America is a harder way to make a living than selling spicy food in Sweden.

Americans seem to like these songs not because the populace is so diverse and cultured, but maybe more so because Americans think foreign languages are funny.

I can't imagine any of those three songs being hit records if they were sung in English. Okay, that's not true. "La Bamba" was a really big hit when it was called "Twist and Shout."

Next time you're singing karaoke, which I presume will be on Wednesday night, sign up to sing "La Bamba" but sing "Twist and Shout" instead. I guarantee no one will notice the difference.

(Special thanks to Christian Pries for the photos from Germany. I mean the ones of me.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009


It's not every day that typography is in the news or that usage of a particular font can be described as controversial.

However, such a situation is afoot this week in Sweden and the story goes back eighty years.

Way back in 1929, British sculptor and typographer Eric Gill was commissioned to create a clean sans-serif typeface for the London and North Eastern Railway. After much labor on the project, the result was an uncluttered, practical and ultimately timeless font that the Martin Mull lookalike modestly named after himself: Gill Sans.

Gill Sans appears equally clear on directional signs as it does in a dense paragraph of magazine text. Its clarity is a result of its forms being inspired by the proportions found in ancient Roman characters. Gill made huge circular shapes out of his capital letters like C, G and O. The capital M is a perfect square with an imaginary X in the middle, dividing the box into four equal triangles. Sans serif typefaces are generally more compact and efficient with the space they use, but Gill Sans is wide open.

Sometimes glorified (or derided) as "the English Helvetica," the versatile typeface is still in exceptionally widespread use today.

Gill Sans can be seen in the logos of Benetton, Tommy Hilfiger, the BBC and eHarmony, in the film graphics of Toy Story and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and as the title font on Edward Young's classic two-tone cover designs for Penguin Books. Not least, it is one of the fonts that comes packaged with Mac OS X, making it a staple on millions of desktops.

Like Helvetica, its lazy overuse has resulted in some of the same backlash that Helvetica enjoys. I have to confess to you that I've used it quite recently, however begrudgingly. I didn't want to use it. I don't really like it that much, but for the job I was working on, it worked. That's all graphic designers need, really, something that works and compliments its context.

Another example of the font's usefulness, cleanliness and popularity has resulted in the controversy that is currently making news in Sweden. This is an example of a design that looks nice but its context makes all the difference.

Gill Sans is the logo typeface for Rädda Barnen ("Save the Children"), a non-governmental organization based in Sweden that "fights for children's rights [and works to] deliver immediate and lasting improvements to children’s lives worldwide." They are a massive organization, promoting noble aspirations and, to be sure, they are relentless in their efforts to help children in dozens of countries.

That's why it is such a sad and unfortunate coincidence that Eric Gill, designer of the Gill Sans typeface, not only abused his own children, but had an incestuous relationship with his sister. If that isn't enough to turn your stomach, he was also up to other sick perversions I don't need to discuss for the purposes of this story. Let's just say his dog couldn't really relax around the house either. Instead of using his dog to pick up girls, this poor animal was being used as the girl.

This bastard Eric Gill was a genuine piece of shit. Hardly the type of character you'd want even remotely associated with your organization, regardless of your line of work.

Oh, and did I mention he was super religious?

Suffice it to say that the people at Rädda Barnen were shocked about a year ago when they became aware of the history of their logotype's creator. They quickly began taking steps to replace it.

Louise Gauffin at Rädda Barnen told the graphic design magazine CAP & Design this week, "As soon as we heard about it, we began a rebranding project... We felt that we should phase out the font." I should say so.

All this has become public during the past week. When a communications consultant named Per Torberger was watching the Swedish version of Idol recently, he saw a fundraising commercial for Rädda Barnen. He had one of those moments of realization when he saw the logo and typeface together. It made him feel sick.

Torberger wrote about it on his blog, Pers Värld ("Per's World"), and it immediately began lighting up cyberspace.

Quite decisively, Rädda Barnen announced on Monday that they are beginning to phase out the typeface:

"When Save the Children chose Gill Sans as a logo typeface, we did not know of Eric Gill's background. It is something we have become aware of in recent times. We take this issue very seriously and as soon as possible, we will replace the font... We estimate that the work will be completed in 2010. As soon as it is possible in terms of cost, we will change the font."

