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.


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.


Happy Birthday, BASIC

Well, since lots of other nerds are wishing BASIC a happy 50th birthday, let me chime in as well.

It was the summer of 1973. My mother, a high-school math teacher, had signed up for summer school as part of her work on obtaining a Master's degree. She was taking "Boolean Algebra" and "Introduction to Programming with BASIC" at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia. But she ended up in the hospital with kidney stones and was unable to attend the classes she had already paid for.

I was the proud owner of a driver's license. Yes, you got your license at 16 in Georgia, learner's permit at 15 at that time and I remember to this day my first drive alone, the day after my birthday, in our red Duster with the windows rolled down and Rod Stewart's  "Maggie May" blasting out the radio.

Since I had no plans other than reading a large pile of Gothic novels over the summer, I offered to take the courses as a proxy, and my mother readily agreed. I drove to the university in the mornings and took notes on the lectures, copying down the hieroglyphics on the board. I then drove to the hospital (luckily, she was at the Emory University Hospital) and brought her the notes and the exercises. She solved the programming ones first, writing out what I was to program for her.

I drove back to campus and went down to the computer cellar. We were able to use the keypunch machines there all afternoon. My math teacher, Mr. Barber, was also taking the course. He showed me how to use the punch, and how to (literally!) bootstrap the machine with the BASIC interpreter before feeding my own little punch tape into the machine. A teletype would then rattle away and print out something. I would tear it off, and then drive back to the hospital to show my mom the results, picking up the Boolean Algebra exercises to hand in at the end of the day.

WOW! I could make the machine go! My mom didn't want me playing around (I might break something), I was only allowed to type in her programs for her. So when we moved to California shortly after the school year started and Crawford High School had a course in computing, I signed right up! Mr. Juell, our teacher, would take punched cards with FORTRAN programs to a computer center twice a week and pick up the results of the last batch. Boy, you sure learned to check your syntax that way!

We also had a teletype, hooked up via modem to some computer. I can still whistle the connection melody. Here we programmed in BASIC, and oh my, you got immediate response from the computer! What fun we had, a small group of nerds, playing with these toys that also included a programmable calculator that had to have commands punched in octal on cards. I wish I still had copies of the programs we wrote that would be so funny to see how badly we programmed back then.

I went on to study computing, learning all sorts of other programming languages and hearing about the GOTO being considered harmful. I never had a home computer until I bought a Computer Schneider system for writing my dissertation. It had BASIC on it, but I didn't have time for games.

As a proper theoretical computer scientist I, of course, should not admit to ever having used the language. But the immediacy of the results we got as teenagers fueled my enthusiasm for learning more about computers. So many thanks to BASIC for getting me started on my career -- and happy birthday!


Grandkid Stuff

WiseGrandKid is coming over this evening with her parents. She is now very mobile and adept at crawling, she even scootched up two of the stairs the last time she was here. Our place hasn't been child-proof for years, so I hit the Mega-Baby-Stuff-Store this morning, along with approx. 37 expecting couples and 42 with offspring in tow.

Although the kid's high chair that we got for WiseKid is still going strong, we didn't get the baby set then. I tried to get one today, but the production has changed and so they are not available for older models.

I did get this too-cute-for words place mat from Stokke:

It sticks to the table with giant suction cups and has high rims to contain spilled milk. I had been a bit worried about how the polished stone surface would react to a child banging on it, as I remember the deep cuts WiseKid made in our wooden table when he was a kid. This will do the trick!

I cleaned out the lower shelf that used to contain lots of things not suitable for children (and found the lovely Swedish tea-light holder sheared off, that probably happened during a past visit and I didn't get told). I put up a sign and some stickers and put some toys on the shelf:

Oh, that Monchhichi, WiseKid didn't like it so it is still in pristine condition, it is just too cute for words:



My university moved some departments (mine included) to a former industrial area in Berlin, Schöneweide (English: beautiful field), five years ago. This part of town is often called "Schweineöde" (English: pig's wasteland) by the locals. Located on the Spree, it was an area with heavy industrialization that broke down during the German Democratic Republic times and for decades was known for unemployment, abandoned buildings, and Neonazis. The latter had their headquarters here, a clothing store and some pubs, but that is now changing. One of the pubs has finally lost the last court suit brought by the owner and is being forced to move.

