Respecting the local COVID restrictions we have turned to hiking in the forest every weekend for exercise, fresh air and — weather permitting — a bit of sunshine. As the days get shorter and as both my wife and I work from home, we need to get out. Our youngest on the other hand has to endure: she is outdoor in the kindergarten most of the day and only goes inside for meals and short sessions in smaller groups.
When we moved to Stockholm three years ago our financial realities gave us a choice between moving to a small flat near the center with a short commute or to a larger house with a one hour commute. These days when we both work from home, we enjoy that we chose the latter.
Forests and lakes are abundant around here even 20 km from the centre of a city of more than one million. Freeways and railways cut through rough terrain, and just a short walk away you can get lost in the wilderness. The landscape is the work of the retracting ice leaving steep hillsides with rough boulders to be slowly conquered by pine trees and oaks.
You discover the traces of several thousand years of human activity have left on the landscape. A rune stone mourning the death of a loved one near not far from a memorial spray painted on a concrete wall mourning the death of a loved one. A goodbye-dear-homeland carved into a rock wall from an America emigrant in 1872 not far from the concrete tower blocks welcoming in immigrants since the sixties. A Stone Age petroglyph next to a mosque. Contrasts that make you think.
The local municipalities provide good facilities. Apps and websites show were to go. Parking lots and information boards are easy to find. Paths are marked with coloured dots, wet patches are enhanced by wooden footbridges, and picnic tables and shelters are frequent.
So far we have visited four different lakes in four weekends, all within a 15 minutes drive. Enjoy pictures from our trips.
I spent a lot of time on RPG forums back in the days before Facebook and SoMe stole most of the traffic though never quite delivering the same experience. Well, flame wars definitely happen also on SoMe, but I never quite saw the meticulously argued conversation about a niche topic between a few dedicated and well articulated debaters.
The Danish RPG forum died when Brian pulled the plug on the server and moved to land of the guns. Forge and story games also got quiet until both closed down. I had some RPG chatter on Facebook and Google Plus, but Plus died and I deleted my Facebook account after moving to Stockholm (and after Cambridge Analytica).
So now when raising kids and home improvement projects take less of my time, and I need to get a geek fix, I’m turning to the Swedish RPG forum at rollspel.nu, this has the added benefit of helping me understand Swedish language and culture better.
One example of what a geek forum can do for you is this thread where a person in earnest is wondering if the details of a fictional landscape in certain types of genres have enough influence on the story generated through play.
Well, funny enough, this is actually one design aspect I’m working with in my hack of How We Came to Live Here by Brennan Taylor.
From https://tbe.se (Healthcare Media): “Lethal tick disease more common than previously known” and “2017: More cases than ever before”.
Plus plenty of pictures of ticks and kids. I’m reminded by the scene in The Truman Show where Truman visits a travel agency to buy a plane ticket and there is a poster of a plane being hit by lightning on the wall behind the sales agent.
Into the sales funnel
Ticks are common also in Denmark and Skåne where I lived before, and while I was taught from childhood to check for ticks and too look out for infection, the danger was Borelia, another tick-borne disease, for which there is a cure (antibiotics, if given early). However, in certain areas, ticks also carry TBE, and one of these areas is the Stockholm region.
So as a good parent, I was naturally fully intended on getting the family vaccinated. Who wouldn’t want their kids to go play in a forest? Which parent doesn’t do their best to protect their kids against the dangers of the world?
First summer in Stockholm came and went without us getting vaccinated (or infected), we were busy doing other things. When life started to calm down — and triggered by the ever present reminders all around — I looked into the practicalities of how to get it done. But there was one thing that was nagging me: Sweden generally provides good public health care, at least for kids, with vaccine programs and regular health checks. So if TBE is so dangerous, why doesn’t Sweden provide the vaccine for free?
So I looked into the facts.
What is the risk of catching TBE?
According to the Swedish health authorities, the number of TBE cases reported per year in the Stockholm region are:
2017: 146 or 6,32 per 100 000 inhabitants
2018: 116 or 4,94 per 100 000 inhabitants
2019: 98 or 4,12 per 100 000 inhabitants
The numbers I have cited are the cases reported as infected in Sweden. The region of Stockholm contains about 2.3 million people.
