Sad news

I got my first death notice by email. On the one hand, I am glad to be informed, and this is surely the best way to reach his correspondents. On the other it was rather a bit of a shock to open.

Gordon was my 4th cousin. My grandfather's grandmother and his grandmother's grandfather were brother and sister. At his prodding I drove down to Hesse and spent some days in the archives, actually finding the birth and confirmation records of the brother and sister's father, Daniel Stamm, from Hofgeismar, who left for the States with his brother, Christian, and his father Johan Conrad, in 1802.

Rest in peace, Gordon! I enjoyed corresponding with you.
Gordon Allan MacInnis, of Blacksburg, died December 18, 2006 at the age of 84. One of the original faculty members at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine where he taught large animal medicine, he began his more than 20-year affiliation with Virginia Tech as an Extension Veterinarian in 1962. In that capacity, he assisted farmers throughout the state, helped organize and judge the dog show program of the State Fair of Virginia, and served in Virginia Tech's anaerobe laboratory. He considered one of his most important contributions to Virginia Tech to be his role in the founding of the university's chapter of Alpha Gamma Rho, a national agriculture fraternity. He retired from Virginia Tech in 1983. During his active retirement, he was recognized as an accomplished woodworker, and was deeply involved in genealogical research. Prior to his work in Blacksburg, he was a practicing veterinarian in Wooster, Ohio, and Millersburg, Ohio, and was on the faculty of Washington State University and the University of Idaho. He earned his degree in veterinary medicine from Ohio State University in 1950. A combat veteran of World War II, he served in the European Theatre of Operations with the 389th Field Artillery, 97th Infantry Division. As a youth he earned an Eagle Scout badge. Dr. MacInnis was born March 8, 1922, in Salem, Ohio. He was preceded in death by his parents, Angus and Inez MacInnis, and his sisters Judith MacInnis and Nancy Naccarato. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Eleanor, and his children, Ronalee MacInnis of Provo, Utah; Mary Masciovecchio and her husband, Lou, of Anderson, S.C.; Bruce MacInnis of Blacksburg, Va.; Stewart MacInnis and his wife, Valorie, and their children, Ellen and Michael, of Buena Vista, Va.; and Brian MacInnis and his wife, Kim, and their children, Ian and Neil, of Christiansburg, Va. He is also survived by his sister, Eunice Mitchell of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a number of cousins, and numerous nieces and nephews. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Alpha Gamma Rho Alumni Corporation of Virginia (MacInnis Memorial), PO Box 11055, Blacksburg, VA 24062. At his request, no services will be held.


Our movie-going friends who moved to Antwerp this summer are in town for a few days, so we had to hit a serious film (the silly ones we rented from VideoWorld for a long film night tonight :). We chose Babel, which was showing with subtitles. It is in English, Mexican Spanish, probably Berber or Arabic, and Japanese.

This is not an amusing film. The director says it is about family. It seems to be about miscommunication and about everything being intertwined. Seemingly non-related families (each with their own private tragedy) are very tightly intertwined (the Japanese father gave a gun to a guy in Morroco who sold it to the father of the child who shot the American tourist).

Didn't figure out until the credits that the good-looking, manly hunk was *the* Brad Pitt. Well.

I found the portrayal of the Japanese teenage deaf girl to be quite interesting - it showed her using a videophone to communicate, something I had heard about and found hard to believe that you can see gestures without too much wiping on that small screen with that small bandwidth. The Japanese fascination for toys and bright lights was nicely portrayed, and also the loneliness one can feel in the city of millions.

The essence is rather like the Billy Joel song: The Russians (Mexicans/Americans/Japanese/Moroccans) love their children, too.

Flushed Away

Promised to take some favorite kids to a movie between Christmas and New Year's. Flushed Away didn't seem too bad for an animated film, so we caught the early showing. It really was entertaining, the kids laughed and laughed (ages 8, 8, and 12) and there were plenty of movie quotes to keep the adults entertained. Of course, the 8-year-old boy had already seen it at a friends house, apparently the friend had a pirated version since this has just hit the theaters in Germany.

A nice story, and Rita is a geek girl's geek girl - she is handy with making something useful out of garbage and has her head on straight. Roddy is quite the bumbler, not used to real life, but a sweet guy none the less.

Kid's favorite quote: Fly at 12 o'clock (and all the frog's tongue's snap out to try and catch the fly, instead getting hopelessly tangled in each other.



Since I had attended one day of the 22rd Chaos Communication Congress last year and was in Berlin between Christmas and New Year's this year, I decided to do a day of the the 23rd Chaos Communication Congress. The topic was "Who can you trust?" and there were some great-sounding talks planned.

I chose the first day because there were so many interesting talks:

  • Keynote by John Perry Barlow which was interesting, even though he seemed either stoned or jetlagged (or both). He tried to light a fire under people's backsides to get them to police ethical actions on the Internet and fight spam and viruses. He gets 30.000 emails a month, 98% of which are spam....
  • Joshua Ellis rambling on and cursing in his "The Grim Meathook Future - How The Tech Culture Can Maintain Relevance In The 21st Century" which seemed more of a self-presentation than a good talk, but I had a seat at a table, and electrical outlet and WLAN, so I let him ramble.
  • A trio from Bremen talking about "Privacy, Identity, and Anonymity in Web 2.0" which was interesting, but the slides went by too fast for me to follow and I type fairly fast.
  • Ulrich Wiesner on "Hacking the Electoral Law", explaining why he thinks e-Voting and e-Counting is illegal in Germany. He lost a petition to the German parliament just this month to have e-voting with Nedap machines thrown out, he is continuing on to the constitutional court. If you are a German citizen, consider joining his case.
  • Rop Gonggrijp from the Dutch group wijvertrouwenstemcomputersniet (We don't trust voting computers) telling "The story of the dutch campaign against black-box voting to date". He had a Nedap machine with him and told some amazing stories about the system. It is based on an M68000 chip, heck, I learned to program Assembler on that! The company does have problems obtaining chips, as many are no longer produced. He used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents showing, for example, that the "extensive testing" the system was subjected to consisted of making sure it could survive a glass of water being spilled on it, the buttons being the proper size, and people not getting an electrical shock when they touch the screen. There are NO specs for "keeps vote changers out". Germany wants to use this system in the next election (see previous bullet point).
  • I wanted to hear another Identity talk, but the speaker was a no-show, so I went to the Wikipedia session on the quotability of Wikipedia articles. MaHa and a young computing professor from my former school thought this was a good idea, I begged to differe in the discussion. I want students to use the WP for a first step, but to go beyond this, reading web sites, getting books (gasp!) and magazine articles (what's that?) to read, analyse and comment on. WP should not be quoted, in my humble opinion, except for perhaps in a glossary. There was a good discussion on this.
  • Annalee Newitz on "Revenge of the Female Nerds" (see previous blog entry).
During her talk a young man wearing a Norsk Data T-Shirt walked across the front of the room. Now, I spent four years of my life working for Norsk Data, and they went broke 15 years ago, there is no way this kid had ever worked for Norsk Data on account of child protection laws. So after chatting with Annalee I went for a prowl throughout the congress center. I don't need RFIDs, I found him in a dark room full of loud music. He came out to talk with me - seems there is this group of Norwegian hackers who are into retro-computers.

They have running versions of DECs and such, and of course, being Norwegian, Nord-10s, ND-100 and ND-500s. This guy has some in his bedroom, he showed me a picture! We had a nice chat, he was very knowledgeable about the history of the company. Heck, he could program in PLANC and use the SINTRAN operating machine! Tore Sinding Bekkedal is his name, and he has a home page with many relevant Norsk Data links. What a hobby! I'll have to dig around, see if I still have some ND stuff around. No, I will not part with my ND cup or bottle opener or rock watch (made of real Norwegian granite).

Coming home took quite some time - waited in the freezing cold at Bahnhof Zoo for 26 minutes because the night bus left just 2 minutes before the train from Alexanderplatz got there :( I don't often take night buses....

It was a great day, I spent some time at the Wikipedia Lounge, sold some T-Shirts and books, shot the breeze with the usual suspects, finally met SJ in person (He is working on making the "One Laptop per Child" machine and had one with him that we could play with, that was fun). I bought a nice clip-on RFID tag with a Blinkenlight and an RFID detector bracelet and a Haeksen button.

Unfortunately, I really must get all of my exercises corrected, so I can't attend any of the other days. But my head is spinning after one day, how do people survive 4 - and that on very little sleep?

She's Such a Geek!

I don't just go to movies, I also still manage to read the occasional book :)

Found this referenced in a blog somewhere, purchased it via Amazon and had it delivered pronto. Twice. Apparently I clicked on the "purchase" button twice. Oh well, got a Christmas present for a nice geek girl I know.

It is a collection of biographies of geek women: why did they become geek, how do they survive, what is it that they love about their work. I toted it everywhere with me, reading it in a bar in Sweden, on the train to work, etc. I suggested it to my students in my "Gender & Computing" course, and had it on my table waiting to be blogged.

