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).