Category Archives: Notes from a small country

25 reasons to visit Norway

As some of our friends, who to our delight turn up almost every summer, have already found: 25 reasons Norway Is The Greatest Place On Earth.

I’ll add a 26th: The Gulf Stream, which ensures that the water in the Oslo fjord reaches 23 Celsius at least once every summer, and then I can swim (my wife will happily swim until it freezes over.)

And while we are at it, how about a 27th: Prekestolen (Pulpit Rock), not only for the view of and from it, but because it is devoid of safety fences, warning signs and concession stands. Caveat emptor…

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Notice: Regular carping about living in a small and remote country will resume shortly.

Finding Nemo, unsurprisingly, again

(Intially posted as a comment to Dave Weinberger’s blog, but expanded/edited into a bona fide rant here. Update, Feb. 13: Dave continues the discussion in his column at CNN.com.)

New England has just had a snowstorm, predicted to be of historic proportions, but eventually ending up, as always, as nothing much, except a staggeringly incompetent number of people (400,000 or so in Massachusetts alone) losing power. As a Norwegian currently in Oslo (but with nine winters in Boston (Arlington and Brookline)): New England snowstorms, despite their ferocity, are not aberrations of nature but a failure to prepare a systemic level.

It is just snow. Not a lot (well, a lot, but for a short time, as illustrated by the photo.) It shows up fast, and leaves again equally fast. It doesn’t stay the whole winter, from November until March, as it does here in the south (get it – south!) of Norway.

The fact that New England panics every time there is a flurry is due to lack of preparedness at the infrastructure level. In most of Norway power and telephone lines are underground, it is illegal not to have snow tires on your car after December 1st or thereabouts (if you drive in the snow with regular tires and go in the ditch, you are fined quite severely) and during my own and my children’s school days we have never had a snow day or any other interruption due to the weather (and we have plenty of weather). In Norway you cannot get a driver’s license without passing a driving-on-slick-surface course. The Oslo subway (or buses – what kind of drivers to you have?) has never been closed due to snow. I have never been to the store to stock up on batteries and water. (I have been to the gas station to buy gas for the snow blower ahead of a storm, though.) Our airport does not close down for snow, though there can be delays. In New England, there are public service announcements (from Thomas Menino’s office) saying “When clearing motor vehicles, remove snow around the muffler/exhaust system before starting the car”. How stupid can you get?

I just can’t get used to the New England oh-my-God-here-it-comes-again-flip-to-channel-5 attitude. I attribute this to lack of far-sightedness in planning – rather than taking the cost of modernizing the power grid and change the telephone lines to fiber all around, incrementalism wins. (Then again, I have found myself being the only driver (in a VW Vanagon with worn tires) on the 128, and the only person coming in  to work (in a Chevy Caprice).) Instead of driving responsibly you salt the roads until they are white and dogs can’t go out due to the pain the salt inflicts on their paws. Instead of having a public works division outfitted to fix things with proper equipment you resort to an army of contractors with F-250s barging out to power-plow 2 inches of wet snow that will disappear at 9am the next day anyway, just to get paid.

imageI drove (with wife and three kids) from Florida to MA during the blizzard of 96, which closed down NY and NJ. In Georgia, we saw 200 cars in the ditch, including an 18-wheeler cab-up in a tree. It looked like an 8-year old had emptied out his toy car crate. On an Interstate in North Carolina I saw a police cruiser (who had tried to cross from one direction to the other via those little police-only paths) nosed into and completely buried a six-foot pile, the blue lights forlornly spinning through the snow. Driving around Richmond, I saw people pass me doing 75 in their Cherokees on the highway, only to see them buried in a drift two miles later. In Washington (Metro population 5.6m, number of snowplows: 1) I drove around (in a Dodge Caravan with a not very advanced AWD system) a Chevy Suburban spinning on all four wheels as the owner moronically pumped the gas pedal. (Incidentally, the only institution open was the Norwegian embassy, whose employees arrived on cross-country skis.) When we got to the NJ border, we were stopped, as the turnpike was closed. I stupidly tried to argue with the cop that I was Norwegian, had 4WD, and was a former instructor in 4WD driving in the Norwegian army, that driving in the snow was easy if you went slowly and gently. He was, needless to say, not swayed. We spent the night in a motel.