Then I went to 23c3 for a day and planned on staying until the bitter end for a talk called "Revenge of the Female Nerds" by someone called Annalee Newitz. Turned out she is one of the editors of the book! It was a great talk, and there were so many men present (wanting to see what was meant by revenge, maybe, or hoping for some dismemberment of some poor hacker). They even participated in the discussion, if somewhat cluelessly at times ("I know of 2 situations where women slept their way to the position they are in so women always do this". Sigh. Analee made it clear that there is a difference between the sexual, private life, and the public life. And gee, guess what, guys do it too. Yawn, next question.

She runs two blogs, techsploitation and shessuchageek. I had a nice chat with her afterwards with some interested parties (male, female, transgender), was very interesting to talk with the person responsible for the book I just read :)


The Holiday

Was spending the night in Schwedt/Oder, a little town of about 40.000 people on the German border to Poland. There ought to be some sort of cultural life here, wouldn't you think? Well, they have a go-kart place. And some closed restaurants. And a 5-cinema "multiplex" theater out between the hardware store and the clothing outlets. Okay, let's see what's on. Not really my cup of tea, but there is "The Holiday" (Liebe braucht keine Ferien), with Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Jack Black.

Could be fun. Isn't. I will spare you the "plot" of girls-meet-boys. Winslet at least plays a believable character, Diaz comes off as an air-head, no way this is a famous trailer producer. The continuity errors in this film make it worth while as an exercise for students, otherwise, just forget it.

I mean, come on: after a hot bed scene (not shown) Law and Diaz are lying in bed, gasping for breath, and she has her bra on???? Just for the censors so the film gets a PG-13 rating? And then she switches sides of the bed (and positions of the bra straps) from cut to cut?

One less film you need to watch.


The Postbank and I

I have a bad relationship with the Postbank, my German bank. Even though I do most of the work, they keep trying to charge me extra and have really bad customer service. I should just switch banks, but they are all like this, so what are we to do, go back to just paying cash?

Anyway, I paid bills 10 days ago with my ancient (2003) WISO MeinGeld program purchased on a special deal through the Postbank to make "paying my bills easier". It is kinda cute, you can store the normal recipients and make nice charts showing where your money goes. They wanted me to upgrade (i.e. pay 50 Euros for a new copy) last year so I could use the "iTAN" method of authentification, supposedly much safer (for the bank) than the old TAN method.

If you can read German, the iTAN method is just as insecure as anything else out there. But I managed to scream enough last year and they let us continue using our old systems.

Today the stack of bills fell over (lot of Christmas stuff) so I sat down at 11 pm and typed in all of the data. The cool thing about the program is that you put in all the TANs at once, don't have to wait until one is verified before you enter in the next bill to pay. I merrily entered in all the TANs and got a window: your TANs are now blocked, you have tried to use an illegal TAN method.

Great, gotta go talk to those lovely people at the Postbank call center. I dig for my "Telephone identification number" (you get lots of numbers with weird names to remember), punch it in to a canned voice, am to be forwarded to a human for help after I scream at the voice mail system three times ("press 1 for funds transfer..:"), and the system hangs up on me. They get paid by the minute that I call them, so this seems to be done on purpose. I dial in again (now fuming) and am put on hold. "You will be forwarded to the next available service person" (when we have enough of your money).

I finally get a woman and I complain: why is this changed without notice.
She: It was not changed without notice. It was on the home page.
Me: You mean you expect me to read your home page regularly?
She: Yes, if you bank with us you should read our home page regularly [and get bombarded by all their ads, I suppose]
Me: This is crazy, I want this sent to me.
She: We did, but most customers thought it was advertising and threw it away [Let's get this straight: our communications department is incapable of making an official letter that people see as such, so it is our fault if we don't read it?]
Me: This is crazy.
She: We now use iTANs, they are *much* safer.
Me: (blowing my stack) Hogwash, they are *not* safer!!
She: Don't interrupt me, I'm explaining it to you! We had so many people who sent their TANs to people just because of emails [phishing mails] so now we use iTANs, that makes the TANs they get this way useless.
Me: Look, I am a professor of computing, I know that this is just not safer, it is so silly, I want to be informed.
She: I am not the bank [sorry, sweetheart, if you answer the Postbank phone you are the Postbank to me], don't shout at me, speak in a civilized voice.

Okay, they have the wacko bit set for me and jump on me when I get upset.

Me: Just reset my TAN list and tell me how I can use your silly iTAN system.
She: We have a homepage explaining this [people call any page on the Internet a homepage]. And don't bother wanting to change banks, luckily, they all use iTANs now.

She wants to continue talking politics, but not on my nickel. I hang up.

The home page tells me to update my software in a manner that I already have. But I do it again, and after downloading and installing stuff it says: The system needs to be restarted. I figure the financial system, so I say "yes". Bang goes Skype and everything else, Windows restarts.....

Okay, I'm back up, fill in all the little blanks, try again, this time with just one bill. "Your program is not up to date, would you like to update it?" If I have to. Download another 8 MB, install, try again: "Your program is not up to date, would you like to update it?" F-off!
I say no and give it a whirl. ERROR: Your program cannot do iTANs correctly. Please purchase a newer version.

At midnight, a few days before Christmas? I really have to purchase new software in order to pay my bills with my money??? Well, I can do it by hand: CTRL+C, CTRL+V, field for field, for each of the 10 bills into the online web-based bank portal. Waaaaaaaait until the super safe iTAN is checked. Do the next one.... One of the iTANs asked for is one I have already used. But it works fine. I guess this is really super safe...........

It tool me 1 1/2 hours to pay 10 bills. And another 25 minutes to blow off steam here. Yes. I want to go back to cash.

PFFFFFFT. Just checked online to make sure the bills were paid. They charged me 6 Euros for resetting the TAN list. This is highway robbery!


Little Miss Sunshine

[I know. Two films in one week is obscene. I am trying to dig out from some major burnout and movies seems to be the right thing to do.]

Since WiseMan came with me to see Niceland, I went to see Little Miss Sunshine with him this evening. The trailers had been kind of funny, and we wanted some laughs. Turns out, though, the trailers are pretty much the film in a nutshell, the rest is pretty boring.

Olive lives in a typical American (i.e. dysfunctional) family. Pretty much one of everything here except gun-toting patriot. She want to take part in the Little Miss Sunshine Pagent and makes it to the finals. The family ends up driving many miles to get there, experiencing many comic (and boring) scenes on the way. Grandpa is a dirty old man, brother Dwanye likes Nietzsche, Uncle Frank is a failed gay academic who tried to commit suicide and failed, Dad is a failed success-salesman and Mom tries to keep the family together.

Some nice scenes of landscape. Some really horrible scenes of little girls dolled up like Miss America contestents singing sexy songs (this is so true to life to be painful). A touching rendition of "America, the Beautiful". A lot of cussing (mostly by Grandpa).

The funniest thing is the ratings: in Germany, free for children from the age of 6. In the USA it is rated "R" - under 18 only when accompanied by parents. The American kids in the row in front of us enjoyed the show much more in retrospect when they realized they had just seen an "R"-rated film. But there was nothing to "see", just a lot of sexually explicit swearing.

Strange country, the US of A.

Film rating: not worth seeing.

Christmas Trolls

I was trolling for something on the Wikipedia when I landed on the page about the Icelandic Christmas Trolls (unfortunately, only in Icelandic with incorrect Interwiki links to Santa Claus). There is a link at the bottom of the page to the Icelandic Knowledge Web giving the exact history, descriptions, and pictures of the trolls, including links to scientific discussions of how and why they are part of Icelandic tradition.

These guys start coming in December 12 and play all sorts of mischief in the household. Today is Þvörusleikir (who stirrs the pot, licking the spoon) and tomorrow is Pottasleikir (who licks out the pot when no one is looking). Presents may be brought to you by the Christmas Cat. Definately a strange country, Iceland.


I didn't make it to the Nordic Film Festival to see Niceland - Population 1,000,002 when it came out. Friðrik Þór Friðriksson is one of my favorite movie directors, I even got to interview him once in 1992 before he got famous and I was hoping to maybe be a famous film critic one day. After the interview I tagged along to the bar with him and his cronies, telling him about a translation I just did of Einar Kárason (another one of the Bad Boys of Iceland, they are all about my age and describe the pain of growing up when we did, except only from their perspective. There is always a pissing-in-the-snow/river/garden scene in all of their works, it seems). They just kind of mocked me, and I realized I really didn't know much of anything about movies. So I spent a lot of time learning.

I wrote a biography of Friðrik Þór as an exercise for my E-Learning unit on plagiarism (and put it on the Wikipedia as a nasty surprise for the teachers taking the course, thinking they have caught a plagiarist when it is the author herself, overeagerly posting her paper to the WP). During the course last week one of the participants noted that he had just read something about Friðrik Þór and mailed me the article the next day: Niceland has been released to Germany. So my next order of business was to go see it.

It was only running at Blow-Up, a theater in PrenzelBerg that shows wacky movies and doesn't have many patrons on a Wednesday night. WiseMan came along, even though he had a) already seen it and b) didn't really like it, but he wanted to keep me company during this at times very depressing film. There were maybe 5 others in the theater.

Niceland is the story of a mildly retarded couple, Jed and Chloe, who work in a factory with other, similarly retarded young adults. One of their friends is played by Timmy Lang, an actor with Down's Syndrome who is just utterly brilliant and funny.

