Monday, December 29, 2014

My kind of tent

I stumbled across a little high- concept tent which was erected on Gotland this summer.

This is from the website of Avantika Agarwal, a London- based designer. She has a few more photographs and a video of its construction on her site.

She worked in collaboration with the design house featuringfeaturing, who also have a bunch of pictures of their own.

I like how the landscape is identical to Aspö's. Perhaps if we get lots of visitors one summer, I'll make a tent like this one for the overflow guests!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Happy Boxing Day!

We received a photo from our neighbors Raymond and Eva. I'm glad they visited. I love the picture, and I'm glad to see the deck is still standing!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

God Jul!

Good Jul from Kalle Anka och hans vanner. (or, for my English-speaking friends, Merry Christmas from Donald Duck and his friends.)

I've blogged most every year about the odd tradition of the entire country sitting down— right at this exact moment, in fact—to watch the same Disney cartoons at 3PM every Christmas Eve. (The Slate article about this phenomenon is certainly worth a read.)

Everyone at Hus Langford wishes a God Jul to our devoted readers! Here is to a great 2015.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Searching in Swedish / Söka på Svenska

Not to get too technical here, but I've come across something interesting that may be of use to my multi-national readers. I mentioned recently that my friend Anette sent me a great link to a Swedish distributor of party lights.

I had been searching quite extensively (or so I thought), but the website she forwarded was new to me. Why might that be? One advantage was that Anette was searching in Swedish, and although I try to use Swedish words, she, as a native, is obviously a lot better at it. Another trick is to use google.se instead of google.com as a starting point. Starting a search from a .se domain, and using Swedish words in the search, is the best way to find Swedish results. Makes sense, doesn't it?

One other way to improve the results of web searching is to use a VPN, or virtual private network. VPNs can be used to make you appear as if it you're in a different country.

When accessing a website, one's location is identified to a degree. If I'm in Chicago and type "Bears" into google, I'm going to first get results for the NFL football team, and not information about the kinds of bears that live in the woods. If I'm in the US, and searching for party lights, I'm going to see local providers, not ones in Europe.

A VPN can get around that location information and allow the user to 'pretend' they are in a different country. Such an ability can be useful for many reasons. Turkey, for example, has banned Twitter for political reasons, and a Turkish citizen can't access twitter from their country. If, however, that citizen used a VPN to pretend they were in a different country, they can get around their government's restrictions and tweet away.

More prosaically, some entertainment is restricted to the country of origin for rights purposes. I can watch "Saturday Night Live" on Hulu here in Texas, but I can't when I am in Sweden. A VPN would allow me to appear to the Hulu folks like I'm in the USA, so I can watch shows just as if I'm on my couch at home, even though I am very far away.

A VPN helps a lot if I am looking for Swedish content when I'm not in Sweden. I just set my VPN to make me look like I'm in Stockholm, and voila! I have the best of both worlds.

There are dozens of VPNs available, most are free, or very low cost. I use one called Tunnelbear, as it works simply on all my my Apple devices. It's worth giving it a try to see what the internet looks like from a different country!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Party Lights, part 2

My Swedish friend Anette read my recent post about party lights. She sent me a fantastic link to a Swedish vendor who sells exactly what I was looking for.

I can specify the length of the light string, how close I want the bulbs to be spaced, and choose my own bulbs from an assortment. Perfect.

The one hitch is that, like many Swedish goods, it's expensive. A 6 meter (20-foot) string with the simplest lamps would cost over a thousand kronor (about $140). That is quite a bit more than the UK alternative I had posted about before.

However, it's always good to buy things locally. Importing things one-off has caused me trouble before. I think we'll wait until we're at the house next, so we can have a good think and measure about just what we want to do with the lights. If I am going to order a customised string of Swedish lights, I want to be sure we get just what we want!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Happy Lucia!

St. Lucia's Day is today. Sweden.se has an amusing video about the holiday and its traditions.

If you're interested in more amateur writings on holiday, I have 7 years' worth of Lucia posts on the blog.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Introduction V

It's been over a year and a half since my last introductory post, so I thought it time to update the introduction series on this blog. New readers should click on that link first to get a concise summary on what's happened over the years.

I had bragged in my introductory last post the blog had over 60,000 visits. As of today, that figure is nearly 110,000! Many of those new visitors are thanks to the link from the very cool website Cabin Porn.

We've done a few things to the house over the past 18 months. Most significant is the painting of the exterior with linseed oil paint. I also built a large deck this summer which gives us a significant new living space.

I made a list in 2008 of all the things I wanted to do to the house. With the exception of a fireplace or heat pump, the list is now complete. We are definitely moving from 'building' to 'living' in our little cabin!

Personal circumstances have made that transition easier. I stopped working this year and have found myself sliding a bit towards retirement. I'd like to get back to work, but I haven't yet found the right thing. So Sooz and I took advantage of all my free time to spend most of this past summer on Aspö. Being there for a month is a lot different than a week or two! We were able to connect a lot more fully with island life and our friends there.

I've been keeping the blog updated 8-10 times a month, with my usual mix of practical, cultural, and especially toilet-related information. Given my greater free time, I've tried to make the posts a bit longer and more polished. Feedback on that is appreciated.

Grant has graduated college and he's working at a job he really likes. Ollie is fully settled into Texas life. I haven't yet driven Sooz crazy from being constantly underfoot. Life is good.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Melodifestival is on the horizon

I know it is early to start talking about next year's Melodifestival. However, a show as ambitious as this one takes a great deal of planning to accomplish.

SVT just announced the 28 names of this year's hopefuls. The official Eurovision website has a detailed rundown of the performers.

For a quick look, the Local has a simple page of photographs.

Sooz's favorite hunks Erik Saade and Måns Zelmerlöw are back, so I know she'll be watching!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Привіт мої українських читачів!

That post title translates as "hello to my Ukranian readers."

Why the Ukraine, you may ask? Well, it appears that I have recently gained a Ukrainian readership. I've had over 800 page views from Ukraine in the past month, which outpaces readers from every other country, even the United States.

