The social contract of shovelling snow

For what I hope will be the last time of the season, I was out shovelling snow this afternoon.

It takes me 15-20 minutes to clear the driveway and our stretch of sidewalk, so the chore is not too tiresome. Plus, it has been a weak winter in Denmark, as is often the case, and I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve had to shovel this year.

Still, as a homeowner its something you do – to make sure you can get your car out, so visitors can approach safely – and because you are obligated by law. As a general rule in Denmark, any stretch of paved sidewalk must be kept clear and passable by the landowner.

It is easy to see, however, that the obligation is taken quite lightly. Nowhere in the places I’ve lived or visited in the last few years do you see 100% compliance. Sure, many people do it, but pedestrians can never be sure of clear passage.

I may not be the first to shovel (that honour often goes to our next-door neighbour), but I do try to do my duty, and I am definitely not the last on the street.

Why the variance?

There are many excuses for the lack of compliance. Ruling out the weak and elderly (which I believe may be granted exemption), most would say they are too busy with work and tight schedules. It is a weak argument, however.

The small-business-owner across the street, for instance, has plenty of time for loud building projects and polishing his Tesla, but not once in our four years on the street have I seen their stretch of sidewalk cleared of snow.

Another reason could be that many people drive more. They are oblivious to the annoyance they bring down on pedestrians, since they rarely walk themselves.

Which brings me to the final reason: something has changed in our society in terms of solidarity. That’s a big word to use for a small matter, I know. But I believe it is an example of how we care less for what others think, and more for ourselves.

The lawful obligation to clear your own sidewalk most likely comes from a time when this was the common solution to such issues: it was natural for people to think of the better good of their neighbours and communities. The social contract mandated that you did your duty to keep things tidy.

That social contract seems to have changed, even while the legislation remains.

Possible solutions

What should we do about it, then? A common answer would be nothing; there are bigger issues to worry about. They have a point. But the case still presents a mismatch which I cannot quite ignore.

There is the American option: do away with sidewalks altogether: no shovelling, no problem. Not very child-friendly, though.

There is the ‘fascist’ option: increase the penalty for non-compliance. Today you can sue for damages if you slip on a non-cleared sidewalk, but it rarely happens. You could have the police do rounds and enforce the law. Probably not the best use of their time.

There is a campaign option: through communication efforts you can remind people that this is important, and why.

Another option is to revise the legislation: acknowledging that we will never see full compliance, remove the obligation from the homeowners, make it a public responsibility, and send the bill back to citizens through higher taxes. Good luck with that.

Ignoring the reality

What amuses me, though, is a common objection to doing anything at all. Many people will respond by saying something like: “People know the rules, they just need to follow them.” While technically not incorrect, it also completely ignores the fact that currently people do know the rules, but they don’t follow them.

If the system is outdated, and the social contract dissolved, then an appeal like that will achieve absolutely nothing.

Bottom line: It is difficult to change a social tradition that has been in place for generations, even if and when it stops working.

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A Frenchman in the Cold North

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Photo credit: Torben Eskerod, Kongehuset

Prince Henrik, who passed away yesterday, was a dividing figure, as well as a unifying one. He was ahead of his time and opened Denmark to the world before we were ready for it.

A French noble and diplomat, he came to Denmark from France in 1967 to marry Crown Princess Margrethe, renouncing his career, nationality, and religion, and even changing his name from Henri to Henrik.

Clearly in love with the popular and soon-to-be-queen Margrethe, his eccentricity was well-received at first. But despite his sincere efforts to become Danish, in the public eye he remained, to his death, different.

A man of the world

He was cosmopolitan and well-educated, with a degree from Sorbonne and a budding career in the French Foreign Service.

He had spent his childhood in Vietnam, had a passion for East Asia in general, and spoke Mandarin. While on many people’s radar today, Asia was far away back then.

