20 July 2008

Back home again

Just a quick note to say I'm back to hot, humid Vermont. I had a three-day layover in Iceland on the way home, and it was incredible. I've always wanted to go to Iceland, so it was a lot of fun to finally see it. In the next week or so, I'll be writing a post or two about the final days of my trip to Sweden, as well as my time in Iceland, but for now, I have some home improvement projects to tend to! For your viewing pleasure, I've added a few pictures from Iceland to my Sweden photo set on Flickr (now renamed Sweden & Iceland).

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11 July 2008


I've been meaning for a while to pimp imeem, an online music service I've been listening to for a couple months. To describe it, the best analogy I can think of is that it's a hybrid of iTunes and MySpace. Users upload mp3's of songs, and then anyone can stream them or even buy them. If you're a registered member, you can also create your own playlists. In addition to this, there's a whole social networking side to the site. I'm not really into networking online, so to be honest, I haven't really played with the features. My guess is that it's similar to MySpace. However that works.

I should also add that part of my affection for this site stems from the fact that one of the first songs I looked for and found was "Vindaloo" by Fat Les, which I haven't been able to find on any of the major services. I like it because it's one of my favorite soccer songs, and it brings back fond memories of Anne and my time in England during the 2002 World Cup. That said, I logged in recently, and I could only listen to a 30 second sample of this song (see more below). I'll assume that the reason I can't listen to it in its entirety is because I'm not in North America right now. If I get back to the US, and still can't listen to the song in its entirety, I may have to rethink this review.

One interesting feature of this service is that you can basically listen, on demand, to any song that's been uploaded. As far as I understand, this contradicts the traditional model for online music (and both terrestrial and online radio) where the listener can't have the ability to predict what will be played at a specific time. (This is why DJ's will often say something like "Coming up, we have the new one from Santogold" while being deliberately cagey about when s/he'll actually play it.) This is also part of why you can't choose a specific song on Pandora.

imeem somehow gets around this by only allowing listeners to stream 30-second samples of some songs. Whether or not a full length version of a song is available depends on an interpretation of copyright law that I don't really understand. (You can, of course, listen to full versions of any songs you personally have uploaded.) However, in my experience (at least my experience before coming to Sweden), most songs seem to be unlocked and you can listen to the whole thing.

Aside from the issue of incomplete songs, I need to give one warning to potential users of imeem, the significance of which will probably vary depending on your personal preferences. The warning is that, from a design standpoint, the site is absolute ass. I'm sure you're familiar with how butt-ugly MySpace can be; well imeem seems to follow the same design principles. That is, it has none. There's no standardization in the design, except that all the things you expect to find like the controls, recommended tracks, and comments do tend to be in the same place on every page. But they all float ethereally above a user-selected background that is invariably made up of hundreds of tiny, moving bits. You also have to deal with ads of the "Someone in Poultney has the hots for you!" variety, but you're probably used to ignoring such impositions by now. At least I hope you are. (One funny side note, lately I've been seeing the same low-budget ads, but they're all in Swedish. Någon i Stockholm älskar mig? Jattebra!)

The visual experience of any given page will vary from one track to the next, although you can probably guarantee that it will be ugly, visually distracting, and have little or no relation to the music being played. I once listed to a playlist on a page that had a creepy vampire's head at the top. The head was partially concealed by shadows, and it would move about and flash it's teeth in a roughly ten-second cycle. The band featured in this particular playlist: REM. Because nothing makes me think of vampires (or vampyrs, perhaps) like "Radio Free Europe."

So with that warning, I encourage you to check it out. I think the main benefit of this site is it's on-demand feature. If you have a song stuck in your head and you need to hear it, this is the place to go. Or if you want to preview an album before going out and buying it, chances are someone has already put together a playlist of the whole thing. I think the site definitely has its merits, especially if you can let it run (hidden) in the background while you're working. Just try not to look at it for too long because it's guaranteed to give you a headache and make your eyes bleed.