I have no idea what's behind this recent popularity. If anyone in the Ukraine has an answer, please let me know in the comments. In the meantime, Ми раді, що Ви відвідуєте нас!

UPDATE: It appears these visits may not be curious Ukrainians, but instead spambots or other potential hacking activity. I will look further into this; Google provides a range of analysis tools which I haven't really bothered with up to now. I will report back.

UPDATE 2: Sadly, it appears there's some sort of nefarious activity going on. Most—if not all— of my Ukrainian visitors have come here from websites that sell Viagra. Goodness knows why that might be the case; that's not a product I'm familiar with...

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving

Time for my now-traditional Thanksgiving message.

Looking at my previous posts, I don't have much different to report. We're in Ohio this year, visiting Sooz's family. Grant flew in from Boston, but sadly, Ollie didn't join us, instead enjoying his turkey treats at his favorite Texas kennel.

Our Corgi is still doing well, older of course, at 11½, with six years now on his repaired back. But he remains the happy and handsome dog he's always been.

I'm thankful for not just Ollie's, but everyone's, continued good health and happiness! We wish the same for all of you, too.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Sweden's new font

I find typefaces fascinating. The design of a font makes a huge difference in the message it conveys. I regret that my blog platform keeps me restricted to the simplest of typefaces, although I can understand the need to keep things simple across thousands of blogs and millions of readers.

Sweden recently commissioned a new typeface for its international communications. It's designed to present a uniform image to the world. The Sweden.se website (of which I've written before) is a very well-done portal into the country.

I've found a few articles on Sweden Sans, which look at the typeface, and the ideas behind its creation, in different ways. There's a nationalistic take, a radio interview, and info from the designers themselves.

For an overview on typography, a useful primer is at Gravitate, and I Love Typeography is good at absorbing lots of my free time.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Barkeeper's Friend

"Barkeeper's Friend" sounds like a punchline to a joke, I suppose. But it's also the name of a cleaning product we brought along with us to Aspö on our last trip. Why, you might ask? Aren't there plenty of cleaning products on the Kingdom of Sweden?

A valid question, indeed. We brought along our barkeeper's friend as it contains oxalic acid as one of its ingredients. Oxalic acid turns out to be very good at removing stains in wooden furniture.

One of the things we have to get used to with our new deck is that our table is much more exposed to the elements out there. Up until now, it's been tucked next to the house. We left a couple of heavy metal tea light holders out on the table in an overnight drizzle, and the next day, we had a nice dark stain on our otherwise pristine wood.

Although I don't have a photo of our stain, the one shown here is pretty similar. What happens is that water, containing iron, interacts with the tannins in the wood, causing a kind of rust stain. The fact that we had a nice iron candle-holder in the rain simply made the staining process more efficient!

This photo is from a website I found addressing the problem (as well as an array of other little projects, too.) I thought it worth a try, hence the can in our baggage from Texas.

I'm happy to report the treatment worked perfectly! After just two applications, we were able to get the stain completely out. I may even see if I can use it to deal with a few remaining jarn vitriol spots on the house. After all, it's an iron oxide, itself. I promise to take pictures next time.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

How's Life?

I've blogged before about various attempts at measuring well-being, happiness and quality of life around the world. Sweden and Scandinavia always rank highly in these measurements.

The OECD has published a fascinating new web tool allowing a broad view of well-being in many different regions of the world. A few clicks allows a look at how where you live compares and contrasts with other parts of the world.

Stockholm comes across pretty well, except for the shortage and expense of housing, which I've written about recently. My home state of Minnesota looks darned good in the ratings, I'm happy to say; Texas, a bit less so. The website is a marvel of data visualization, and is an informative way to spend time on the internet!

These measurements are imperfect, of course. Measuring civic engagement only through voter turnout, just as one example, leaves out many things that make up a community.

The New York Times published a superb article summarizing the OECD's work and its usefulness in making comparisons around the world. I highly recommend having a read!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Learning Swedish

I've been reading about a company that is offering a 'new way' to learn a foreign language. Voxy takes advantage of internet connectivity to connect its students to a more dynamic and real-time type of language learning and practice.

They published an interesting infographic about the difficulties of learning various languages. Swedish is in the 'easy' category. According to them, six months of study at about 25 hours a week would allow proficiency.

I would really love to do this. I know it would make a big difference to my life in Aspö. If I stay retired, I may just give it a try.

The problem I have is that, living here in Texas, I don't ever have a chance to practice speaking Swedish. I can listen a bit on the radio and TV, and goodness knows there's lots of Swedish to read online. I never have a chance to speak it in the Lone Star state.

But that's a little bit of an excuse. I have Swedish friends here, and I should probably work a lot harder at speaking with them on a regular basis when/if I start studying in earnest.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Party Lights!

It's been pretty well documented in this blog that I really like my lights. I've installed a number of different types of lighting so far- cable lights in the kitchen, embedded LED's in the deck, halogen downlights in a drop ceiling.

Sooz really wants one more type of lighting: party lights for our new outdoor space. She likes the old fashioned European bistro lights with clear, round bulbs on a string.

I found a set by the venerable European company Konstsmide which seemed pretty good, but at nearly 500kr for a string of 10 bulbs, I thought it pricey.

I've had success in the past with purchasing a few multi-voltage goods in the USA (or the UK), and just using them with a different plug when in Sweden. I've found that more & more things are made to operate on 110/220 volts these days, a benefit of globalization, I suppose.

However, that doesn't seem to be the case for party lights. I found a number of vendors, partylights.com being the biggest. They have a wide array of bulb sizes and types, lengths of strings, etc. It's even possible to custom-order strings to one's own specifications! I was salivating.

My hopes were dashed, however, when I found that everything worked only on American-style 110 volts. I called to see if I could order a 220V set. I was told that wasn't possible, in a tone of voice that made me think I wasn't the first person to have asked that question.

I did find a company that could get me a 220V transformer, and to make up my own set to order. However, at $2.25 per foot of wire, $5.75 per bulb, and about $150 for the 220V transformer, the cost was getting quite a bit more than the Konstsmide set I had rejected as too pricy!