Why doesn’t New England harden the grid and communications systems, put winter tires on school buses, mandate winter tires in snowy conditions, and just get rid of this stupid idea of snow days? It is winter, it happens almost every year. It is just something to get used to, minimize the consequences of and then get on with a productive life.

On the other hand, most Americans work way too much, so perhaps it is just nature’s way of giving you a much-needed break. In the meantime, you are providing quite the entertainment at Norwegian TV, for which I suppose I should be thankful.

(Images from TriStateWeather)

Update Feb. 13: Somewhat related, here is an infographic (from Curtis Whaley via Boingboing) on how to walk on ice. Put on your tailcoats and waddle away…:

The banality of an attention-seeking killer

I have been following the opening of the court case against the mass murderer from Utøya in Norway. I really should not – I have better things to do – but it is hard not to, it strikes very close to home. I don’t know anyone directly involved (though, reportedly, 25% of Norwegians do), but the dry, factual and extremely professional reading by the prosecutor of the names of the victims and the circumstances of their deaths and injuries gets to me: Norway is a very small society, I know many people with the same last names, my daughter knows people directly involved, and the whole thing becomes very real. The court has seen films of people dying and a mobile phone call from a victim, where you could hear 10 shots being fired just outside the toilet door where she was hiding, but these are not included in the broadcast.

A psychiatrist describes the defendant as a psychopath with total lack of empathy – he cries when seeing his own Youtube propaganda video but tries to hide a smile during the description of his rampage. The sheer numbers and the cold-bloodedness of the defendant both then and now is deeply offensive. There have been two psychiatric evaluations of him, the first concluding that he was not responsible for his own actions, the second that he was. I think the second evaluation – in the first, the psychiatrists had little knowledge of right-wing environments and saw all his infantile anti-islam fantasies as a sign of madness in itself – will be the one standing.

Norway does not have life sentences or the death penalty. A “life sentence” is typically 20 years, for certain crimes (this one included) a 30 year sentence can be imposed. However, after a 30 year sentence, the prisoner has to be released – in fact, given good behavior in prison, a person has to be released before time. A second possibility is to sentence him to 20 years, followed by 10 years of “forvaring”, i.e. a continued prison sentence because the person may be a danger to society. This can be extended indefinitely, but is subject to a psychiatric review every 5 years. I think that is what will happen. It is probable that the Norwegian laws will be rewritten to include a life sentence for extremely serious crimes, but laws cannot be given retroactive effect.

I am deeply impressed by the professionalism shown by everyone involved in this – prosecutors, defenders and commentators alike. The main defending attorney, Geir Lippestad, took the job very reluctantly and holds a very straight face, but you can tell that he is disgusted by his client but determined to give him a defense as good as can be done – and to reign in his political tirades as much as possible. The press has been fairly careful in not showing too many details about the victims, but the sheer volume is a problem in itself – and the fact that the defendant gets the attention he seems to crave (he seems to have done this more to get attention than for any other results, political and quasi-religious justifications aside) – is rather revolting.

Oh well. Justice will be done, but it is at a very high price for the victims and their families and friends. The court case is held in a very dignified form, with the exception of the defendant, who obviously delights in the attention and will start his explanation tomorrow.

To me, he is not worthy of this court case and this country.

Norwegian movies for American friends

Most Norwegian movies are best enjoyed in Norway by Norwegians, but every now and then something comes up that is passable outside the borders. So as a service to my American friends, here are a few recommendations, all available on Netflix over the Internet:

The Troll Hunter is a mockumentary about three film students from the Volda regional university, who tracks Hans, a mysterious figure they first think is a bear poacher. It turns out he is an official, secret, government-employed troll hunter, charged with tracking down and killing trolls that escape their reservations (fenced in by power lines, no less).

