Friday, April 20, 2018

Research seminar

At last, it was finally Friday the 20th of April and time to take that 05.13 am bus to the airport. Waking up to a light rain after two weeks of the most incredible spring weather one could ever wish for, it felt like a perfect time to leave.

Yesterday, at the research seminar, one of our senior professors who is about to retire after a most impressive career, talked about her experiences as a member of different research councils for many years. After that, another professor at the department who has just been awarded a multi-million research grant, generously shared her application with the rest of us to highlight some key factors for success in the rather peculiar universe of external research funding.

To no surprise, they both concluded that management and communication skills are becoming increasingly important in order to attract funding. After all, given the pervasiveness of New Public Management across society, why should higher education be any different? It is of course a banal point that many others have already made but just imagine someone like Ludwig Wittgenstein being evaluated in terms of the “feasibility” of Tractatus logico-philosophicus? Or, which I could not help myself asking, what score on “scientific significance” would Copernicus have been given by his geocentric peers?

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Marking madness

There is something brutally honest about marking exams. In a profession where so much is intangible and about appearance rather than substance, grinding your way through a hundred handwritten exams, having to read the same questions and answers over and over again, has a certain cathartic function.

Thanks to an early start at 4 am this morning, I have now finished this batch and can return to more casual tasks like thesis guidance. And in just above 48 hours, TK 1794 will take off for Istanbul with an onward connection to TLV which feels incredibly exciting.

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Prince Edward Island

Just before Christmas, I saw an ad for my dream job, a tenure-track position at the University of Prince Edward Island focused on international climate change policy. Maybe I can blame Anne of Green Gables or an imagined fondness for the Maritime Provinces, but there was something with unfinished adventures that made me seriously considering applying. Four months later, the position remains unfilled so the temptation is still there even if I get that it is not even remotely realistic.

Overnight, missiles rained down on Syria with little apparent effect except further undermining the international norm system and the role of the UN Security Council. Here in Umeå, William woke me up at 4:40 am so I read about it just as it was happening. Now, eight hours later, I decided to make a brief culinary escape to Liguria with the leftover basil. Worlds that are nearly impossible to reconcile. Unless something dramatic happens, I remain committed to travel to Tel Aviv on Friday. However, given the number of tasks I have to finish before that, I guess there will be a short break here on Rawls & Me.


Friday, April 13, 2018

Haricots beurre

Two days later and the world is still here. I make a pasta salad with lemon, halloumi and beans while I wait for my social work students to finish writing their 100+ exams that I have to mark before I can leave for the Middle East.

For obvious reasons, modernity is often associated with disruption. While many processes, urbanization in particular, may be highly disruptive for the individual, I still think that the defining feature of our time is rather one of continuity. Unlike in the pre-modern world where currencies suddenly became worthless, territories changed owners from one day to the other and disease could strike at any moment, the liberal world order has provided social and economic stability in ways that previous generations could not even imagine.

Looking through a collection of old Lufthansa ads, what stands out, beyond how much more patriarchal the world was only three or four decades ago, is precisely the continuity of small things. While certainly no guarantee for the future, it is somehow reassuring that a person so obviously unhinged as Donald Trump can still somehow be contained.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Syrian Missile Crisis

I remember reading the classic Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis as an undergraduate, thinking how it must have been to live through those frightening days in October 1962. At the time, life as a student in Örebro seemed so incredibly peaceful in comparison.

Fifteen years later and the world is again pushed to the brink of great power conflict. Following the chemical attack in Douma during the weekend, Trump has tweeted himself into a corner as Russia promises that it will shoot down any incoming missiles and attack their launching platforms if its personnel is threatened. Such retaliation, be it the sinking of an Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyer, would give rise to a nearly unstoppable spiral of escalation. After all, there were some very good reasons as to why Obama stepped back from his famous red line in 2012.

What is striking about all this is the normalcy of this Wednesday in Umeå. In the morning I went for a diabolic run of 6.66 km, overstretched some chest muscle, briefly thinking that I was having a heart attack, walked through the sunshine to work, completed my Formas grant application, supervised my thesis students, picked up the kids at the preschool, listened to the other parents small talking about the weather and their plans for the weekend, cooked some Thai food with lots of ginger and lime, and now, wrote another blog post.