A bit more googling found that the set I wanted also came in a 20 bulb length. I could find it in the UK for only £30, or 350 kronor. A simple plug change, and voila! I have a nice string of bulbs, twice as long, and for two-thirds the price. A good deal all around.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sun-Mar composting toilets

Since toilets seem to be the most popular subject on this blog, I've found another interesting design for our dear readers.

Sun-Mar make a range of composting toilets which, to me, are a bit of a hybrid between a composting and septic toilet. They make a self-contained unit, which is something like the tried and trusted Separett. It's quite a bit more advanced, however, with evaporators and dryers to speed and civilize the composting process.

They also provide a central system, where one or more toilets is connected to a tank beneath the house. Composting then takes place away from the bathroom, making the process even cleaner and quieter.

These units can run with and without water, and even with or without electricity. It's quite a wide range of composting toilet products. I am impressed!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Return of Skatteverket

I received my property tax declaration from the nice people at Skatteverket, the Swedish tax authorities.

Readers of this blog with long memories may remember that I received my last one almost three years ago.

It was quite straightforward; essentially all it asked was if I had made any changes to the property which may have increased its value. Instructions in English were available online.

The list of things impacting the value of a house are wide-ranging. Besides basic things like the size of the house and its construction material, there are others: How close is it to the water? Does it have a basement, a heating system, a garage, a flush toilet, a second floor? How nice is the kitchen?

Actually, the kitchen question was relevant for us this time around. After reading the description, it was clear that our kitchen is now a "normal standard," so I made that change on this declaration.

I did note that adding a värmepump won't change the value of the house for tax purposes. In fact, nothing I would realistically do to our little stuga would move it into a higher tax bracket, thankfully.

Next year should be the first year I will have to pay property taxes on our house. I think my bill should be in the range of 5 to 6 thousand kronor ($600-800). This depends, of course, to no changes to the Swedish tax code in the meantime. So we shall see...

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Willie's visit

I didn't write much at the time about Willie's visit earlier this month. I had been having trouble with water leaks around a few of my windows. The most worrying one was along the tall window on the deck. It appeared a lot of water made it into the house along that window.

Willie came out to see us with some rubber sealant and a few other tools. We pulled the boards off and re-sealed as best we could. He found a couple of problems, some of which we fixed. But we'll have to do a bit more next year.

The trim boards outside were flush against the deck, and were wicking water up from the deck into the window joint. Willie had a special little saw and we trimmed a centimeter off the bottom of the boards to provide an air gap.

We also found the trim boards had become warped and shrunk a great deal. Since they hadn't been painted until this year, they dried out quite a bit. Willie pointed out they were originally 95mm wide, but were now shrunk to under 90. The boards are also "cupped" along their width, too, with only the center of the board really flush along the house. The edges curl out and away from the house and window. Not good for water sealing!

Willie recommended we get new trim boards for next year and do a few things differently. First, we score the back of the board with a few shallow cuts along its length. This allows us to slightly bend the board so it lays fully flat along the house.

Second is to work harder to smooth the exterior of the house right along the window joint, so the board has a better chance of laying flat. Since the house is made up of strips of glue-laminated wood, there is variability along the exterior; some strips stick out more or less than their neighbors. A bit of sanding or planing would make the surface far more even.

Lastly, of course, is to paint the boards right away so they are better protected from shrinking and warping over time. So we will do that next year for sure.

Eddie and Sooz on Taco Night
It was great to catch up with Willie. He is a good guy and has become a friend over the years. We talked about his son Eddie, whom I've mentioned before on this blog. Eddie has become established in goal for the Vancouver Canucks. To be a professional NHL player is quite the achievement, and it's easy to see why Willie is so proud of his son.

Sooz and I had the pleasure of dinner with Eddie when he was on a recent road trip. We had a bunch of Tex-Mex tacos, and enjoyed catching up and swapping stories about his dad. Besides the great achievement of playing in the NHL, he's a charming and special young man, and we're glad to count him as a friend.

We have been watching the Canucks results closely. It's much more interesting to follow the team when you know the goalie!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Internet pricing

I received an email recently from Nilla, of the Nämdö broadband project.

Things are moving along nicely, although I think it won't be until the summer of 2016 that we see cabling on Aspö.

The most interesting new information was the first indication of pricing.

Connectivity is provided by a company called "IP Only", which does just what it says on the tin. The cable needs to be attached to a broadband provider, and Nilla provided a listing of potential companies.

Given the sad state of broadband internet in the US, the list of Swedish options is mouth-watering. An insanely fast 1 Gigabit download and upload speed is available for 795 kronor a month (about $110 at today's rates). A more realistic speed (yet still far faster than I have in Texas) of 100 megabits is available for as little as 238 kr ($33) a month.

Some companies provide bundles to provide TV and telephone service as well. These run around 450 kr ($65) monthly. Still a heck of a good deal.

Lastly, it is possible to not have a contract, and just pay for time spent at the house, as I do today with my wireless connection. The prices are also similar to what I'm paying today, about 350 kr ($50) for a month.

All this happens, of course, after the fiber is run all the way to my house, which will cost me roughly 25,000 kronor (about $3500). So there is a significant up-front cost. However, I consider it an investment in the value of our property, not to mention the fact that I love being online.

There are still lots of steps to take until it all happens, but Nilla and the Nämdö Fiber team are doing great work so far.

UPDATE: As I as just about to hit 'send' on this post, I found an article in the local newspaper, skargarden.se. The headline? "Sharply Higher Costs for Broadband Expansion". The upshot is that government subsidies are being removed. The article states: "A connection that previously cost households between 15,000 to 25,000 crowns, could now cost between 50,000 to 100,000 crowns, or not be possible to do at all. A deathblow in other words, for the broadband compounds in the Nämdö archipelago." 

That's very disappointing news, especially since I was just teased with the prospects of such fast and cheap connectivity! I could justify a 25,000 kronor expense, but not double or quadruple that.

But all may be not yet lost. The Nämdö Fiber facebook page has a post regarding the newspaper article. Their reply? Vi kastar INTE in handduken ännu! 

