The Post

WiseMan saw that "The Post" was being shown in English for the last time this evening at the nearby Odeon Theater, so we gathered the usual suspects for a nice film evening.

This is a must-see movie for the current "post-truth" times.

It is the story of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 by the New York Times and the Washington Post, and also about the Post metamorphosing from a local newspaper to a national one. The Pentagon Papers demonstrated that the government lied, not only to the people, but to Congress, about the situation in Vietnam. And they lied under many different presidents, Democrats and Republicans, just to save the embarrassment of having to admit that they were in over their heads.

The film by Steven Spielberg quite admirably shows Meryl Streep portraying Katherine Graham as she moves from being Daddy's daughter and her husband's socialite wife to being the publisher of the paper. She is torn between her social friends, her grandchildren, and what she feels needs to be published.

The IMDB Trivia page notes that the real Pentagon Papers were strewn about in the scenes dealing with them, and that the voice of "Tricky Dick" Nixon was taken from the tapes made public after the Watergate scandal. That's a nice touch.

I did rather wax nostalgic at the scenes showing the Linotype machines and the printing presses. As school children we were taken to see the printing shop of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and as a professor at the TFH Berlin I loved going on field trips with the students of the print and media technology program to see modern digital presses.

The scene at the Supreme Court (New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713) I found to be so realistic - everyone is nervous, but the brash lawyer for the Post, who had argued privately just days before not to publish, gives a burning defense of the freedom of speech. The court decided in favor of the Times 6-3 with Justice Hugo Black noting:

"Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell."
I do remember getting into a fight or three with my father about the Pentagon Papers. He felt strongly that Daniel Ellsberg was a traitor. I was beginning to have an own opinion on the topic, and I didn't like being lied to. A cousin was up for the draft (there was a lottery held to determine who was to go) and I remember questioning why the country was waging this war so far away.

This is an important film about a very important turning point in American History. And it shows why it is important to have investigative journalists able to expose the mis-deeds of the nation. I'm happy to pay the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian a regular support amount so that they are there when we need them.


Three Billboards

Even though it was the middle of the week, we gathered the usual suspects to see "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri," mainly because this was the only night one of the crowd had time. And then he got sick and thus missed a glorious film!

You have to see it in the original, German dubbing just will not work here. The subtitles are nicely translated according the the slang meaning, not just a word-for-word translation. The southern drawl is absolutely necessary to be very clear about where this is supposed to be taking place.

The first thing I noticed was that, although I have never been in Missouri, it really looked like my birthplace near the rolling hills of the Appalachian Mountains. Turns out it was actually filmed in Western North Carolina (because they gave the film company tax credit) - along the Appalachian Mountains. Okay, and they made up the name "Ebbing" so that there would be no town that gets too many tourists showing up.

Mildred - like pretty much everyone else in town - is angry. It's been 7 months since her daughter was raped and murdered, and the perp has not been identified. She rents 3 billboards to ask

"Raped While Dying",
"And Still No Arrests?", and
"How Come, Chief Willoughby?"
Chief Willoughby is the police chief of Ebbing and is dying of cancer. There are a number of intertwining stories about hate and love and more hate and lots of misunderstandings. The humor is black-black-black, and especially well done. Frances McDormand (as Mildred) just radiates hate and revenge and softens at the end. Sandy Martin (as Jason Dixon's red-neck Mama) is soooooo in-character, I really enjoyed her brief performances.

This is a must-see film (Wikipedia has more details, apparently many protest groups have adopted the "Three billboards" form of protest). It's been nominated for a number of Oscars, I really hope they get at least one. The film deserves it.


The Trials and Tribulations with Air Berlin

For the past couple of decades Berlin has had its own rather successful airline company, Air Berlin. They would tend to mirror many of the Lufthansa routes, but at a bit more unpopular times for a bit less money. They still offered free soft drinks where the El Cheapo airlines wanted 3,50 € for a bottle of water. And you always got a chocolate heart when you deplaned :)

A couple of weeks ago the company, which had been on the brink for a while, registered that they are insolvent. The government quickly gave them a hefty loan to tide them over until November or so, in order to get all the vacationers home. The EU squealed a bit over this, but have calmed themselves down, as Air Berlin has been put up for sale, all bids to have been tendered by yesterday afternoon, decision to be announced after the election Sept. 25.