I mentioned Pandora earlier, which reminds me to pimp an application that my friend JT turned me on to. It's called PandoraJam, and it lets you access Pandora in a separate application instead of using your browser. The coolest feature is that it will automatically save to your hard drive all of the songs it plays. The quality is only ok (64 kbs), but the music is free after all. You have to buy a license to get unlimited downloads, but the unregistered version will work in 10-15 songs stretches at a time. And the best thing about PandoraJam ... ? It only works on a Mac.

Sorry, I know I've promised I wouldn't let this blog go there.

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07 July 2008

A heavy metal country

Continuing the Sweden travelogue, I think it's safe to say Sweden is a heavy metal country. This is in contrast to the US, which, despite a flirtation with hair metal in the 1980s, is decidedly not. Other heavy metal countries include Brazil (and most of South America for that matter), much of Scandinavia, and probably all of Eastern Europe. What do I mean by heavy metal country? Here are a few things I've seen since arriving here to give you an idea:

  • Posters advertising Iron Maiden's new greatest hits album in the window of mainstream music shops.

  • The pub down the street from my apartment offers "heavy metal" karaoke two nights a week.

  • Every time I walk by this same pub, they're showing not sports, but an Iron Maiden concert video on their TVs. Except the one time it was Black Sabbath.

  • A record store devoted entirely to death metal in a somewhat upscale neighborhood.

  • People (note the plural) unironically wearing Mötörhead t-shirts.

  • A guy with a mullet wearing a White Lion European tour shirt.

  • And a final confirmation that Sweden is a heavy metal country? I went into a hip hop and turntablist-friendly record store in the part of Stockholm where all the hipsters hang out, and the proprietor (who happened to be scratching -- ineptly -- a record while I was there) had long, blond hair cascading down his shoulders and back, and he was wearing a shirt for a metal band (Dimmu Borgir, if I remember correctly). When even the hip hop headz look like roadies for Saxon, you know you're in a heavy metal country.

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    04 July 2008

    NPR towns

    I just listened to the podcast of Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me! this morning, which broadcast live from Seattle last week. At the opening, the host quipped that, because of its coffee, bookstores, and cultural institutions, Seattle may be the "perfect public radio town." "With," he added, "apologies to Berkeley, California, and certain communes in Vermont." I had to smile because he'd just listed the last three places I've lived. (OK, so I don't live on a commune, but he needed the phrase for the sake of the punch line.) Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that I get all my news from NPR.

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    03 July 2008

    More blogs about buildings and food

    One of the most compelling reasons for subletting an apartment while I was here instead of staying in a hotel was so that I could cook for myself. This has saved me a lot of money given how expensive it is to eat dinner in a restaurant here. Nevertheless, self-catering is not without its challenges in a foreign country.

    Fortunately (at least for my shopping comfort level) Sweden seems to have embraced the US-style supermarket model. This is in contrast to stereotypical European model where everyone goes to two or three different places each day to buy that day's meal. There are a couple cool market halls that fit that mold, and I try to patronize as much as I can. But for the everyday stuff, I go to a small supermarket a block away. Because of the familiarity of the supermarket model, I haven't had many instances of complications arising from cultural or linguistic misunderstandings. On my first shopping trip, I did have a bit of a mix-up when I inadvertently bought sugar that also contained pectin. But other than my tea having kind of an off consistency, that hasn't been too big of a disaster. I swear the picture on the front of the bag depicting the sugar being poured into a saucepan full of jam looks like it's being poured into a cup of coffee, at least when you're looking at the bag in dim light (which is a common feature of all the Swedish supermarkets I've shopped at).

    Saturday, I did have a somewhat unfortunate experience at an outdoor produce market I like to go to. I got there right at closing time, and the fruitmongers were eager to get rid of their stock. Somehow, my simple request for a handful of green beans turned into a pound or more of beans, a leek, a couple heavy bags of plums, and a couple heavy bags of grapes. I tried to demure on some of the items, and did manage to keep from adding any berries or melons to my haul. Unfortunately, the guy was speaking very quickly in Swedish and seemed in a bit of a rush. My Swedish wasn't really up to the challenge of negotiating, and I got a bit flustered and speechless as I watched him bag up my fruit.