For comparison, the number of people who have tested positive with Covid-19 in the Stockholm region so far is above 15 000. However, the vaccine has been around for some time now and I don’t know how many in the Stockholm region has been vaccinated. Maybe we are the last four in the region who hasn’t got our shots?
Checking other sources, here is from CDC: “The overall risk of acquiring TBE for an unvaccinated visitor to a highly endemic area during the TBE virus transmission season has been estimated at 1 case per 10,000 person-months of exposure.”
Also, even if you happen to catch TBE, most cases are mild. Again from CDC: “The European subtype is associated with milder disease, a case-fatality ratio of <2%, and neurologic sequelae in up to 30% of patients. “
Say we are exposed to ticks for one month per year through our behaviour, this puts the odds of someone in the family catching TBE at less than once per 10 000 summers of outdoor activity.
What does the vaccine do?
Vaccines are not miracles, even if they come close. To be fully effective, three doses must be given over one year, with a re-vaccination every 3-5 years.
From the Swedish Health Authority: “After three doses according to the normal time table, almost 100% of the vaccinated is protected for at least three years”
Not bad. Each dose cost around 400 SEK. So the family could be protected for three years for just under 5 000 SEK.
Why doesn’t Sweden provide a free vaccine?
Åland (between Sweden and Finland) provides a free vaccine to its citizens while Sweden has chosen not to do so. In my search to understand why, I found a study by the Swedish Health Authority from December 2018 which clearly examines the costs and benefits for three different vaccine programs.
Essentially doing the same calculations as above, the study concludes that it is not cost effective to provide publicly sponsored vaccination.
The cost of saving one life-year lands at way above 1 000 000 SEK per year in all of the scenarios. While the study does not put an exact break-even number — as this is essentially a political question — it does state that costs of more than 1 000 000 SEK/year is generally perceived as not cost effective.
This leaves the market open for the commercial actors to convince people like me that what they offer is of value to me. Looking at the dropping number of reported TBE cases for 2019, it looks like they have been very succesful doing this. Or maybe the ticks just didn’t like the hot and dry summers of 2018 and 2019.
My personal risk appetite is definitely higher than 1 per 10 000. So I decided to not get us vaccinated but rely on the well known prevention measures: Wear long trousers and closed footwear when going into the forest, check for ticks when returning home, pay attention also to worn clothes. That saves the family three trips to a clinique and cash for a new iPad. It’s not like we are camping in the archipelago every weekend anyway.
Now after looking into the details, I can safely walk past the infomercials and still feel like a good parent. Of course, if it so happens that one of my kids gets bitten by a tick that causes a serious case of TBE, I will have to live with the consequence of knowing that I — maybe — could have prevented it. Or, hang on, maybe I should buy the kids an insurance, another heavily-marketed product in Sweden…?
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, … it is a time like any other time.
When Charles Dickens wrote the introduction to a Tale of Two Cities, he was writing a historical novel about the French Revolution. Many times since first reading his gripping story, the first sentence in the book has resonated with me when the present has presented itself from its worst and best sides. Trump, Brexit, and Corona, but also smartphones, drones and internet everywhere.
For me personally, Corona Time has meant lots of quality time with my wife and kids. After the initial disruption and the re-discovering what is valuable, important, meaningful and possible right here, right now, we have enjoyed many great moments.
We live in a beautiful spot with forest and lakes close by, in a suburbia with bike lanes, play grounds, shopping facilities, and still close to nature. A few weeks ago, I took off the supporting wheels on Sofie’s bike at her own request, and soon after she was biking on two wheels. This Sunday, we went to Hågelbyparken, a 3 km ride each way, to enjoy the afternoon sunshine with Sofie biking herself both ways. Saturday on the way back from a car trip to the south tip of Botkyrka, a mother elk and her young kid were grazing in the evening sun right next to the road as we passed by.
It is more than 2 months since I’ve been in the city center of Stockholm and I don’t miss it.
