In August 2009 I moved back to Stockholm after having lived in Brussels for more than ten years. This blog describes my fresh impressions from the agreeable landscape surrounding my new apartment in Hammarby Sjöstad, so easy to catch on camera from my kitchen window.
Of course it is! Educated as we are, Dear Readers, we understand that climate change means a steady but slow increase in earth surface temperature over decades, with wide yearly variations around the trend.
Still, I was up for a big surprise last Wednesday morning. Having slightly overslept, and being caressed awake by the first rays of sun tickling my nose, I dragged myself out to the balcony to get a fresh overview of the rosy morning. Hardly had I put out my nose into the air, than it felt like being frozen solid! I hastily retreated and put some cloths and shoes on before venturing outside again. The temperature lingered around -15° C!
Ice had formed on Hammarby Canal overnight and a distinct noise like breaking glass disturbed the morning peace, with the ferries banging through the thin morning ice further along. All of this being bathed by the pastell coloured rays of the rising sun, mitigated by cold hazened air.
In all my years in Hammarby Sjöstad, ever since 2009, I have never experienced such a cold spell in the first half of March! Thus, we are witnessing a rare extreme in the yearly variations around the warming trend! On the other hand, thinking back in time, it was far from unusual to have such frozen instances in March many decades ago. Back in 1976, for instance, my wife and I ventured into the Swedish foothills, some 400 kilometers North West of Stockholm (as the crow flies), for some cross country skiing. It was the second week of March. Temperatures reached rarely above -25° C there in day-time.
Fortunately, the air was dry and the sun was shining, so we took some extensive tours into the beautiful reaches thereabouts. One day, we read in the newspapers that a herd of muskoxes had been sighted in the vicinity, and, with youthful enthusiasm, we undertook to pay them a visit. This was much easier said than done; no oxen were to be seen as far as the eye could discern all of the morning of that tour.
Muskoxes Source: Jaktjournalen
Luck came to us, however, after a short lunch break, when we mounted a broad mountain shoulder and, just on the other side of the crest, discovered a herd of 5 of these ice age creatures sunning themselves on the Southern slope. A memory to treasure forever, and now also shared with you, Dear Readers. Alas, with climate change, those herds will eventually be gone from the Swedish Northern wastes!
In the mean-time, we can still treasure the memory of the coldest week on Hammarby Sound in March since decades back. Occasion to return to this blog in Summer time to cool us off, when the next heat wave will embrace us like a sweltering blanket!
“Good night Sweden!” Frontpage of DI (Sweden’s Business Journal) 25 August 1992
A country’s collective memory is notoriously short. Only those of us older than 50 have a clear memory and understanding of what happened in Sweden in the disaster year of 1992, exactly thirty years ago. The country was standing on the brink, staring into the abyss! The largest financial and economic crisis since the great depression exactly sixty years earlier was in the making. A complete melt-down of the financial system was impending. Only resolute actions by Government, Central Bank and Parliament could save us from the worst. Still, unemployment soared far above 10 per cent, the public deficit rose to more than 10 per cent of GDP, the Swedish crown had to depreciate by thirty per cent, and three of the major banks (of which there were only 6) had to be bailed out by the Government.
Doesn't the above graph, taking stock of the situation just before the great storm arrived, look uncannily similar to the situation in Sweden this year? Like thirty years ago, the stock market by August has sunk like a stone by som 25 per cent. Fortunately it has regained ten per cent since. Like in 1993, short term interest rates have risen by 2.5 percentage units. So what does next year have in store for us?
Of course, I am old enough not to attempt to prophesy. Rather, let me try to picture some possible scenarios, depending on the role the Swedish Central Bank is playing as guardian of monetary policy.
Back in 1992, the Riksbank was not independent, as it is now. The country entertained a fixed exchange rate regime, with the Krona fixed against the Euro (called ECU in those days) and the Bank being entrusted with the task of maintaining the fixed rate. As the crisis evolved, the krona was increasingly put under pressure by foreign financial institutions and had to be maintained by an ever increasing discount rate. Eventually, the latter had to be raised to 500 per cent, in order to keep the krona from falling. First in October that year, Government realised that the situation was untenable and instructed the Bank to let the krona float. This led eventually to the ebbing out of the crisis.