The reaction to the change seems overwhelmingly positive, even among people who are not interested in design. Believe it or not, there actually are some people in Sweden who are not interested in the way things look.

This might disgust you even more than anything else you've read here today: I regularly see professionally-made signs and flyers in Stockholm with the Comic Sans font on them. Talk about an offensive typeface!

In their reporting on the Rädda Barnen logo situation, the tabloid Aftonbladet referred to Eric Gill in today's paper as a "typographer and religious fanatic... and pedophile." Ah ha, I see. Not only an artist but a true multi-tasker.

Do you think that's what it said on his business card? "Eric Gill: typographer, religious fanatic, pedophile. Please ring London Kensington 4-5-2."

What a shame as well that Gill was such a talented pioneer and whose work has endured the test of time, especially in a field that sees influence come and go many times each year. I guess you can't have it all.

The Sydsvenskan newspaper in Malmö ran the headline "Save the Children fonts designed by pedophile." That pretty much says it. "The creator of the typeface abused his children."

Pia Högberg, creative director at Stockholm's Infobahn advertising agency is a bit more understanding on her company's blog. "Oops! ... Of all the fonts in the world, they chose the one designed by a man who was a pornographer, had an incestuous relationship with his sister and on top of it all brutalized his own children." Oops indeed.

"An honest mistake," she says, "which unfortunately will become an expensive story for Save the Children. Time and money that should go to their core activities instead."

Högberg gives all the credit to Per Torberger who brought the regrettable dichotomy to the public's attention, starting only with a post on his blog. "Who says the individual doesn't have power?"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Inescapable Freedom

Sometimes I feel like a lot of the material I write for this website is the same. It goes something like this:

"Sweden is clean, quiet, beautiful and the people here have it all figured out. Americans are babies who hate the government and don't want to pay taxes, but want everything provided for them."

I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea or think that I'm bashing America. That is (almost) never my intention. Too many Americans take the "love it or leave it" view.

Surprisingly, it actually is possible to do both: to love it and leave it.

Nonetheless, I could possibly write for days, just listing the things that most Americans don't realize are happening in the foggy world outside the borders of the United States. However, if I did that, there's always a chance that some hillbilly might inadvertently find this website, call me a freedom hater, re-post the link to my "anti-American" tirades and cause my pageviews to skyrocket. Worse yet, someone might accidentally learn something about the world.

For all the flag-waving and chanting of "we're number one!" that goes on in the US, truly only a handful of Americans have ever left the country. I hope you're sitting down, because what follows is an actual, genuine statistic: Only 24% of Americans have a passport.

(I went ahead and included a photo of one here, in case there are some Americans reading this who have never seen one before. It's pretty nice on the outside, but the inside pages are filled with ridiculous scenes and patriotic quotes that make it look more like a Toby Keith concert shirt than an official government document.)

What's more surprising than the wildly low number of US citizens who have a passport is the fact that 24% is an all-time high. The annual rate of issuance has tripled since 1996, shooting up dramatically since the beginning of this decade.

Part of the reason for the increase is a set of new regulations which require Americans to have passports when crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders, as well as when traveling to US territories in the Caribbean like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Previously, a driver's license or some other state-issued ID sufficed for these border checks.

Personally, I would have suspected that more Americans would have passports as a precautionary measure. You never know when you're gonna need to get outta Dodge. For instance, you can't wait around for your passport application to be processed after you mastermind a multi-million dollar jewel heist or knock over a casino with ten of your ruggedly good-looking and quick-witted pals. You gotta plan for this kind of stuff.

There are a lot of reasons why Americans don't have passports, other than the widespread belief that America is the greatest goddamn country in the history of the universe and everybody everywhere else are all a bunch of commie jagoffs who throw rocks at tanks all day.

("Why the hell would anyone want to leave the heaven of this trailer park? I seent all them homos on the TV, talkin' all foreign and shit. Fuck them foreigners and cook me up another one of them hot dogs wrapped in a pancake.")

It's all true, yankees. Just stay where you are, especially if you were thinking about planning a trip to Europe.

Once you leave America, you'll find that the rest of the world is a vast, boring wasteland of organic food, renewable energy and book smarts.

For example, the movies in Sweden are all just people talking or sitting there looking at things. No explosions, no car jumps, no Slipknot songs on the soundtrack. Shit, I can't even remember the last time I saw someone get shot in the face. Believe me, you wouldn't like it.