From change comes opportunity
I was laid off from my job a few weeks ago. It’s never fun, but it was the right decision for the company. I was in a strategic position with a short notice period. It was great to get to know the company, but also great now to get to re-invent myself. At work, I had a colleague argue “it has been like that for 15 years, we can’t change that”, while at the same time, outside, people stopped going to concerts, movies, and plays, and stopped visiting relatives and holding parties. A time of change is a time of opportunity, rules are being rewritten.
I’m half way in my professional life, I’ve worked in the space between technology and business for 20 years. I’ve written code, designed libraries, frameworks and tools, I’ve initiated, executed and closed projects. I’ve set up a company to launch a hobby project. I’ve picked up countless new technologies (and vaporised buzzwords) and I’ve worked with lots of smart people. I’ve met my wife at work and we moved to Stockholm to explore new opportunities.
And still the best is yet to come.
So I’m discovering the job market in Stockholm (again). We hear a lot about the companies that are hit hard by the crisis. But there are winners as well as losers. Plenty of open positions are being posted on LinkedIn, at least the kinds I qualify for. So, to land a good next job, is like playing a game or optimising a process, both of which I enjoy!
Here are some insights I’ve gotten so far:
Python & Data Science is hot!
LinkedIn Learning does have good quality content!
Covid-19 has shown that working full time remote is possible! But companies and recruiters have not yet found out!
Getting into Python and Data Science could be great fun — let me explain why.
I first came upon Python 20 years ago. I was fascinated with the core design principle, the Colombo egg of having white space replacing the semantic meaning of curly braces and semi colons. And then, having learned Matlab at university, it felt very familiar.
Then I joined SimCorp and became an APL programmer for 10 years. APL is one of the inspirations for Matlab and Python. APL has a run time interpreter and awesome native array support for working with vectors and matrices. The one thing that puts most people off is the non-ascii characters, which certainly impose a learning curve for newcomers. For SimCorp, this meant establishing its own training programme and developing lots of libraries internally.
I also came upon Daniel Ross’ talk from PyCon Sweden 2019 on why Python is huge in finance, well worth half an hour of your time.
Data Scienceis all around us
Well, what is data science? Beyond the hashtag and buzzword, it is about using domain knowledge and statistical and mathematical models to understand and analyse data. Funny enough, back in my university days, I put together a master program in applied mathematics for myself with courses in numerical analysis, optimisation and data fitting, and a thesis in stochastic calculations. So getting into data science is quite like going back to the roots.
The arrival of Covid-19 has popularised modelling and data-driven decision making as never before and correct understanding of a phenomena and the data are crucial for life-and-death decisions these days. In the next Netflix drama, a Data Scientist will be played by cool, young, diverse actor and — in the voice of a prophet — correctly predict the consequences of messing with the laws of nature.
Let me leave you with one final link, an extraordinarily informative presentation of the concepts of epidemiology we now hear every day: https://ncase.me/covid-19.
This morning I caught a rat. We haven’t seen them for a long time, but yesterday I saw one in our winter garden* and set a trap.
Rats was one of the surprises that came with moving to Stockholm. I guess it comes with many people living “close to nature”, with lakes and forests and dumpsters.
We discovered their presence shortly after moving in and soon took our precautions. I sealed off entries into the house and under the house, I removed all bushes near the house, we keep the doors closed and the lawn short, we don’t leave food around outside and garbage goes into closed bins only. I also bought a trap and competed with the neighbours to get the most kills, at least those who still cared.
The autumn where they renovated the sewers under the house, the rats were running around in the play ground in broad daylight.
The last year or so has been quiet on the rat front though. So yesterday’s visit was a surprise. Some quick troubleshooting revealed the issue: My wife had left a bag with stale bread in a plastic bag in the winter garden.
Because of the Holodomor*, Ukrainians never throw away food. In spite best effort, we still fail to consume what we buy from time to time before it is spoiled, and as we don’t have animals — at least some we want to keep around — we do sometimes end up with food waste. So we go feed the ducks in the lake with the kids every now and then. Yesterday we were overdue. Today we caught up.
As everyone else we are impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, trying to hit the right level of changed behaviour to stay safe while still carrying on living. Oskar’s party is postponed. My business trip to Denmark this coming week is off. Easter vacation in Denmark to open the summer house for the season is at minimum shortened.