He unashamedly enjoyed life, the arts, food and wine in a manner perhaps uncommon in Denmark in the 70’s. Also that has changed, with the Copenhagen dining scene among the best in the world, and indulgence a national pastime.

For these things, and for his work as ambassador for Danish business and cultural interests, he was celebrated by politicians, the business community, and international relations.

Don’t stand out

In the gossip magazines, however, these things were ignored, or even seen as a liability. In little Denmark, equality rules, and you’re not supposed to stand out. To the masses, he primarily rode on the popularity of his wife, children, and grandchildren, and challenging the glossy image did not go down well.

Henrik was also traditional in his views on family, and never came to terms with his role. Which, in all fairness was never defined. As the first-ever prince consort in Denmark, he was expected to support his wife the Queen, but it was his own nightmare to consolidate that with his role as husband and father.

Most fatally, however, he never shed his accent, notwithstanding his sincere efforts to integrate, and his foreign language skills in general. Prince Henrik himself has admitted this regret, that he did not learn to speak Danish better, and more quickly.

Assimilation, not integration

This illuminates an important, and sad, point about Denmark. Despite our own language skills, to really become one of us you need to master the language perfectly. Which is not exactly easy. Any hint of an accent, and we’ll forever think of you as coming from somewhere else. Perhaps it is our smallness which makes us feel threatened by outsiders and defend the well-known. Or perhaps it is our social democratic culture and tall-poppy syndrome (jantelov) which seeks to cut down anything different, whatever the reason.

The obituaries for Prince Henrik are rightfully positive, lauding the man’s efforts, but all commenting on the fact that he was both loved and criticized by the people he tried to serve.

In the public debate in Denmark there is much talk of integration of immigrants. But if Prince Henrik is any measure – and mind you, he came into privilege, starting on a wave of popularity – what we want is not integration, but assimilation.

Prince Henrik died in peace, surrounded by family, and the press had backed down on their criticism of him after the announcement of dementia last year. But I believe it’s morbid stroke of luck that he did not survive his wife: had the Queen been the first to die it would have made his role even more difficult.

Rest in Peace, Prince Henrik.

The Road to Norway

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Saying a final farewell to my Grandmother this week was also a final closing of a chapter. And it was a journey of mourning to a destination that used to be filled with joy.

There are many ways you can travel from Denmark to Norway. And being half Norwegian, I have tried most of them growing up, as we would visit my maternal grandparents for summer and Christmas holidays, and more.

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I have flown to Fornebu, and later Gardermoen Airport. I have twice taken the train from Copenhagen. I have travelled by ferry, Copenhagen-Oslo, Frederikshavn-Oslo, or even Hundested-Sandefjord, where an infamous trip on a ship named Gelting Nord had many of us seasick. On that trip, I would have been younger than my oldest daughter is now. What are the memories that will shape her life?

For me the memory, despite the alternative routes, will primarily be driving on E6, the main road through Sweden from Copenhagen to Oslo. This is our family storytelling, and we have travelled the route often enough to recognize and appreciate the waypoints and notice the changes.

The first section in Sweden would resemble Denmark: flat and uneventful. But before long we would scale the massive Hallandsås, bigger than any hill in Denmark, and with long queues of trucks in the old days before freeway standards.

North of Varberg we would reach the first tunnel: an early harbinger of the mountainous land which was our destination. The number and length of tunnels would intensify as we proceeded north, and has also increased over time. As kids the sport was to hold our breath for the duration of the tunnel.

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There was Gothenburg, the big city we only knew from the freeway: heavy traffic, a tunnel under the river, a high bridge across it, and potentially a pit stop at Burger King.

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There was “the siren in the tree”: a resting area somewhere in Sweden where we once stopped to sleep in the car. During the night there was a break-in at the shop next-door, with police sirens waking us up. We were untouched by the event, but the location became a family landmark.

