2014-10-26

Summer readings

It seems that my usual blogging time has been taken up with WiseGrandkid, which is fine by me. She's 15 months old now, and I've been able to babysit a few times. She misses her mother then terribly, but when we girls go shopping together, she quiets down. So shopping we go, I've managed to finally get myself some new shoes and stocked up on drug store items. It's amazing how young they are able to identify brands. There is this sugary yoghurt called Fruchtzwerge that comes in colorful little pots. While grocery shopping this week she pointed to them in the dairy section, then looked at me with those eyes I know only too well from WiseKid, and so Grandma puts a six-pack in the grocery cart. And WiseGrandkid actually ate one when we got home.

Over the summer I did get some reading done, so instead of long reviews, here's the list with a brief description:

  • Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
    This book won the Booker Prize in 1989 (which only shows how long it takes me to get around to reading things). It is a description of the life of an English butler, Stevens, who spends his life serving others. In 1956 he finally takes a holiday, and we are treated to descriptions of the English countryside as well as peeping into his past and all that he has seen, but never spoken of. He has never had time for himself, being in service 24/7 at Darlington Hall. I suppose I should take heed of this and spend more time doing things for myself and not end up like Stevens, only working for others.
  • Jörg Maurer: Felsenfest: AlpenkrimiI usually prefer Scandinavian Krimis, crime thrillers. But Jörg Maurer is really good, he has such whimsical characters and such fast-paced, crazy stories that take place in the Alps that just might be true. A great summer read.
  • Robert M. Sonntag: Die Scanner
    This is a story for young people, although I'm afraid teenagers today don't read, so we'll have to wait for it to be available on YouTube. It's about a society not too far in the future in which there are no books any longer. They have all been scanned and the paper burned. There are people who comb the city, looking for books that have been left over, in order to scan them in. And of course there are the hold-outs who hoards books and hide them and refuse to turn them over to the scanners. Then one day, there is a "computer problem", and all the books of the past are gone. No matter, who reads books anymore, anyway? It is a plausible dystopia, but I'm afraid that teenagers don't understand the value of keeping "old stuff" around.
That's it for now, at least I can now put these books into my bookshelves. And no, I'm not scanning them in. I like to have words printed on paper, they don't change or disappear.

2014-09-24

A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman's last film, A Most Wanted Man, was showing in the original language at the local artsy theater, so we found an evening to go watch it.

How bizarre to be watching a movie clearly playing in Germany, with American actors speaking American English and German actors speaking English with a German accent and a Canadian actress (Rachel McAdams) speaking English with a German accent. And the film had German subtitles, that you actually needed when the characters were speaking Arabic.

What a chilling story (by John le Carré), most especially after I heard a lecture today on the German data privacy laws as they affect personal privacy rights and how the NSA and the German authorities are actually breaking German constitutional law. This film pitted at least three spy organizations against each other (Verfassungsschutz, CIA, and some third, unnamed entity), and they all are breaking personal privacy rights right and left. But of course, the long-term goal is to make the world a "safer" place, right? Take care of those pesky terrorists.... And as we now know, this is actually not fiction, but happening, all around us. We are paying for their fun & games, and strangely, with a sense of Stockholm Syndrome (as Jochen Koubeck put it in the talk this morning) are even sympathizing with the NSA & Co. listening in on all we are doing.

As WiseMan remarked after the film, if Philip Seymour Hoffman's character would have seen Robin Wright in House of Cards, he would have known that he can't trust her. Spy movies are not normally my cup of tea, but this was great, Hoffman was just such a great actor. The only boring part was the full half an hour of silly advertising and trailers for films I most certainly will not see, and that with the film not starting until 8.30 pm. Oh well, lucky me, I don't have to get up too early tomorrow.

2014-08-21

Riverbed

We went to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, north of Copenhagen, today, as it was opening day for Ólafur Elíasson's Riverbed exhibition. The papers had said that this exhibition literally turned Louisiana inside out, which of course is one of his major themes.

Inside-out indeed.