In English: We do NOT throw in the towel yet!

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Hunt for Red October?

There's been a great deal of news the past few days about sightings of some sort of a submarine in the Stockholm archipelago.

Enough credible information has come forward to cause the Swedish Navy to conduct an intense search in the area. One of the sightings, last Friday, was off of Runmarö, damned close to our own little island. It reminds me of the plot of "The Russians are Coming!"

The Local, Radio Sweden, and the Guardian all have good English-language summaries of what's going on right now. Even the Wall Street Journal published a good summary on their free site. There is, by all accounts, an intensive search in our archipelago.

Swedes have a sense of dèjá vu over all this. A well-remembered incident in 1981 found a Soviet submarine run aground very close to a Swedish naval base. There have been at least a dozen well documented sightings of submarines in Swedish waters (all presumed to be Soviet or Russian) since then.

Without dabbling in the political in this blog, it is apparent that Russia is flexing its muscles a bit. It would be no surprise to anyone in Scandinavia (or the Baltics) that Russian submarines are up to their Cold War tricks!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Prefab architects in New York

I have to share a website on which I've been lately spending a lot of time. Resolution:4 Architecture, based in New York, have a design aesthetic I just love. Their website is also done very well. It's easy to look at individual houses, including construction photos and detailed drawings.

My favorite page is their "modern modular" which shows the huge range of home designs possible from a few basic shapes. Homes built from each of the different modules can easily be seen, so there's a clear link between the theory of each design and the actual home itself.

Many of these houses look a bit like our own little stuga, which is probably another reason I like their work so much. But leaving that personal note aside, it's still a fantastic website for anyone interested in modern home design.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Composting

I posted a recently about Sweden's success in recycling virtually all of their country's garbage. One element of household waste that draws less attention is that of leftover food.

Our neighborhood in London ran a food waste collection program. We were given a bucket for all organic waste, which was collected weekly. It was surprising to us how much of our weekly garbage was made up of simple things like potato peelings, chicken bones, and grapefruit rinds!

Minimizing our garbage is important when living out on Aspö. I'd love to collect and compost our food waste there. We'd have less to throw away, and we could supplement our meager soil for planting. The problem is we're there infrequently, and aren't able to maintain a compost heap.

I read recently about a new household gadget that does a quick and simple job of handling food waste.

The Food Cycler will take a bucketful of cooked or uncooked food, and in about three hours, turn it into dried and sanitized compost.

I really like the idea. After all, I love my gadgets! The idea of throwing away less, while creating compost for our plantings, fits our needs perfectly.

There are a few snags, though, First, at $600, the device is expensive. It also uses a lot of energy, which drives cost as well.

But I think these sorts of units will develop and become more efficient and less costly. I can imagine we'd be buying something like this for our stuga a few years from now.


Monday, October 13, 2014

The social whirl

It was a whirlwind trip this time across the pond. We were gone for less than two weeks, and “on the go” every day.

First, we flew to London and spent a few days there to celebrate Sooz’s birthday. I asked her what she wanted as a gift for her big day, and she said “dinner in London with my friends.” Her wish was my command! Grant was able to fly over as well. We had a great time.

Then onward to Stockholm on a late night flight. We spent Tuesday recovering, until yet another birthday celebration at Pharmarium in Gamla Stan. There we met up with our Swedish friends, with the super bonus of joint-birthday girl Margaret and Janne, who were back visiting.

We took the Wednesday afternoon boat to Aspö, which gave us an unusually leisurely amount of time to shop in Gustavsberg. On Thursday, we had a visit from Willie who helped me seal up some window leaks. It was great to see him! We also made plans to do a bit more work on the windows next year.

Friday was the actual birthday itself. I had arranged a little champagne toast that evening with Annika, Olle, Peter and Jeanette. We were also surprised by Rutger, Marcia, Camille and Archie on the evening boat as well! So we had a full house on Friday night.

The fun wasn’t over, as Saturday night was Oktoberfest at Johan and Sofia’s barn! Lots of singing (and drinking) late into the night. Let’s just say that Sunday was mostly used for recovery. At least I was able to get photos posted.

We closed up the house and headed back to Rutger and Marcia’s on Monday to a birthday dinner for Camille, whose birthday was the next day (and is the same day as Olle’s). A long flight home Tuesday arrived just in time to pick up Ollie that night (in 95° heat!!)

So you can see why we’ve been quiet. The past few days have been all about recovery.

We won’t be back at the house until next Spring, I don’t think. However, there are lots of things to post about, so stay tuned, dear readers.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Monday, October 6, 2014

Sorry for lack of posts

...lots & lots going on, all of it good.

We'll be back in Texas tomorrow night and I'll have a chance to regroup for the blog. I did manage to get a photo page up, at least.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

We're in Sweden...

... safely at Marcia & Rutger's on a beautiful afternoon after a whirlwind weekend in London. We had a great birthday celebration for Sooz at our favourite restaurant, along with special guest Grant (all the way from Boston), and lots of our good friends.
We have another celebration tonight in Stockholm, and then off to Aspö tomorrow. We'll also be seeing Willie on Thursday, and there's yet another party on Saturday night.

What a fun life we lead!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

We're on our way!

I've avoided giving much advance notice of this trip, because it's all come together fairly late.

As the picture infers, we'll be stopping over in London for a bit. A certain young lady has a birthday we'll be celebrating.

We have a few other plans in Stockholm, and then we'll be out on Aspö for only a week or so. I have a few house-related tasks to finish, but mostly we'll be hanging out, I think.

Stay tuned of lots of pictures, though. It's going to be a fun couple of weeks!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

IKEA Hacks

I've posted about IKEA many times in this blog. It's pretty much impossible to live in Sweden without some sort of contact with the company. Almost all of the furniture and fixtures in our house are from the store in Barkarby.

A quick internet search reveals many parodies of the difficulty in assembling IKEA furniture. Personally, I don't find it so hard, although I've had enough practice to become pretty good at it.

