Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The return of Delsey?

The online web BMI lost luggage system now reads "Item Located, pending confirmation". Should I get my hopes up?

Wednesday Sept 30: BMI is expecting my luggage to arrive at Heathrow from Paris today. I'm supposed to check back later today. It has only been twelve days that I've been living without my travel iron and my Snoopy t-shirt, I suppose a few more hours won't hurt.

Thursday Oct 1: Well, they didn't get it yesterday afternoon, and now since it is officially more than 12 days the BMI baggage tracing system is no longer tracking it and now it becomes responsibility of the central BMI baggage service -- who does not have a web site and refuses to answer their phone. ARGGG!

Friday Oct 2: Now I'm told that Air France has delivered the bag to my home in Oxford. This is rather surprising, as there is no one at my home to accept it -- and the mail slot is certainly too small.

Friday Afternoon Oct 2: I'm starting to believe that I might actually get Delsey back. Air France claims to have given the bag to a courier company who is tasked in getting it back to me once I return to the UK. Perhaps this story might have a happy ending after all.

Sunday 12:15 PM Oct 4. Oxford. I have been reunited with Delsey. It only took 16 days.
Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nobel-Bets 2009

Well, it is that time of year again – the time when some really smart people start losing sleep worrying about whether they will get the Nobel prize. For the literature prize the official betting odds are listed here. The favorite is Amos Oz, but Bob Dylan is a 25:1 long shot on this list.

For the physics prize, each year, I try to make a few predictions for who will win. Last year’s incorrect prediction is posted on my blog here (Egad, that means I’ve been blogging for a whole year now!). This year I decided to do a bit more homework before making my prediction. While neutrino mass (my prediction from last year) still seems to me to be pretty important, after scanning the web, it seems to me that almost no one thinks that this is a contender. I suppose, like for the Oscars, the opinions of the masses may be important, so this year I am switching my bet to

Yakir Aharanov and Michael Berry

These two studied what are known as “Geometric Phases” in physics. (For the experts, yes, you can think of the Aharanov Bohm phase as being geometric, although you have to expand your picture of geometry a bit). Perhaps the simplest example of an interesting geometric phase is the strange quantum mechanical fact that when you rotate an electron around in a circle by 360 degrees you do not get back to where you started.

The Reuter’s web site gives Aharanov and Berry support from 19% of those polled. (Several other blogs here and here and here and here agree that this is a good bet).

However, according to the Reuters shortlist, the frontrunners for the prize should be recognized for discovering forms of carbon. Reuters proposes Geim and Novoselov (22%) for the discovery of graphene (carbon sheets) and Ijima (14%) narrowly behind for the discovery of nanotubes (carbon sheets rolled up into a tube). Not that I am opposed to carbon but…

I will remind everyone that Buckyballs, yet another form of Carbon, already won the Nobel prize recently – but in chemistry, not physics. I will also remind everyone that not every molecule made of carbon deserves an immediate Nobel prize. I know that the Carbonists have been lobbying hard, and admittedly both nanotubes and graphene are pretty cool. But I don’t think they are so overwhelmingly cool that they need a Nobel prize just yet. And if the lessons of Buckyballs are anything to learn from, we should expect that the hype will far outweigh the actual usefulness of, or interest in, the stuff in the long run.

A few other people who appear to be on many of the shortlists are Cirac and Zoller (too early in my mind, but maybe sometime soon), and Peter Higgs (not until the elusive Higgs boson is actually discovered). Daniel Kleppner is another person frequently mentioned. Some people have proposed John Pendry for metamaterials and the famous cloaking device (while cool, i think this is far from Nobel material). Also the discovery of the top quark is still waiting for a prize and of course my prior mention of neutrino mass I still think is deserving. I'd also like people to think about some of the dark-horse candidates: Thouless, Halperin (my PhD advisor, I'm biased), and Haldane, are some of the people from my community who could potentially be in the running.

Anyway, we will find out within a few days now.

In other Nobel prediction news:

In Physiology and Medicine, one of the names very high on the Reuters list is Seiji Ogawa. He’s an old Bell labs guy, who invented functional MRI (fMRI) - the MRI machines that can see brain activity. For a brief moment, I think he was listed as being a consultant and I was listed as his boss at Bell labs, although in truth by that time he was listed on our roster for publicity only... and he never showed up any more – I suspect he would not recognize me if I bit him (and I have no intention of biting him, whether or not he wins the prize).