A time of change is a time of opportunity. More time playing with the kids and to enjoy the spring.
Take care, stay safe. Wash hands, cough in your sleeve, and don’t leave food around for the rats.
Winter garden. With four different languages around at home and after being confused about the Swedish term ‘uterum’ which both means outhouse and an unheated room in extension of a house, we decided to officially name the rooms in our house to at least be consistent. While we do keep flowers the room, it is maybe more aspirational to call it the winter garden, it’s mostly where we store boxes and garden furniture in the winter.
So I’ve started designing a new game. It’s a text adventure based on the Quest engine and it’s an adaptation of Montsegur 1244, my game about the fall of Montsegur in 1244 at the end of the Albigensian crusade in what is today southern France (1).
A digital game
Up until now, I have only created analog games, mostly tabletop RPGs for game conventions like Fastaval. Creating and publishing Montsegur 1244 in 2008 — 2010 was great fun.
As my kids grow older, I see a lot of good (and some not-so-good) games on the iPad. I also enjoy playing games on my smartphone. It’s like the smartphone format takes everything down in size, making it a one man project to create and publish a game app. It’s ok that you only play a game for a couple of hours, when you only pay 2 EUR for it. Plus you can reach a large audience.
While I enjoy pushing cardboard, dice, and meeples in the company of other people as much as any other, I’m also looking at a lot of boxes on shelves (and toys on the floor and books on shelves) and clearly seeing the advantages of digital content. Travel light, travel far.
So I’ve decided to create a digital game.
A few weeks ago I began looking into tools and platforms for creating games on the IPhone. Very quickly I found Quest at http://textadventures.co.uk. It is a platform for creating and running text adventures.
Quest is open source on the MIT license, which means that you keep the door open for a commercial launch. It is super easy to get started, as there is an online editor where you can create rooms and characters and start playing almost immediately. So that is what I did. The feature set and the stability were good, even if it is a bit slow to play online.
Since moving to Stockholm, I’ve mostly played games with my friend Oskar when I found time for playing. Oskar will be 40 next month, and when I asked about what he wanted, he said no presents, please — or to make a donation.
So I’m thinking to publish the game by then for him to play when he is turns 40. It’s a good time box. Deadlines are good to help focus on what is important.
Making hard choices
While I enjoyed puzzle games as much as any other (Day of the Tentacle, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), I don’t want to create a puzzle game for my adaptation of Montsegur 1244. I don’t want players to discover a one true story about the siege, but rather have each play-through generate a story with a statement about why people choose to burn for something they believe in (quite literally in this case (2)). Essentially it is not about finding out how to do what you want but finding out what you want to do and making hard choices in a difficult situation.
Into the trenches
Obviously my ambition leads to more work as Quest aims at scripted events and interactions and now I’m heading into sandbox territory. So this weekend I took a deep dive into writing a custom library in the scripting language of Quest. My goal was to make it possible to sneak past the crusaders but only when it is dark. Something like:
> Wait until evening
You wait until evening. It gets dark.
> Sneak past guards
You sneak past the guards without a sound and escape from Montsegur.
It took a while, learning a new language and new tools, but now I got a time tracker that can keep track of when it is light and dark outside and run the commands above. Furthermore, it triggers events such that characters can go to bed when it gets dark, wake up at dawn and go find something to eat.
So what’s next? I guess I need to model relations between characters and how they influence the decisions at the end of the game.
Over the holidays, I listened to Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Mathew Walker as an audio book while driving.
If it wasn’t because what Mr. Walker sells is free (sleep), he would classify as a snake oil salesman. There is almost no limit to what natural sleep can do for your health: Improved learning, memory, immune system, and mental health. His writing style is a little bit too American-centric for my taste. Anyhow, if you can endure the chapters where he detailed and relentlessly puts the evidence on the table of the benefits of sleep, you eventually get to the chapter on the impact on sleep of modern lifestyle choices.
Lots of this boil down to common sense: do as your mother said, get a good night’s sleep, 8 hours, every night. Before an exam, after an exam, before a flu shot, after a flu shot, as a kid, as a teenager, as an adult, and in old age. Every day, all life.