Chloe thinks taking care of her cat is her purpose in life, so when Jed gooses the cat just after asking Chloe to marry him (and getting a yes), the cat tries to dash across traffic in a city that is a strange mixture of little Reykjavik + Glasgow + Frankfurt/Main, getting itself killed.

Chloe falls into a deep depression, so Jed decides to figure out the purpose of life for her. He hears a crackpot on TV who lives in a junkyard talk about knowing the purpose of life but not telling, so he packs a bag and moves into the junkyard.

Jed's father works selling TVs, and there are many wonderful scenes with many, many TVs in them, showing identical pictures, as well as shots of many bored couples vegged out on the sofa watching the tube. The film even starts with Chloe and Jed vegged out on a sofa seeming to watch TV - they are in a furniture store, pretending it is their apartment, before they get chased away.

Jed and Max, the guy in the junkyard, have a very dark, very depressing, very strange relationship peppered with many attempts by Max to kill himself. But in the end, Max reveals the purpose of life to Jed, namely, that everyone has to figure this out for themselves.

Chloe miraculously recovers and marries Jed at the junkyard, in a gorgeous white bride's dress with Max officiating. A very bizarre, Friðrik Þór-like ending. I don't think this will be a box-office hit. But nice when you have made so much money that you can afford to make a film like this. Hmm, maybe he's growing up - I don't recall a pissing scene in this one.

Oh, and I found a description of how to find your purpose in life in 20 minutes or so.


E-Learning at company X

Yawn. Luckily, I got a seat at the back of the auditorium near an electrical outlet. And the WLAN is working.

I am sitting through a talk by Mr. Z from Extremely Large Company X, who is explaining how the company uses E-Learning. He has at least one slide with every buzzword on it, and lots of diagrams showing money savings and more hours spent on E-Learning. Most of his slides are illegible from the back row.

It seems they have new tools that are better than PowerPoint. I hope so, his slides are really chaotic and unreadable, he has little font accidents all over the place, not to speak of color problems.

But what are they really doing? I would have loved to see some examples of what they are really doing, not just this management stuff. Yes, he quotes Kerres saying that E-Learning has to bring added value to learning. But where is it?

A disappointment and a waste of time, this talk.



I was giving a talk today, so I was trying to dress the part of "lady professor" by wearing a dress and stockings and a nice flowing scarf. But looking at myself in the mirror I decided that I looked very pale. Since it wasn't the bad lighting, it was probably lack of sleep.

Now I don't wear makeup normally except when making a video (lipstick and eyeliner do wonders for a crisp presence when you are on video, as I demonstrated on some test videos a while back). But I do have a case for this purpose, so I got it out.

There was lipstick in just the plum color of my scarf, so I put it on. Now my face looked unbalanced, so I ended up putting on eyeshadow and eyeliner. I had this saying in my mind that is attributed to Andy Rooney, but is actually from Frank Kaiser: "A woman over 40 looks good wearing bright red lipstick."

It was time to dash for the bus, so no time for second thoughts. It was kind of fun at the conference, going up to people I knew and smiling. They tended to cock their heads a bit and look puzzled - they couldn't decide what was different with me. I kidded one colleague (who never wears a tie) about his mini string tie, he tried to kid back about my appearance, but couldn't name it. Not even WiseMan said anything when he came by to join me for the conference dinner.

Am I different when I am dressed up like this? Well, it is difficult to crawl along the floor searching for electrical outlets in a dress. And I have to be constantly on my guard not to rub my eyes or mouth, or else I will look like a grubby schoolgirl who got into Mom's lipstick.

I was very glad, however, to scrub it all off and get out of the costume.


Thanksgiving Dinner

(Damn Blogger! I was almost done with a wonderful, long post, and was adding the pictures, when it ERASED the entire text with the second picture. And would not offer me an undo. Grrrrrrrrrrr.)

Yes, it is that time of year again. Thanksgiving. Okay, I'm a week late - we don't get the day off in Germany, so it has to be on a weekend. And I was gone the weekend after Thanksgiving, so we just did it a week later. The main thing is the food, not the exact date.

I started in Friday evening: Apple pie, Cranberry relish (with oranges, raisins soaked in rum and walnuts added, yum yum yum), stuffing. Saturday morning I got the pre-ordered bird from the open-air market place, almost 8 kilograms (17 pounds for you non-metric types). I did the cornbread and pre-cooked the yams before the bird went in, to attract my undivided attention for 6 hours or so. Basting every 20-30 minutes (no, no self-basting turkeys to be had here), in between working on mashed potatos, succotash, raw veggies, Grandms'a cloverleaf rolls, pickles, what have you.

My friend from the wrong end of the state brought the pumpkin pie and the creamed carrots. Pumpkin is always a pain. The recipes start "Take a can of pumpkin". We have to start with "Take a pumpkin" and cook it down in order to have the puree to start the pie. Another Stateside friend brought the coleslaw.

The only worry was: how many people were there be? Okay, the teenager is not reliable, but I rather wanted a general ballpark figure. I had tried inviting all sorts of people, but they already had prior engagements for this first weekend of Advent. I had 14 definites and 7 maybes on my list, a bit too wide a margin, especially seeing as I have 17 chairs and could only beg 2 from a neighbor. I called one guy, oh yes, he forgot to tell me he couldn't come. Okay, great, we are down to the number of chairs.

I set the table with Grandma's table cloths and the bits of silver I salvaged when selling off my parent's stuff, there were 4 tables in various sizes to fit everyone, and it looked nice.

Eventually, only 13 showed up, 2 of them late (the one had said so in advance, she was on-duty up until just before dinner, and then she parked on the wrong end of our 3km street....). One couple got into a fight in the afternoon and he refused to come. Hey guy, I have lots of chairs, you don't have to sit next to your Significant Other. You can come sit next to me and entertain me! And enjoy the food I made for you!!

But the folks who were there did a marvelous job - no one was shy about having seconds, so they pretty well polished off the bird (I heard reports today that no one ate much Sunday....). There was enough left over for a microwaved plate Sunday evening and Turkey Noodle Soup this evening. And I will sneak the last of the cranberry relish before going to bed, it is like dessert.

But why do people treat an invitation to a sit-down dinner as a "drop in if you feel like it" thing? I am sure that I could have found others to come, if they would have let me know in time, even if many people already had other engagements.

So one thing is sure: I'm not doing a sit-down dinner for my 50th. That would be much too horrible to have food and people not come. I'm currently thinking pot luck......


Squish my Butt

Rode the train to work again today. Seems one can observe more human interactions than when tooling down the highway in my car....

At the station Hermannstr. I saw a young couple leaning against a wall, each with a heavy-looking suitcase. He was Turkish-looking, smoking (which is forbidden, but who respects that); she was German-looking, not smoking.

He finished his cig, flicked the butt away. He got her attention, pointed to the butt. She obediently stepped on the butt, squishing out the fire.

It would have been trivial for him to do this himself. As the train pulled out of the station I wondered why she would do something like this for him and why he would expect it.



A student who has often shown me really cool stuff on the net showed me his Facebook page the other day. I had heard that this was some sort of college kid network, but he said no, anyone can join now. He showed me some cool stuff like tagging pictures with names, so I decided to give it a try.

I registered - it insisted on my real name - and then had to give it my real, school e-mail address to become a member of the school network. It wanted to know all sorts of information from me, like me political pursuasion (chosen from a drop-down list going from very conservative to very left-wing). How strange to see politics as just a continuum, but this is the US. And since they didn't have left-leaning eco-feminist with part-time anarchist tendencies on the list, I just left it blank. When it asked for my religious views I at least got a free-text box where I could write that my religious views were none of anyone's business.

Now I joined some "Networks". There were already a few people from my school here, a colleague, some students in one of my classes, the student who showed me facebook. I had a choice of sending him a message, "poking" him, or adding him as a friend. Well, I didn't know what poking was, but it sounded intrusive, so I added him as a friend.

Even without him saying "yes, I know this person" I suddenly was shown his profile, with all sorts of private information, including comments that other friends had posted to his "wall" about drinking parties and such. Hmm, I didn't really want all of this information. I suddenly realized, that all of my information would be available to anyone who tried to add me as a friend - and I set off to check the privacy settings.

The default was that everyone gets to see everything. I had to go through all sorts of menus (at least they were available) in order to turn off all this information sharing. Facebook writes "Facebook is a social utility that helps people better understand the world around them. Facebook develops technologies that facilitate the spread of information through social networks allowing people to share information online the same way they do in the real world."

Nope. In the real world I choose for each individual person what information I want to share with them, rather like OpenBC (which is now calling themselves a fancier Xing) in which the defaut for a contact is just that they can send me a message. I have to approve each and every information I want to share with this person. And at least at Xing I can tag people so that I can see for myself where I know people from.

Facebook seems to have some sort of group, but this seems to be more for talking about hobbies and such. And everyone is either a friend or not - there is no space for acquaintences, colleagues, students, teachers, family. At least Flickr lets me have friends and family. And as soon as I change some information (like mark the box that I am married) Facebook announces to the world that I am married. This is normally done by writing letters to people, not RSS feed. Is this the future, people announcing changes in their relationships by RSS? Shudder.