Normally, I don’t like to watch movies about monsters and supernaturals – their many blatant falsehoods and gaping plot holes irritate me. The Troll Hunter, however, I watched with pleasure after being told about it by someone in the movie/media business. He raved about the performance of Otto Jespersen, normally a comedian, as the laconic and gradually more disgruntled troll hunter, fighting bureaucracy and trying to cover up the trolls’ cattle rampages by purchasing dead bears from Polish smugglers to be left near the scene. The film students are brilliantly naïve, and some of the lines are classics:

– Is it absolutely sure that we have no Christians here [trolls can smell Christian blood.]
– I’m a Muslim, is that all right?
– Hmm..don’t know.

The movie is rather low-budget, but with surprisingly good CGA of trolls of various kinds. The best parts are the carefully worked out troll details (including a great mock-scientific explanation for why trolls either turn to stone or explode when they are exposed to sunlight), and all the various mechanisms and technologies the Troll Security Service and Hans the Troll Hunter have come up with to manage them. Like most good Norwegian movies, it subtly makes fun of its characters, from the semi-ambitious film students to the stone-faced bureaucrats trying to hide the fact that trolls exist. It carefully balances satire with a just enough of a touch of action/horror movie to stop it from being too local or too snarky. Enjoy!

Max Manus (English title Man of War) is a movie about the Norwegian war hero and saboteur Max Manus, brilliantly performed by Aksel Hennie. The movie is the most successful Norwegian movie ever in terms of viewers – most of the population has seen it, and it is one of those films where the entire audience sits through the credits, in silence. The movie gives an (almost) historically accurate rendering of the life and times of Manus and his contemporaries, running sabotage in and around Oslo. (The main historical inaccuracies lie mostly in removing material as well as having to use different buildings than the originals, Oslo having changed quite a lot since 1945.)

Max Manus was the action-oriented, slightly irresponsible leader of the Oslo Group, one of the foremost resistance groups in Norway. He sees his friends gradually being killed by the Germans towards the end of the war, but manages to effect significant damage (blowing up troop transport ships, destroying the national labor archive) in return. The movie is action-filled and exciting, yet rather low-key: Some of the most exciting episodes, which would have made for excellent material, is deliberately left out. (One example is Kolbein Lauring (one of Manus’ close collaborators) escaping by gunfire and hand grenades from a patrol trying to arrest him in his home.) Excellent performances by Agnes Kittelsen as “Tikken”, Manus’ later wife; Nicolai Cleve Broch as Gregers Gram, Manus charismatic best friend; the German actor Ken Duken as Gestapo chief Siegfried Fehmer; and perhaps best of all, Knut Joner as Gunnar Sønsteby, the 26-year old (at wars end) brain behind most of the resistance in Oslo, who thanks to his anonymous appearance and brilliant memory could move all over Oslo and southern Norway managing hundreds of resistance fighters and more than two score false identities.

The movie draws very believable portraits of the various characters, showing their heroism and the toll the actions take on them, both in terms of comrades lost and nightmares endured. Most Norwegians have some memories from grandparents and parents telling about the war. Much of the movie is shot on location – the entire main street of Oslo was changed into its 1940 appearance for one scene, including flying a Nazi flag from the Parliament building. This makes it very real for most of us, including me (my grandfather was in the resistance and was tortured by the Gestapo, an experience which left its tracks, and was in a concentration camp from 1943 to the war’s end). Norway is a small country: I have met Gunnar Sønsteby on a few occasions, have walked the streets and been in some of the buildings where the actions took place, and when the saboteurs paddle in canoes to blow up ships, the go right by the house I live in. The movie is accurate, exciting, sad, and makes an impact. Highly recommended!

Elling, nominated to an Oscar for best foreign language film in 2002, is something different altogether. It tells the story of Elling (brilliantly performed by Per Christian Ellefsen) and Kjell Bjarne (equally brilliantly portrayed by Sven Nordin), two nervous middle-aged boys released from a psychiatric hospital to make their way in the world with the assistance of social worker Frank and eventually their neighbor Reidun and former poet Alfons. It is based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen, on of Norway’s foremost authors.

