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.


El Capitan and the insanity of trying to obtain a handbook

My last MacBook Pro was purchased in 2012 and was starting to really age. Not only were the keys worn down on the keyboard (letters scratched off), it was restarting itself at inconvenient times and disk space was getting rare. Also, since I was running Mountain Lion on it ("Never change a running system") it was so outdated, that many applications were refusing to cooperate with it. So it was time for a new laptop.

It was a hard decision: Do I spend lots of money for another MacBook Pro, or do I go back to Windows? Can I jump to tablets (for programming? Are you kidding?) or do I stay where I am? I hemmed and hawed for months, and then decided to stick with Mac. I have tons of slides in Keynote that I would like to continue using, I have old (but to me still useful) applications such as Photoshop and Dreamweaver that I paid a lot of money for. So let's do it!

I picked up the box on Friday so that I could spend the holiday weekend fussing with it. First order of business was to buy a little 1 TB external disk to make a bootable copy of the old Mac. If anything went wrong, I could still use that to teach in the coming weeks. There were some good instructions at Guiding Tech, and they suggested using SuperDuper!, so I did. It was stress-free, and made a bootable backup while I was out Saturday afternoon. In the evening I tested it to see if it would boot on the old machine. Sure, it booted, but the operating system on the Mac would not boot (even though I selected it) until I removed the external disk.

Bright and early Sunday morning I unboxed the MacBook Pro, and started it. Since it can set itself up from an external disk, that's what I did: I used the backup to set up the new machine. Sure, it took a few hours, but I could still use the old one to surf around while it was chugging away. It's so quiet (SSD disk), I kept checking to see if it was alive. Yup, sure thing!

There was no handbook with it, that was available online. Okay, will get to that later. When it was done setting up I tried a few of my applications. The first scare was Dreamweaver. My old Creative Suite 5 wouldn't work with El Capitan, they offered me use of CS 6 for a free trial.

Hmm, alright, some quick math shows me that if the trial does last for 32767 days (quick, students, what is this crazy number?), I won't be around to see the end of it. So I started my trial. And was able to use it to access my teaching sites. Good. Photoshop was okay, too, and Excel, Word, and Open Office were reusable after some recovery issues.

Keynote warned me that any changes I make will make it impossible to go back, and warned me that I needed updates. So I started updates on everything El Capitan thought I needed, and then started a new Time Machine backup instead of taking over the old one. Two backups are better than one, and it was time for Tatort anyway.

Bright and early this morning I started to want to work with the system. First shock: a clean calendar. Now, I'd love to have one, but I know that I have lots of appointments the rest of the week. It turned out that for some reason, El Capitan doesn't set up Calendar right. I had to turn off my WLAN access point, restart the old Mac, turn OFF the WLAN there, put the WLAN access point back on, and try and figure out what to do. I didn't want the old one downloading emails or starting a backup or any of the fun things it does automatically.

I have all my calendars in Google Calendar, as does WiseMan. I fussed around for quite some time until I got my calendars put in (I have two different email accounts, one for work and one private). I had to add both by hand, uncheck the ones that showed up twice, and then try to sort out WiseMan's calendar. It would only show "busy", not what he was planning, although I could see it all on Google Calendar. I tried playing around with "delegates" and what not, and gave up after 2 hours. At least I could now see my calendar....

I started to work, and then El Capitan started interrupting me with fun, new things I could do with my new Mac. I let myself be led astray to look at "iBooks", a digital reader thingy. Oooh, they have free books, and that's where the handbook for my Mac is. Let's try it out and see if it works! Hmm, nice mixture of German and English here, good job I speak both languages.
Over here on the left, we have English, and on the right German. Great job of internationalization, Apple!

In order to "get" the book (on the German language site), I have to use my AppleID to "buy" it. I made one years ago, but did not connect up a credit card, as I don't trust Apple. Nothing against Apple, I don't trust too many sites online with personal information. I gave it my AppleID, and then it requested "verification". I needed to put in a credit card number and my title. I chose "None" and "Prof.". There was an error, could I please put in a credit card number. For a "free" book??? No. It was adamant. So I put in a made-up number. It replied that I should contact support.

I started over, this time I put in the credit card number I use when I have to buy something online. Nope - that credit card is not valid in Germany. Well, who cares? It's a credit card, it is valid world-wide! I was now curious, as one class this week is about people being at the mercy of algorithms. So let's see. The support pages say that all I have to do is put in my credit card number and then disable it.

Okay.... I used the card that has the least validity, put it in, and got: Please contact iTunes support.

Do I really want to do that? I click the link, except it isn't a link. I copy the link and surf around, down at the bottom is the possibility to have them call you. Well, let's check this out!

And my phone rings almost the next minute. I am about to praise Apple, except for what happens over the next two hours....

Ireland calling, the first guy listens to my story, suggests giving my credit card information to get the free book. I pointedly tell him that I don't want to give my credit card info, that's the point, but that I tried it and it doesn't work. He asks for my serial number and sends me an email with a link to the handbook. The page is in German, fine, I bought it in Germany. I click on the pdf-Link (iBooks doesn't work yet) and it downloads. I open it up and start laughing: it is the DANISH version of the handbook!