I was rather uneasy about this, sent the student a message (by email!) to please not add me as a friend until I had thought about this. I went out and raked leaves and scrubbed the algae off the house for a couple of hours and spent the time thinking about what a friend is.

A friend is someone who likes you, just like in a great children's book I once read. Someone who will come and have a glass of wine with you and discuss the problems of the world - or your own problems. Someone you can call at 2am in the morning when you are in need. Someone who comes to dinner, can spend the night on the guest bed if it gets late, invites you to their place. Someone you are willing to drive to the airport at any hour of the day or night. Someone who will tell you if you have bad breath or are being an obnoxious pig about something. Someone who will tell you that you look nice (even if it is not true). Someone who will go shopping with you or will take part in some crazy idea you have like a cook-out on the ice or skinny-dipping in the lake at night or cooking a 7-course meal or watching old movies all night. A friend is someone you like, even if you don't agree with them politically or like their music or enjoy the company of their other friends.

Friendship is not a transitive relation.

So I deactivated my Facebook account. I'm a member of enough of these networks. It would be cool to find some friends from school, but I have actually found most of the ones I cared about - and the rest are on my missing persons search list. The rest of my schoolmates didn't care about me when I was in school, so why should they care about me now?


Speaking Quietly

I'm in Växjö, Sweden on a teaching exchange program and had been given an nice desk in a warm room with a broadband internet connection in order to work. Since it was dark, cold, and wet outside, I just kept slogging on, correcting exercises and answering emails. But eventually my stomach started growling so loud that I decided that I should perhaps get something to eat, so I left to go downtown and eat. Well, let's say "middle of town", downtown is a bit too pretentious for this little place.

There had been this nice-looking Sushi place the last time I was here, but when I got there, they were closed for renovations. The next place was closing early on account of lack of customers. The next one was already closed. There was a fancy-schmancy place with candles on the small, round tables, just the place for a romantic evening with a significant other but not exactly what I fancied for tonight. The next one had free tables, and appetizers started at 155 SEK, 15$. No, not tonight.

I was almost at the church, meaning this was the end of town, so I ended up at the English pub, The Bishop's Arms. The place is always crowded, and tonight was no exception. I walked through, anyway, but all the seats at the tables and the bar were taken - except for a nice table where there were only two women seated.

The women were holding hands and talking intensively - I suppose the guys were assuming they were lesbians and that this was catching, so they were staying away. I could see at a glance that they were having a heart-to-heart talk and assumed that it was the calmer, already-divorced women listening to the soon-to-be-divorced woman doing most of the talking. (Yup. I eavesdropped. He's a bastard.)

I asked in my best Swedish if there was a place free. The calmer woman nodded, then asked "Kan du prata tyst?", can you speak quietly? I was confused, it did not make sense. I thought she was asking if I spoke German, which is just one letter off, tysk. I mean, here I am in this loud, crowded pub, a not-so-young woman in a long woolen winter coat with a backpack, alone, looking for a place to have some food.

We switch to English, yes indeed, she wanted to know if I could please speak quietly. I answered that I was only planning on reading from my book. "Oh, I thought you had a companion". Women don't go out alone, even in Sweden, it appears.

I dumped my stuff and headed for the bar to order. I have always been irritated by my invisibleness as a woman alone in Sweden, and tonight was no exception. I tried to get the attention of one of the two very stressed-out barmaids behind the bar. But for some reason, neither of the two saw me. There was always a guy elbowing in, getting their attention. I once started to catch the corner of the eye of one of the women when a man seated at the counter picked up his glass and waved it in her face - of course, he got his refill and I started again. On orders of my stomach I gave up being a lady, elbowed my way to the bar and placed my order. There is indeed something to be said for the usual Swedish method of taking a queue number for service.

I sat down at the table, got out my book, and enjoyed my food when it came. Quietly.

The place got more and more crowded, and finally, a brave group of three men came over and sat down. They did not get asked to speak quietly, perhaps because it is useless to ask men with beer glasses in their hands to speak quietly. I finished the chapter, closed the book to take that last sip of my cider and was immediately spoken to by one of the guys - how can you be reading here? I shrugged, said that it's a good book, took my last swig, packed up and got out of there.

Both of the women nodded me a quiet goodbye as I left.


Thirty Years Later

Last summer I was enjoying a bit of vacation and just surfing around the Internet. I got to thinking that 2006 would be 30 years since I came to Germany, 30 years since I started studying. Whatever happened to those people I started studying with? I have a bit of contact with one guy (we both did our doctorates with the same professor and are now both professors). I wonder what happened to the others? I tried to remember names - just typing "Frank" or "Uwe" into my nearest search engine does not promise much success.

I remembered the guy whose grandmother lived in the same village as my in-laws. I typed in his name and landed on a page of someone who writes Japanese Haiku. Sounded interesting, so I wrote him a letter - are you this guy? Yes, he was. We started mailing about having a reunion - but how to find everyone?

I mailed the university, they do not have any information - all information is sorted by matriculation number, not by program or name. But they could tell us that there were 25 people majoring in Computing. They did not know, however, how many minors there were. Since there tended to be about 30-35 people in lectures, we decided there must have been about 10 minors.

Now, how about those Franks? What were their last names? We started to come up with few. A bit of Google, a bit of online telephone book - and we came up with some leads. We asked everyone we found for more names! We found one of us a professor in the US - he wrote all sorts of great C++ books that I have acutally looked at, but since I only knew his first name during studies, it never rang a bell.

Another one was in Swizerland, but many were still in the north of Germany, many even still in Kiel. We finally managed to come up with 21 names that answered emails, and have 5 more names we could not trace. We set a date and invited the professor who taught the Introduction to Computing course to us and the exercise group leaders. Only one could come, but since he was still at the university, he organized our old lecture hall for the festivities. We had 11 people come!

Despite renovations the room still just had a chalkboard in it, so he had to get an overhead projector and a beamer set up. Our professor had graduated from chalk to overhead, I wanted to use the beamer for an exercise in BS 2000 (the operating system that we had to user 30 years ago). But we started late and our professor had so much to say, that we postponed the exercise to the coffee shop.

We had everyone stand up and give a brief synopsis of what he or she (we were two women, both there!) had spent the last 30 years doing. Many people ended up doing systems programming, moving from company to company (or the company changing names, even though they were at the same desk). They married, had kids, got divorced, have younger girlfriends now. Most have grey or thinner hair and have gained more than a few pounds here and there. The other woman, though, hasn't aged a day although she has 4 kids, no idea how she did it!

We went for coffee and then down to a favorite haunt for dinner. What a bunch of interesting people we are - why on earth didn't we keep in touch? The reason seems to be that most were "local" boys, even the ones from 200 km away went home Friday afternoons to their parents, spending the weekend with friends from school, and then came back to Kiel Monday mornings, more or less on time, depending on how often the cars broke down on the way. So we had very little socialzation together during studies.

Some people played "Go" one evening a week, others did square dancing, but we just did not have a lot of doing things other than exercises together.

Was the very theoretical education we got at Kiel good? We think it was - we learned to think computationally, and have been able to handle most of the new stuff come our way (although a good many had no idea what Skype and Flickr and del.icio.us are - but I wouldn't, either, if I didn't have great students who keep me up to snuff by telling me about the cool new things).

We found ourselves talking a lot about retiring - and all the cool things we wanted to do when we don't have to work any more. We laughed about that, and then got back to talking about geek stuff.

It was a wonderful evening, we ordered another round and had another round of laughs - and have said that we now want to keep in touch, we want to see each other before we have our "Golden Immatriculation".

Back in Kiel

I was back in Kiel this past weekend for a reunion - it is 30 years since I started studying in Kiel. More on that in the next blog article. I took the train from Berlin - it is really silly to take the car when travelling alone, it is just an hour and a half from Berlin to Hamburg with the high-speed train, an hour Hamburg to Kiel. In that time I can only travel half the distance in my car.

I stood at the window as the train was pulling into the station. I have been in Kiel a few times in the past years, but usually just passing through by car. As the train slows, pulling into the station, I survey the landscape - many old buildungs have been torn down, remodeled, replaced by new ones. The bridge at the Horn (the tip of the Kiel Fjord) seems to be pulled back (it has been!) and there is a smart building, direct on the water.

The youth hostel where I worked when I first came to Kiel is still there, a little castle built in the 50s high on the hill in Gaarden. Many of the Werft buildings are gone, the crane has disappeared, in their place are other things now.

The train station itself has changed completely - the old roof construction has been replaced by concrete waves - it looks very cold. There is a movie theater complex right in the train station, and the usual chains offering expensive food for the journey.

The bus, of course, left at 11.20 and I got in at 11.21. I am so spoiled in Berlin with our great bus service. Since I only had an hour and a half to get out to Suchsdorf, where friends I would be spending the night with live, and then to the university, I took a cab. Turned out it wasn't so far - Kiel is so small, it seemed so much larger to me when I lived there. I guess that was because I took my bike.

