In a country known for 100-megabit home internet and one of the highest smartphone usage rates in the world, there lurks an archaic and surprisingly popular mass-media technology. Text-TV, the Swedish national TV network's teletext system, boasts 3.7 million weekly viewers. In other words, more than one third of the population of Sweden regularly sits down at their TVs to read news headlines and sports scores in dazzling 6-color monospaced type.
To my dear American readers, teletext technology may be an alien concept (it certainly was to me before being introduced to Text-TV). It is essentially an analog broadcasting hack, where text data is encoded between video frames of a TV signal. It can be used for subtitles and program information, or the TV can be switched to a pure-text mode for viewing different numbered "pages" of text. A viewer navigates to a page by using the remote to enter the page's corresponding number; a primitive hyperlink.
The image above is the current front page of TV4 Text. Note the numbered links for different news articles and sections. Quick Swedish lesson tangent: Avförings means "fecal."
The BBC pioneered teletext technology in the early 70's, and Sweden was the next country to follow a few years later. Many networks around the world adopted teletext systems since then, but in the past decade some have shut down because of the transition to digital broadcasting and the ubiquity of the internet.
But not in Sweden. SVT, the Swedish national TV network, has admirably kept Text-TV relevant in today's ever-changing media landscape. They adapted the text encoding for digital broadcasting, so it is available as a part of current cable and over-the-air service. But more impressively, they offer a Text-TV website which faithfully recreates the familiar page layout and navigation, including the option of a white-on-black "TV" color scheme.
Discovering this new old technology was a revelation for me, but I was skeptical as to how much it is really used among my own "Twitter this, Facebook that" generation. So I asked a Swedish friend whether young people actually watch the Text-TV. His response was, "It's mostly older people who grew up with it their whole lives, but the app is pretty good for sports."
Apparently the 3rd-party iPhone version was one of the most popular apps in Sweden when it was released. According to an editorial director at SVT, "Text-TV has a minimalist style, straightforward language, and an interface with no pictures or anything to overload a mobile. I also think that Text-TV has become a little like a cult, there is some kind of nostalgia for many."
May Text-TV live to see another 40 years.
Call me crazy, but ever since I noticed the random 32-letter ID's for apps in Google Chrome Web Store URLs (see above), I can't help but imagine pronouncing them in my head. The thought of someone actually trying to read off the nonsensical URL is almost unbearably hilarious to me for some reason. It's just one of those weird things I do to keep myself entertained.
So today I decided to take it one step further. I made a bookmarklet that uses Google Translate's text-to-speech engine to get a real robotic pronunciation of the letters in a URL. Naturally it uses the Italian robot voice because it's the funniest one I found. Want to hear the results?
- Drag the following link to your bookmarks bar. URL Pronouncer
- Go to a page on the Chrome store, like this one.
- Click the bookmark you just added.
I've tested this on Chrome and Safari and it might not work on Firefox.
It sometimes works on other websites but not all the time, probably because of some restrictions on Google's side. If you know what the problem might be, let me know.
This useless little project is also the first thing I've uploaded to GitHub.
Discussion topic: What kind of cookie best represents the United States?
At work, the product managers have started taking turns bringing in baked goods every Wednesday. The lazier ones among us just buy something at the store, but for my first Wednesday fika I naturally wanted to bring a home-baked treat. One of my coworkers suggested I bring "something American", which got me pondering the above question.
So back to the question at hand. If you said chocolate chip cookies, come on. Be a little creative. My answer?
Oatmeal-peanut butter Breakfast Cookies based off this recipe. Unfortunately I didn't have my mom's recipe for these cookies; that one is much better. But the idea is the same. So what makes breakfast cookies the most American cookies? Several reasons:
- Peanut butter. In the U.S. we don't really consider PB to be typically American, but that's how the rest of the world sees it. In fact, more than one Swede has asked me why Americans like peanut butter so much. They just don't get it. Furthermore, it's in the international section of the grocery stores here. George Washington Carver would be proud.
- Mix-ins. While the linked recipe just calls for raisins, I also included M&Ms, and the real recipe throws in chocolate chips too for an all-out attack of texture and flavor. I don't have any strong argument for why mix-ins are American, but it just feels right, doesn't it?
- And of course the obvious one: Who else but Americans would have the audacity to suggest that cookies are a suitable breakfast food? And then this cookie goes and puts it right in its name!
To drive home the whole American thing, I made mine extra large. I will see how they go over with the Swedes tomorrow.
Following up on my previous bread post, I finally got around to making my first sourdough bread this weekend. Or should I say, trying to make my first sourdough. I was not expecting perfection; baking good bread takes a lifetime to master, and the sourdough recipe I was using is many times trickier than anything I've tried before. And since this was hands-down the worst loaf I've ever made, chances are pretty good that the next one will turn out better.