Elling is one of those movies that create language – you can refer to someone as an “Elling” or “Kjell Bjarne” in Norway and people will understand what you mean. Both men suffer from anxiety attacks and various phobias, and create little stratagems to manage their tentative entry into society. Elling is an overintellectualized shut-in with a mother complex and a cleaning mania, secretly dreaming about becoming an undercover poet. Kjell Bjarne is a shy giant, traumatized by abusive parents, who admires Elling and wants to listen to his fantasies, but also represents the voice of reason, entering into a relationship with the neighbor upstairs and helping Elling gradually explore the world outside their apartment.

The movie is howlingly funny in a very low-key fashion, making each of Elling’s small victories (managing to go to the store, having dinner in a restaurant, going to a poetry recital) feel as real to the audience as it does to the character. The characters are frequently humiliated, but manage to maintain a shaky dignity through it all, to a satisfyingly happy conclusion – helped by a seemingly aloof social worker who for once is not portrayed as a monster. If you feel down in the dumps, this is a terrific pick-me-up movie, enjoyable from start to finish.

File:Lilyhammer1.jpgHawaii, Oslo; Buddy and Lilyhammer I recommend with some reservations. The first is an intense magic reality movie about a character who feverishly tries to stop a bad event from happening. I remember it as great – but I don’t remember much about the plot. Buddy is a story about a group of friends who has to deal with sudden fame, again an enjoyable movie about which I have forgotten the plot – though I liked it. Lilyhammer is downright weird – a TV series about a New Jersey gangster (Steven van Zandt) who moves to rural Lillehammer, Norway, (chosen because he liked the scenery from the 1994 Winter Olympics) as part of a witness protection program. The concept is great, but I am not sure how well the jokes would play outside Norway – and I thought Little Steven’s performance a bit wooden and the jokes rather lame even in Norwegian. Norwegian rurals can be easy to make fun of, but they are not as inbred as comes over in this series. But it is is available – in fact, coproduced with – Netflix and, well, chacon ca gout, I presume.

And that is it – there are quite a few more (Flåklypa Grand Prix, Secondløitnanten, 37 1/2, Detektor) I have enjoyed, but I am not a film buff and this post sticks to what is on Netflix and I am reasonably sure you would like. So, go forth and explore…

Norwegian Data Inspectorate outlaws Google App use

In a letter (reported at digi.no) to the Narvik Municipality (which has started to use Google Mail and other cloud-based applications, effectively putting much of its infrastructure in the Cloud) the Norwegian Data Inspectorate (http://www.datatilsynet.no/English/), a government watchdog for privacy issues, effectively prohibits use of Google Apps, at least for communication of personal information. A key point in this decision seems to be that Google will not tell where in the world the data is stored, and, under the Patriot Act, the US government can access the data without a court order.

Companies and government organizations in Norway are required to follow the Norwegian privacy laws, which, amongst other things, requires that “personal information” (of which much can be communicated between a citizen and municipal tax, health and social service authorities) should be secured, and that personal information collected for one purpose may not be used for other purposes without the owner’s expressed permission.

This has interesting implications for cloud computing – many European countries have similar watchdogs as Norway, and many public and private organizations are interested in using Google’s services for their communication needs. My guess is that Google will need to offer some sort of reassurance that the data is outside of US jurisdiction, or effectively forgo this market to other competitors, such as Microsoft of some of the local consulting companies, which are busy building their own private clouds. Should be an interesting discussion at Google – the Data Inspectorate is a quite popular watchdog, Norway has some of the strongest privacy protection laws in the world (though, for some reason, it publishes people’s income and tax details), and Google’s motto of “Don’t be evil” might be put to the test here – national laws limiting global infrastructures.

A lament for nickfromfulham

(or, why BBC should put their material on Youtube).

The future of TV is on the net. Too bad the leading TV producers don’t understand it.

imageThis year I am living in the US, without a TV. So far I have not missed it – we have Netflix for movies and Youtube for music and clips. Having to chose your programming yourself means zero hours channelsurfing on the sofa, and a delightful lack of background noise from breakfast TV shows and similar junk.