As we drive out of the station I am flooded by memories of a bygone Kiel that overlay the current reality. I see the Sophienhof squat that turned into a shopping mall while I was still working in Kiel. Many places have been remodelled, replaced, the companies renamed. But every now and then there is a little warp in the fabric of the current Kiel, and there are names and shops that are still there. The florist. The shop selling the little wooden figurines from the Erzgebirge. The natural foods store.

We head up towards Exer, I see the offices I worked in, so close to each other really, so far apart in time. The Ostseehalle, home of the handball club THW Kiel seems much larger than I remembered (as I hear in the evening, they added 3000 seats, which were immediately sold out as season tickets).

There is still the farmer's market on the Exer. Up around the hill, just before Schrevenpark is the tobacconist's where I bought my first pipe. I liked the whiskey-flavored Borkum Riff tobacco best, followed by cherry.

In no time we are crossing the Westring. Gas stations have sprung up here, hardware stores. The street we lived on looks the same, although they put an autobahn through cross-wise. Passing over the autobahn I see the balcony of our old apartment. Those were amazing times, when we lived here. We were young, studied hard, had fun parties, worked hard, trying to change the world. I wonder - did we really change anything?

Past the Nordmark sporting fields, through Kronshagen and we are in Suchsdorf in no time.

Now the taxi driver turns to me and says: where is it you want to go? Now, I had looked at it on the map, but I was not planning on driving there. It is the first street off to the right after the last stop of the bus. I tell the driver that he is the taxi driver. He replies that this is no longer Kiel (we are now 5 kilometers out, Berlin taxi drivers have to know a LOT more streets!!). I say that it is off to the left, but ask him to consult a map. He refuses and just drives around, looking for this street name. I get angrier and angrier - I really don't have time, and this is costing me money, driving around looking for it. Why can't he check a map? Well, he doesn't have one.

I whip out my GPS map system in my PDA, but unfortunately he does not have 0000 as the code for his Bluetooth. I put it away angrily, he is fussing with his navigator. "Do you know how to work this?" he asks. Apparently, it is only pre-set for Kiel. I take it, punch in S and get Suchsdorf, punch in the street and the number, and get a map. Duh.

At least he doesn't charge me the full value on the meter, so I am somewhat placated.

We are in a newly constructed area, postage stamp size parcels of land with little houses on them, all new, with little shrubbery around. Standing in the dining room and turning around in place I can see windows in 11 different houses. While sitting in the living room and looking out the window I look directly into the kitchen of a neighbor, watch the neighbor have a drink of water while her husband rakes leaves from the tiny yard. It would drive me crazy to live here, but they like it, lots of families with kids, there are kindergartens and just outside of the houses there are ponies and cows and birds and a little river.

There's a regional train that goes into Kiel, 2 Euros for 8 minutes once an hour. I am the only one getting on this drizzly Sunday morning. By the time my train to Hamburg leaves it is really raining from the leaden, grey skies. Typical fall weather in Kiel.

Would I want to live in Kiel agian? I think not. Either a big town, like Berlin, or properly in the country with no neighbors.


I think I would rather take a train....

... than fly in the US: eastwest writes about getting arrested for trying to "smuggle" a rubber band ball onto a flight.....

This is how you get treated in a police state. In a democracy you are a citizen and assumed innocent until proven guilty, and treated with respect. Sheesh.



ROTFL, just plain ROTFL. At times I was doubled up with laughter, luckily I was sitting next to the aisle. I had thought that with my tooth extraction in the afternoon, it would be a great evening to sit in a movie instead of talking with people. Turns out laughing hurts like Hades when you've had tooth 47 extracted, but I just couldn't help myself, it was so funny.

Of course, you don't take Borat seriously - the reaction of the others is the point of the whole thing. How do people react to someone acting completely different than you would expect, who does not seem to know how we organize our lives? That was funny - and shocking as well.

Borat does not leave any potential target group unscathed, it seems: Jews, Muslims, handicapped, women. And with his outrageous comments he provokes his communication partners into agreeing with him, into going even further. He lays bare the undercurrent of anti-X sentiment that is there and makes it obvious to all. I feel the anti-woman and anti-foreigner sentiment very strongly, but can never seem to make it clear, people say that I am always imagining things. When I hear these drunken USC students talking about women, that is exactly what I keep sensing.

Some of the scenes are so precious because the cut to the quick on typical American behavior rules. The dinner party is so chock-full of scenes that I could barely watch it: misunderstanding that the retired guy is retarded; telling the pastor that his wife is ugly; politely asking to go to the bathroom and then bringing the purported results to the hostess, wrapped in the bathroom guest towels that no other guest touches (the look on the hostess' face when she understands what is in the towel is precious); and the finale in which the prostitute he invites shows up at the door and the pompous people suddenly have to leave.

The prostitute comes across as one if the few real people in the film - she has no pretentions, no facade to keep up. She's just the way she is.

I wonder if the Pamela Anderson scene was arranged with her permission, or if they just surprised her. When we got home in the evening there was a show on TV about some of the people in the movie who are currently taking Sacha Baron Cohen to court because they came across as very nasty people. The problem is, they all signed release forms before the filming. Not necessarily for the specific film and understanding that Borat is just a made-up figure, but they signed a release. And these have stood up in court up until now. The TV show also interviewed a Jewish filmmaker who found "Borat" very funny, especially as he seems to be speaking Hebrew most of the time - sounds like Kazakh to me!

My only regret is that there was only one short scene with the green bathing thong :) The naked fight that Borat gets into with his producer over a picture of Pamela Anderson is quite funny, although the little black box "protecting" the private parts is quite irritating.

The credits are all done in "Russian" with overtitles, at the very end it is given a rating of "3", not for children under 3 (of course, this is R in the US).

The Kazakh government was supposedly unhappy at first with the portrayal at first and was looking in to legal options, until someone realized what a great advertising opportunity this is - so now you can book a trip to see the real Kazakhstan!


Two-Class Medicine

Was reminded again today how priviledged I am. As a German civil servant, the government pays half of my medical bills, so I insure the other half with a private insurance. In these days, the average Joe and Jane are on a Krankenkasse and put up with long waits and not everything paid for them.

The eyes of a doctor's office clerk lights up, however, if you announce yourself a private patient. They can charge up to 2,3 times the normal fee for private people, so doctors are always happy to see you.

I broke (another) tooth this afternoon. I was giving myself some sugar just before heading for the lab, and got a hand full of chewey toffees out of my jar. One, yummy. Two, ohhhh, chocolate. Three: crunch. And I feel that the tooth is split in two.

It is now just a few minutes before I need to go to lab. I go check it out in the bathroom - yup, split down the middle, the back tooth. Okay, it has had a root canal and now has an inlay. And it is always infected, it seems. But to split on me like that, horrible.

I call my dentist. It rings a while, but sure, they are happy for me to come by, if I could make it by 17.30 it would be wonderful. So I show up late for lab (tsk, tsk, I make nasty comments about the students coming late to lab), manage to give the sequence diagramm introduction without a shred of notes (which are all online, but the computer isn't up at the teacher's place), go around and help, and then I disappear early to the dentist's.

She pulls off the broken shard, hemms and haws, takes an X-ray, and then asks me to go to an oral surgeon to get the rest of the tooth pulled. It has such a hook at the roots.

Her office clerk calls the oral surgon's office, she could see me maybe next Thursday. No way - I have time tomorrow, and none else. The office clerk notes that I have been there before - they pull my card, and I get offered an appointment on Monday. Both days are no-gos, I teach all day both days. I want to come tomorrow.

"Oh well," I say to the office clerk, "I'll just go to the clinic, they are open 'round the clock". They have, of course, seen that I am a private patient by now.

And suddenly I can come tomorrow at 3 pm to have my tooth pulled. They close at 14.00 on Fridays. The power of private insurance - they would rather have me come than lose me to the clinic. But isn't it horrible, that we have two (or more!) different classes of medical care in Germany?


Marie Antoinette

Ahhhhhhh. Yes, it is long. The guys sitting behind me pointed that out repeatedly. But I wasn't there for the plot, the story is rather well-known. But in the film Marie Antoinette is portrayed as a fun-loving girl who ends up Queen of France at the age of 18.

I mean, as a girl I dreamed of being a princess (and read at least one trashy, Gothic novel a week about English royalty) just like many other girls. The dresses in the film are magnificent (and there are something like 7 wardrobe drivers listed on the credits). It would be fun to try them on.

And they eat cake and drink champagne all day and do not get fat - how on earth do they do it?

When I visited Versailles I thought "What a lovely place!" I imagined the gardens and the castle without the tourists. But that the place was jam-packed with all this nobility nosing around, attending the dressing of the queen in the morning, watching her eat beside her husband at a table opulently filled with food, and even all watching as she gives birth to her children: shudder. Wouldn't want that.

The film mercifully ends as they are leaving Versailles, we are spared the King and the Queen being beheaded. I spent an hour after coming home pouring through the Wikipedia, reading up about the different people. The gallant Swedish Count von Fersen was apparently more than just a short affair, he appears to have given Marie Antoinette a good bit more attention, which she desperately needed, what with her husband more interested in hunting and lock picking than in her.

It's a ladies film, guys. You get extra points if you accompany your Significant Other to the film and keep your mouth shut about it being long. If you then tell her that she is at least as beautiful as Marie Antoinette, ...... do I have to spell it out for you? Oh right, you are guys. Oh well.


