Blackboard doesn't play well with Vista

PC Mag is reporting on problems that Blackboard (BB) is having with Vista. Blackboard is a simple "Learning Management System" that supposedly offers lots of communication possibilities between teacher and student, but actually only offers enough basic functionality to put a check mark in each field while having extreme usability problems and not leveraging things that are already in use by people.

For example, people tend to have their own email accounts, but Blackboard insists on you writing emails from inside the Learning Managment System (LMS), thus not letting people access their address books or having these sent messages merged with their other sent messages.

Furthermore, the system is quite geared to the American syllabus-based method of college teaching, being a rather bad fit for many German schools. I've been saying this for years, but who listens to me?

Me? I use Moodle. It is open source (meaning you don't have to pay BB a steep yearly fee), it fits nicely into the teaching workflow (BB and others make you adapt your workflow to something comfortable for the programmers), understands what communication and collaboration is about, and leverages things you already have such as E-Mail Clients while offering a lot of flexibility for individual configuration. I like it more and more each semester, even if there are odd quirks, it is not a major hassle like BB. Oh, and it es so easy to use, even teachers without PhDs in computing can use it :)


Service? What's that?

Germans often refer to their country as a "Service-Wüste", a desert with no real service to be had for love or money. There are many companies that come to mind when you talk about bad service, one that tops everyone's list is the former German telecoms monopolist, T-Com.

All right, I hear the groaning. Add your own stories in the comments....

I had a local call flat rate, but have found that I really don't use it - who has a landline anymore? I call the US, I call Scandinavia, I call long-distance, I call local people on their mobile phones. So I want to cancel it.

I call the freephone. A Tin Lizzy answers and greets me profusely. Gawd. Instead of voicemail hell ("Press 1 for this, press 2 for that") I now have to say one of the words offered to me. But what is "cancel this silly service", is this part of my "Bill" or "Information" or "Service"?

I just guess "Information". It does not understand me, and sweetly asks me to repeat myself. I just want to push 1 and get on with it, but no, I have to pronounce the word just so before I can enter in my phone number, either spoken or typed. I choose typed.

Tin Lizzy announces that I will be connected to a competent help desk partner - and gives me a busy signal. What a flip!

Okay, I call back. Lizzy is now busy. I fume, fuss with other stuff, call again. Lizzy is back. Okay, I know the routine, I choose "Service" this time. Same song, second verse: after hearing that I will soon have a competent help desk partner I get a busy signal again!

I go to the web page, wade through pop-ups and crappy navigation and find a bitch box. Again I have to select "Information" or "Bill" or "Service", but who cares, I write a nasty letter.

An hour later the mail comes with a questionaire from T-Com. How do you like our new service? Well, that was fast! Let's see: On a scale of 1-5 (1 best) how do you rate our service? Drat, can't write in, or I would put in 9. So I check 5, pretty much all the way down.

Now, wonder what I have to do to ditch this service? Probably have to change phone companies, something not for the faint of heart....


Don Carlos

Went to see the play "Don Carlos" (by Friedrich Schiller) at the Deutsche Theater this evening. It opened in February to rave review, and I most certainly agree - it was great theater this evening! No fussing with fancy costumes, the set was awesome without being overpowering and the actors ACTED, creating their characters very vividly.

The use of microphones, a telephone (not invented yet when Philipp II was King of Spain) and video projection was nicely integrated into the play, displaying acting from backstage and even integrating live action into what was probably canned video. It was not the usual "Gee-we-have-a-beamer-let's-use-it", but it fit seamlessly into Schiller's plot.

Of course, the guys stripping down to their gorgeous underwear (or less, in one case) was a special added attraction for the ladies - or for the guys of the "other" persuasion. Schiller has been said to have liked the laddies, and the King of Spain does seem to like a bit of each in this play.