In contrast to this, the Riksbank nowadays is independent of the Government and has “sovereignty” over monetary policy. Its task is to keep inflation around the target of 2 per cent. Since inflation erupted a year ago and has reached levels unheard of in the past twenty five years, the Bank felt forced to increase its discount rate from initially 0 per cent to at present 2.5. This does not seem much, but it implies a doubling of the cost of borrowing money to finance real estate purchases and similar investments. As a result, values of all assets, foremost shares and real estate, have fallen drastically within 2022. Inflation, in contrast, has only begun to stabilise at its unusually high level.
If we are to believe the Bank’s analyses and reports, the Riksbank will taper its rate increasing 2023. Only another 0.5 percentage unit rise is foreseen early in spring and inflation is then expected to abate and eventually fall back to 2 per cent again. This is broadly in line with the forecasts of the US and EU Central Banks. If those rosy expectations come true, we can foresee only minor additional decreases in asset values in spring and hope for at least moderate recuperation thereafter.
In contrast to the Central Banks, I am not forced to paint the future in moderate terms. In my view, it is quite uncertain which of the two main economic variables involved in shaping the future, inflation and economic growth/activity, react more eagerly to the interest rate increases. If inflation falls more quickly than economic activity goes downhill, we will see the above mentioned rosy scenario unfold. If inflation tends to be more sticky and economic activity more responsive to rate increases, the result will be quite different. I am by nature a pessimist, so let’s say that there is at least a fifty/fifty chance that the second scenario will be the one to plague us.
If so, we realise that the Riksbank, as other Central Banks, will be put in quandary. On the one hand, keeping to its task, it will be forced to continue raising the discount rate, further strangling economic activity and driving down asset values to hitherto unseen low levels and possibly inciting a financial crisis. On the other, if the Bank blinks at the edge of the abyss, draws back from its task, and starts lowering rates again to preserve economic activity, inflation will not return to the desired level. As result, we may well slide into a long lasting period of the economy stagnating, inflation recurring and wane interest rate actions being carried out by the Bank of the type we saw in the ‘seventies, a period adequately characterised by the word “stagflation”. The Japanese experience in the ‘nineties alos comes to mind.
Whatever scenario will actually unfold, I doubt it that we will return to an economy with Central Bank money being supplied free of charge, at 0 per cent interest. The grand experiment of keeping rates low or even negative, and letting them be accompanied by aggressive expansion of Central Bank money, an experiment that has gone on for a decade now, has reached the end date of its use. The new normal may well be a Bank discount rate, in Sweden, of at least 2 per cent and lending rates in future remaining about twice those we experienced as recently as a year ago. Asset values will eventually recuperate, but may not for many years experience a strong upward trend like that of the last decade.
I see that this blog post is turning into a dark tale of worry. This was not my intention. Rather, to explore alternative futures so that we can be “prepared for the worst whilst still hoping for the best!”
Looking up from the computer screen and looking out from my kitchen window here in Hammarby Sjöstad, I realise that the New Year is speedily approaching. Fireworks have already begun to lighten up the sky and people are starting to assemble at their balconies, to watch the spectacle, to cheer and soon to toast in the New Year. In this spirit, permit me to extend to you
My very best wishes for a Happy and Successful 2023
May this little song put you in the right mood for a hopefully rosy scenario!
Some of you know it already: I am having a nice sojourn on Gran Canaria at the moment. The sad thing is that it ends tomorrow. So, back again to the dark Northern ranges, battered for the moment by the (last?) onslaught of the Plague.
What can I say about these fourteen days of relief from darkness and coldness? Well, it's a repose and a most welcome at that. Even if the weather did not quite live up to expectations. Only four days of sunshine; five days of calima (sandstorm) and five days of rain and cloudiness. Do I complain? Far from it! I am not here to experience eternal sunshine. I am here to EXERCISE, more precisely to get my feet back in shape through walking barefoot on the beach each morning. And this I can do come rain or sunshine! And my toes, curling comfortably as I am writing this, are thanking me for it. By the way, if you want to learn more about this type of home-cooked cure, permit me to refer you back to an older blog of mine, Walking the beach.
Still, walking the beach all morning leaves the afternoon free for other activities. Now and then, I am perusing my laptop to receive the latest scientific advances to cope with the Plague. I am always amazed by the sheer bulk and timeliness of new insights that keep popping up from the scientific wondermen and -women. A recent scientific article from South Africa got my attention. It dealt with a study involving mice (thereof the blog title), since it would be unethical to carry it out with humans. Half of the critters were being vaccinated with Astra Zeneca vaccin (as I recall) injected directly into a vein. The other half got their injections into muscle tissue. The former got side effects in the form of blood clots and capillary leak symptoms, the latter did not get these side effects.
