Systembolaget delivers (just slowly and dearly)


We have received a wine delivery from Systembolaget, Sweden’s state-owned retail alcohol monopoly. This was extraordinary, but it also reflects the company’s twin missions, to sell alcohol, while at the same time discouraging people from buying alcohol.

Home deliveries as a test began some weeks ago, and were extended to Stockholm in late September and to surrounding communities like ours on October 4. I would have liked to have placed an order on day one, but for various reasons had to wait until October 10. It was then that the two obstacles to home delivery became evident, the transport fee and the long wait for delivery.

Five to seven times the delivery fee

From time to time we order food deliveries from Coop, the Swedish cooperative, one of many grocery chains offering that service. They charge SEK 49 to deliver, with next day delivery (except weekends). Systembolaget charges 5-7 times as much for a delivery as does Coop (outsourced to the mail and package delivery company Bring).

The cost is enough to discourage most people, but the wait seems especially designed to minimize customer interest. The earliest delivery date for my October 10 order was October 29, two and a half weeks later. This apparently to discourage impulse buying.

(And while I was flattered when I was carded buying wine at a Safeway state at the age of 42, twice the drinking age in California, it was a bit weird having my ID checked at the age of 64.)

Forced into it by the pro-temperance Liberals

Systemet was basically forced into home deliveries when EU membership meant that Swedes could order liquor from abroad and have it delivered home. One of the strongest proponents of home deliveries by the monopoly this was Carl B. Hamilton, a veteran Liberal Party MP and a member of Systembolaget’s board of directors. The Liberals are the Swedish party most influenced by the Temperance movement, and while opening up for (highly controlled) home deliveries may initially look counter-intuitive, this was apparently seen by the party as a way to prop up the alcohol monopoly and defend it against a threat.

The other three parties in Sweden’s center-right goverment have somewhat varying approaches to alcohol.

Victory over the Center

In opening up to home deliveries, the Liberals seem to have won out over the Central Party, based traditionally on Sweden’s farmers. This country has a very tiny number of wine producers, all in the south, and most apparently on the island of Gotland. These have been pleading for wine-tasting at their vineyards. This would obviously be a great boon for sales, as currently their wines are only available (sometimes) at nearby state stores. But vineyard wine-tasting would challenge the monopoly (opening the door to more alternatives), and even the proposal for Systemet to be in charge of sales at the vineyards seems to have been rejected.

The very religious Christian Democrat Party wants to be as restrictive as possible about alcohol.


The Conservatives change policy (at least in public)

On the other hand, the Conservatives (conservative Moderates), larger than all the other coalition parties put together, long actively called for the abolition of the monopoly, allowing for private liquor stores and sales of alcohol at grocery store. This was in line with their distrust of public services where private actors could do the job, as seen by their leading the campaign to break up the pharmacy monopoly and for the creation of private profit-taking clinics and schools funded by tthe taxpayers. But something happened when the party began to campaign with the other three parties before the 2004 elections. The Conservatives sought to recast their image as “The new Labor Party”, trying to sell the idea they could adminster the welfare state better than the Social Democrats who had built it.

While pundits and opposition politicians can argue over whether they have actually done that, and their steady decline in the polls since the 2010 elections wold indicate some of the voters no longer accept that image, abandonment of the traditional position on Systembolaget seems to have been part of that image recasting. Private school, clinics, and pharmacies apparently have not disturbed the model, but the restrictive approach to alcohol seems to be too finely ingrained in Swedes to rock the boat over.

Netflix eclipses HBO, Amazon surrenders

Netflix works, HBO doesn't

Netflix works, HBO doesn’t

Americans dream of being able to access quality TV programming without a cable subscription, and Scandinavia has been the testing ground for the coming services. There have been definate winners and losers here. Netflix has emerged as the victor. HBO Nordic has been a disaster, and Amazon has abandoned us.

Netflix does it right

Last Fall saw the launch of Netflix in Scandinavia, along with HBO Nordic. For those of us with Apple TV, Netflix had an immediate advantage, as it already had an icon on the screen, which worked with our new accounts from day one. Despite initial disapppointment because the offerings weren’t as extensive as in the US, Netflix got it right from the beginning.