You might think the main reason more Americans don't have passports is because the country is so large. That's also true. One could actually get in a car and drive for days without leaving the country, exchanging currency or needing to know a different language.

There's a lot to see in the United States and it can be accessed much more affordably than leaving the country. Think about the differences between Maine and Louisiana, Colorado and New York, Alaska and Arizona, Minnesota and Hawai'i. The diverse landscapes, climates and ways of life that can be visited within the nation's borders are more than anyone could ever see.

Another factor, sadly, is that more than 13% of Americans live in poverty. That's 1 in 8. Those 41 million people have more pertinent things to spend their money on than the $100 passport application, not to mention international travel. A lot of people just can't afford to go anywhere.

Interestingly, more than half of all Canadians had passports before the new regulations. (That's cuz there ain't shit to do in Canada, dude!)

Because I am one of the privileged 74 million Americans who holds a copy of this rare, mysterious document called the "US passport," I have been able to explore a bit of the world outside the land of plenty.

Picture it: I am actually sitting here typing this in a goddamn foreign country.

If I walk over to the window right now, it's all fuckin' foreign shit as far as the eye can see. If I go outside the signs are like "Büllshit Whåtevér" and "Who Cäres Nöbody Cän Reäd This Shit" and all the people are like "Borski borski yatta wheet braah borski borski."

I can report back now to anyone in America who is reading this: everywhere outside of God's Great United States is hell. Don't get any ideas. It ain't worth all the hassle. If you're in a country like Sweden and you get sick or are hurt in an accident, you may have to wait a little while before they totally take care of everything for free and give you several weeks of paid vacation to recover. Not for me, man. I don't want any bureaucrats coming between me and my doctor, paying for everything.

So forget about it. I mean, the "Tex-Mex" buffet here serves cold, whole kidney beans, and they put carrots in the rice. Really. Bunch of f'n weirdos over here. Best y'alls just go to Pigeon Forge for vacation.

But don't take my word for it. Make up your own mind. I mean, you can easily see in these randomly* selected photos that life in America is way better.

(*=photos not selected randomly)

Friday, October 09, 2009


Saltsjöbanan is one of Stockholm's oldest local rail lines. The 18-station line has been operating over 115 years and covers an end-to-end distance of about 11 miles (18 km).

The line runs from the major transportation hub at Slussen in central Stockholm out to the eastern suburbs at Saltsjöbaden.

The small town of Saltsjöbaden sits on the shore of the Saltsjö ("Salt Sea"). The town's name means "Salt Sea bath" (or "beach") and it gained popularity in the 19th Century as a nearby retreat for people from Stockholm.

(My best attempt at phonetically typing out the pronunciation of Saltsjöbanan would be "SALT-hwew-BAHN-an" but I'm open to suggestions on that. Sjö, the word for "sea" is one of those words I have to say five times before a Swede knows what I'm talking about.)

The Saltsjöbanan is one really old-timey train. Although it has been updated many times over the years - it was originally powered by steam - the electric wagons now in service date back to 1948. Compared to the modern Tunnelbana subway trains, the Pendeltåg regional lines and the Tvärbanan street trains, the Saltsjöbanan line runs slower and is a quite a bit louder.

From the middle of bustling Stockholm, the route is a journey through time and topography. It tunnels through stone façades, above elevated viaducts, through neighborhoods and wooded areas, and along a number of scenic lakes before reaching one of two eastern terminuses adjacent to the open sea of Stockholm's archipelago.

The railway opened in 1893 and originally carried freight as well as passengers. As a result, the Saltsjöbanan rides on the same wide, full-scale, normal gauge rails as a freight train.

Some stations on the line are nothing more than simple wooden platforms while others, like the major shopping center at Nacka, are a bit more elaborate. One of these basic platforms can be seen in this photo of the stop at Östervik, that you can click for a larger view.

Another platform on the line and the Saltsjöbanan railroad itself are featured in some key scenes of the 2008 film Fishy, set in the town of Fisksätra near east end of the line.

Because most of the stations are rustic and don't have turnstiles or ticket counters, the Saltsjöbanan is one of the trains in Stockholm where a conductor almost always comes around to check tickets, making it all-the-more old timey.

A recent article in one of Stockholm's newspapers reported that the collective transit system in the city is one of the most expensive in the world for riders. Although it seems somewhat easy to hop on a train without a ticket almost anywhere in the city - and it's not uncommon to see someone doing so - there are hefty fines for getting caught inside a train without a valid pass. I would never dare take the risk.