To pass time, my brother and I would have fun with the place names on the way, such as Mastemyr, Dingle (a giant lived here), Sarpsborg (with an obscure animal called a Sarp featured in its coat of arms), and later the signpost to Åmål (made famous by the Swedish film Fucking Åmål).

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Later, on the very day I obtained my driver’s license, we were on the road again, and my first experience driving without an instructor was somewhere on the E6. Hills were something I had not been trained for.

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As we came closer to our destination, the anticipation would grow: crossing the stunning Svinesund to enter Norway, passing through Oslo, seeing signposts to Drammen, exiting the tunnel near Lier with a view of the city, passing over Drammen, catching the first glimpse through the trees of the house, and driving up the last stretch of gravel to the end of the road and my grandparents’ house.

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It was a wonderful place, with ample opportunities to play inside and outside. But more importantly, it was a place filled with love, warmth, hospitality, generosity, and fun, which my grandparents created for us and for many others.

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The house was sold long ago, a few years after my Grandpa died in 2002. And the final years of my Grandma’s life were such that death came as a blessing. At 97, she had had a long and good life, and will now rest until the grand reunion at the end of time.

The E6 is mostly freeway these days, and while the journey may have lost some of its allure and now its previous primary endpoint, the memory will remain forever in our hearts.

A land of your own?

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As Kurds in Iraq voted on independence last week, and Catalans in northern Spain attempted to do so this Sunday, it seems like a new wave of independence movements is underway. They are not alone: Scotland comes to mind, as does Greenland (at times), and of course Tibet, South Sudan, Kosovo, and others.

These situations can easily escalate into violence. Ironically, more violence has been reported from Spain than from Iraq.

Reactions from around the world follow the traditional lines: those with nothing at stake support the movements or stay silent. Those who condemn are typically countries who fear similar movements within their own territories.

For the supporters, the right of people to choose their own government weighs heavily.

The US Declaration of Independence states that “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [a destructive government], and to institute new Government”. And for most free countries, this rings true as the decent thing to do.

But it’s not that simple. The American Civil War was fought because the Confederates were not allowed to secede from the Union. Yes, slavery was the issue of moral high ground, but also at stake was the integrity of the nation. A United States of America would be a strong world power – two Americas would not.

Even for democratic states, it’s about money and power.

Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain. It would add even further strain on its struggling economy were the powerhouse of Barcelona to leave.

Similarly, independence for Padania (Northern Italy) would be fatal to the Italian economy.

China needs Tibet, not for economic reasons, but as a territorial buffer to India.

Turkey fears having to give up large parts of its territory to a united Kurdistan, and thus opposes the movement among Iraqi Kurds.

On the other hand, Greenland for instance survives on large subsidies from Denmark, which they would lose with independence. Consequently, any thought of them becoming independent is no real cause for worry in Denmark (even with potential mineral riches).

Scotland is somewhere in between. They have oil, but London remains the economic centre. And yes, dissolving the union would be a blow to any Imperial memories the English might have. But with Brexit, they have chosen their own path of solitude, so they are (self-)occupied for the time being.

So where does that leave Catalonia and Kurdistan? The people in power need to balance morality with prosperity. People’s rights and all that is fine if you have nothing to lose. Will they accept a poorer Madrid and a less powerful nation, or keep on fighting against the will of the people? Only time will tell.

Facebook has grown (up)

Ten years ago today I joined Facebook. Then what happened? Quite a lot, it seems. As with any new, successful technology, Facebook has grown from something everybody talks about to something almost as natural to our lives as electricity.

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In the beginning

To begin with, Facebook membership was for students at select colleges only, but it quickly expanded. I joined soon after Facebook opened up to overseas members. I obviously had to try out this new thing, as I was studying for my MA in Information Science at the time. I was even taking a course on “Web 2.0”, as social media/big data phenomena were dubbed at the time.