We were given a map at the model room, and after lunch in the cafeteria with the breathtaking view we tried to get to the Riverbed. We first thought it was outside, but there was just a tent there for the literature days. The doors we normally use to get into that wing of the museum were strangely locked. So we went back to the gift shop to enter what is normally the wrong way.

You walk down a wooden pathway, the walls painted a spotless white (okay, it's opening day), with people coming towards you. Then you step out into a large room, painted white, with a lot of rocks in it. And - natch - a river running through it.


 A river running through the sacred, polished wood halls of Louisiana! And the river bed is not just any bunch of stones scraped together. These are lava stones, carted over from Iceland.


Tons and tons of stones!  The guard said the workers had been carting the stones in for six weeks, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow. And that they put down some heavy-duty plastic before the stones started being brought in. The rooms that normally partition off portions of an artists life or themes the artist dealt with have doors, some low, some wide, that drive upwards, ever upwards towards this waterfall:


There are steps up over the waterfall, and then more lava in more rooms, until you finally get to the source (there are two): 


Another few steps up and you are in the library, a breathtakingly beautiful room overlooking the Öresund. I normally like to go sit in the library when I am at Louisiana, as it is usually deserted and I can enjoy the quiet and the view. The library is now a dead-end, so it is filled with people flipping through books about the artist and his works. A man, end of 40, comes in at one point, looks around, smiles, leaves.

I always assumed that Ólafur was an oldish guy, because he has done so many (crazy) things. Looking at his picture online I wonder if the man I saw was the artist on opening day, seeing how people react to his monumental work.

The exhibition is on until January 2015: If you are near Copenhagen, this is a must-see!

2014-08-04

Bletchley Park

We spent Saturday at Bletchley Park. That is a little town north of London where Alan Turing worked trying to crack the code that the Germans were using in World War II. At the peak there were apparently 10.000 people working there, also building a magnificent single-purpose computer, the Colossus, to crack open the one-time pad generated by the Lorenz Machine for use be the German High Command.

Saturdays are wonderful days, as there are volunteers out there enthusiastically explaining how the machines work. The only down side is that the National Computer Science Museum and Bletchley Park are on the same grounds, but they don't cooperate, so you have to pay two entrance fees if you want to see both machines running. But it is worth it! And if you are heading up by train, there's a 2-for-1 coupon that you can print out in advance, that saves 15 pounds.

It was nice to see a lot of material in person and to be able to photograph it. There were live demonstrations of a rebuilt Bombe and the rebuilt Colossus. All machines and material were to have been destroyed after the war, as this was a top-secret operation, but luckily there were a few photos and diagrams, and there were still some of the engineers alive as groups started re-producing the parts.

The Colossus was primarily built out of standard telephone exchange parts, as the telephone engineers built it. When British Telecom was upgrading their analog parts to digital, one of the members of the rebuild team drove around with a truck, picking up all the analogue parts (especially valves) he could. The presenter requested that everyone have a look in their garage and attic to see if they happened to have a few lying around, as they are too expensive to produce any more. They consist of hand-blown glass with metal and plastic parts. I wonder if there will ever be a 3D printer for retro parts.

I must have taken 100 pictures, far too many to post here. I guess I'll have to teach cryptography again only in order to use them - and in order to explain how the codes were cracked. The "unbreakable" Lorenz cipher was broken when a soldier re-used the same one-time pad to resend a message that was slightly different - with abbreviations. And the Enigma was brute-forced after some lateral thinking showed that there was a flaw - a character could never be mapped to itself. And since the Germans love wordy, standard terminology, and had a tendency to send messages at the exact same time every day (like the Wettervorhersage, the weather report, or regular reports that nothing had happened worth reporting - Keine besondere Vorkommnisse) so the engineers could compare the intercepted code with typical words that they expected to be in the text, and were thus able to rule out quite a number of cases. With the Bombe they then brute-forced the rest of the possibilities, using a machine called the Type-X that you could set a possible key and type in the message and see if it fell out in plain text. What a disappointment that must have been to spend all day decoding and then to learn that the Kleiderpauschale had been raised by one Reichsmark or something equally boring.