Recently, though, I found a website that takes IKEA to a new level. A thriving community of IKEA hackers use their products in "off-label" ways. They throw their instructions aside and create whole new creations out of IKEA parts.

Some of the new uses are fairly straightforward repurposing: a candleholder used as a bathroom shelf, or a bird feeder made from salad bowls. Other projects are significantly more elaborate.

I've enjoyed scrolling through the website. Being a strict instruction-follower myself, the idea of  putting things together in totally different ways is intriguing.

Our stuga has a few custom installations. I ordered our entryway rug to a specific dimension, and I built a bench based around IKEA baskets. Since we need to use our space efficiently in our little house, it's useful to have items that fit specific spaces, or serve a double purpose. I'll be looking both at our house—and my local IKEA—with a different eye from now on!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Recycling Update

I read a flurry of news reports recently that Sweden is now recycling or reusing 99% of their garbage. I had posted earlier this year that Sweden is actually importing trash from other countries to run their energy-producing incinerators.

The official Swedish website, Sweden.se, has a great article on the state of recycling. The country is clearly a global leader in this area. (I should also plug the Sweden.se website again, too. It is fantastically well done, both in terms of its content and web presentation.)

It's not just household waste that's being targeted, it's businesses, too. H&M, the global clothing chain, accept used clothing for reuse or recycling in exchange for store credit.

I also love videos produced by the government to raise awareness of recycling initiatives. Click for an assortment of these videos, but I've embedded my favorite here. It's hard to explain, you'll have to watch it yourself. Those crazy Swedes!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Värmepumps

Our summer visit to Aspö coincided with quite the Swedish heat wave. It got me thinking about heat pumps, or in Swedish, värmepump.

Why on earth would I think about heating the house during a heat wave, you might ask? That's a good question, and the answer is pretty simple.

Air-conditioners or furnaces use energy to create hot or cold air. A heat pump simply transfers heat from one source to another, and the direction is reversable. This means a heat pump can cool a house just as easily as it warms.

Värmepumps are installed in Sweden not for their cooling, but for their energy efficiency. Transferring heat, rather than creating it, uses far less energy. Heating our house in cold weather is pretty pricy with a Dyson and radiators. (Doesn't that sound like a 50's rock band- "Dyson and the Radiators"? But I digress.)

I posted recently about how my March visit showed my using about 65 kilowatts per day to heat the house on a cold day. I believe a heat pump would do that job at significantly less energy cost. It would have the added bonus of providing a bit of cool air on hot days, if needed.

Our house is pretty small, 62 square meters (670 square feet), so even the smallest unit would do the trick for us, at a price of around 8000 kronor. Olle is well versed on these units and gave me lots of advice about how to choose and install them. Polarpumpen.se has a wide variety of värmepumps available.

Another fun trick is attaching it to the cell phone network. I could then use an app on my iPhone to monitor and adjust the temperature remotely. It would be great to arrive at a nice warm house, or to ensure things don't freeze solid during a cold snap. Plus, it appeals to the nerd in me; I love controlling things with my iPhone!

Here in the US, these are called "split unit" or "ductless" heat pumps. The compressor is installed outside, and a tube is run along the outside of house to the head unit which is mounted to the wall inside. The photo above shows the two pieces.

I set aside space for a heat pump when I designed the house, and in fact, also put in the electrical wiring, too. So physically installing the unit should be pretty simple.

The complication comes with charging and pressurizing the unit. Specialist tools and skills are needed to get it connected and working. Polarpumpen quotes installation costs of 3000-5000kr on their website, although I assume the archipelago isn't in their normal price list.

I thought perhaps I could buy and install the unit myself, and only have the specialist come out on a short trip to charge it up and test it. That should be cheaper, although I'll have to ask around and get some concrete advice and prices.

Stay tuned for more on this subject in the coming months!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Housing shortages in Stockholm

The Economist's recent issue has an article on property bubbles. Although it talks about European house prices, Sweden— and Stockholm in particular—is the prime example cited.

In summary, it's largely an issue of supply and demand. Not enough new homes are being built in the city to meet the need. Add to that comparatively easy credit, and prices keep going up and up.

Different countries are trying a range of solutions. The Netherlands, for example, has tightened credit and tax rules for mortgages. The UK is working to re-purpose currently empty buildings into residential use through a public forum.

Sweden is taking another tack. I remember Annika and Olle telling me about a change in the law this summer, allowing structures of 25 square meters to be built without planning permission. I hadn't thought much about it; after all, I have my guest house already, and the previous rules allowed structures up to 15m2.

The Economist straightened me out, however. These new structures, referred to as an Attefallshus, is the government's response to the housing shortage. They're just the right size to serve as a guest house or a mini rental property. A landowner could put one up in their garden with little trouble, providing quick housing to the rental market.

I found a company that specializes in these little houses. Enkelrum (English translation) provide a range of finished homes that can be dropped in, complete and ready for living, with a crane. They are nice looking little places.

We've already been thinking a bit about our guest house. It is 20m2, so a bit smaller than these houses, but still a good size. Essentially it is just a bedroom now. I think, with a bit of reshuffling, we could install a mini-kitchen and carve out more living space. If we find ourselves with more long-term guests, it would be a good project for the future.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Exchange rates

The dollar has strengthened a lot against the kronor lately. It's over 7.1 to the dollar today. (There's a real-time widget along the right edge of the blog below.)

I wonder if I should add to my little bank account over there....

UPDATE: I think perhaps I should explain why the kronor is weakening right now. I'm no financial expert by any means, but I see three factors.

First, as the Economist explained earlier this summer, Swedish authorities may have raised interest rates too quickly in relation to other European economies, which dampened the country's economic recovery.

Second, the overall economic climate in Europe is weaker than America's, and is in some ways, getting worse. The European Central Bank recently lowered their interest rates to near zero in a surprise move to stimulate the eurozone's economy. So, by comparison, the dollar looks stronger.