But – what to watch when you want a little fun? For my youngest daughter (she is here in Boston to take a year of US high school) and I Friday nights have been spent in front of our nice 23 inch monitor, wathing Never Mind the Buzzcocks, a great, wild, satirical quiz show about pop music. And when I want to relax by myself, there is the unsurpassable QI, a [deeply intelligent/self-indulgingly moronic] quiz show with a pop science bent. Or I can watch some of BBCs great series, such as Stephen Fry’s programs about the English language.

Through Youtube, I have come to know and appreciate comedians and actors such as Bill Bailey, Phill Jupitus, Jo Brand, Noel Fielding, Alan Davies, Jimmy Carr, Sean Lock, Rich Hall, John Sessions, Rob Brydon, David Mitchell and Dara Ó Briain, just to name a few. I have learned a lot and laughed even more. The episode where Emma Thompson describes how she used her body to terrify Stephen Fry to complete breakdown or where Jack Dee serves the mother of all putdowns to Sandy Toksvig and Ronni Ancona are complete jewels.

Which brings me to a sad point: The channel NickFromFulham, who (assuming there is a Nick and he is from Fulham) has put up all these videos, was recently shut down from Youtube. Where should we go now for our witty and intelligent entertainment? You see, almost none of the stuff that BBC produces is viewable outside the UK, except in short snippets, on DVDs, or on the anemic BBC America channel, for which we would have to get a TV, and then put up with programs that are both delayed and also watered down in terms of swearwords, sexual and scatological references and much of the Britishness that makes Britain both British and bearable.

The funny thing is, of course, that if it wasn’t for Youtube’s technical capability and NickfromFulham’s diligent uploading and characterization, I wouldn’t know much about QI and nothing about Buzzcocks. Which makes me wonder a) what else is out there, not just in BBCland but in many TV stations around the world, and b) why the heck doesn’t BBC (and NRK, its Norwegian state-funded equivalent and all others) put their stuff out in digital format?

To the first point: I gave a talk to NRK in June, about disruption in the media industries and so on. As part of the discussion of how to strategize for the future, I urged them to fill up available spots in their many channels with stuff like QI – quality shows that have a very local appeal, but in an increasingly global world will have global appeal without sacrificing quality. When you treat your viewers as intelligent, they will act intelligently. To quote David Foster Wallace, in his his brilliant essay E Unibus Pluram:

TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.

The point being – with infinite channel capacity, you can attract a large audience, in many countries, by not pandering to the lowest common denominator. (The fact that QI is one of BBC’s most watched programs shows that the common denominator may, in fact, not be so low after all.)

The future of TV is on the net – but in order to attract people to the net, you have to release your best stuff, and gradually become the source and context of quality entertainment rather than a prison of old business models. And incidentally, slamming the door in the face of your biggest fans is not the way to go about it.

As for us? Well, my daughter is 17 and an accomplished net surfer. She can easily find and download the next episode of Buzzcocks from one of many pirate sites. Not that I like it, but what can I do? (Well, IP spoofing and going to BBC’s web site in the UK itself would be another option.) Or I can watch something else, which, of course, lowers the commercial value of all those actors and comedians participating in the things I would like to see.

Incidentally, here is one of the most watched Norwegian skits on Youtube. Let’s see if you understand it, even if it is in Norwegian (with subtitles):

The Digital Economist Index

The Economist has long had the Big Mac index, a surprisingly useful index for all kinds of things (though the magazine use it primarily to track over/undervaluation of a local currency. The Big Mac is a useful indicator because it is locally produced with local labor, but subject to stringent standards in terms of production and provisioning.

The digital version of the Economist, on the other hand, should be the diametrical opposite of the Big Mac – it is the same all over the world (the Economist does relatively little tailoring of its product, seeing its customers are globalists) and the price for delivering it is, of course, the same in all countries (with some provision for sales taxes.) Consequently, you would expect the product to have one price, all over the world.

Alas, that is not the case.

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