So what actually went wrong? I could explain it myself, but instead I will quote a former coworker with whom I've been corresponding about baking. He managed to predict the exact problems I would have, unfortunately just a little too late for me to do anything about it:
The basic Tartine bread looks easy, but is actually quite difficult to master (many, including me, really struggle with it). It has a very high hydration, and working with the dough is a challenge. Shaping it is almost impossible. American flour tends to absorb more water than European flour. If you used American quantities with European flour, you probably had a super-hydrated dough, which is even more difficult to work with.
In other words, my dough was about halfway to being batter. Trying to form a loaf with this goop was like trying to make a pile of water.
After a good deal of cursing I decided to just go with it and see what happens. But my problems were compounded: because I had put so much effort into forming this blob into a workable shape, I had driven out much of the carbon dioxide that had formed during the fermentation and initial rising. This would be one flat loaf. Perhaps as a consolation, I thought, I could get a rabbi to certify it kosher for Passover. (Sorry gentiles, I'll explain it to you later).
After one final rise overnight, I put the sad-looking mess into the oven, bracing myself for disappointment. And what came out was... about what I expected.
Yeah, there are some tiny holes, but this is one dense loaf. The combination of the overly-wet dough and the lack of dissolved gas meant this guy didn't really rise at all in the oven. I gnawed on a couple slices but the rest of it is just sitting on my counter, growing staler by the minute; an indestructible monument to crushed dreams.
But the next one will be better. That's how this sort of thing works: iteratively improve your technique, hone the recipe, and keep raising your standards. Until you get bored or develop a gluten sensitivity. This may have been a small setback in my quest for bread supremacy, but don't you worry, I will rise again.
A coworker recently gave me a book that she hoped would help me assimilate into Swedish culture.
Xenophobe's® guide to the Swedes is a handy guidebook of important Swedish stereotypes and cultural peculiarities. Naturally, it's written in a tongue-in-cheek style, and it covers every angle, from food and dinner parties to family values and popular culture. Here are some of the profound insights that Xenophobe's provides:
On the environment:
The Swedes have a dream: to save Nature from Man. It's as close to a passion as the Swedes ever get.
My verdict: pretty good; see my previous post about recycling. Passion is indeed in short supply here, but I wouldn't even use the term to describe their environmentalism. It's more of an ideology ingrained in the culture, like that education and healthcare should be free.
The only greater sin than being rich is being famous, though it is acceptable to acquire fame that rubs off on Sweden as a whole, allowing everyone to bask in the limelight. [...] But Ingrid Bergman, glamorous star of such Hollywood classics as Casablanca and Indiscreet, fell foul of her Swedish audiences because she earned her fame as an expatriate and failed to flaunt her Swedish origins at every opportunity.
I can't really speak to this one, but it seems like something that would be harder to spot as an outsider. I'll investigate further.
Anyone wondering what really makes the Swedes tick need look no further: it is coffee. A coffee embargo would bring the country to a halt within days.
My verdict: Spot on. My coffee consumption has at least doubled since moving here, and I'm still a lightweight by Swedish standards.
The book was written by an authentic Swede, and overall it captures a lot of the stuff I've noticed about this country. But I think it still has some gaps. For example, the food section doesn't once mention the Swedes' fixation with emulsified sauces or fermented dairy products. So I guess I'll need to fill in those gaps. Stay tuned.
Apparently Xenophobe's is a whole series, published out of Britain, with guides for most European countries as well as English-speaking countries around the world. You're probably wondering what the American one is like, so here's the excerpt they included:
A wise traveller realises that a few happy moments with an American do not translate into a permanent commitment of any kind. Indeed, permanent commitments are what Americans fear the most. This is a nation whose most fundamental social relationship is the casual acquaintance.
Discuss amongst yourselves...
Now that I've kind of settled in in Sweden, I decided to start a project that I'd been meaning to do for a while: make sourdough bread from scratch. In case you aren't aware of the process, sourdough bread does not use packaged yeast like most bread. Rather, you cultivate a sourdough starter: a culture of natural yeasts and bacteria which feeds on a flour/water mixture. Since the starter is a living thing, you need to feed it daily to keep it happy and in balance. So basically maintaining a sourdough starter is like having a pet that you can eat.
You can get started making sourdough by taking some of a pre-existing starter and continuing to feed it, but it turns out it's really easy to make starter spontaneously by letting some flour and water sit out for a couple days. The cooties naturally occurring in the flour and the air will begin to grow in the mixture, and it just takes a few days for the little ecosystem to get into balance. I used the basic guide in the Tartine Bread book: 50/50 mix of whole wheat and white flour, mixed with water to form a batter, put in a cool dark place for 2 or 3 days until it smells funny and bubbles. Then feed it daily by discarding 80% of it and adding fresh flour and water.