Lastly, Sweden has an election this Sunday. To put it simply, the current center-right government is trailing in the polls to the more traditionally leftist parties. Although the facts are more complicated, the overall fear is that a new government would be more socialist and less business-friendly. This concern causes the economic markets to look less favorably on doing business in Sweden, hence the pressure on the kronor.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The top two posts

I wrote recently that my third most popular post on the blog was about the "Word Cloud".

Now it's time to share the two most popular posts, and they aren't what one might guess.

The top —number one with a bullet, as Kasey Kasem might have said— most popular blog entry was about Toilet Technologies on October 9, 2007. It's had over 3500 visits. Second, with 2300 visits, was my December 13, 2008 post about St. Lucia's day.

One reason the older posts garner so many visitors is they've been around for a long time. Over the years, people have a greater opportunity to stumble across my past musings.

Traffic in the case of these two is thanks to Google. Both "Toilet technologies" and "St. Lucia's Day" are generic search phrases. Anyone typing in either of those phrases would be shown my blog post in the search results.

That's not true today, though. Google has become smarter over the years. Anyone searching for toilet tech or St. Lucia today will get results far more usable than my blog!


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Pee Power

A recent article in the Economist touched on one of this blog's favorite subjects: toilets.

Well, not toilets, exactly, but rather the question of what might be done with the 6.4 trillion liters of urine produced every year. (I think a good portion of that comes at halftime of English football matches, but I digress).

Researchers at the University of Bristol have developed a simple fuel cell utilizing microbes to turn urine into electricity. Besides being a (very) renewable energy source, the broader economic impacts might help drive construction of more toilet facilities.

More people in the developing world have access to a cell phone than a toilet. A business could well profit from a facility allowing a user to safely dispose of waste, and boost their phone's charge at the same time. Nothing like the profit motive to get those toilets built!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Electricity analysis

I received a letter from Vattenfall the other day. Two years have passed and it's time to renew my contract.

They do a good job of providing analytical information on my account webpage. I find it fun to delve into all kinds of data about my electricity use. (Everyone has their definition of "fun", I guess!)

I made the chart shown above, which compares my electrical use as measured against heating degree days. Degree days are a tool used to calculate how much heating (or cooling) is needed for a building. A day's average temperature is measured against a base of 65°F. One day with an average of 60° would count as five heating degrees. A much colder 5° day would count as 60 degrees. Adding the daily sum for a month (or a season) gives an accurate picture of how often—and, crucially, how much— a building needs to be heated over a given time. (The same process is used to measure cooling days needed, which is important in Texas, but not Sweden.)

The European Environment Agency has a great chart showing the falloff in heating days in Sweden and Finland over the last 30 years. It's pretty clear proof of global warming, if you ask me. I also found a useful website for US/Canada that shows detail on heating and cooling days for any location, going back 20 years.

My chart confirms the obvious- there's a strong correlation between how cold it is, and how much energy the house uses. Delving into the Vattenfall data provides more detail, and my stay at the house this past March was eye-opening:

This shows my energy usage that month, along with the daily temperature. It tells two things very clearly. First, I picked a bad time to visit! I was there exactly during the coldest days of the month.

Secondly, warming the whole house used about 65 kilowatts each day. This represents an incremental cost of about $9.25 just to keep the house warm on one cold winter's day.

For our infrequent visits in the cold weather, this is fine. After all, our house is fundamentally a summer cabin. But there are things we might do to provide more efficient heating. More on this subject soon!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Moving back as a retiree

Returning to Texas after our recent visit was quite different than my usual flights back to the US.

Up until now, my stays on Aspö were on vacation from work. Especially when I was away for two weeks (which is unusual in many American companies), I had a lot of catching up to do when I got home. During all my time on Aspö, my responsibilities to my colleagues were always in the back of my mind.

I plan to find another job, but I don't know what I might do, or where I might do it, or when I might start work again. Until then, our little stuga is not so much a vacation home as it is a second home.

I'm not sure what this means just yet. It may not mean anything at all. But if we end up spending many months out on the island, what changes might we make to our house, and to our lifestyle?

It's an interesting question I plan to explore further. Comments from readers are very welcomed.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Word Cloud II

Google provides us blog authors a range of stats. I like to look at all the different information provided. For example, it's no surprise the United States provides the most visitors (over 37,000), with the UK second (9300), and Sweden third (8200).

But who's fourth? It's our neighbors up north. Nearly 5000 Canadians have visited, with 4300 Russians an inexplicably close fifth.

Another interesting fact is the ranking of the most popular posts. I'll talk about the top two most popular posts later, but I was quite surprised to see the post that ranked #3: the Word Cloud on August 6, 2010.

I can't figure out why that might be so. I assume a google search brought people there, but I couldn't find anything specific as to why. However, it's always good to give the readership what they want, so I visited Wordle again to make a brand new word cloud.

"Aspö" is the big winner, obviously. It's nice to see that people's names figure so prominently. Our friends out here were a big part of our recent long stay.

I'll start making word clouds more regularly from now on. It's fun to do, and it's obviously popular!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"Toilet!? Human Waste & Earth's Future"

My most avid reader, Maragret, sent me a story on a recent exhibition in Japan at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.

In wacky fashion, the exhibition invites children to put on poop-shaped hats and slide into a giant toilet. Visitors are also "treated to a choir of gracious toilets singing their thanks."

The serious side of all this is to highlight that over two billion people do not have regular access to a sanitary toilet. Regular readers of my blog, like Margaret, know this is serious issue that is being addressed in many different ways.

It's still possible to have a bit of fun with the topic, though. I'd love to have one of those hats!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Moose Hunting!

Let's be honest. The real reason I have a camera at our stuga is to catch a picture of our moose. I'm happy to report that today is the big day:
video
She (or he) came walking by my dropcam about 4:20AM Aspö time, hence the night-vision.

Don't worry, I won't fill the blog with random webcam images, although I will always share moose video!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Back in Texas

We had an uneventful and enjoyable flight home last night. In fact, we arrived a half-hour early, and having no checked bags, we were able to get through the airport and pick up Ollie very quickly. Our furry boy was excited to see us and showed no ill effects of being apart for 4 weeks. There was a little break in the Texas heat as well, so the temperatures were in the low 90's, not the low 100's, thankfully. It makes the adjustment from Swedish weather easier!