Other contenders in Physiology: Telomerase seems to be the front-runner, with stem-cells another good bet.
Since this year marks the 200th birthday of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, it seems only fitting to give him a chance to compete head to head with the great master – the heavyweight world champion, Johann Sebastian Bach.

The concert last Thursday evening, part of a festival called “pipeworks”, juxtaposed Mendelssohn organ and choral pieces with Bach organ and choral pieces. One is supposed to hear how heavily Bach influenced Mendelssohn, but I like to think of it as a competition where we have given the challenger a chance to win the championship belt.

The competition concert started with a Bach organ Prelude and Fugue (C major, BWV 545). While this is a great piece, the delivery left something to be desired. The pipes of the organ that were used in this performance sounded a bit too much like a Nintendo Game-Boy. So while this should have been spectacular, instead it left just enough room for the Mendelssohn fans to think that Bach could be defeated that evening. But before getting too cocky, these fans were smacked down by Bach’s amazing Double Chorus "Komm, Jesu komm” (BWV 229) which was excellently performed and set an extremely high bar for the challenger to try to match. (Here's a pretty good recording from the 90's).

The next section of the evening was perhaps the most interesting: six short organ pieces by Bach (BWV 599,606,614,618,621,630) from the Orgelbuchlein alternately interspersed with the six "Spruche” (Op 79) by Mendelssohn for choir. While the Mendelssohn choir pieces were also excellent, these organ pieces are masterworks and are more varied and modern than you might expect from Bach. The organist did not repeat the mistakes of the Prelude and Fugue and generally gave an excellent showing. The final BWV 630 was in classic Bach style and was perfectly performed. (Here is one you tube and another of the piece)

At the two thirds mark, Bach still held a strong lead. But the closing innings would belong to Mendelssohn.

The final part of the program gave the challenger his chance to shine: A performance of his Double Chorus Psalm 2 ``Warum toben die Heiden,” followed by his organ sonata in C minor (Op 65 number 2). While these are both very nice, they were still clearly outshone by the earlier Bach. When the competition concert was over, Bach still remained the champion, but it was a solid and respectable effort from Mendelssohn.

My colleague here at Maynooth, Joost Slingerland, and his wife Theresa, both sing with the Mornington singers who performed the choral part of this event. Kudos to them, the entire choir, and the organists. And Kudos to Mendelsson and Bach!

250 years of Good Beer

September 24th of this year marked the 250th anniversary of the day when Arthur Guinness founded his beer-making factory. For an annual rent of 45£, he bought a 9000 year lease on the land his factory is built on. Nothing like planning ahead. Considering global warming, all of Dublin might be underwater before the lease comes up for renewal.

The Guinness Corporation has very cleverly invented a holiday which they call “Arthur’s Day” to celebrate the founding of their famous product which should be considered more of a mix between chocolate milk and oatmeal than a real beer. On September 24th at 17:59 (5:59pm) everyone was supposed to go to the Pub and drink a Guinness (Get it?, 250 years ago it was the year 1759). Around Dublin, Guinness also funded a whole lot of festivities – cool bands and the like at multiple locations.

As it turned out I happened to be in downtown Ireland in the late afternoon on Arthur’s day (I had just given a talk at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) so I stopped into my favorite little pub just before 6pm. It was standing room only, and the bartender was pouring Guinness full speed from six taps in parallel. I grabbed a pint myself and joined the crowd in watching the official countdown to 17:59 on TV. This seemed a bit too much like New Years –- except no one knew quite what to say when the clock hit 17:59. “Happy… er… Pint?”. Strangely, the event on TV was celebrated by a performance of Tom Jones singing “It’s not unusual”. This can only be described as surreal. I’m sure Arthur Guinness is rolling over in his grave.

Anyway, after finishing off my pint, I left and started walking around the city. Every single pub (and there are very many) was overflowing into the street, and every person was drinking Guinness. What an amazing marketing coup.

I wandered around Dublin observing all the people drinking Guinness (observing also that the new dress code for young women in this town involves insanely high heels which appear impossible to walk on – but this is another story). But instead of going into one of these pubs, instead I went across town to go to…

(To be continued next blog posting)
Saturday, September 26, 2009

The No Spin Zone

Have you ever gone swimming with your jeans on? Jeans can absorb so much water that you can wring them for about an hour before they become classified as only “wet” as compared to “sopping wet” ? Well, that is what my jeans were like when I took them out of the laundry machine when it refused to run the spin cycle here at the seminary. The young Irish seminarian who was in the laundry room washing his frock (literally) told me “Aye, I'd pray hard before using that machine... the devil himself is inside 'er”.