Of course, just as with the Cuban missile crisis 56 years ago, cooler heads will most likely prevail (even if Trump seems to be doing his uttermost to get rid of anyone remotely sensible among his advisors) and I will fly down to Tel Aviv with Ally in nine short days.

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Sunday, April 08, 2018

Why Israel?

Yesterday, my mother told me in no uncertain terms that travelling to Israel “seems irresponsible unless one is forced to do it”. Already when I booked the tickets four months ago, I knew that going to Tel Aviv would not go down well with some people around me.

When I think of why I travel in the first place, it is to somehow demythologize fear of the unknown. In the very long run, it is about being part of the transition to a world where the “foreign” ceases to exist and we realize that each human being has a range of different (and often conflicting) identities and affiliations. This is not the same as turning the planet into a cinnamon bun. Just as Sweden, Denmark and Norway remain highly distinct societies in cultural terms, I imagine a global future where we can have a plurality of lifeworlds even as the notion of war is seen as completely ridiculous and anachronistic (remember that armed conflicts between the countries of Scandinavia were commonplace for many centuries).

Still, I get that Israel has a particularly complex and contradictory history. On a personal level, I do not even believe in the desirability of the cherished two-state solution. In the same way that the Dayton Agreement was an unsustainable answer to ethnic strife in Bosnia, I think that we must first realize that homogeneity itself is illusive and rather build new institutions that can transcend existing categories. Having said that, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is probably one of the most intractable conflicts on the whole planet so it seems better for politicians to focus their energy elsewhere.

So, why am I going? Like with Russia, I very much believe that more contact is better than less. Boycotts and moral absolutism only worsen polarization and monolithic thinking. As a teacher of international relations, I am willing to accept the shallow nature of any tourist trip as I have found that actually having been to countries is invaluable.

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Saturday, April 07, 2018

720 metres on ice

Teasing me for living in the Arctic, Ally told me that the sun was shining down in Stockholm and that she was going for a run in the brilliant spring weather. Once the clouds disappeared up here in Umeå as well, I decided to put on the Hives and give it a try. I mean, how bad could it possibly be? Returning home completely soaked four minutes and one near-death experience later I know the answer, bad. So, I guess it is back to the treadmill for the coming month or so...

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Friday, April 06, 2018


Back in a world of slush and melting snowmen, I make some extra coffee to try to stay awake. Undoubtedly, having kids who wake you up at 5.30 am puts a certain twist to any eastbound jetlag.

On Tuesday I have agreed to give a talk at the university student association of international affairs (UPF) about Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. As I am expecting at least a couple of German exchange students, I guess any mention of the word "nuclear" will spark a lot of emotions. Which is perhaps not so surprising given the impact that anti-nuclear books like Gudrun Pausewang’s Die Wolke have had on whole generations of German kids.

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Thursday, April 05, 2018

Northwest Passage

Five hours out of SFO we enter a bleak and beautiful world of glaciers and beluga whales. Night has long fallen in the cabin of our ageing 777-200 and breakfast will not start for another three hours. One of many indistinguishable transatlantic crossings listening to channel 9 and Nav Canada while pondering the very mystery of flight.

In two weeks, I will be in Israel with Ally. Before that, I have one Formas grant application to submit and about a hundred exams to mark. Just before boarding in San Francisco, I picked up The Beyond Edition which made me dream of Kamchatka, the Kuril Islands and pomegranate-and-halloumi salads in Dubai. It feels like this spring will truly give Tyler a good run for his money.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Marlon Bundo

Getting off at 12th Street in Oakland, it felt like June again for a split second, as if I was about to meet a new batch of Breakthrough Generation fellows. However, from my lack of nervousness if nothing else, I could quickly tell that it was just April and that I was only there to talk with Emma about my Pinker piece. In Ted’s office I spotted two hardback copies of Enlightenment now so the book seems to have made a bit of an impression in the ecomodernist community...

Before taking the BART, I spent the better part of an hour walking between different bookstores in San Francisco. Finally, at Chronicle Books on 4th Street, I found what I was looking for, namely the John Oliver version of A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo.

Otherwise, this my last full day in California has been mostly work with the exception of a morning run with an old friend from Korea. As for Asia, tonight we are staying at the Kimpton Buchanan which can best be described as a Japanese island adrift in an American sea or perhaps an inverted United flight 881.

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