Gender Mainstreaming

I was just walking past the dean's office on the way to lunch this afternoon when the dean called out - "Please keep your talk today at the faculty board meeting to 15 minutes!" My talk? I had read through the docket and did not see anything about me giving a talk.

"Oh," the dean says, "you wanted to give a talk about gender questions in curriculum, so I put it on for this meeting. You got the agenda, didn't you?". Sure, I got the agenda. I thought *he* was going to tell us about the current state of Gender Mainstreaming, as that was all that was listed. Yes, I had offered to give such a talk about 9 months ago, at the end of my previous seminar on "Gender and Computing".

It would have been nice if he had dropped me an email - especially as I would have wanted to bring the book with me I had been referring to on the teaching of women engineers, a Swedish report by Minna Salminen-Karlsson ("Att undervisa kvinnliga ingenjörsstudenter").

So here I was, half an hour's lunch break before my Gender seminar, and a half an hour between that class and the faculty board meeting. Luckily, I had my trusty Mac with me. I got some lunch and chose a table with some space - I was going to have to eat and hack at the same time. Colleagues made jokes about me sitting there, I pretty much told every one to buzz off and dug out the Powerpoint presentation.

There were 46 slides - that is a tad too much for 15 minutes. So in between mouthfuls of salad I went through the slides, turning most of them off. I winnowed it down to 20 something, then gave them as a presentation, cutting more until I was down to 18.

It was getting close to class time, so I saved what I was doing (smart girl) and dashed up to the lab. I had 3 minutes before class in which I loaded the slides into Keynote (the software purchased with difficulty, but it really saved the day) and made a pdf with 9 slides to a page - just 3 pages, the men should be able to cope with this.

I tried to send this off to the secretary, pleading with her to make me copies for the meeting, but of course the WLAN was not speaking with me. Luckily, one student was on, so I loaded the PDF onto my stick and used the web interface to email from her machine to type the letter again and include the PDF.

I then started class a few minutes late with a prime example of how institutions react to gender questions - marginalizing them, not taking them seriously, and in this case setting me up for disaster.

But as the (woman) administrative assistent whispered to me when I told her what had happened just before the meeting, we are women, we can cope with this. I had a few moments while setting up my machine to ask Keynote to put in the snazzy turning cube slide transition (only about 5 clicks), then my Mac was very sweet and immediately reset the monitor to cope with the beamer. The secretary was a sweethart and had managed to get the slides copied for me, just like as if I had prepared them a week ago.

After the technicalities at the opening of the meeting I was called on for my presentation, I whipped out my sweet little wireless slide-changer thingy and got to work. Okay, I needed 17 minutes after all. The dean sat through the entire talk moving papers around on his table and looking through them. He looked up at me exactly once. The others had pained expressions on their faces - they were just trying to survive without having to listen.

There were no questions, no comments - was I surprised? No. I lit into the dean after the meeting, saying to him that he could at least have pretended to be listening to me. Oh, he said, I multi-task. Grrrrrrr.

Oh well, I managed to get three pages with suggestions under their noses and forced them to listen to my oral report. The main tenets: good didaktics is the one major factor in retaining the women in engineering, speaking to school girls the best way to encourage them to be engineers.

And I got a free case study for my gender class. Now, what do I have to do to make them take me seriously? I am open to suggestions (and I want some comments, now that I have a constant readership of 20 hits a day, 30 when I post something).


Man or Woman?

Just saw a puzzling person on the subway coming home. At first glance it was an older Turkish woman in a headscarf, gazing down at the floor as many do, especially when they are alone.

Something was irritating about this person, but what? A glance at the hands were jarring - they were big, broad, male hands. Okay, maybe she worked as a washer-woman or something.... Then I saw that the hands were clenched in a lap with the panted knees far apart - most women sit with their knees together (for obvious reasons) even if they are wearing pants, because they get so used to keeping peepers from looking up their skirts.

The person was wearing a short, feminine jacket, but the shirt underneath had a man's cuff on it. Really strange. The person got off with me at my stop, I dropped behind to observe some more.

The pants were male cut, but the sports shoes (which did not fit to the elegant fabric of the pants) were smallish. The gait was, however, quite a swagger, the way I would expect a man to walk. There was a knot underneath the scarf, Turkish women often have long hair which they knot high. At the top of the elevator the person needed to wait for a bus, and shoved both hands deep into the pants pockets, with the shoulders thrown back.

Was this a woman playing with gender performance? A man wanting to see how the world looks at you when you wear a scarf? A Turkish transvestite? Why do I care anyway? Okay, I am teaching a gender course this semester. But still I found it very irritating, not to be able to identify the gender of this person exactly, with so many conflicting clues.

Maybe Günter Wallraff is working on a new book.... if so, he'd better get a dress and learn to walk like a woman. (More hints and a wonderful animation)


Shopping cart blues

I thought I would whip in to Aldi in Neukölln on the way home, get some cheap ice tea, the teenager drinks oceans of the stuff and it only costs a third of the price here.

But first I need a shopping cart - none in the store (groan, probably it will be packed at the cash register), back to the parking lot, one shed is empty, the next shed has just one. I put my shopping-cart-coin in it, and head back to the store. And of course, one doesn't just buy this, but some water and some coffee and..... So I wheel out to the parking lot, pack my stuff in the car and want to get rid of the cart.

The reason the one shed was empty was, that all of the chains with the little dealy to get your coin back have been stolen, so you can't put your cart back here. On to the next, here there are two possibilities, but they are both taken by great big shopping carts, but the chains are too small, so the people have them in backwards. This means you can't get your cart near their dealy to get your coin back.....

The third was the charm, there was one thing, but on a short chain, the other two were stolen. I tried hard to put my cart back properly, but it was a big cart and the chain was just too short. With some amazing contortions I managed to get my coin back from the cart, but leaving this shed, too, in a condition of not being able to be used. I guiltly hurried past the guy bearing down on me, trying to get rid of his cart, too.

Now the question on my mind as I drove away: where are all of the carts? Neukölln is truely a strange part of town....



A few students have started an Islamic Students Club at our school. They invited some professors and student union leaders to attend a Ramadan breaking-of-the-fast this evening at the school cafeteria.

They organized quite a feast, there were about 20-30 people there. During Ramadan Moslems fast from dawn until dusk. When you cannot determine the difference between a white and a dark thread (the times are given in calendars for different parts of the world) then you eat a date to break the fast.

One of the hosts said that you start with water or olives if you have no dates handy. The first course served was a soup of yellow lentils. Then there was a nice spicy tomato and pepper salad, followed by a beef stew with rice, followed by some chicken (I gave up by then, being more than full).

For dessert there was very sweet, syrupy baklava and strong, sweet tea they brewed in an electric samowar. It was a lovely evening, and I am glad that they did this - showing us that Muslims are not just bearded suicide bombers but nice, normal people with families (one of the students had her baby with her) who enjoy good food. I felt very privledged at being invited.



I was in Vienna yesterday for the first time (I know, shame on me) - I love this city, I must come back!

The mixture of old and new, the wonderful Jugendstil buildings and ornaments, Fiaker (horse-and-buggy-vehicles carting tourists around for 40 Euros for half an hour), every other house with a placard and red and white flags marking it - "This is a house with a fancy door from (whenever)".

The Jesuit Church next door to the Academy of Sciences (Universitätskirche) is breathtakingingly ornate - and the organist is practicing, filling the empty church with music without having to be part of some ritual - it feels like this room was made to be filled with music like this. So much money invested in this church, so much gold, the pews are done with elaborate Intarsia... and of course by now my camera battery is dead. Follow the link above, there is a picture on the Wikipedia....

I sit and read the Gewissenspiegel, a guide for preparing for confession in the hymnals, while the music flows around me. Suddenly, practice is over. There is silence in the church, except for my keyboard clicking, as I attempt to capture this moment.

I go back out into the autumn sun, which is shining brightly, the buildings shimmer in white and gold. The tourists are speaking many languages, but the city is not filled to overflowing. There are places to sit outside everywhere. Still - I am a bit cold, I go into a coffee house, have a latte and an Apfelstrudel - this is by far the very best apple strudel I have ever eaten!

There is Frakturschrift everywhere, especially on the street signs, but also on just normal shop signs. I find an old street sign right next to a Starbucks - and a few steps on I hear an American couple exclaim: Oh look, they have a Starbucks here!

A friend who studied here in Vienna gives me a tour of the town at 11pm. The major buildings are bathed in light, although it turns creepy when he tells me that this one place is where millons stood and cheered as Hitler stood up on that balcony proclaiming the annexation of Austria during the Third Reich. We keep walking on and on, there is still another building to see. I am dead tired when I get back to my hotel - after midnight, and I have to get up at 5.15 for the first flight back to Berlin.

Yes, I have to come back here - and believe me, I am not coming back for a Starbucks coffee.


The Activation Key from the Apple Store

My new Mac had a trial copy of iWork on it, which includes Pages and Keynote. Pages has some cool features like folding away parts of what you are writing, and Keynote has some advanced coolness factor features for presentations.