Maybe this is the moment when I am supposed to find religion. Instead, I have wet laundry hanging inside my room.
Thursday, September 24, 2009

Me and The Priests

In 1795 the British government decided to build a beautiful Catholic seminary in Ireland to train priests. If you know much about Irish history, you will realize how strange this sounds: the Brits hated the Catholics, and oppressed them for hundreds of years. Why on earth would they go out of the way to build a nice seminary for them?

Well, this is a classic (and rather brilliant) case of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. Since there were no seminaries in Ireland, the Irish typically went to France for their religious education. Long about that time, the French were having this thing called a revolution where they were cutting off people’s heads – particularly those in the ruling class. The Brits were justifiably afraid of having folks come back to Ireland with ideas of revolution, so they decided to keep their enemies closer by building a nice seminary in Ireland to keep them at home. In this way St. Patrick’s College was established in Maynooth Ireland, just outside of Dublin, and it has been operating as a seminary, training priests, ever since.

After a few years they decided to expand the seminary to become a broader university and the location eventually became what is now the National University of Ireland at Maynooth. By the auspices of Science Foundation of Ireland, I am officially a visiting professor at NUIMaynooth for some number of weeks per years in 2009 and 2010 (This is a complex arrangement that we started negotiating back when I was still at Bell, and it is officially so confusing that I have no idea of any of the details by this time).

At any rate, for this particular visit to Maynooth, all of the low budget “regular” rooms have been booked, so I’ve been staying in the guest rooms of the seminary. I was told that there would be a conference of Bishops during my stay, and that I would have to be extra quiet so as not to disturb them. So every morning at 7 am, I make sure to crank the Led Zepplin at 9 on my stereo instead of 10.

Here is a good picture of the building where I’m staying. It has 20 foot high ceilings everywhere (that is close to 7 meters, for the international audience) and the hallways are close to the same width as height. You could march a team of clydesdales down the hall in parallel without them feeling at all cramped. I’m not sure why the monks in 1795 decided they needed to march horses down the hallway in parallel, but apparently they did. You might even be able to march an elephant down the hall if you tried.

As you can see in the photo, the windows are extremely tall – probably 15 feet high. The room I’m staying in is sparsely decorated. Just a large bed and a tiny table, and lots of extra (wooden) floor space – which I could use to play soccer, I suppose.

Standing at the position where the above photo was taken, if you turn around 180 degrees, you see the main building of the seminary in this picture --- which also houses such crucial things as the student cafeteria in the great Hall (which I would have once called Harry-potter-esque, although now I probably would just call it Oxford-esque).

I’m still entertained that there is a strict division in the cafeteria –-- one section is roped off and labeled “reserved for seminarians.” Perhaps they are afraid of the corrupting influence of evil people like me (I do have horns, you know).

Anyway, returning to the photos above, there is a legend that it is bad luck for undergraduates to walk down the path in the center of these pictures. The source of this legend is thought to be that faculty members would sit at the sides of this path and think deep thoughts when the weather was nice, and whenever undergraduates bothered them by walking down the path, the faculty got upset and made the exams just a bit more difficult.

Although the area around the university is pretty, most of it is not ancient like these two pictures. The campus is split into a north and south half divided by busy Kilcock road. There is a walking bridge over this road, with signs indicating that one should not cycle over the bridge. Every one of these signs has succumbed to graffiti by this time. My favorite one now says "No Cycling, Sasquatch". Must be the seminarians with the sense of humor.
Sunday, September 20, 2009

My Delsey Suitcase

I bought my rolling Delsey suitcase almost a decade ago. It is one of those rolling small black bags that you see in airports all the time. When I bought it, it was the largest suitcase size that was still small enough to fit in the carry-on – which made it the ideal suitcase. However, sometime in the intervening years, the airlines slightly decreased the size of a bag that you are allowed to carry-on (even though the suitcase will certainly fit, they now tell me it is too large almost always), and now my Delsey bag is instead the smallest suitcase that you are not allowed to carry-on to an airplane. As a result my ideal suitcase is now a bit less than ideal. But I haven’t gotten around to replacing it yet.