Although the Saltsjöbanan is a minor route, the transit authority SL says it carries more than 15,000 passengers a day, part of what also seems to be one of the cleanest, ostensibly decorated and most efficient transit systems in existence. Last night I was waiting for a train on a different route and people were huffing and puffing because it was going to be 10 minutes later than its normal time.

Below is a 180° view from the Saltsjöbanan platform at Östervik, about midway through the route, and here is a Google Maps link showing the point where the image was taken.

Click view full size

In both the map and the panorama, you can see that there is only one set of tracks at the Östervik platform. Most of the entire route of the Saltsjöbanan railway was built as a single path of track that carries traffic in both directions. This means that the wagons traveling in opposite directions are timed accordingly and diverted to a set of side rails while oncoming traffic passes. This typically occurs at a handful of stations which have dual tracks or at the end stations. An additional 1-kilometer stretch between Storängen and Saltsjö-Duvnäs also has two sets of tracks that operate in opposite directions.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Last train to Clarksville

I've received a lot of comments and questions about my previous stories comparing the public transit systems in Louisville and Stockholm (or maybe I should I say: comparing Stockholm's public transit system to Louisville's lack of people trains).

Those pieces can be seen at these links: 360° View from Slussen and Slussen+8664 Revisited.

Unfortunately, I can't write anything here as an authority on any particular subject, I can only offer observations and opinions. As far as my observations and opinions go, I am the foremost authority in the world. That is undisputed.

Nonetheless, some have contended that the contrast between the cities isn't necessarily fair. There is a perception that Stockholm is a much larger city than Louisville. People generally use population numbers as a measure of a city's size, and yes, Stockholm is certainly bigger, no doubt about that.

Population isn't the only factor that comes into play when gauging the effectiveness and cost of public transit systems, so in addition to that, you also have to consider components like surface area and density.

Not only is Stockholm's population greater than Louisville's, it is also condensed into a much more compact area. Swedish housing is decidedly more modest and economical than its Midwestern US counterpart. In Stockholm, nearly six people live in the same amount of space that one Louisvillian occupies.

It's not so much that Swedes are crammed into tiny boxes or that all their Ikea furniture is so sparse, it's more so that a great deal of the land in Louisville is consumed by super-sized roadways and suburban houses that sit on half-acre plots of land. The people are simply farther apart in Kentucky.

The scale of the streets and buildings in central Stockholm dates back several centuries and much of it still reflects the proportions of those bygone eras. (Yeah, I just said "bygone eras." Don't worry about it. At least it wasn't "days of yore.")

The contrast of these dimensions is perhaps no better illustrated than by how retarded this American-size car looks in Stockholm's old town. My apologies if the photo is a little blurry. That would be on account of me laughing so hard in disbelief upon seeing a Buick station wagon in Gamla Stan. Blowin' my mind, man.

Since I was a kid, I have always wondered why cars like this have fake wood on them. Does anybody really believe this car is made of wood? And if they did, would that be a good thing? It seems like wood is not the smartest thing to make an automobile out of, though if you crash it you could always rebuild it with the spare lumber you have left over from remodeling your kitchen. Oh well, perhaps I'm not classy enough to recognize the prestige of driving a wooden car.

I looked this car up on the EPA website and it gets about 16 miles per gallon (that's about 15 L/100 km). In Sweden right now, it would cost the owner more than $4 to drive ten miles (almost 30 sek for 16 km). A dollar every 2.5 miles is so much that perhaps the driver ran out of money and just left it here.

Louisville's urban environment essentially developed over the past century. When George Rogers Clark set up the first settlement at the site of Louisville in 1778, Stockholm already had more than 500 years of rich history.

It's not uncommon here to see rustic old buildings that recall the image of a misty ocean port, intermixed with 1800's shop houses and modern glass-enclosed towers, all in the same glance.

If restricted to city boundaries, Stockholm's population is only 14% larger than Louisville's, but the metro areas are considerably different. Outside its city limits, Stockholm's metro area grows to more than one and a half times the size of Louisville's metro. The Swedish capital region will soon top 2 million residents, compared with Louisville's 1.2 million inhabitants.