Lucky me, I can read Danish, but now I'm irritated. I want the German version. Legally, they have to provide me with one free of charge if they are selling it in Germany. This guy puts me on hold so that he can contact the next level support. Although I selected "no music" at the beginning of the call, I am now subjected to what the younger generation apparently considers to be music today. I put the phone on loudspeaker and start reading the Danish version.

After a bit someone else is on the line, I patiently explain my problem. Apparently, their ticket system does not let them note down what the problem is. He puts me on hold, and we wait for the next guy, with terrible music. When this guy gets on, I have to explain my problem again. I point out that legally, they have to provide me with a German handbook. He says: but we just gave the link to you. I point out that even though the link SAYS it is in German, it is in Danish. He says he needs to check with someone, but instead of putting me on hold, he hangs up.

I start to fume. I make some snarky comments on Twitter, and amazingly, @AppleSupport does answer on Twitter within a few minutes. They suggest that I call iTunes support......

So I start again, get a call from a woman this time. I give her the old ticket number, she looks it up. I say that I was hung up on and didn't like that. She promises that if that happens again, they will call back. We start the same round of escalation, and when I speak to the third person and again note that Apple is legally bound to provide me with a handbook in German, the line goes dead again.

I wait a bit, but there is no call back.

A DM to the AppleSupport gives me a link to this page where you can for yourself see, that the PDF link under "Grundlagen" is to the DANISH version of the handbook.

I schedule another call, and manage to get through to someone in billing who actually seems to understand the system. She says that it is a security issue.  An algorithm has flagged my account as having a security problem. They will look at it, but it can take up to 24 hours for someone to investigate. So apparently, wishing to download free books without giving a credit card number is a security risk. I ask why the security issue has been raised. She can't tell me that, because that is a secret of the security system.... She wishes me a pleasant day.

AppleSupport on Twitter gets back to me and explains that they use a credit card to "verify" that this really is me using the appleId (to purchase free books?). Now, either they illegally stored an old credit card number for me (and so this would not match any of the credit card numbers used), or they didn't, as they say that they do. If they don't have an old number, what are they "verifying"? Running the number through a machine and deducting money, then putting it back?

This is insane.

A customer in Germany should be able to quickly obtain the handbook in German about a new device without handing over personal information and spending hours explaining things to support people. I was lucky, as it is a holiday in Germany and not in Ireland, so I was able to raise someone. Apple needs to thing through their "security" system.

And I have a nice example for being at the mercy of algorithms for class tomorrow. I would rather have been doing something else, however.

Update: just got a note from @AppleSupport on Twitter:
You can use your MacBook Pro anonymously by not signing into your Apple ID in the iTunes, Mac App, or iBooks Stores and by not signing into iCloud.  A free book is free, but requires that you log in using your Apple ID so that they know who owns the free book in the event you ever want to find and download it again. 
So this means that I can use my MacBook Pro anonymously, but that means that I can't obtain any free books like the handbook? Then they shouldn't be called free, because I am paying for them with data.  The DM continues:
Verifying payment information confirms for your iTunes account that there is an actual person who owns the account, which prevents others from adding their payment methods to your account, or using it in the store to make purchases you did not authorize.  This is a standard process for the first use of all new devices.  You can remove the payment method after adding it (within minutes of doing this so that the information will neither be stored nor used for payment). 
The point of not giving them a credit card is to prevent others from making purchases I did not authorize if they manage to crack their way into the database!

Update 2: If I click on the picture above the link (that does not actually demonstrate the affordance of being a link anchor), then I get the German version of the handbook which is non-canonically called _d instead of _de. I've waded through the Danish version in the meantime and learned two new shortcuts....



Seems January went by in a flash, I did see some films and finished off a lovely book by Elizabeth George, but I never got around to writing about them.

WiseMan had some students over this evening to watch Scandinavian films, and they chose Kraftidioten ("Power Idiots", in German Einer nach dem anderen, one after another, the English title given is "In order of disappearance"). This is a brutal film that is quite funny at the same time, mostly poking fun at Norwegians. It was shown at the Berlinale in 2014, but it had been impossible to get tickets, they sold out within seconds.

"Immigrant" Nils (he's from Sweden) has been chosen citizen of the year. His son gets mixed up with some cocaine dealers, and is killed by mistake. Nils was planning on killing himself, but by chance he hears the name of one of those involved, and he decided to mete out justice himself. Each one gives up the name of the next (one after another) one, just before getting himself killed.

We counted 22 murders before the credits rolled, but maybe we missed one or two. Bruno Ganz plays the elderly Serbian mafia boss Papa, Norwegian actor Pål Sverre Hagen is the vegan Norwegian gangster "The Count", and Stellan Skarsgård (who has played in half the Swedish films released since the 70s) is Nils, all three are great actors. But even the minor characters get a chance to shine, usually just before they are offed.

And then there were the snowplows. We lost count, but there are magnificent scenes of snowplows spraying billows of snow (and the odd car or body) off the roads.

As one of the students noted, this is a film to watch at least twice so that you catch all of innuendos!