    Needless to say, the cost was a bit more than I'd anticipated for the half kilo of beans I'd wanted to buy (although a bargain for what I got). When he told me the final cost, I tried feebly to negotiate, but I was stuck in Swedish because the fruitmonger was an immigrant who may or may not have spoken English. That and he was Middle Eastern from a country that probably hasn't benefited from our foreign policy, so my switching to English would probably have backfired anyway. I got him to reduce the price a little bit, but I'm still stuck with about 10 pounds of fruit that's probably going to go bad before I can eat it all. It's now Thursday, and I would say I'm about a third of the way through, though the grapes are holding up remarkably well in my fridge. The plums on the other hand are starting to turn. It's beginning to look like buying the sugar with pectin wasn't such a disaster after all.

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    01 July 2008

    Weekend highlights

    Last week was actually a relatively productive week work-wise, so when Saturday rolled around, I hopped out of bed ready to leap back into tourist mode. Here are some of the highlights:

    I went back to the hip, happening Södermalm to do some gift shopping. I'll be cagy about what I actually shopped for because certain gift recipients might be reading this blog. But I can say that I had a fun time browsing through stores, lunching and snacking at cafes, and just taking in the streetlife. It helped that the weather was awesome this weekend. One place I made sure to go was a highly regarded record store, called Pet Sounds (but I won't hold that against it). It was super cool; in many ways it fulfilled my platonic ideal of what an independent record store should be. Oddly, there was very little Swedish-language music. Also, I made a very unfortunate discovery. New CDs here cost up to 200 Swedish kronor, or over $30 US (and rising daily as the dollar continues its steady decline). As cool as it would have been to buy the new Sigur Rós disc in Scandinavia, I think it's going to have to wait until I get home.

    Sunday was given over to museum-going. I first checked out the history museum. And anyone who knows me well could probably guess where I headed first: the Viking room! In many ways, it was a typical "stuff in glass cases" museum, so I wasn't really blown away. But two things stood out. First, the staging of the exhibits was very artfully done. The lighting in the Viking exhibit in particular was quite artistic, for lack of a better word. Second, it was one of the most postmodern museums I've been to. (Which begs the question, can you use "postmodern" in a relative sense?) There was a hall in the back of the museum that was all about how history is constructed. It was set up to mimic an airplane terminal (an interesting choice), with each "gate" leading to a different room that posed a series of questions about historiography, like one room that asked "Whose are all these objects? Why do museum collections look the way they do? How are the objects sorted and how does this affect history?" Another room discussed how contemporary perspectives on what defines a family determine how historians describe familial relations in the cultures they study. I've certainly never seen an exhibit like that in a history museum. Although the museum also had the obligatory "attractions" (like "Sweden's oldest preserved garment"), it was pretty interesting to see a museum tackle these "how the sausage gets made" type of issues too.

    After all that heady material, it was time to get outdoors. Fortunately, Stockholm has a great outdoor museum dedicated to the culture and history of Sweden. It's called Skansen, and I highly recommend it if you plan on traveling to the city. The museum is a large park filled with historic buildings from all over Sweden. In many of the buildings, there are people in period costume who will take the time to explain to you what the period they're representing was like. There are even artisans like potters and glassblowers making handicrafts by traditional methods.

    Reading about Skansen and hearing it described, I was a bit worried it was going to be kind of corny and Disney-fied. But the reconstructions were pretty faithful (as best as I could tell), in large part because the historic buildings were actual buildings that had been moved from their original locations from around the country. There was also a section devoted to the wildlife of Sweden, where I got to see a brown bear, some moose, and some reindeer, among other things. Sadly, the wolverines were in hiding when I was there.

    I had ambitions of checking out the art museum as well (mainly for its highly-regarded design exhibit), but I was pretty tired and it was already mid-afternoon. I still have a small handful of museums on my itinerary, although I have to be strategic about when I go to them because some have weekday afternoons when they're free. And when I do go, I'll be sure to write about it here.

    I'll leave you with some photos from Skansen.

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