Coffee, alcohol, and artificial light (such as from smartphones and tablets) are all stuff that messes with your sleep rhythm. Well known stuff. Worth reflecting over always.
So after the long holiday without an alarm clock, I’m aiming to establish good routines to help us juggle the activities that makes up our working weeks. Getting to school and work on time, with proper clothing and homework done and with a mental state to meet the day’s expected and unexpected demands.
As a father and caregiver of two kids (aged four and seven currently), we are past the time where kids woke up several times during the night. While still enjoying the comfort of sleeping in our bed from time to time, we can establish good routines (sleep hygiene as Mr. Walker calls it) and expect long, sleep-full nights all four.
So, here is where my key takeaway from the book came: The impact of the alarm clock. Most of us wake up with the use of an alarm clock (or smart phone alarm). The alarm clock triggers a fight-or-run stress response which can save your life on short term but is bad for your health on the long term. Furthermore, most of us snooze, i.e. voluntarily expose us to the stress factor of the alarm clock multiple times each day.
In response to this, I decided to immediately do an experiment with my alarm clock:
1: I changed my alarm clock for 15 minutes later with a commitment to not snooze.
2: I changed the alarm from a buzz to play Edvard Grieg’s Morning Mood.
As I have grown older, I have noted in myself how I have changed from a night owl to a morning person. I now particularly enjoy the reflective moment between waking up and getting up, where the brain is fresh and rested and can plan and explore how to meet today’s challenges.
My immediate experience was that I woke up before the alarm clock, so I still got this moment of reflection.
However, we had failed to tuck in early the first two nights of the week, so mornings were still a rough ride. So yesterday I started the bedtime ritual early. My oldest was very fresh and rested today in the morning and was ready for school before I was. He said we should go to bed early every evening. Clearly a success!
So now I’m doing a new experiment: I’ve set an alarm clock to remind us when to go to bed. Wouldn’t it be great with an alarm to go to bed instead of an alarm to wake up? Let’s see how it works!
When I joined my previous company, I was pleasantly surprised to be asked if I wanted a MacBook or a Windows laptop when I started. Besides having used iPhone for some time, I wasn’t deep into Apple land. Getting a chance fill in blank space, I jumped at the opportunity and chose Mac.
After patiently taking the time to learn new shortcuts — and to scroll in the opposite direction when reading a text longer than one screen — I became a happy Mac user. As most applications run in browsers these days, I didn’t miss out on many features. Only Excel on Mac had some limited capabilities for Pivot tables, an issue that disappeared when we switched to G Suite…
In the end, the only recurring issues were to find adapters to plug into the video systems in the various meeting rooms and to find a spare power supply when I forgot one at home.
I find it difficult to explain exactly why I liked Mac — other than it was easy to carry around — until now when I have switched back to Windows.
Given the same choice when I started in my new company, this time I chose a Windows laptop. Nice, lightweight, good battery life, good screen, good keyboard. Touchpad not quite like a Mac, otherwise quite ok.
After one week, I can tell you why I think the user experience on Mac OS is better than on Windows:
The Notification Center is a constant distraction of messages very rarely relevant to the work I’m trying to do. Virus scans, screen resolution fixes, software updates and reboots required — even Slack notifications as if Slack doesn’t already have plenty of ways to notify about new messages. Day three I turned all notifications off. Windows, if you want my attention, send a letter.
Next, Office. I have used all the applications before, not just on this particular laptop. Still, when opening an application for the first time, a welcome screen fills the entire window. Instead of getting on with my work, I’m searching for the quickest way to kill the tutorial.
When I open Outlook to look in my calendar, it shows me the list of unread emails, inviting me to task switching into reading and answering a new email instead of completing the task I was working on.
Oh, and even if I enjoy coming back to OneNote, the issue that language follows keyboard is still not fixed. Creating a note in English with a Swedish or Danish keyboard will fill the page with red curly lines. Word and Outlook can detect language as you type, but not OneNote. Switching to English keyboard, and I’m chasing the ‘-‘, the ‘@’, and other special characters.