This was the last play on my theater subscription - I cancelled for various reasons, mostly because the plays of late have been so boring. But this one made me think about at least seeing the odd show next season. Instead of theater tickets I have a season ticket for the Berlin Handball team, who will surely be playing in the top division next year!


Keep in touch

At the end of another successful oral exam the other day I shook the still-dazed student's hand and said "Keep in touch, let me know where you end up working!"

I went off for a coffee with my fellow examiner (I was no longer teaching at that school and had we had not seen each other for a while). Over Chai Lattes she asked why on earth I had asked my student to keep in touch. I was a bit surprised by the question, as I do like most of my students, and especially the ones that I have worked closely with on thesis topics. They are nice people, and I really do care where they go, what they do, and enjoy hearing their stories, even if I don't have time to read all their blogs.

Oh, I work closely with my students while they are here, she said, but when they are finished, I cut the umbilical cord. I don't have the energy to keep in contact with so many people.

I don't really think that this costs a lot of energy - they don't normally write me weekly letters, but usually when they change jobs they drop me a line. And when they have a job to offer that fits our profile, they write, too. And if I need someone in company X, after 14 years of teaching, I usually do know someone at the company if it is largish.

Maybe I am just a people person, I like to know people and I like to network.



On the way home with the subway I had 6 minutes to wait for the next train. I turned to the ads wall, and saw that a black actress had a big sticker over her body with "Ausländer raus!" (Foreigners, leave) scrawled on it. Someone had taken the time to write: We are all foreigners, pretty much everywhere.

It was one of these postal address stickers available in the post office and loved by the young vandals because they use some sort of superglue, these things are really difficult to remove.

Someone had started trying to scratch it off, and since I had a bit of time and long nails, I set to work, scratching it off millimeter for millimeter. I wasn't working long when an older women joined me. Her nails were not good, so she got out some nail scissors for scraping.

We worked in silence for a few moments, then I started making comments. She didn't answer. The train came in and I nodded at her, she nodded back, and I realized that she was a foreigner herself. She couldn't speak much German, but she understood these words, they are all over the place.

Our ways parted, after this brief moment of solidarity. We didn't finish scratching off the label - perhaps I should have missed a train and kept working.


Proof by Intimidation

There has been quite a lot of excitement over at Wikipedia-EN these past week with the media "discovering an imposter". A tried and true administrator, EssJay, was to be hired by Wikia for a top (paid) editing job. At the point that Real Life (tm) intersected the Internet it was discovered that EssJay was actually a college dropout in his early twenties and not a learned theologican.

Well gosh. Does that make his edits any worse, just because he was pretending to be someone else? Apparently it does, someone found a discussion in which he ranted "I have a doctorate in theology, so I know what is correct". He has now resigned from the Wikipedia (surely soon to return under another name with a doctorate in zoology...) and did not get that editing job.

It reminds me of the day of my rude awakening as a grad student. Like many students I had believed that professors and learned people with doctorates were rather pope-like in their infallibility. They strove for truth, were above pettyness, and were just vastly intelligent. Sure, there were a few bozos, but I attributed this to stray values. I had my "Question Authority" button on regularly, but that was for administrators and burocrats, people with no connection to Real Life.

I was at a meeting of the large, EU (well, it was called the EEC then)-funded multi-national research group. Prof. Everyone Knows Me was at the board doing a proof. I think I lost the trail shortly after "Let x= .....". One of the research guys from the Danish group put up his hand and was recognized. "Sir," he said, "that is not true for all cases." Prof. Everyone Knows Me was puzzled, then pulled back, looked at the board and said "Of course it is true, I have thought this out!"

Those of us in the back row started giggling about "Proof by Intimidation", "I'm Prof. EKM, I say so, so it is true."

This brave soul would not let loose. He replied "Let me show you" and went up to the board and scribbled a lot of mathematics. It was evident to those who could follow that indeed, the grad student had constructed a case in which the purported theorem did not hold. Prof. EKM waved his hand and said, well, this case cannot happen because I am only looking at code which is produced from a proven-correct compiler, this case cannot be produced by a proven-correct compiler. And the lad sat down while the proof continued.