I just began this project 5 days ago, but my starter is already acting and smelling like a top-notch sourdough breed. I'm so proud of it. In case anyone is interested in jumping on the sourdough bandwagon, here's a rough timeline of how my starter developed so you can see if you're on the right track. The best way to detect changes in a fermentation process is by smell, so if you don't want to hear me describe what bacteria smells like, just skip over this part.
- Day 0: Create initial flour/water mixture.
- Day 1: No noticeable bubbles, not much smell
- Day 2: Some bubbles and a strong vinegar/jet fuel fermentation smell. Not pleasant but a sign of life. I did the first feeding then.
- Day 3: Less jet fuel, more vinegary and a little fuller bodied aroma. Before the feeding it looked kind of dead but bubbles started forming within 20 minutes or so of feeding.
- Day 4: Almost pleasant-smelling. Yeasty with some blue cheese notes. Even more bubbling/growing in the first couple hours after feeding than in previous days.
- Day 5: Much more mellow aromatically, for the first time it actually smells a bit like sourdough.
At this point it already seems trained to the healthy 24-hour feeding cycle, but I'll probably give it a few more days before trying to make bread with it.
What if I'm not around for a few days, you ask? Will my starter starve to death, tragically unaware that it lives mere inches from a container with a lifetime supply of its food? Probably, but if I grow too attached to let that happen, Sweden's got my back. A bakery here in Stockholm has opened a "sourdough hotel" where they will care for your beloved microorganisms while you are out of town. But that's just a little too insane.
I just got back from a week-long trip to Spain. I traveled around to Granada, Sevilla, and Barcelona. The highlight of the trip was seeing the Sagrada Familia, a church designed by Antoni Gaudi in the 1880s-1920s. The building's design is unlike anything I've ever seen; it's described as "neo-gothic" but that doesn't really express the uniqueness of it. The most interesting thing, though, is that it's still being built, and isn't expected to be completed until the late 2020s. I guess I just admire the outrageous ambitiousness of the project. Anyways, here's some photos from the trip.
One of the great tragedies in modern Swedish history was the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986. He was shot in the back as he was walking with his wife in downtown Stockholm. The killer fled the scene and was never found, and the investigation is still open.
Naturally, there continues to be speculation about the motive and the identity of the murderer. Just think about all the JFK conspiracy theories now, and then imagine how much worse it would be if Lee Harvey Oswald had never been found. Palme was outspoken on many international issues like Apartheid and the Vietnam War, so that doesn't really help narrow down the suspects. The simplest theory is that a man named Christer Pettersson shot Palme in a case of mistaken identity. He was actually convicted, but it was overturned due to insufficient evidence.
I learned about Palme as I was walking to lunch with some coworkers, and one of them pointed out a street sign: Olof Palmes gata. Palme was shot a block away from our office, on one of the busiest streets in Stockholm. The cross street was renamed in his memory.
I don't really have anything else to say about it, but I'm just fascinated by the mystery and the improbability of it all. I recommend reading the Wikipedia page to get the longer version of the story. And now you've learned some Swedish history.
So I've started watching some Swedish TV shows in an attempt to learn the language more quickly. I'm only at about 5% comprehension at this point, but it can only go up from there. I did find one program, which while mostly in English, is quite interesting.
It's called Allt för Sverige (Everything for Sweden). It's a reality show where Americans of Swedish descent get to travel to Sweden in an effort to reconnect with their heritage. The Americans get the Authentic Swedish Experience™ through activities like chopping wood in the north and exploring Stockholm. This is interspersed with heartwarming (and heartbreaking) vignettes where each person learns about his/her own family history. And since it's a contemporary reality-style program, naturally someone gets sent home in each episode. Apparently the country's social safety net doesn't extend to game show contestants.
The current contestants (this is the second season, but apparently there was an identical show in Norway before) showcase a full spectrum of American stereotypes, from the folksy middle-aged trucker lady to the charming bearded youth minister, and not one but two uncharismatic ditzy blonde women. But my favorite interchange in the episode I saw involved Thure, the slightly overweight, overly enthusiastic guy. He meets an older Swedish gentleman whom he believes shares his uncommon name. He ecstatically hugs the man, making the reserved Swede visibly uncomfortable. In the cutaway that follows, I couldn't understand exactly what the Swede said, but I think it's along the lines of "My name is Tore, not Thure. He didn't understand the difference."
But the show isn't just about Americans making fools of themselves. As I've covered previously, Swedes don't really think of their homeland as interesting to outsiders. It's clear that one of the ideas behind the production is to show that foreigners really are interested in Swedish culture and history. A nationalistic self-esteem booster, if you will. I'd love to hear what my Swedish colleagues think of the show; I'll report back if they have any insights.