I used the trial version to the last day, there was a button for purchasing an activation key online. No problem, I did that with Parallels (the virtual machine system that runs Windows XP better than my old Toshiba did), it took all of about 15 minutes to fill in that form, get my key, and carry on.

I checked out the prices: our school has an Apple shop, that was 79 € with free delivery, another one had a cheaper price but wanted 10 € for delivery. The educational discount at the Apple store was great: 59 € for either a box with a CD or just the activation key. I'm in a pinch I need the key NOW. So I pressed the button.

Filled out the forms, gave them my spamgourmet address so I can get rid of any advertising, if they don't follow their own guidelines, entered in the credit card. On the last window, the review of the process, it said: activation key will take 3 weeks to deliver. Come on, some bozo just screwed up the text for the online window, you don't need 3 weeks to deliver an activation key!

I pressed "purchase" and then went to my email. Nothing. Pushed "get new mail" a few times. Nothing. Took some stuff to the neighbors. Nothing. Cooked a great spaghetti meal for the teenager, cleaned up, watched the detective story on TV - finally, an E-Mail from the Apple Store.

"Ihre Bestellung wird voraussichtlich am 06.11.2006 versendet. Wir bestaetigen, dass Ihre Bestellung am oder vor dem 08.11.2006 an Ihre Lieferadresse geliefert wird." (Your order will be shipped on or about November 6. This means you should get it on or around November 8).

Hey, guys, this is an ONLINE order! You could have sent me the activation key with the e-mail, I would have been happy as a pig in mud. You need three weeks to manufacture an activation key and two days for it to reach me by e-mail? Do you guys use Windows machines at work or what?

I still had the window open for the order, and pressed the "How to set up your activation key" link. Got a 404. A nice pretty one, but a 404 just the same. I called the 800 number. "I'm sorry, you are calling outside of our office hours. Please call back Mo-Fr ....".

Apple, this is a royal screw-up. I am giving a talk on Wednesday. I need that key RIGHT NOW.

I just went back to the page to copy down what was on the offer page. "Your session has expired, please log in again." Growling, I enter the site again, and check my account to see what is happening. There is a little link there: "Einkäufe ladbare Software". Okay, this was translated by a monkey, it probably means "purchases of downloadable software" instead of "purchases of chargable software". I click - and there we have a registration code!

Just banged it into Keynote, and it works like a charm.

Okay, Apple, you need to work on customer communication here. And hire a real translator who understands computerese, don't just use Babelfish.

An Inconvenient Truth

I took my son, his girlfriend and her mother (who is blind) to see "An Inconvenient Truth" this evening. I've never accompanied a blind person before, it was interesting to say the least.

First off, in the subway where normally everyone ignores everyone else (we are in Berlin, you know), I was suddenly aware of being the center of attention - everyone was staring at us. No wonder the teenage girl hates going places with her mom. I didn't tell the mother, at least she can't see this.

She is very handy with her white cane, and explained to me how she holds the cane just so, so that she knows when the stairs are finished. She really moves with grace, although she can't see where she is going!

In the theater we sat on the sidelines, because I was expecting to explain a lot of the pictures to her. The theater was maybe a quarter full, if that, and this is the first Friday the film is playing in German. An inconvenient truth indeed.

What a lovely film - Al Gore as narrator explains all the the things he is showing in excrutiating detail. I very seldom had to read any pictures aloud. The mother was very happy, even though she was quite aware of all of the details, it was great to go to a speech and have them presented to you. Gore even reads most of the charts he presents, so he gets an A+ for accessability.

Of course, Gore burned a lot of fossil fuels getting to the places he was giving talks, lots of pictures of him getting on and off airplanes, and the film crew flew around a lot making all those nice pictures of icebergs calving and such.

At the end the credits are interspersed with suggestions on what you can do to stop global warming. As the mom said: we pretty much do all that (although I do drive my car more than I should). But when they got to "if you don't like the politicians, run for office" she said: "you know, I might just do that when my girl is out of the house!" If she does, watch out world, she has quite a mind for figures!

They came over to our place, the mom wanted to feel our apartment. We usually joke about the "50 cent tour" we give to guests, this was quite a different tour. She squatted down to feel all of the floor coverings, touched all the furnishings to get an impression of the place, and sat right down when she found the piano, playing a concerto! Her daughter was, of course, embarrassed and left the room, but it was amazing, she does not have a piano at home, she was playing this from memory from many, many years ago.

She loved the bathroom with the big tub, the Ficus benjamina that is taller than we are, and the spiral staircase. She even ventured into the teenager's lair (he hurridly kicked all the stuff from the floor under his desk and his sofa) and climbed the ladder to his loft bed. She was surprised at how high our ceilings are (3,60 m). I was surprised at how fast she climbed the stairs and got back down again!

The film is great and should be force fed to teenagers around the world (mine turned the heat up in the bathroom the day before yesterday to take a bath, I didn't discover until today when I found it uncommonly hot in the morning that it was on full blast, for 2 days now....). And to politicians, they MUST wake up and take action on this, or their beach houses will soon be under 6 feet of water.


Mode of address

I stepped into the elevator at school for the ride up to the eighth floor. There were four women already in the elevator, and they were discussing how to address a professor in an email. Since I had just re-read Thomas Horen's "Hallöchen, Herr Professor!" article, I perked up my ears.

"I just write 'Hallo'," one woman said, "you never know if they are Dr. or Prof. or what." "Oh no," said the next one, "I always use both, they seem to like it." I couldn't help it, I had to join in (I hear the peanut gallery hooting: you can never shut your trap, can you?).

"Oh," I said, "I do rather like the titles, but the most important thing is having my name spelled right." They all nodded agreement. "But you should always look up the title and use it correctly, especially if you are writing to a male professor." They were very much in agreement with that!

Today in the lab I tried to explain to the young students how I want to be addressed: "Dr. X-Y" will do just fine. I am not "Miss X-Y", as my Dad's name was X, not X-Y. I am not "Mrs. X-Y", cause my husband's name is Y, not X-Y. And anyway, "Dr." does sound rather fancy, doesn't it?

Of course, some special students and the students participating in chats with me and the ones who do thesis projects with me can use my first name nickname. By that time they have realized who I am, and we can dispense with the formalities.

I must admit to still looking around, though, when being formally addressed: Do you mean me?


You have a call!

A few months ago telephones appeared in our fancy multimedia lecture halls. I supposed it was because the technology is so complicated, that way people can easily call for help. Saves you the cost of calling on your cell phone.

Yesterday , in the middle of class, the phone rang. Loudly, and flashing a red light just in case I didn't hear it. I tried to ignore it, but the caller let it ring a long time. I picked it up and dropped it back into the cradle. Everyone laughed.

Thirty seconds later it started ringing again... so I decided to answer. I said: "I am in the middle of a lecture, what do you want?" The person hung up without saying anything.

After telling the story in the evening the suggestion came that I forward all calls from this phone to the chancellor, who is responsible for the running of the school. Great idea!


Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen

Went to see the documentary film about the German soccer national team playing in the world cup this past summer, "Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen" (Germany. A Tale of Summer).

Well, at 110 minutes it is waaaay too long (although my 4 male companions, all of whom spent the summer watching the World Cup together in various combinations noted that a real game can take 120 minutes plus penalty kicks). I mean, the locker room scenes are great (some slightly racy pictures, but nothing a gal really wants to look at...), but they tend to be the same old stuff.

And I don't really understand Jürgen Klinsman's Swabian accent, although when I see his swank digs in California, I understand why he didn't accept the offer to continue training the national team. I mean, a palace on the beach, you pretty much can't top that.

It is interesting to see more of the personalities of the players. Jens Lehmann comes across much more sympathetic than he does on the field (and he held "the note" into the camera for us all to see). Schweinsteiger seems to be the joker of the team, and Asamoah is really the life of the team. Some players can even speak complete sentences that make sense, while others, Abitur notwithstanding, can just barely make themselves understood.

The film makes clear what an awful lot of organization goes into getting the team on the field - I mean, the laundry and food and shoe service alone is mind boggling. The meeting with the FIFA where they have to show examples of their uniforms confirms my suspicions that this is a bunch of old guys making up silly rules just to feel important.

The drug control scene is really funny, I didn't realize that someone goes into the toilet cabin with the sportsman. What a job - and what an invasion of privacy.

Which pretty much sums up the film: we are voyeurs in the locker room. 90 minutes would have sufficed for the film.

Angela Merkel surprises (playing herself, as everyone does) with her pep talk and all her English sayings. And I would have preferred to have subtitles - on the field the players have their names on their backs, so I can tell who is who. Okay, Klose and Ballack and Schweinsteiger I can tell, and Torsten Frings is easy to find in the locker room with his tatoos and long hair.

54, 74, 90, 2010!


Stealing from the Mourners

We had a ceremony at the grave of our adopted son's birth mother today. She died 12 years ago, but we only recently met the birth family and have together put a stone on the grave. The entire family - for the most part, the folks who were at the May Day party - gathered for some lamb before driving out to the cemetery, even though it is Ramadan. It seems there is special dispensation for celebrating death.