In 2004 Carsten Otte published a book called "Schweineöde" with Eichborn (reviews in German at Cicero and Perlentaucher). The book is about Raimund Kuballa, bored millionaire from the West who rents a room in Schöneweide and experiences, as Otte writes, "Einsamkeit, Haß, Zuneigung, Liebe, Ablehnung, Gewalt, Erniedrigung, Ohnmacht und Macht" (loneliness, hate, affection, love, rejection, violence, humilation, impotence and power) during his years of living in a small apartment in the Rathenaustraße. Most particularly, he becomes so fascinated with the history of the former Eastern German secret police Stasi, that he himself turns to information gathering, denunciation, even framing his neighbor and rival for the love of Jana in order to get him jailed.

CC-BY-NC-SA, WiseWoman
I was at the beginning fascinated to read about this part of town, and it was interesting to see how Kuballa was drawn into his obsession with the Stasi. But the book soon got bogged down and Otte didn't really have any idea how to end the book. But for a first novel I suppose that is often the case. I often wondered while reading the book if Otte himself had lived in this apartment and was describing his neighbors.

In any case, this part of town is slowly pulling itself out of the muck. Since 7000 students and teachers trek out to the university every weekday, espresso bars and cafes have sprung up, and the art scene is rapidly developing. The rents are still cheap here and a walk along the Spree is a great way to spend a sunny afternoon.


Simon and the Oaks

Swedish TV broadcast the 2011 film "Simon and the Oaks" (Simon och ekarna) this evening with one of my favorite German actors, Jan-Josef Liefers, playing a supporting role.

The story, after a book by Marianne Fredriksson, is complicated. Simon is growing up in the late 1930s in a working class family near the water outside of Gothenburg. He is more interested in reading, his best friends are the oak trees high above the water. He insists on going to school in town, and there meets Isak, the son of a German Jewish bookseller who fled Berlin with his wife and son. Isak and Simon become friends, and slowly exchange families. Isak learns the trade of a carpenter, Simon embraces the music and literature he is exposed to in Isak's father's house.

Eventually, Simon learns that he is adopted and that his father was also a German Jew. He searches for his roots, eventually finding an uncle and learning that his birthfather died just a few years ago.

It is a sweet family story, a little heavy on the classical music, but it tells the story of how people came to terms with World War II living far away but still so near to the horrors that were happening.

Liefers is superb – he seems to have learned Swedish for the role. It is his voice, speaking excellent Swedish with a German accent, intermingled with German. The other characters are also very well done, complicated people with secrets and longings and desires. They are not plastic perfect happy people, but they are very real. The cinematography, cutting between seasons, inside and outside, light and dark, is very well done, capturing the spectacular light of Sweden on a sunny summer day and the gloom of deepest winter night. 

You feel that you have really gotten to know these people and want the story to continue as the credits begin to roll.


Hobbit: Part 2

We went to see Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in Lund this evening with a friend. We had seen each of the Lord of the Rings films together as they came out over Christmas/New Year's, but had not seen the first Hobbit film together for some reason. Watching it in 3D we had decided that the 3D wasn't worth it and that we weren't going to go see part 2, it was far too boring.

But the critics said it was better, so we decided to give it a try. We managed to get 3 of the last 4 seats for the non-3d version left among scores of sugar-high kids excited to go see all the kiddie films and headed inside. The advertising was great - some interesting films, and then the University of Uppsala advertising for students with a really great short film.

The film was, indeed, better than part 1, although it could have easily been 20 minutes shorter. There was some beautiful landscape stuff, a great female character Tauriel (who was not in the book, and of course got involved in a love story, but was still an interesting character), and some weird stuff such as Beorn who turned out to be the Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt! I swore that one of the actors looked like Johnny Depp and another like John Cleese, but I was mistaken.

If you are an arachnophobe, I would suggest giving this film a miss. There are lot of fighting scenes, and the usual continuity errors with weapons coming and going and the dwarfs suddenly having having their hair washed and braided and such. There were some scenes that were clearly only there for the 3D crowd: butterflies coming out of nowhere, large bees buzzing around, lots of spider and dragon in-your-face stuff. I suppose the forests and villages and castles looked good, but is that worth having to buy extra glasses? Of course, it stops in the middle, so we have to go see part 3, I guess.