HBO’s fail

HBO showed us first as a channel on service provider Telia’s IPTV service, provoking some complaints from excluded providers. When the service finally did launch online only, with an ios app, there were complaints because rather than the standard trial month, the company wanted users to pay for a full year of service, sight unseen. When they finally gave in to complaints and allowed users to cancel cost-free within the first month, it turned out the app was badly flawed. Besides a confusing and clunky interface, there was no Airplay to get it into an Apple TV, not even the clumsy AIrplay mirroring.

HBO Nordic’s Twitter feed was filled with complaints, and after a few weeks Airplay mirroring was introduced. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Often the app just crashed. Moreover, the customer service has been a disaster. Since January 2013, the customer service reps on Twitter have been promising that both proper Airplay and an Apple TV app were on the way. Day after day they made this promise. By summer, when neither promise had been fullfiled, there had been a glaring change in the HBO Nordic Twitter feed. Instead of many tweets every day answering questions from interested customers, HBO Nordic was tweeting every day or two. Sometimes a week would go by between tweets. The people they were supposed to be interfacing with had simply gone away.

During this period the HBO Go app launched on the Apple TV. But, unlike the Netflix app, it doesn’t work with Nordic accounts. Asked why Netflix could accomplish this while HBO could not, the customer service reps waffled.

The rest of the pack

There are a handful of similar services here that offer TV programming to tablets and computers, like Viaplay and Filmnet, and Telia’s own Telia Play Plus. None seem to have as many offerings as Netflix (but they all seem to vary and are worthwhile comparing if one is interested in a particular genre, some may be better at Swedish programs or European film, for example), and none are capable of actually getting a TV image into a TV set.

If one is satisfied with watching programs on a tablet, then all of these services are adequate. But the lack of Airplay just makes them all seem incomplete.

Amazon surrendered

Then there is Amazon. Many years ago, when Netflix only mailed DVDs to customers, a similar service started here in Sweden, called Brafilm (“bra” is Swedish for “good”). Eventually it was bought up by a similar company in Britain called Lovefilm, which in turn was bought by Amazon.

Along the way, British Lovefilm followed Netflix in making films available online and via apps, and today the Amazon-run operation is much like Netflix, with its entire library viewable online and on TV sets via Airplay. During this period, the Swedish Lovefilm made a handful of films available online (basically a “film of the week”), and never introduced Airplay. Faced with the arrival of Netflix and HBO Nordic in Scandinavia, instead of rising to the challenge, Amazon took its marbles and went home, closing the Swedish Lovefilm.

This was been devastating. Even if they hadn’t gone online, the DVDs by mail operation was unique in the region, and based on a huge library. There are many many films and TV programs that Swedish Lovefilm carried that are just not available from the new online services. Now, the only way to get such films is to rent or buy them from the dwindling number of DVD shops.

So, the cord-cutting future is here in Scandinavia, and some companies are dealing with it better than others. But if I was in America, I wouldn’t get too optimistic about HBO. They seem to be terribly flawed.

CSI episode 300 a disappointment

I very much like the TV series CSI, but I stopped watching after William Petersen left the series after 9 seasons. His Gil Grisson character, with hints of Aspbergers, was fascinating. It wasn’t the same show without him. But I got very excited about episode 300, which was billed as:

“On tonight’s “CSI” season 14 episode 5, “Frame by Frame,” Catherine Willows returns to help the CSIs solve a cold case that has haunted the team for 14 years.”

There were indications online that Marg Helgenberger, who played Catherine Williams until last year, was going to return and recruit the George Eads character Nick Stokes into joining her at the FBI. Plus, even if William Petersen wasn’t going to be there, it was still going to be an homage of some sort.

None of that happened. Catherine Willows didn’t return to the lab, she was there in flashbacks. (Newly shot, but still Catherine didn’t return.) And there was no Nick Stokes at all, George Eads wasn’t even in the episode (being on a leave of absence after a disagreement with a writer). Plus the 30 second montage at the end that was apparently supposed to be the Grissom homage, was too short and just disappointing. Grissom deserved more.

On top of all that, there was a continuity flaw. In one of the flashbacks, placed 14 years in the past, Catherine Willows is giving CSI Greg Sanders advice about working in the field. But 14 years ago, in the show’s first season, Sanders was in the lab as a DNA tech, and didn’t move to the field until season five.

As a normal CSI episode it was fine (except Ted Danson’s character is no Grissom), but it certainly didn’t live up to the hype.