Air Berlin cut some of their long-distance routes to save a bit of money, but were servicing the rest of their routes more or less. There was a bit of a mess-up when the Tegel Airport had to close down for a few hours because of a bomb that needed to be de-fused nearby. Planes ended up having to land at the unfinished BER airport. However, there were no stairs and no unloading capacity there. A few stairs were trundled over from Schönefeld, but they refused to unload Air Berlin flights for fear of not getting paid. One plane that a reporter sat in apparently collected cash to pay the put-the-stairs-up-to-the-plane fee....

For some insane reason, the relatively well-paid pilots were afraid that they would soon be out of a job, and they were angry that the union wasn't screaming loud enough, and so they staged a wildcat strike on Tuesday. About one third of the pilots called in "sick" at short notice.

Pandemonium erupted. This hit the already weakened airline cold. They were unprepared to have to deal with rebooking so many of their passengers. They didn't even have food for distributing to those standing in long, unmoving lines. Now, not only was the company missing the revenue for these flights, passengers for the next few weeks were jumping ship. Passengers were stuck, were not told what was happening, even some that had been on busses out to planes were brought back as their pilot was pulled off for another route.

WiseMan had already booked his business trip weeks in advance for Saturday, and had chosen Air Berlin out of solidarity. We don't want Lufthansa to have a monopoly here. We were jittery on Tuesday, on Wednesday there were still some flights cancelled, but Thursday was said to be "normal" again. He prepared lists of "Plan B's", how he might alternatively reach his destination.

Okay, might be okay. His flight was for 12.45 pm, which meant we could have a nice, long Saturday breakfast, a quick drive to the airport, and he would have the afternoon and evening to relax at his destination. We still both checked this morning around 8.30 that the flight was "on time". It was! We enjoyed breakfast, and then checked online again, and now the bizarreness started. He received an email from Air Berlin saying "So sorry, we had to cancel your flight, apologize for the inconvenience, give us a call at the number on the back of your frequent flyer card." I still had the flight listed at the airport as "on time", AND I could still purchase tickets for the flight.

WiseMan dug out his card and started calling the numbers. "This number is no longer in service". We checked the web page: no telephone numbers. We found a booking telephone number in a list, that was busy. And busy. And busy. We dug deeper, found another number that cost money to call, that, too said that they were so sorry, too busy, call back another time. In desperation I got out my Swedish mobile phone and placed a long-distance call to the Swedish booking office of Air Berlin. It answered, and put me into the voicemail purgatory so common of Swedish "help" lines. We stayed on for about 10 minutes before killing this off.

Per Twitter Air Berlin admonished us to NOT go to the airport, but to use the service numbers. We decided: Nuts to this, I scrambled into my clothes, we gathered everything and everybody (WiseGrandkid had a sleep-over with us the night before) and jumped into the car.

Ahhhh, driving to Tegel mid-morning on a Saturday is a breeze, 17 minutes door-to-door! We found a parking space near the front door, and immediately saw the line when we got in. Amazingly, though, it was actually moving. We only spent about 30-40 minutes waiting, and WiseMan was rebooked to a flight later in the afternoon. WiseGrandkid was a paragon of virtue, so I offered to take her to the zoo. She declined and wanted to see the planes take off and land.

We first headed home to have some lunch, and then a few hours later drove back to the airport. The lines were now about four times as long at the re-booking counter, and people were mad and angry. I sure would not have wanted to have to work there today... Since WiseMan had managed to get a boarding card at home (the booking number would not work, but the ticket number did), we only had to stand in line for the bag drop-off and hope for the best.

WiseMan decided to go right through security, and WiseGrandkid and I headed up to the observation deck. It was sunny and pleasant, and there is really a great view from the top. I was planning on staying 30 minutes, tops, but we ended up staying for an hour and a half, as she just loved watching the planes take off and land.