We were a little convoy of four cars, me leading the way. It sure is difficult making sure that all the cars stay together, and I seemed to hit all of the yellow lights in town. It was a good 20 mile drive, the Muslim cemetery is out in the boonies. We parked the cars, and I am positive that I locked the car. I am obsessive about locking the car, even if I am only getting out to put in a letter. And more than one person remembered me locking the car, waiting until a cousin had gotten something out of the back of the car for her little boy.

The ceremony itself was interesting - everyone dipped their fingers in the earth of the grave, the little kids hands were dipped for them. My son's birth-aunt gave the wailing plaint I have now heard many times out at the cemetary, and then she lit two cigarettes - she put one down with the butt in the earth for her sister to smoke, and she smoked one herself.

Meanwhile some of the 23 people (one of the kids was counting) went off to look for the other family graves that are in this cemetery. When they came back, some of the kids helped "give the grandmother a drink of water" - watering the plants, wiping down the stone, and then everyone kissing the stone before they left.

I was deep in conversation with one of the cousins when it began to pour - I excused myself so I could go open the car for my passengers - and was irritated that they were already in the car. We pulled out, and at the light the cousin turned to dig for her purse to get out the train times - she was leaving with her kid for a week's trip to visit other family. But she had no purse.

Okay, it is criminal to leave a purse in a car in Berlin. But at a cemetary out in the boonies? We pulled off at the next parking space and she dug though the car - nothing. We called the other cars - did they happen to have her purse and her bag with her clothes? The baby bag was luckily still in the car. No luck. We called back home, two cousins were guarding the food. No, they had not seen the purse.

We drove back anyway, just in case she had not taken the bags with her. We turned the place upside down - no purse or bag. So while the major part of the party dug into the food, we drove back out to the cemetery with the cousin. We looked all around the woods, drove in both directions to parking areas, looking for ditched bags. Let the thieves have the money, but the clothes and the identity card were the most important. As an asylum seeker she has to have written permission to leave the city, and she had gotten this for the week visiting the cousin.

No luck. We found a lot of garbage, but no suitcase. So we drove to the nearest police station. The policeman was very nice, he inspected the car for traces of entering, but couldn't find anything. He took down all the information, and let the cousin call the debit card place to have her card stopped - with the card and her ID card, pretty much any woman could get up to the limit of money. He said that they get a lot of cars broken into out at the cemetery. It's wierd, 'cause the place is so deserted. But apparently, they find their mark, break in, and are off in their own car in a flash.

We drove back to the party, but they had all disbanded. There was still a lot of food left, so we got some warmed up and had just sat down to some food when my son's girlfriend came over. "Can I have the car keys?" "Why?" "I want to get my purse out of the car."

SCREAM! Teenagers! We spent all this time and nerves talking about a purse being stolen out of the car, and she doesn't think about her own purse until 4 hours later? I ask her why on earth she does not take her purse with her. "I thought it would be safe in a locked car."

I decided to eat first, breakfast had been at 9, and except for a bit of the lamb at 12 I hadn't seen food nor drink for a while. The lamb was great, even warmed over. Another cousin kept bringing dish after dish after dish of food - I honestly don't know where they keep this all! I was stuffed, then we gathered people together and headed off to another police station to add the third bag to the list. As we get out of the car at the police station, the girlfriend remembers that she left her coat back at the place we were celebrating...... I want to surgically attach her things to her!

But of course, we can't extend the list at this station, our options were: drive 20 miles back out to where we were this afternoon, or send them a letter or fax. I opted for the latter. I don't suppose we'll ever see any of the stuff again. I hope the thieves get caught using the EC card. And that their teeth fall out and that they get a mysterious itching rash in hard-to-reach places and that they get bit by a dog. Stealing is bad enough, but stealing from mourners - there must be a special place in hell for these criminals.

Update: The cops called a few weeks later. Both the purse and the suitcase turned up, sans money and valuables. But the clothes were still there. They had been dumped at the cemetery, we just hadn't looked hard enough, I suppose.


Bispingen and the Boat Lift

I had made some comments about Tropical Island some months ago, now I can compare it with Centre Parcs Bispinger Heide, the place I just spent 4 days with my family.

This is an artificial world set in the Lüneburger Heide, consisting of a slew of "cottages", a hotel, an adventure bath with surrounding restaurants and shops and all sorts of activities geared towards small children.

My sister-in-law goes there often and had organized two cottages and a hotel room for us to go, taking along a cousin and her family as thanks for taking care of my father-in-law.

I find this artifical world quite creepy - the trees are real, but kept clean of trash and animals; the water is H2O, but since kids constantly feed the geese and ducks at the encouragement of their parents, it is putrid; the cottages are nicely set so you don't really see your neighbors; the cottages have a fireplace, some have a sauna, sort of the luxury you can't have at home. And you pay for everything possible, and the prices are not cheap.

You can purchase wood (a little sack with lighter and matches for 4,95 €), food such as salt (1,95 € for a little container) and necessities such as saran wrap (5,00€ a box) at outrageous prices in the little shop. You can have rolls and newspaper (Bild-Zeitung, what else) delivered to your door in the morning and pretend to be rich, I guess. The food is expensive and bad, but you have a kitchenette so you can make your own. They even sell packets of all you need to make dish X (they call this "fun cooking").

The nice thing is no cars - so you can let your kids out to bike or skate or mess around without worrying about cars.

The "adventure" bath is the key attraction, but it does not really attract me. Masses of humanity fight for chairs and tables, the water is so thick with kids you can't actually see the water. People scream when they speak, I wonder if it is because at home the TV is always blaring or because they normally have MP3-players on. They are grossly inconsiderate, running you down, bumping into you, shaking water all over you, stepping on you, ignoring all the rules. And they let their kids run wild, after all, that's why they are here, for the kids.

The crowd is better-looking than the guys at Tropical Island, must be that the parents of young kids are in good shape. But it is so mind-numbing, no chance to relax and enjoy.

We had to check out today by 10.30 but could use the bath all day. We checked out early and got to the bath at 10.15, getting one of the three tables still left unclaimed. I really only enjoy the wild water slide, but after sliding 3-4 times with masses of unruly adults and children (sometimes even doing dangerous stuff like holding back until the press of people makes everyone take that last slide together, extremities in everyone's faces) I had had enough. The teenager had wanted to leave right after breakfast, so no fight here.

We packed up and left (our table was taken in under 6 seconds), said goodby to the rest of the family dining on Schnitzel in three variations and took off, just driving in the general direction of home.

I was hungry, and stopped off at the "Alchemist's Restaurant", but they were closed on Monday. Good thing, because shortly after I saw a sign for a Schiffshebewerk, a boat lift, in Scharnebek. Where there is a tourist attraction, there is food.

There was a lovely cafe with a great view of the lift, we had herring with fried potatos and a cream/apple/onion sauce the way you are supposed to eat it, while watching the elevator lift up with a boat in it. After lunch we walked over to admire it close up - how amazingly simple, just a lot of big wire winched up, pulling a trough up or down with a bit of water and a bit of ship with it - over almost 40 meters height difference!

Good technology beats artifical worlds any day in my book, but that might be because I am an engineer :)


The last walk

We buried my father-in-law's ashes today.

It was a short ceremony - too short, in my eyes, not much more than a Bible verse in the nave of the church, a prayer and the Lord's Prayer at the grave.

It was rather a shock to enter the nave - the steel urn was on a table with no flowers, very different from the funeral we had a month ago. The flowers we had ordered were not delivered. My mother-in-law was sad, my sister-in-law furious, as she had called a few days ago to remind them of the date.

After the Bible verse the - what do you call him, urn carrier? Pall bearer seems not fitting - with his funny hat stood in front of the urn in a posture of prayer. I wondered if he does, indeed pray, or if he just waits to give the impression of prayer. He then picked up the urn, and we all sort of fell in behind him for that last walk together, in no particular order other than my mother-in-law behind the urn with the pastor.

At the grave they didn't even wait until everyone was there, apparently there was another funeral or something coming up soon. The urn carrier tugged at two little knobs on either side of the urn that released strings so that he could lower the urn into the grave.

The pastor gave his prayer and after the Lord's Prayer he spoke the "ashes-to-ashes" formula. In Germany then everyone lines up and throws three scoops of earth into the grave, as well as flowers. I cut some flowers from the garden this morning and took an apple branch from his beloved apple trees. They admonished us not to put anything non-organic into the the grave, but WiseMan palmed his union badge and a coin from his Euro collection and dropped it in quietly during his turn. I found that very fitting.

We were all standing there then, trying to settle ourselves, when we realized that the rest of the company had disappeared - the funeral director, the urn carrier, the pastor were all gone. We had questions, and no one was available.

So there was nothing else to do but drive home and have some great plumcake and almond cake baked by an aunt. After cake a bottle of homebrew quince liquor was brought out - I had to drive back to Berlin, so none for me.

When I went to collect my son I figured he would be climbing trees with his cousin (both in their suits). But no, both boys (the cousin will turn teenager next week) were sitting in the sun in chairs, talking! Looks like they are growing up.

The flower people hemmed and hawed (they just plain forgot to deliver the flowers) and drove the flowers out after the ceremony, lot of good that does us now. I stopped on the way back to Berlin to at least get a picture of it.