The Windows user experience is more noisy. Instead of getting on with my work, Windows is full of distractions. I simply do more task switching in Windows than on Mac OS.
Things will get better over time, I’m sure. It’s just a tool and what is important is what you use it for and how you use it.
In the mean time, when I get too frustrated, I can always open my personal MacBook and write a blogpost.
One question I get a lot lately is how is the job market? It is not an easy one to answer. There are plenty of jobs posted on LinkedIn, but I only need one job, so what I care for is if there one for me and how to get it.
When I returned from vaction, I started sending applications. Typically, I didn’t hear anything for weeks besides the automated “application received” response. Then another automated mail, “we have chosen to proceed with other applicants”. Maybe it is just the holiday period, but I think not. Even for the jobs that sounded cool enough to follow up on, responses were slow to come and vague in details. Not very useful (1).
So how to improve?
What do I want and what are they looking for?
I have had the pleasure of doing many fun and challenging jobs in my career. I like new challenges and have been thrown into different situations and delivered. I want to do more of that!
Looking at my cv, others will easily see me as 20 year experience running complex, financial software development within large development organisations and thinking they will hire me to do more of that. This may not give me the job I want!
So part of the application process has been to tailor the cv to just look right. More emphasis on the stuff that matches the job post (and using the same words as in the job post), less emphasis on the stuff that point towards other interests and skills.
One of the insights gained in this process is that while I may have seen myself as an agile project manager, a lot of what I have done is what is also called business analysis, business intellegence and business process modelling (2). And I prefer heading in that direction rather than towards a role as scrum master or agile coach.
Tailoring the cv to the job post assumes that the company articulates what they actually are looking for — and that what they are looking for is what they actually need and will hire. I have seen job posts that mention specific tools and technologies like Tableau, Power BI, Azure, or AWS (3), when the truth is that picking up a new tool or technology and using it in a specific context could take no more than a week or two, while a cultural mismatch can’t be fixed as quickly.
It’s a broken process
The hiring process seen from the recruiting companies is not super fantastic either: First the hiring manager needs an approved headcount. Then the manager drafts a job description which goes through HR before it is published on whatever platforms the company has chosen to pay for. Then in a week or two, they get 200 applications, most of which are from people with no connection to Sweden or Scandinavia and no insight into the business, products or customers. Screening applications is then outsourced or done by a keyword match. Even if this produces a decent shortlist of candidates, it takes time to set up and do interviews and tests before you maybe get to send out offers. During which the headcount approval may need to be renewed or the candidate may have accepted another offer. Only if you end up signing with one candidate, you get to write feedback to the candidates you didn’t hire. It’s a broken process. It is designed to avoid mistakes, not to act fast on opportunities.
Do it differently
Obviously, there is another way to do things. It is called networking. A few weeks ago, I announced widely in my network that I am available for a new opportunities. I haved received great response, and it was great to catch up with people I haven’t been in touch with for a long time. Thanks!
This resulted in 3 interviews over the last two weeks. One of them led to an offer that I have chosen to accept — I’m starting a new job tomorrow.
Then you can start asking how is the new job?
(1) Feedback should be specific, acurate, objective, timely and usable.
I was a developer for 10 years before I changed career to become a project manager. Several factors contributed to that choice, but one pivotal moment was when I as a Software Architect participated in a cross organisational meeting with mostly middle managers and a senior manager. The senior manager had a problem that the company needed to solve and that he wanted one of his teams to pick up. I had technical insight into the product area that might be impacted but not much background in the business drivers and the organisation outside my unit.
Very little of what happened at that meeting was about exploring the options available, the consequences of these options, and deciding the best outcome for the company. It felt more like the middle managers were playing to avoid taking a home an impossible assignment for their teams. It was frustrating and I felt that I could contribute to better decision making and more informed choices by taking the role as a project manager.
Being a project manager, working across the line organisation, bridging silos and layers, speaking the local dialects, and knowing enough about what everyone is doing to ask the right questions, is challenging and rewarding. You parachute into a land of chaos and frustration, engage with people and systems, create order and momentum, and hand back the project to the line organisation. Then move on to the next challenge. Always working for the best outcome for the company and with respect for the people involved.