Since it is always delicate to apply results from animal studies to human conditions, I suspect that this study will go the way of many others, that is, into oblivion. Even I would have put it aside, hadn't yet another study rekindled my interest. That one was carried out by a Norwegian scientist, who studied all youths having been vaccinated (against Corona) in Norway and Denmark, respectively. He found out, to his surprise, that there were more than four times as many cases of myocarditis (heart muscle inflammation) following vaccination in Norway than in Denmark! What could explain this difference? The only valid difference the good doctor could find was: the Danish vaccinators aspired prior to vaccination; the Norwegians DID NOT!
I had to look up the term "aspiration" in a medical lexicon. In the context of vaccination it means that you pull out the plunger slightly before administering the vaccine. If the syringe shows some blood, you have inadvertently pushed the needle into a blood vessel and shall withdraw it! If no blood shows, you can go ahead and push the plunger as far as it can go.
I am not a doctor but have several old friends who are. They all assure me that aspiration before vaccination is good standard practice and should always be done. So, why do the Norwegian vaccinators desist from doing it? Come to think of it, NONE OF THE VACCINATORS that gave me my three shots did either! So, why do Swedish vaccinators also desist from doing it?
I leave it to the Swedish Health Authority and the Swedish Health Administrations to address this issue. To me, the whole affair resembles a playback of an old theatre piece, played in reverse. More than a hundred years ago, a young doctor called Semmelweis had to explain to his older colleagues that washing their hands before delivering babies was good standard practice, to prevent serious side effects of delivering. Nowadays, it is the old guard that knows what to do and has to explain to the youngsters that sloppiness in vaccinating can cause harmful side effects in youngsters (and possibly some oldsters).
I rest my case and leave it at a message to all you youngsters in health care:
DO NO HARM; ASPIRATION BEFORE VACCINATION!
Important update (on 19 February 2022):As you can see in the comment below by Franz (an Austrian medical doctor friend), the German Health Authority (the Koch Institut) had hitherto not found the need for aspiration in Corona vaccination. I was a bit surprised by this conclusion, but am now pleased to note that the Institute, in its latest published bulletin of February, has changed its recommendation. From now on, all Corona vaccination is to be carried out with prior aspiration, with special reference to recently published research. I have not seen a similar change in recommendations issued by the Swedish Health Authority. Therefore, I would appeal to my Swedish medical doctor friends to use their influence to get our, as always sloppy, authorities moving and doing the right thing, as the German authorities have done.
And to my other friends: I would advise you to explicitly demand aspiration before vaccination. If the vaccinator would refuse or not understand what this means, it is advisable to use another clinic that is better informed about how to avoid the risks with intramuscular vaccination.
During the past two years, I have touched upon the Plague in no less than ten blog posts. Hopefully, this time will be the last one for me to extemporise around the theme.
Why am I into it again? Well, to judge from recent events in South Africa, and increasingly in our parts of the world, the worst mutation of the Corona virus hitherto is already upon us. It is by far the most infectious, maybe ten times as much as earlier versions of the Plague. It will blaze like prairie fire through the global population and affect virtually everyone in its path. As I am writing this, at least a million persons a week are being infected in the UK, which is a foreboding of things to come in our own countries, even in Sweden here in the North.
As far as can be glimpsed, no one is fully protected against its infection. We may now all get the disease, whether vaccinated or not, whether having been already through the disease or not. It is safest to assume that we have to go through this hand in hand.
Whilst I am writing this, I can not keep from smiling and nurturing a rather rosy view of the year to come. Am I grasping at straws in desperation? Quite the opposite! At long last, the virus has reached a development stage that, with all probability, will lead to a timely ending of the pandemic, turning it into a relatively harmless yearly affliction, easily countered by recurring vaccination.
The reason for my prediction is of course the insight, that the new Corona variant does not affect us already vaccinated (or having gone through the disease) to a large degree. Don’t misunderstand me! People not enjoying the above protection will be as badly hit, when infected, as with the earlier variants. Therefore, the risk for them of getting severely ill or even die from the disease will drastically increase (compared to the earlier waves) in the one to two months to come. But once the wave has abated, most of our populations will have at least some kind of immunity
In that context, permit me to address those of my friends who have chosen to abstain from vaccination. I respect your decision, with the understanding that grown-ups should be free to make their own choices. However, you may wish to take a closer look at the situation and put your affairs in order whilst there is still time, including writing your last will. It is only too easy to fall into the trap of “dependence between taste and belief”, so please stay rational. By this I mean to be aware of the greatly increased risks befalling you within the next two months and act upon that awareness.