Facebook was thought of as a competitor to MySpace, but would quickly surpass it. As early as December 2007, I would reflect publicly [sic]:

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History has obviously proved me wrong. Back then, we were all poking each other, even though nobody quite knew what it meant. We were playing games, were restricted to the “is” keyword in our status updates, and there was no Like button.

Who has the most friends?

One of the main attractions at first was amassing friends. Suddenly we had a way of staying connected to old schoolmates we hadn’t seen in years, or stalking the lives of people who were really just acquaintances whom we didn’t bother talking to for real. Adding friends became an obsession for many, myself included.

After three years, I could proudly announce:

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Then it stagnated. Somewhat pessimistically, I would reflect one year later:

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Today I have 828 friends. I still add new people when I meet them; meanwhile, others leave Facebook (some die), or they delete me as a friend. These days I also delete friends, and have done so with a total of 76 people whom I didn’t actually know very well.

You can learn all this by downloading your complete Facebook history, which is fun in a geeky, narcissist kind of way. Just my thing. This data also let me compile a chart of when I have added friends, which clearly shows an initial burst followed by a long, steady decline.

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Facebook is everywhere

Meanwhile, Facebook itself has grown. In numbers: expected to reach a staggering 2 billion users this year. In revenue: to almost $18 billion in 2015. But even more importantly: in how deeply it penetrates our lives.

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The smartphone revolution has happened within the past ten years, and there was a time where Facebook worried about ad revenue as users shifted from desktop to mobile. Not a worry anymore. We all check Facebook on our mobile devices, wherever we are. And Facebook are making a ton of money.

In my experience, the news feed itself has become less and less interesting. Honestly, it’s full of clickbait (or fake) news, angry people, and ridiculous videos. Maybe this was always the case, but the volume has multiplied.

On the other hand, it is difficult to avoid the big blue world. Already in 2010, I mused in this blog post about what would happen if we were suddenly without Facebook.

I could check for updates less frequently, but by bailing out completely I would worry about missing important news about friends (in my phase of life, that means especially newborns and weddings), event invitations, and life in general. Not really an option.

And despite some privacy concerns and sub-par user experience, Messenger has become a de facto standard for communication.

Not just fun and games

Amid all the fun, Facebook has also lost its innocence. Any respectable business is present there, presumably interacting with customers and making money. It is also the medium of choice for many politicians, including in my home country of Denmark, but also in less democratic regions, used by jihadists, revolutionaries, and others.

32183194-b955-4167-98b9-a598c510e45eFacebook has an immense power in how it handles content, and how it doesn’t. This became apparent last year when they censored the Norwegian PM posting a historic photo from the Vietnam war.

Especially in Europe, Facebook has come under fire for allowing bullying, hate speech, and other malicious posts. So far, Germany has gone the farthest in trying to rein in the giant, but others are following suit. In an effort to win the hearts and minds of policymakers, Facebook is starting to take the battle against fake news (somewhat) seriously. In times where elections may be decided by hackers and fake news, this is serious business.

This is all a far cry from the fun and games which started it all ten years ago. I will remain a user, not because I love Facebook, but because it does offer networking opportunities to which there is no real alternative.

I might have made a good gay

What does it mean to be a man? With rising equality and changing gender roles, this is an increasingly difficult question to answer.

I was never the stereotypical male. I’ve never cherished the macho role for myself, and I’ve usually found any attempts at all-male bonding activities boring, at best. I enjoy music, cooking, and gardening. And I’ve often preferred female company, being the ‘listener’ and forming deep friendships with girls, not boys. I even attended the bachelorette party of a close friend (and no, not as a ‘hired help’).

Some would say that ‘girly’ attributes like these are kind of gay. Hence the question, would I have made a good gay?

I’m not, as you might have guessed. It’s as simple as determining that any physical attraction on my part is directed towards women. End of story. Other attributes also count in disfavour; I’m not particularly ‘metrosexual’, nor am I an avid carnival fan of any kind.