Last week, I was in Ireland, attending this conference, and I am staying Ireland again this week, but since I had to be in Cambridge to sit on a thesis committee on Monday, I went home to Oxford for the weekend. Arriving at Dublin airport, and checking my Delsey suitcase at the British Midland International airline (BMI) counter, I happened to comment to my friend Gunnar Moller that his carry-on suitcase was the ideal size, whereas mine is now not ideal. I think “not-ideal” is a bit of an understatement. Somehow in the course of the one hour direct flight from Dublin to London, BMI managed to lose track of my suitcase. Two days later, it still has not turned up. While I’m not crushed to have lost the Delsey (which, admittedly, was no longer ideal), I’m quite annoyed to have lost the entire contents of the suitcase. The people at BMI tell me that if it doesn’t show up within 5 days, they file it as lost and I have to negotiate with their luggage compensation people. By then, the underwear situation may start to get a bit critical. Despite my resistance to such things, I may need to actually go shopping.

PS: L’shana tova. (Happy new year in the Hebrew calendar, thus begins the year 5770)

Update Monday: Still no suitcase.
Update Tuesday: Still no suitcase.
Update Wednesday: Still no suitcase. BMI instructs me to contact the Luggage loss department. Ugh.
Update Thurdsay: Alas...
Monday, September 14, 2009

Shelob, Aragog, or Charlotte

According to the British Arachnid Society, there are no spiders in the UK that eat people. However, looking at the rather large spider who has taken over my backyard in Oxford, I have my doubts.

You can see her for yourself in the picture. For reference, the garbage can in the background is a full size 40 gallon container (150 liters). The spider is about 2.5 cm from fang to spinnerette –a bit over 5cm long if you include the legs. I’m not positive, but I think she is an Argiope Bruennichi, based on the size and the striped legs, but the body doesn’t look quite like the pictures I find online (Any spider experts out there want to comment on this one?).

I had known about the spiders of unusual size (S.O.U.S.) in this country even before I moved here: I had had a frightening close-encounter with a British SOUS on one of my visits to Oxford before moving here (a story for another day). Admittedly, The British spiders aren’t nearly as nasty as the beasts that live in Australia: for example, the Funnel-Web can deliver enough poison to kill a human within 40 minutes, and can bite through most canvas sneakers. This seems to me to be a good reason to avoid the whole continent.

Despite the favorable comparison to the bigger and badder Aussie variety, the somewhat less deadly British critters still give me the creeps. There is some evidence that being afraid of spiders is learned behavior, and children do not naturally have this fear. Nonetheless, the trope of the deadly spider is certainly a common one: Aragog, Shelob, Charlotte. Ok, maybe Charlotte was not supposed to be so threatening, but E. B. White conveniently left out the part of the story where Charlotte mates and then kills and devours her lover. (She lays eggs, so it probably happened). Probably White was censored by his editors since it is a children’s book and one wouldn’t want them reading about spider-sex.

The lifecycle of most of the large British spiders is such that they are born in the spring, they grow through the summer, and get extremely large in the fall just before they mate, lay eggs, and die. I’m traveling for the next three weeks with only one more two day stop back in Oxford, and I’m hoping that Shelob in the backyard will hurry up and get on with the mating, laying eggs, and with luck she will be stone-cold by the time I get back. As far as encouraging the mating part, I left a disco ball in the window and some incense in the backyard.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Condensates - the Borg of Physics

Many phases of matter consist of some highly organized arrangement of constituent particles. In many such cases of interest so-called “condensates” have the property that every particle contributes to the overall collective quantum properties of the whole. Not to make too dorky an analogy for an already geeky subject: you might think of it as the Borg from Star Trek – a communist collective of particles each contributing to an overall unison.

Once you have an organized ground state, it is a natural question to ask what the low energy “defects” of this ground state, (the quasiparticles) look like. Indeed, in most cases, it is these quasiparticles that determine the interesting physical properties of the phase of matter in the first place. All of the particles have fallen into line perfectly making a featureless background, and what you notice most in the experiments are the few regions where something different is going on. A next question to ask is what happens when you have a lot of these defects. Can the defects now start forming their own organized collective – their own Borg?

At the Quantum Hall workshop at NORDITA this month there has been a lot of discussion of what kind of condensates, or new phases of matter, can form from collections of quasiparticles in fractional quantum Hall states. This is an old question that dates back to the very earliest days of quantum Hall effect. As many people reading this might already know, very shortly after the discovery of the nu=1/3 fractional quantum Hall effect, Bob Laughlin gave a beautiful theoretical explanation of how electrons in high magnetic field can condense into a new quantum phase of matter (a Borg of electrons), thus explaining the experiment. However, very soon thereafter, additional quantum Hall effects were discovered (the 2/3 effect, the 2/5 effect, and so on). Laughlin’s theory did not fully explain these. It was Halperin and Haldane who realized that the defects (the quasiparticles) of the nu=1/3 effect can themselves organize, forming further new phases of matter. The resulting picture was a recursive construction of defects condensing then new defects forming within these new condensates.