Air Berlin didn't have any buses for them to get to the planes, WiseMan texted me, they walked across the tarmac. They were late starting, but they made it, and even the luggage was there! I'm afraid many others were not so lucky, there were piles and piles of luggage stacked up in wagons on the tarmac.

For the trip back, though, he booked one of the Plan B flights. It's worth the extra money to be pretty sure that you are going to make it back without extra excitement.


But what do the tourists do?

You pretty much have to have a credit card (or two) in order to stay in Sweden anymore. They are trying hard to get rid of cash, theoretically because it might get stolen, but more likely so that the government can have more control of revenue streams. So I make it a point to withdraw cash from an ATM and pay cash for everything.

Except when I can't. 

We were in Lund, planning on eating at a nice restaurant, and pulled into one of my favorite parking places near the station. Only 12 SEK (about 1,20 €) an hour, and we were parking half an hour before you didn't have to pay anymore. So I was planning on throwing six crowns into the box. Except it looked like this:

"Only cards and telephone parking"
Although the machine states that it takes coins, there is a handwritten piece of paper taped over the coin slot. "Only cards and telephone parking," it says. Sheesh. I even have exact change handy. Okay, what's this "telephone parking" bit, what number do I call?

Well, first you have to install an app, and then:

Start the app - send an SMS with the following information:
Zone Code, Register Number, Personnr

Oops - once you have the app started, you have to sent off the code for the parking zone, the code for the machine you are standing in front of, and then your personnr. All Swedes have such a number, but tourists don't. I used to have one, as I worked in Sweden, but it has been marked no longer valid in the massive Swedish databases that Sweden appears to let IBM store in Romania and elsewhere. So I can't do anything with that number, not even pay 60 cents to park my car. And since the fines for not paying the parking fee are very steep (they start at about 1000 SEK, 100 €. I can think of better things to do with that amount of money), I don't want to walk away.

So I ended up pulling out my credit card to pay 60 cents. This is considered normal in Sweden, you don't even use your PIN number. Buying milk or a newspaper is also often just paid for by waving a card at the machine. Of course, the Swedes have never been in debt as much as they are today, probably because they use credit cards so much. If there are no coins in my pocket, I can quickly determine that I don't have money for a coffee. But with a credit card, I lose that connection with my money -- and end up paying interest to the bank, which is, of course, what they want. 

Sweden is highly dependent on tourists (9,6 % of their GNP is travel and tourism!), so perhaps they need to discover that they need to organize their society so that non-Swedes can also participate.

I just had a fight with the bank about this, they didn't want to give me a little electric box to produce the number I need to transfer funds by Internet without a personnr. 1998 I wrote an article about the "holy personnr" and it is still bad and getting worse. The bank teller wouldn't give it to me, her boss said no, too. No personnr, no box, no matter that I have money in their bank. I asked for the name of someone to complain to.

I wrote this person and included links to the appropriate EU legislation. EU citizens have the same rights as locals in ALL EU countries. That's pretty much the point of the EU! A few weeks later I got a letter apologizing and saying: of course you can get a box with your German passport.

So this past week I went back. It took some hemming and hawing, but I left with my new little box. They insisted, though, that I try it out in the bank. I said I was not comfortable using a computer that was not my own. Oh, you can be sure, it's encrypted! Sigh.

But honestly, we can navigate the system, as we have vacationed here for many years. What on earth do tourists do?


Here Grandpa, let me show you!

[Okay, little time and a lot of difficulty convincing Google to let me log in here. I know, excuses, excuses!]

Wisegrandkid is now 3 1/2 and a lot of fun to play with - and hand back over to Mom & Wisekid when the day is over. We were driving her home from a handball game last week, Wiseman was sitting in the back with her. She wanted him to play something on his mobile phone. He didn't know how to do what she wanted. "Gimme that," she said, and took his mobile phone and pushed all the right buttons to get whatever it was that she wanted to work on his phone. The times, they are a-changin'!