The rest of us, a great majority after all, don’t need worry too much about the great wave to roll over us within a month or two. We will most probably be infected, but almost none of us will get seriously ill. The risks involved for us may not be greater than from getting an ordinary flu.
This brings me to the title of this blog post. It refers to some wordings by a German poet that got popular through the melody added to them. The content appears particularly relevant in the present context. Why not experience it in the enclosed video, as being sung at a grand finale. The text is as follows:
Wenn die Not aufs Höchste steigt,
Gott der Herr die Hand uns reicht.
When desperation is at its utmost,
God Almighty will reach out to us.
[things will soon start out improving].
(alternative last line for us atheists)
With this edifying divertissement, all left for me is to wish you, Dear Readers of this blog, on this after all calm and serene last evening of the year,
Even if Sweden has been secularised since some twenty years back, Lutheranism, the former state religion, is still firmly entrenched in its culture. Every spring, when youngsters assemble to celebrate, one tune always reverberates through the air in jubilant buoyancy. Only a few of the jubilants are aware of singing a Lutheran choral, listed as number 199 in the Swedish Church Hymnal and sung in Church ever since 1695. I won’t let you be ignorant of the lyrics, at least the starter:
Den blomstertid nu kommer
med lust och fägring stor.
Nu nalkas ljuva sommar,
då gräs och gröda gror.
Blooming season now arrives
with sheer joy and beauty both.
Lovely Summer soon then follows,
lets the crops and forage thrive.
(Home cooked translation: Emil Ems)
This song resounds with particular timbre this year. Many of us now tend to interpret it figuratively. After a loong winter of troubles, with the plague forcing ever more caution and isolation upon us, suddenly, with the help of technical miracles, we are relieved of this terrible burden and can begin to hope for a more joyous future. Just yesterday, the news told us that one third of our population has already been inoculated at least once. Even if the rate of newly infected is still surprisingly high, the death toll is decreasing and intensive care units are getting a long awaited relief.
As if to underline this new beginning, we have enjoyed an especially bountiful cherry blossom season here in Stockholm this year. Cherry blossoms as far North as Stockholm? Yes, indeed! Although not the original Japanese delights, our cherry trees here are of an especially hardy strain, cultivated to endure Northern climates. But, looking at the flowers, you would not notice a difference to the Japanese originals.
In fact, the Japanese community in Stockholm is pilgrimaging to Hammarby Sjöstad (my part of town) in droves every spring to satisfy their cravings for picnicking under a pink flowery ceiling. We ordinary Stockholmers gladly join in, even if most of us are content with ambulating around the trees and taking pictures.
Photographer as I am, I have lived in Hammarby Sjöstad for twelve years now without ever documenting the pink abundance. But this season is different. A new beginning, so to speak, apt to be feted with plenty pictures. So, without further ado, here it is, a small video showing off my home district at its flowery best, accompanied by the venerable Lutheran choral.
This winter has been a rather peculiar one. It got off to a good start. Most of January and half of February were being blessed with reasonably cool temperatures, hovering moderately below 0° C. With this, a nice cover of glittering snow mirrored a sun never failing to appear in the mornings. As made for nice walks in the proficient neighbourhoods of my home!
Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse after that, and a loong period of drabness ensued. Day after day laboured on, with grey skies and temperatures varying just around the zero-mark. It was as if a grey blanket of morosity had decided it proper to cover Hammarby Sjöstad.
But why did I find this peculiar? Isn’t this the usual state of affairs in Stockholm, around February/March, before the sun is deciding to make a definite breakthrough to announce the advent of spring? It took me some time to find out why. Finally, I got it. The drabness I experienced was not that of the sky above us, rather usual this time of the year. No, it was the dread I felt within, in my mind as well as in my bones!
Back in January, life seemed to get honky dory again. Didn’t the authorities announce that vaccination of us old-timers was imminent? I already made plans for a quick trip to the Canary Islands in March, lapping sun on the marvellous beach of Playa del Inglés and ambling along, with my toes sunk in the sand. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Week by week, announcements came of the need to postpone the desired relief, and, in lock-step with the grey skies appearing regularly above my head, the mind started to dive into deeper and deeper folds of despair.
Finally, two weeks ago, the long awaited announcement came. Time to register for vaccination at long last! Three days ago, on Easter Monday, it was time for me to get relief. My first shot of the AstraZeneca miracle lotion! Still, nine more weeks to get the second shot. And first two weeks after that will I be fully protected (to 95%, that is) against the current strains of Corona. This brings us to mid June!