I left the dropcam on for a few days, at least, and I do love looking at the timelapse of our deck view:
video
We're planning our fall return around early October. More on that later. I also have a number of topics lined up for the coming weeks, so stay tuned, dear readers!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Off the island....

We left Aspö this morning. Thankfully a rain squall came through right at our departure time, so it was a lot easier to leave. Usually our departure day is gorgeous!

Our last few days were bucolic. The weather was still warm and sunny, so we pottered around in Tony's boat, enjoyed our deck, and shared our wedding anniversary with Ann & Dave. We also had a super visit on Sunday from the Lidbecks, a family we knew back in our London days. It was great to have another family visit us, even if it just was for 18 hours.

Tonight, we're having dinner with Marcia in the city, and tomorrow is the Stockholm-London-Texas trip. Back to 100° temperatures. It'll be a shock!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Where does the time go??

It's Thursday already? Amazing.

We did go to Gustavsberg on Monday, but the outdoor furniture was very picked-over. Not surprising, given the hot weather we've been having. Sooz is going to search around for a couple of sun chairs that are foldable. She doesn't want to be pulling anything large around the decks.

Tony lent me his fishing boat; we've been tootling around the island, practicing our seamanship skills. It's been great fun, and beautiful to see the island in such a leisurely way.

It's still been unseasonably hot but we've had some rain overnight, and it is getting a bit cooler each day. Today, we can smell a bit of the forest fires from central Sweden. With luck, the cooler and wetter weather will help relieve the disaster up there.

We've had a couple of superb meals over at Ann & Dave's, and last night, at Olle and Annika's. I have to run a few laps of Aspö every morning to keep from gaining too much weight! As usual, all this activity are on the photo page.

My to-do list is now officially empty. I will have to find something else to do in the next few days. Sooz keeps wanting me to relax. Perhaps I'll give that a try.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Thunder & Lightning

We've had a couple of massive thunderstorms at dawn the past few days. The first one, on Thursday, finally broke the heat we've been having, and it was a beautiful warm, dry "Swedish summer day", as Olle put it. But the humidity has come back, and this morning's storm just brought soupy air. It's not as hot, thankfully. The ceiling fans make a big difference, that's for sure.

This morning is a good time to recover from Dave's 50th birthday party on Sandhamn yesterday. We took a taxi boat straight from Aspö with Ann & Dave, Tony & Ann-Catrin, their daughters Annelie and Annika, plus all the kids. We ate at the same place I had my own 50th birthday! It was a super time.

Ann & Dave have a car this year, parked at Stavsnäs, and they've offered it to us. So we're going to take the taxi boat tomorrow, and drive up to Gustavsberg to do a bit of shopping. I'm pretty much done with my "to-do" list, so I need to buy more stuff to start on new projects, and Sooz wants to look at more deck furniture at Brisak.

I've been updating the photo page as I go along; check there for new snaps of all this activity.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rain!

Rain just began this Wednesday afternoon, and it's all Sooz's fault! She went into town with our neighbor Peter yesterday and picked up a nice big umbrella for our table. We put it up today, and sure enough, it began to sprinkle 10 minutes later.

Other than that, things are good. We had our first dinner on the deck with Annika and Olle Sunday night, and we decided at the last minute to go to Namdö for the evening concert at the church, which was superb. On Monday, Peter and Jeanette came by for drinks with their sons Nicholas and Sebastian, and Seb's dog, Pongo. We came by Ann & Dave's house afterwards for dessert and got a great moose sighting!!!

Our friend Tonia came to visit yesterday, and we've been having a good time hanging out in the drizzle. With a bit of luck, this will help lower the temperature and humidity...

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lots going on!

I finished the deck, finally, Friday morning. Drilling all those screws (672 of them) took a lot longer than I thought. Complicating the task was that it's been so damned hot this week. I know it's perverse to complain about sunny days while on vacation, but it has been borderline uncomfortable out on the deck, working the drill all day.

The whole country has been around 30°C (85°F) this week, and frankly, Swedes aren't built for that. Houses are built to catch the sun, not be shaded from it. Air conditioning isn't prevalent. I've heard about runs on cooling fans at local stores, and an increase in admissions to hospitals. Out here in Aspö, though, we're just sticking to the shade and dipping into the Baltic to cool off if necessary. Gin and tonics also help, too.

Friday was also the launch of our neighbour Claes' new book on the history of Aspö. He held a little party at his house, and we saw lots of residents, some we hadn't met before. So that was a treat.

Today, we went with Olle and Annika to the Nämdö Day, which is a little yearly festival held on that island. There was a big tent of items for sale, a beer garden (me and Ole's favourite!) and various other island activities. I got to meet Nilla, my contact on the broadband project. She was amazed to meet her email buddy all the way from Texas. It looks like we'll have the fast internet on Aspö next summer, if you're optimistic, and the summer of 2016 if you're realistic.

We had lunch and then went back home to do a bit of swimming and kayaking in the surprisingly warm sea. Many photos are on the flickr page.

Tomorrow evening is a concert at the church on Nämdö, and we'll join Olle and Annika for that as well. It's great to have such generous and well-connected neighbours!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A couple of milestones

First, I can't say that the deck is done, but it is nearly, nearly done. I have 42 boards to secure with 16 screws each. I thought I could get it all done today, but I underestimated the time it took to get set up. It took me about 6 hours to secure 25 boards with 8 screws each, and man, was I beat at the end of the day! (Here's today's timelapse video.)

I'll do the remaining 17 tomorrow, and then I assume the remainder of screws on each board will go faster once I have them all fixed in place. We wanted the deck to be able to catch the sun, and wow, does it! I was scorched out there.

The other milestone is this blog crossed 100,000 unique views today! Since my first post nearly 7 years ago, an average of 40 different people looked at this blog each day. I find that amazing.