California White is (virtually) No More

California White

The 3 liter boxes of the wine sold as California White are no longer available at Sweden’s state monopoly liquor stores, the only place you can buy wine over the counter in the country. This is sad because it was a decent and inexpensive table wine from California.

Not a great wine for weekend parties, but a nice wine for drinking at dinner.

Not long ago this was described as the stores’ most popular product. Yesterday I was told in a store that it had been removed because there was so little demand.

What happrned? At the height of its popularity the wine had a different name. It was called Golden Gate. But a company in California sued over name infringement. The weird thing was the company was not called Golden Gate, it was called Golden State.

I don’t know, but I wonder if the Swedish judge just didn’t understand the difference?

Otherwise it was the same wine in the same box, with a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge. But obviously California White didn’t give the same feeling.

While the 3 liter boxes are off the shelves, the smaller 750 ml cartons remain, at least for the time being. And the large boxes remain in Systembolaget’s catalog, so they can be ordered. Right now that means pick up in a store, but within the next two weeks Systembolaget is opening up its home delivery service.

The delivery cost is excessive, apparently part of their mission to discourage alcohol consumption while holding the monopoly on its sale. But eventually one might be able to get a bunch of boxes of California White delivered to your door.

Apple’s Underwhelming Event

Apple TV, Image: Apple

Where’s the Apple TV update? Image: Apple


I can almost understand why Apple avoided video streaming yesterday’s event. There was so little to announce. The only real announcement was the two new iPhones, exactly as rumored, with one massive exception. The so-called “c for cheap” phone aimed at developing markets was anything but cheap.

Slate, which had an excellent analysis, presented the hitherto situation this way:

Every year, the company makes only one new model, a phone that represents Apple’s platonic ideal—the one phone it thinks everybody ought to have. Apple usually sells the new phone for around $650, and wireless carriers sell it to customers for $199 with a two-year plan. To hedge its bets against low-priced competitors, Apple also keeps selling its previous models, reducing the price of each by $100. Last year, when Apple unveiled the iPhone 5, it kept selling 2011’s iPhone 4S for $550 ($99 with a contract), and the 2010 iPhone 4 sold for $450 (free with a contract).

The 5S announced yesterday followed this pattern. Instead of dumping the price on the 5, Apple released the 5C in masses of plastic colors. But instead of a super cheap price all they did was discontinue the 5, and slot the 5c into the price range that would have been for the 5. At $550 it is way more expensive than what was needed or expected. Slate details why they think this has happened.

The event was also disappointing because there was no mention at all the much-rumored iWatch (obviously because it isn’t ready) or the Apple TV.

The idea that Apple would make a TV set is rather silly, but there is lots of room for them to improve the little set-top box. Even if they don’t offer new hardware, the interface could use an update, there need to be more TV channels available, and, what would be really wonderful is if there was a proper Apple TV app store, so developers could make their own channel apps available.

If I want to watch a live pod from now, I have to play it on my iPad ior iPhone and Airplay it to the Apple TV. All that is available in the Apple TV’s podcast app are old editions. There ought to be a live streaming Twit app, but under the current system Apple has to implement it.

Apparently, there is a small update to the Apple TV software being released at the same time as ios 7, on September 18. But Tim Cook and company seemingly didn’t think that was even important enough to mention. Hopefully it will offer more despite this slight.

Nor did they mention the introduction of iTunes Radio (probably that same day?) which was massively hyped in the last event. It will be a major upgrade, Apple taking on the likes of Spotify and Pandora, and linked directly to sales from the iTunes store. That ought to have been worth a mention.

Pundits have said Apple didn’t want to announce the coming new iPads yesterday because they didn’t want the iPhone and iPad announcements to clash and detract from each other. But there was so little announced yesterday, that they might as well have presented the iPads as well, rather than wait another month. One big event rather than one disappointment and one unknown.


Farewell Amelia Peabody, Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Mertz

I’ve just learned that Barbara Mertz, who wrote the wonderful Amelia Peabody books under the name Elisabeth Peters, died one month ago, at the age of 85.

Those books gave so much pleasure, and inspired and guided our trip to Egypt several years ago.

Most selfishly, I’m disappointed we’ll never see the book “The Painted Queen“, which she wrote that she was working on two years ago.