Still, who am I to complain. Hitherto it was unheard of that a vaccine could be developed and applied whilst a newly arriving pandemic was still in full swing. We should be amazed at the progress in science that made it possible! Harken, you people who can but complain over the tardiness of vaccination and blame both companies and authorities for undue delay. We got the shots at an unprecedented speed! Time to relax and be content!
Still, even if the period of dread is passed, I feel its after effects. It is as if I suddenly have aged 5 years in the short period of the plague. Isolation and hopelessness have a price. Hopefully, this decay can still be reversed, once I have my trip to the Canaries!
In the mean-time, why not have a go at a nice tune I recently discovered, which seems to mirror my sentiments exactly. But in a much more humorous fashion. Enjoy!
This time of the year we sometimes are subject to a peculiar phenomenon occurring in the Northern regions. It is February and, whilst the morning sky is getting brighter, day by day, the air keeps getting colder and colder. The days are often sunny and dry, but very cold, with temperatures having difficulty to rise from nightly lows of around -15° C. All in all, these are conditions far preferable to the ordinary Stockholm winter, when temperature is alternating between +1° and -1°, with a lot of slush to wade through, and icy spots to break your bones on, whilst taking your daily walk.
The above experience appears to me an apt metaphor for the present Corona malaise. On the one hand, more and more people are getting vaccinated and saved from the Plague; on the other, a recent mutation of the virus, much more aggressive and deadly, is getting closer and closer, having engulfed all of Albion to the West already, washed up on the shores of Ultima Thule and led Svithiod (Sweden) to close its portals to the outside world; in vain, it turns out, since the fiend is harrowing us already from within.
5 February at 8.25 am ...
But back to reality: the other morning, I noticed a peculiar apparition from my breakfast table. On Hammarby Canal, towards its West, a huge ice floe had formed, finely powdered by light snowfall in the night before, and moving slowly but surely Eastward towards Hammarby Sound. The water in the Canal is essentially freshwater, since it is being replenished periodically from Lake Mälar, whenever the large lock between the two is being operated. Thus, it tends to freeze over sooner than in the Sound, which contains mostly brackish water from the Baltic.
... at 8.50 am ...
As I was geting on with breakfast, 25 minutes later, the wandering floe had already entered the Sound ...
... and at 9.00 am
... where, after another ten minutes, the ferry crossing over had to traverse it. With some crunching, the ship was cutting it in half. At the same time, it forced the floe along towards the opposite shore, where it joined the firm ice already hovering there due to freshwater being fed into it from the upper lakes on the plateau.
Only rarely can we witness a complete freeze over of Hammarby Canal; it occurs usually on a calm Sunday morning, when temperatures in the night before have hovered well below -15° and no vessel has yet trafficked the narrows. The picture below was taken five years ago and I was lucky to catch it with just one small boat cutting up the flat surface.
Looking at that picture now, it appears to me as another apt metafor for life in the times of the Plague. Each and one of us has to labour on, in self-isolation, looking forward to reaching the “open waters” of the company of others and social togetherness.
An apt metafor for life in the times of the Plague
Let me take the occasion to deal with yet another facet of living with the Plague as a solitaire. Even if aspiring to be a world citizen and being, admittedly, a Swedish national, I feel drawn back to my place of birth off and on. To me, self-isolation has no great disadvantages in daily life, since I am a loner by nature and live by myself anyhow, even in ordinary times. But, I would age prematurely and certainly have a shorter life span if I were permanently prevented from revisiting my place of origin at least once a year. Last year it proved impossible to go back there, and it may remain impossible this year as well.
So, as consolation, I listen from time to time to a tune that deals with the issue. I admit that many of You Readers will have difficulty understanding the impact of this song. But, rest assured, it means the world to a lot of the German speaking people in Europe (about a hundred million all in all), just as this song means the world to the Swedes. Its refrain goes like this:
I wüll wida ham.
I fül mi do so alan.
Brauch ka grosse Wölld.
I wüll ham noch Firscht'nfölld.
I want to go home again.
I am feeling so lonely here.
Don’t need the world at large.
Just want to go home, to Fürstenfeld.
For most of the about 100 million impacted by the song, the word “Fürstenfeld” just stands for “Heimat”. For me, it stands for exactly what it is. It so happens that the hamlet of Fürstenfeld lies just half an hour on bicycle away from my place of birth. So I trust you understand that this tune means the world to me as well. Enjoy!