So why revisit this issue now? Well, the new twist is an entirely new class of more complex and interesting quantum Hall states – the so-called “nonabelian” phases or “nontrivial topological” phases (drawing a distinction that all of the abelian phases are now considered “trivial”). In these cases, the quasiparticles, in addition to carrying charge (and fractional statistics), also carry interesting topological quantum numbers. It is not so obvious how such a thing can form a condensate at all, or whether it would want to do so.

There have been several approaches to addressing this problem. The first set of approaches attempt to condense the nonabelian anyon by forming a topologically trivial combination of quasiparticles and then condensing the combination in the same spirit as the old Halperin-Haldane hierarchy.

(1) An approach by Bonderson and Slingerland combines a pair of quasiparticles on top of each other in a topologically trivial combination then condenses these pairs. A more recent paper by same authors plus Moller and Feiguin shows some nice numerical data showing that these trial states are actually quite competitive for experimental systems – although from the data I saw, it was not completely convincing that there was any regime in which they clearly were better than more conventional trial states. Nonetheless, they seem to be now in the running as something that needs to be seriously considered.

(2) An approach by Levin and Halperin (neither of them happen to be at this conference) is to form a topologically trivial quantum superposition of states before condensing. (Not surprisingly, the resulting states lose all of their topologically interesting properties after the condensation ). There does not appear to be much experimental or numerical evidence of these states being realized, even for model systems.

(3) A third approach by Hermanns is a bit more confusing to describe. At first I thought that it was probably incorrect, but now I think the construction makes a fair amount sense although there are some pieces of the argument that still seem a bit mysterious to me. I’ve agreed to be on Maria Hermanns’ thesis committee, to be her “opponent” in the Swedish system, which I gather means it is my job to find holes in her arguments, so I’ll be studying this a lot more in the next few months.

(4)In the work of Schoutens and Grosberg a condensate naively looks a bit different. In this case, a condensate is made by forming a maximum density droplet of a particular quasiparticle with nontrivial topological quantum number . This case can be analyzed in great detail – determining not only the details of the condensate (which is a known phase) but also the behavior of the edge separating the mother and daughter states. (See below however, the work of (6) seems to be able to phrase this condensation again as a boson condensing).

And there are yet more approaches. In the above approaches, all of the quasiparticles form liquids. There is another possibility which is that all of the quasiparticles form a solid. Solidification would usually be considered uninteresting from a topological perspective, but here since the quasiparticles carry topological quantum numbers something more interesting can happen.

(5) In this picture discussed by Gils, Trebst, and friends Gils, Trebst and Friends, one might have the charge of the quasiparticles pinned in some sort of lattice, but the topological quantum number may still be able to hop around. Although the hopping my be very weak, at very low temperature and long time scale, in principle the topological quantum numbers will settle into a unique “condensed” ground state of their own hopping problem. This is somewhat like electrons forming a Wigner lattice and then looking at the spins on the wigner lattice, which at low temperature, align to form a ferromagnet (or antialign to form an antiferromagnet, which is more typical).
Finally, there is the world of more abstract nonsense:

(6) And a more abstract discussion of condensation was given by Slingerland and Bais. While perhaps a bit daunting at first, this paper is well worth the effort to read. These authors have constructed a generalized paradigm to describe condensation of one topological phase within another topological phase. The general rule is simply that you have to find a particle that is topologically a boson, then you can condense it. Anything that is not “local” with respect to the boson cannot live within the new phase, and you have to identify any two particles that differ from each other by the bosons. (There is a subtlety having to do with particle branching that I will not explain here). Pretty much all of the above cases can be described within this formalism in one way or another. Further, coset TQFTs can be described nicely within this formalism too (which I find very pretty). The down side, as in any abstract nonsense, is the generality is frequently a disadvantage as much as an advantage. Since you can describe pretty much anything, it does not give you hints as to what thing to expect.

At any rate, there are a whole bunch of ways to describe condensation of topological phases within topological phases. Seems like a popular thing to be studying right now. Resistance is futile….
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Jumping out of Airplanes

Eddy Ardonne is an avid skydiver. He is currently an assistant professor at NORDITA in Stockholm where I am visiting this month, and he frequently offers to take people skydiving if they so happen to be interested. Smitha Vishveshwara*, who was once Eddy’s officemate, made a jump a few years back and loved it. My colleague from Ireland, Jiri Vala, was absolutely determined to try jumping this week and encouraged me to go too.