In social news, we went to Nämdö yesterday with our neighbors Peter and Jeanette and their son Nicholas for dinner and a bit of shopping. Peter lent me his drill for my deck supports. It turns out that Jeanette and Sooz had parallel experiences of living in Italy in the 70's, which was fun to talk about. Nicholas is a principal at Pharmarium in Gamla Stan, the oldest part of Stockholm. He told us about their amazing cocktails, and we will make sure we visit his place as soon as we can.

Today, we had cocktails with Britt and Ronnie, and their daughters Jenny and Jessica (along with Jessica's husband Henrik and their kids). Britt and Ronnie's house is gorgeous, and we enjoyed drinks and nibbles on the water. At the end of the evening, the ladies enjoyed the horticulture, but I was far more impressed with Ronnie's robot lawn mower!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The deck is nearly done

video
The only thing left to do is to screw down the deck boards themselves (656 of them by my count). But we're out walking on it now. It looks great!

Here's a good time-lapse video of it going up. The 10 second stretch of laying out the boards is pretty funny. If only it was as easy as it looked.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The new deck is going up

Olle came over yesterday and we got started on building the deck. First came the frame of the deck itself, then we attached it to the house at the right level.

Sooz helped us raise it to something close to the right height. I then drilled for the supports and added 6 posts to secure it.

We stopped for the day after that; Olle had to go back to Stockholm for the week. I hope I can get the frame raised to a level height today and secured to the posts. Then it should be a straightforward job to add the decking!

There are a few pictures and a time-lapse movie on the flickr page. More to come tomorrow!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Ölprovning

... means "beer tasting" in Swedish. Following on to the success of the wine tasting (vinprovning) last summer, our resident sommelier, Naima, held another tasting for the Aspö residents.

We sampled a number of different styles of beer, some of which were local to Stockholm, others from from far away. Sooz and I carried over a case of Shiner Bock, so everyone could taste a decent local Texas beer.

We stayed long into the night, talking with old friends, and meeting new ones. Additional cans of beer were provided and sampled! Photos are on the new July/August flickr page.

Between all the sampling and our jet lag, we slept until 9 this morning. Now to doze in the summer sunshine today...

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Our arrival

video
We're here, all safe and sound. Once again, our logistical chain worked perfectly. We arrived on Aspö with just exactly as much stuff as we could possibly carry. One more can of herring or box of nails would've tipped us over, I think.

As a bonus, the weather is perfect. It's going to be a great 3 weeks!

Here's a fun little video of our dropcam's record of our arrival and subsequent evening in timelapse form.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Road safety in Sweden

I've read recently about Sweden's great success in improving road safety. Fewer people die on Sweden's roads than any other country in the world.

This success is partly through many changes to road construction and legislation. But more central is something much more Swedish: the willingness to set one's personal needs aside for the collective good. A number of road changes have increased cost for drivers (through congestion charges) or slowed down traffic through road barriers (farthinders, as they're called in Swedish).

All of this has been done with far less grumbling than one might expect here in the USA. The number of lives saved, and the collective will to accomplish this, is a real source of pride in Sweden. A number of other countries and cities are looking at the Swedish road program, including New York.

Translating the Swedish way to New York road traffic sounds like a huge task! It will be interesting to see if this is successful.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

An Icelandic summer home

A friend recently sent me a Wall Street Journal article about a very appealing modern summer home built in the Icelandic countryside.

The WSJ jealously guards its content online, so I can't link to the article, but I did find the slideshow of house pictures. There are some parallels to our Swedish experience. It's worth a look.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A New Deck

One of the things I've written about in the past is that the deck on our house is perfect for the two (or three) of us, but not really big enough for a full table. When we've had friends over, our table is darned close to the house's glass on one side, or a drop off the deck on the other. I really should have specified a longer deck when I built the house, but I couldn't have gotten everything right, I guess!

I looked into ways to extend the deck, but, frankly, everything I thought of disturbed the look of the house too much for my tastes.

This spring, I hit upon the idea of building a deck in a different direction, not in the front of the house, but along the side. The wide steps Janne built lead down to the rocks below. That area gets a good amount of sun (handy for Sooz to work on her tan), and it's large enough area to fit a full table. On those days we have a lot of people over, it'd be easy to put the table there, and everyone can move around freely.

So I measured out an area of 4 by 5 meters (about 215 square feet) which leads out from the steps, and over the rocks below.
In the past, Janne and Olle have ordered my lumber for me, but now it's time for me to handle those things myself. Olle told me about the archipelago's lumberyard, Vindö Byggvaror. I called them and was connected to Jocke, a nice gentlemen who recently moved back from living in the US for 20 years. I think his English was better than mine!

We talked a few times, and I sent him photos of my ideas. Jocke put together a materials list for delivery to the midsommar dock on Aspö on July 16th. I sent that list to Olle, who reviewed it and suggested a few changes. Olle even drew a sketch for me!
So the plan is for all supplies to be on the dock when I arrive Friday and I'll carry it up to the house for a deck-building project. Deck-building is one of the top pastimes on Aspö, for the menfolk at least. I expect I'll be able to access lots of experience and advice from my fellow residents. I will of course update the blog with my building exploits.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Painting, the final chapter

I posted about three weeks ago about how much we liked Ove's paint job on the front of the house. Not only have we protected the wood, the house looks great, and it smells good, too!

I asked him for a quote to do the other two facades. The short side still looks perfect, but the back of the house has an issue to address.

We've kept the trees around back; many of them are quite close to the house. The shade and moisture there has allowed a bit of green growth. I hesitate to say mold or algae, but it's clear the wood there needs to be brushed off and protected.

From the wood's point of view, the front of the house was clearly too hot & dry, and the back appears to be too shady and wet. Thankfully, linseed oil paint can fix both of these problems!

Ove's price to paint the house was high by Texas standards, but not really by archipelago rates. The best news is that he thinks he can be done before we return in July! It will be great to have that all done.

We decided not to paint the guest house right now; we have to economise in some ways, and it's a simple enough job that we can do it ourselves, perhaps next year.

UPDATE: They've already started. I caught a glimpse of the workers on my dropcam, and Annika sent me a photo of the back of the house with the caption "looking good"! So it will all be done by the time we arrive, for sure.