Here's a complete comparison of the two cities along related topics. The homicide numbers are thrown in just for fun. (Ooh! murder! How fun!) I'm not sure if these figures include vampire-related deaths in Sweden.

City Population
Metro Area Population
City Population Density
1,866/sq mi
Automobiles per 1000 people (National avg.)
Annual homicides per 100,000 residents

The more concentrated population is an advantage for making public transit effective. Many more Stockholmers live within walking distance of a subway station than would be the case if the same transit system were magically plopped down in Louisville.

Louisvillians also have a comparatively narrower definition of "walking distance."

If ten thousand people live within a five-minute walk to the nearest station, it makes the likelihood of people using the service much higher than if that walk were ten or fifteen minutes.

In sprawling American cities - Atlanta comes to mind - many people who use the rapid transit systems actually drive their cars to a spot where they catch the train. It's easier and cheaper for them to navigate the urban area without a car, but the suburbs are so spread out that they don't live near a station.

The number of automobiles per capita in the United States is the highest in the world, double the rate of ownership in Sweden. It's not as high in Kentucky as in many other states, but the US Department of Transportation reports that 865 of every 1000 Kentuckians of driving age have a driver's license. (See my previous story about the driver's license process in Sweden.)

With all that in mind, I wanted to see how Stockholm's extensive local rail system would look if it actually were plopped down in Louisville. I assembled a couple of maps.

I can't imagine there are too many people in the world who are intimately familiar with Stockholm and Louisville, so more than likely, this won't impress a wide audience of people who are not, well, me.

This first map is Stockholm overlaid with most of its light rail lines.

The colored lines are the primary Tunnelbana subway system that has 100 stations. The purple lines, while they don't have their stations illustrated, include a number of other interconnected systems like the Pendeltåg (regional trains) and suburban commuter railways including Saltsjöbanan and Roslagsbanan. Those lines include more than 60 other stations not shown on this map.

This second map is Stockholm's rail system laid on top of metro Louisville at the same scale.

My first impression upon seeing these maps is that a transit system like this in Louisville would be absurdly excessive. That's really good news since the higher-ups in Louisville seem eternally obsessed with sports arenas and hellbent on pouring billions into automobile infrastructure, rather than rapid transit. Construction on Louisville's 15-station light rail system was scrapped in 2004 because of a lack of funding, but there's no shortage of construction projects for highways.

Coincidentally, one of the founders of the 8664 movement, Tyler Allen, recently announced that he is running for mayor in Louisville. Been there done that. I suspect he is better prepared and organized than I was 11 years ago.

The geographical layout and topography of the two cities is also a study in contrasts. I have always found it so odd that Louisville has its city center in a place that is not the geographic center of the city. Downtown is kind of in the north-west corner and most of the sprawl stretches south and east from there. This goes back to George Rogers Clark and the Falls of the Ohio being the impetus for the city being established.

In the map of Stockholm above, you can see why it is sometimes called the City on Water. Stockholm is laid across fifteen islands. That makes Louisville's high water table and the Ohio River seem like paltry challenges to building underground. Louisville has enough surface area that tunneling beneath the ground would be largely unnecessary. Whereas Stockholm is more stacked upon islands, Louisville is largely flat with low hills.

Louisville wouldn't need nearly the number of stations that Stockholm's system services, but I've thought the same is true in here. Stockholm doesn't need the number of stations it has. Much of the system is 50 or 60 years old and I imagine that if it were built today, the distance between some of the stations would be farther.

What I can't imagine is how nice it would be to get around Louisville without sitting at traffic lights all day. There are dozens of scenarios in which hopping on a train would be so much more convenient than the hassle of a car - whether it's going downtown for business or going out for drinks - but maybe Louisvillians will never know of them.

Most Louisvillians aren't old enough to remember the Interurban Railway and streetcars that existed in the city until 1948. It seems that considering the move toward green technologies, collective transit may be taken more seriously in the future.

If I had a time machine, (which I don't, just so you know) I would really enjoy riding a train through Louisville with a bunch of people wearing hats, seeing the city bustling, churning out smoke and being all old-timey and shit. Maybe I'm being too romantic by longing for these long-departed days of yore.

(Sources for the chart: Louisville population from US Census Bureau estimate, 2008. Stockholm population from Statistika Centralbyrån, 2009. Homicide numbers both from 2003, Louisville from FBI, Stockholm from Brottsförebyggande rådet.)
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