Summer reading, 2016

Oh dear, summer is almost over, it seems. Anyway, I got three good books read this summer, to wit:

  • Tod in Breslau (Death in Breslau, Śmierć w Breslau) by Marek Krajewski
    Since we spent a weekend visiting the European Culture Capital during the summer break, I wanted to read this thriller that takes place in Breslau in the 1930s. We had a lovely weekend in Breslau, but I was unable to place much of anything except the cathedral in this thriller, as the translator translated all the street and place names. Anyway, you got a good feeling about how the place slipped into Nazism in the 30s. At that time, Breslau was a German city with many Polish inhabitants. This story of intrigue on top of intrigue on top of lies and murders and more lies will keep your head spinning as it finally loops back to start where it began.
  • Eleanor Rigbyby Douglas Coupland
    I love Doug Coupland! So why has this book, published 12 years ago, been sitting unread in one of my piles??? No idea, but this is a typical Coupland, trudging along at a slow and steady pace until it takes a wacky, zany leap, then continues plodding, while asking you to suspend your disbelief as it romps towards the abrupt ending, leaving you screaming to know how the story continues. Pure joy, makes you forget there were other things you were planning on doing during vacation as you read just one more page.
  • Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
    WiseMan picked this up last year in Reykjavik. It was written in English, translated into Norwegian and first published in Norway. Then some adjustments were made and it was published in English in 2013. There are a lot of stereotypes inhabiting these pages (Americans, Norwegians, Jewish Americans, Serbs, Albanians, Marines, snipers, Norwegian cops, Swedes, Vietnamese, drug dealers, did I miss anyone?) and some of the characters are not well developed. The main character, an elderly ex-Marine Jewish-American retired watchmaker just moved to Oslo. We keep shifting times, drifting back to remembrances and then onward to current happenings, and the end comes rather in a rush leaving me a bit concerned as I am not sure exactly what happened to everyone. But it was a good read, and even if the names of the places around Oslo were mostly in English, at least the parts of town were left in Norwegian so I had a vague notion of where they were. 
Maybe I can get another one in the last few days, it's supposed to rain.....


The holy personnr, part II

In 1998, after we bought the house in Sweden and I was spending my sabbatical at Malmö högskola, I wrote this article called "The Holy personnummer" about the run-around you get when you attempt to live in Sweden like a Swede, something that should be normal in the EU.

It is now 2016, and a few strange things happened in the past year. For example, some mail sent to us got returned to sender. Banks don't like stuff like that. Some mail that did get delivered had our ancient address on it. The house hasn't moved, but Hörby has experimented with four different ways of naming the place the house is located at. Suddenly the address from way back in the 90s was showing up on letters. But we had written to all of these important companies (insurance, sewage, garbage) years ago to inform them about the new street name and house number that we had. Why was this different?

Come tax time, I didn't get a tax form like I have for the past 20 years. We have to pay property tax on the house, I owe half and WiseMan owes half. He got his tax form in Germany, but mine was neither in Sweden nor in Germany. I called the Swedish tax hotline, waited for ages in the queue to be told that they would be sending me out a new one. Except it never came. I paid the tax anyway, and hoped to be done with it.

When we came up this summer there was a nasty letter waiting for me. I hadn't filed my tax return! This would cost me lots of money! I needed to file asap. This time I wrote an email, which was actually answered within two days. The bureaucrat had the following surprising information for me: Since I no longer lived in Sweden (and I haven't for 16 years) they have revoked my personnr and returned me to the old tax number they gave me when we first moved to Sweden. And so, I deduce, they just rolled back to the old address that old number had.

This was confirmed the next day by the insurance company - they update their address data every month by comparing it with the records at the tax office. So they are unable to fix my address, I have to convince the tax people of the new address in order for the insurance company to have it stored correctly.

Not that the tax office sent me any letter about this change of status, although any letter they sent would probably be addressed to the old address and get itself returned...

I just had coffee with a friend from Berlin who is also German and had lived for many years previously in Sweden. Thus, she had a personnr and still owns property here. She tried to book a Sunday-Taxi (they send these out instead of running regular busses in the rural areas here) and they wouldn't let her, because her personnr was not valid. Good thing she has nice neighbors willing to get up early Sunday to ferry her to the bus from the county seat. You are no one here without that number.