The bigger point I’m trying to make here is that the stereotypes don’t work. They don’t work for straight men, and I don’t believe they work particularly well for gay men either. I suspect that if you were not the Mardi Gras type, but more of a shy, introvert gay, these events and their role in the public imagination would have made coming out even more difficult than it was already.

During my lifetime, homosexuality has entered a new era of normalcy. One part of this is the important question of legality: a journey from being outlawed, punishable by death; to branded as disease; to grudgingly accepted; to legally recognized marriage and adoption.

Another issue is how queers are portrayed by the public. When I was growing up, making fun of gays was still OK, and while vulgar at times the jokes were essentially not yet politically incorrect. Homosexuals were the butt of many a joke (pun intended), and for sure nobody wanted to be gay (sometimes including, sadly, even those who were).

Things were slowly changing in the 90’s and 00’s, though. A classic Seinfeld episode from 1992 repeated the memorable quite “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”, illustrating how people wanted to accept, but couldn’t, yet.

Soon we would see movies with gay lead characters, but they were still defined by their sexuality, centred around being gay, instead of having an unrelated plot where some people happen to be gay, just as others happen to have red hair.

Imagine asking a redhead, “So you have red hair – what’s that like? Has it been difficult for you?” The ultimate test of normalcy is when something is no longer worth discussing. And we’re slowly getting there, at least in Denmark.

It’s not quite the same in the rest of the world, unfortunately. The second UN Human Rights Council report, released in 2015, lists a number of discriminatory practices and concludes: “the overall picture remains one of continuing, pervasive, violent abuse, harassment and discrimination affecting LGBT and intersex persons in all regions.”

For this reason, sadly, I am happy to be heterosexual. And I could add that I am also lucky to be a white male living in one of the world’s richest countries. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. Let’s call an end to stereotyping and judging, shall we?

Wars of Misinformation

The presidents of Turkey and America are using the oldest trick in the book to offset their personal insecurity. And it is probably working.

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“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” Sun Tzu

We all recall the infamous Irqai information minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who blatantly and hilariously continued to deny that Saddam Hussein’s regime was coming to an end.

“There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” he said. And on another occasion: “The American press is all about lies! All they tell is lies, lies and more lies!”

Fake news

Something you would expect from an enemy – but what about the sitting president in a democratic country?

Donald Trump’s attacks on the press are more than just shouting. They are a very effective example of deflating your opponents’ arguments. Fake news is a real problem, and the phenomenon might have been a contributing factor to his election. But by labelling real news as fake news, the incentive to attack fake news is diminished, because he is muddling the picture.

Who’s the terrorist now?

In Turkey, President Erdogan has just won a huge victory in securing power to himself, and limiting democratic restraints. But this has only increased his tendency to rebuke any criticism. His Nazi comparisons and name-callings have not ended. Rather he stooped as low as branding Nikolaj Villumsen, a Danish MP monitoring the election, a ‘terrorist’.

Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen was quick to call out the accusation, adding to the international pressure rightfully placed on Turkey these days.

This is not child’s play

Name-calling your enemies is a classic strategy, and something informed and well-educated citizens ought to see through. Heck, it even features in children’s literature. I’ll give you two examples:

In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the final instalment in the Chronicles of Narnia, a monkey conspires to present a fake Aslan (the creator-Deity lion) who issues orders that destroy the nation. Our heroes discover that the fake Aslan is in fact a donkey in disguise, but before they have the chance to call the bluff, the monkey himself announces that an impostor has been found, and the real Aslan will show himself no more. Thus they have nothing to gain by showing the impostor. “She understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.”

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge is faced with the news that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned. In denial and/or out of fear, however, he instead launches a smear campaign against the sources, Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore, branding them as nutters and liars.

We should not fall for this. More importantly, leaders in free societies should not stoop to this level. It is a sign of weakness and fear not worthy of a leaders.

One might add: “If you want to know what a terrorist looks like, Mr. Erdogan, you should look in a mirror.”