Now, to begin with, I’m a guy who doesn’t even like to drive in a convertible because I don’t like that much wind in my face. Why on earth would I want 120 MPH of wind in my face? I’m also rather afraid of heights (yes, I know, I’ve rock climbed in the past, but I never like being near a cliff unless I’m in my harness and anchored in). But perhaps because I was completely terrified of the idea, I was also curious about it, so I started doing some homework to find out, just how dangerous is it?

Being a statistics geek, the first thing I found was that many of the statistics that you find on the web are totally bogus comparisons.

The best verified figure I could find is that in skydiving there is roughly a 1 in 100,000 chance that you will die on any given jump. It might be a bit lower for certain types of jumps, or certain jumpers, and a bit higher for others. But very roughly, this seems always to be the right number**.

But back to bogus statistics: Here’s a statistic that gets thrown around an awful lot:
“Each year about 30 people die skydiving in the United States, and that's out of over 2 million parachute jumps. Given the odds, you're better off skydiving than let’s say driving a car. Every year, over 40,000 people die in traffic accidents”

Similarly many websites state that
“you are more likely to die driving to the dropzone than during your jump”

I’m calling a loud foul on both of these: The fatality rate for driving a car in the US (and most of the western world) is roughly one fatality per 100 million miles driven. So a single jump has the same fatality rate as driving a car one thousand miles. Spending an hour making a single jump is over 100 times more dangerous than driving a car for the same hour. Perhaps it is surprising (even impressive) that jumping out of airplanes is not more dangerous than this, but still the statements being made on the web are clearly inaccurate. I’m not particularly afraid of driving a car for a thousand miles, so there is not really much good reason to be afraid of making a single jump. However, if you make it a habit of jumping out of airplanes, you have to accept that it can start to become a significant added risk.

While I was searching for more statistics on the matter, I found quite a few interesting things about skydiving injuries. One of the strangest facts is that for solo student jumpers (not jumping in a tandem) apparently women have over twice the fatality probability than men. No one seems to know why this is, but it is an established fact. There are some other interesting statistics regarding how many times a fatality occurs from a real splat (no parachute deployment), versus from other means such as mid air collisions, improper landing with proper chute deployment etc. It turns out that the real splats account for less than 30% of the fatalities.

Another interesting stat (which is harder to pin down from data available) is that non-lifethreatening minor injuries are apparently pretty common - the “injury requiring medical attention” rate is roughly 1 out of 1000 jumps. Most of these are minor sprains, breaks, and so forth. But a few are more serious. If you compare this to say, a few years of participating in any other sport, you would probably have a similar rate of minor injuries. (One should be warned however that certain medical insurers do not cover skydiving injuries whether or not they are minor).

Anyway, Jiri and Eddy did go jumping yesterday and they both came back in one piece. I didn’t go. It really came down to a decision of whether I wanted to spend most of a day preparing for a 60 second drop (which I didn’t’ think I would enjoy all that much anyway). I think the main attraction to the idea was just that I was a bit afraid of it.

Maybe when I’m visiting Stockholm next year I’ll think about it again.

*Congratulations to Smitha on her marriage last month.

**It appears that this number does not include the possibility that the small plane you are in crashes before you jump out of it. It is hard to get numbers on the added risk from plane crashes, but my best estimate is that it is unlikely to more than double the risk.
Saturday, September 5, 2009

Pripps Blå

Perhaps a better name for it should be BLAH.

Pripps Blå is one of the most popular beers (if not the most popular beer) in Sweden. Blå means “blue” and it is pronounced closer to Blow or Blough. On Wikipedia it is explained that Blå is brewed with 51% barley grain, which is the minimal fraction allowed by law if you want to call yourself a beer. (Not sure what the other 49% is – probably some cheaper grain like corn or rice). Despite the jeers of all of the people around me, I actually like the stuff. It reminds me of similarly terrible American beers like Bud Light and Miller Genuine Draft. It tastes roughly like water, and it comes in big aluminum cans.

So here’s the cool thing about Blå. You can get Blå that is 2.2% alcohol (which you could easily drink for breakfast or lunch and not even notice that it was alcoholic) or you can get the 2.8%, or the 3.5% or the 5.2% or the 7.2% (which is pretty strong). And as far as I can tell, they all taste exactly the same. Nice to have options.