It was a fascinating day, I could have spent lots more time AND bought one of everything in the gift shop. But I'm flying and already close to the weight limit, so I just purchased some postcards and a DVD.

2014-08-03

London Calling

It's been about 30 years since I last visited London. I've been to Newcastle a few times, but avoided being in London. But this year my family (including princesses who are rapidly turning into teenagers) decided to "do" England and Ireland, so we are meeting in London. I'm here a few days earlier with WiseMan in order to do some vacationing ourselves.

The first thing you notice about London is that everyone seems to have earphones on, and half of the people are talking loudly into their shoulders. And I mean LOUDLY. I'd be rich if I wrote a novel about every drama I've half heard just the past few days. And they are addicted to their phones! Even a proper English professor I was meeting for dinner took a "Selfie" with me and sent it on to a friend, sharing the immediate response with me, as we discovered that I had just recently been in correspondence with just this friend.

From the ads I gather that mobile phones are incredibly cheap to use, 10 pounds buys 700 minutes a month and 5000 (!) SMS and 500 MB of data. In Germany you would pay three times that.

I observed one woman at a bus stop, hair set in stone with hairspray, dressed in a very close-fitting black leather top and mini-skirt, with a shopping bag in one hand and a small box with a slice of pizza in the other, yakking away on her phone. She had the phone, a non-smartphone, held tight with her bra strap pulled out a bit from her shoulder. As she boarded the bus, it turned out that she even had two kids in tow. The bus driver called her back to user her bus card to pay for the trip - she had to give the pizza box to her little boy while she got out the card, while continuing to talk on the phone.

2014-05-27

Shaking hands

I chaired a Bachelor defense this afternoon for a student from Saudi Arabia that has been in a number of my classes. As he was called back in for me to officially grant him the degree, I put out my hand to give him a congratulatory handshake that for me is always part of the ceremony.

He pulled his hands back, put them over his heart and smiled, saying "Oh no, I can't because of my religion."

I was irritated, but kept on with the formalities and left with the other woman on the committee, his advisor. We spoke about the incident afterwards. Here we have been teaching him all these years in Germany, where hand-shaking is a daily ritual (and you need to make sure that you don't forget and shake the same person's hand twice in one day or you will get told "Wir haben uns schon", we already shook hands). But he is unwilling to touch us because we are unclean women? Or because we are the "property" of our fathers or husbands and he does not have our permission?

If he had said: Oh no, I have a cold! We would have gladly not given our hands. And my colleague notes that she really hates the huggy-kissy stuff that is popular in Berlin as a greeting. But to refuse to shake our hands because we are women is mighty strange indeed. I suppose I should just let it go, but it somehow has nagged on me all evening.

2014-05-04

Meeting a moose

Even though we have been traveling to Sweden for over 30 years, we have seldom seen a moose at close quarters. Twenty years ago we saw two at a distance in Färjelända, and once somewhere while we were walking in the woods one crashed through a clearing before us. We've seen moose droppings in the woods around our summer home, but mostly we have seen them in the nearby zoo (and petted noses, they have soft fur on their noses).

On the way to the airport this morning a young moose suddenly sprang out of the woods. WiseMan was driving (luckily, I had a terrible headache) and there was no car coming the opposite direction. We were able to swerve. We did hear a thump and thought that we had still hit the moose broadside, but the car behind us said that the moose had just gotten one leg underneath the car. Either the knee hit the car, or we ran over the hoof.

The moose limped off into the woods, and we pulled over. There was no damage to the car, luckily, and we were okay except for the scare. We called a friend who contacted a hunter and the police. The police called while we were at the airport to take down all the details. They send a hunter out to look for the moose and see if it is okay or needs to be put out of its misery. After everything was over a bit of shock set in. We were very lucky -- suddenly meeting a large moose can total a car.

I think I'll be happy to just visit the zoo in the future.