Ah ha. So even the big shots made errors? But we had to believe everything they said, just because they were who they were?

From that point on, I no longer believed people only because they have lots of nice extraneous letters decorating their name. It is the content, what they do and say, that counts.

And so it should be at the Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales has suggested a sort of Certification Authority for proving who we are. This is a can of worms - it is trivial to print off your own doctoral certificate these days (although if you misspell the name of the school or the field you are supposedly holding a doctorate in, it will be obvious that this is a fake). People even get doctorates (real ones) by handing in false theses - plagiarisms.

Respect must be earned, one edit at a time, one publication at a time, one discussion at a time. Of course this is difficult, and how do people in X know when A is a con artist from Y? You don't - you just keep a healthy skepticism open, question authority, and strive for truth.


The Queen

Something had come up the week "The Queen" was showing at our local English-language theater and I missed seeing it. Then it won an Oscar, which meant it would be shown a lot, but dubbed in German. The Queen cannot be dubbed in German, so I decided to catch it while in Sweden. Sweden is a civilized country where they let films run in the original language with Swedish subtitles. Very nice.

It was old ladies' evening out at the movies, it seemed. 99 women and one poor guy drug there by his wife. I believe I was the youngest one there.....

The movie was just awesome. I had heard that it was about the Lady Diana tragedy, but that she would play such a large role post-mortem is just stunning. The weaving of historic material and material shot with Helen Mirren is a masterpiece.

The figures (with some exceptions, i.e. Prince Charles) are so well played. Helen Mirren has that stiff upper lip on the outside, the woman who likes to walk with her dogs and drive her jeep and make catty remarks about peope, the queen bound to duty, the emotionless daughter/wife/sister/mother/grandmother down to a T. She roundly deserves her Oscar.

The film is ripe with symbolism, all quite fitting. The stag which is shot by the neighbor as Diana, and the one the Queen is sad about dying. The wonderful symmetry of Cherie Blair bitching about the Royals and Prince Philip doing the same about the Blairs. The messy household full of children and toys and books of the prime minister with a wife working full time vs. the stuffy castles with servants galore and everything exactly in its place.

I really liked the "bedroom scenes" (no, none of that, we're British you see) with the Queen, the Queen Mum and Prince Philip all in their jammies watching the telly. I guess I would not have expected the Queen to wear black lace nightgowns at her age, but these flannel things look just awful - and are probably what she does wear. Men's pyjamas look allright, especially the satin kind underneath a plaid robe. But why must the ladies look do dreadful?

The last scene with Tony Blair where the ice finally melts and she can talk to the prime minister human-to-human is actually very funny - Helen Mirren shows us an extremely intelligent and hard-nosed woman who really is the queen - little Tony running along beside her like one of the Corgi dogs is hilarious.

The film is so good, I would go see it again - not quite like "Gone with the Wind", which I think I've seen 5 times, but worth a second viewing.

The Mike

I gave a talk last week for my first big crowd. Normally I don't use a microphone, as I can make my voice be big and booming (unless I am running a cold). But this was a traditional German lecture hall, steeply built as an amphitheater. And there were nearly 300 noisy bodies inhabiting it.

The technician wanted me to hang the mike around my neck and showed me how she does it. It needs to be near the mouth, so she adjusted the strap to have this big, black, extremely phallic thing strapped to her neck shoved up her mouth.

I declined. What kind of a picture does that make? Here I go to all this trouble with the slides to look professional, put some professor clothes on (as opposed to the comfy old jeans with the holes down the inseam), and I get this thing in my face? Instead, I just kept it in one hand, luckily I had the Apple Remote all set up and that works great with the left hand and at a distance. That way I could also move it closer or further away for added dynamics.

The other kind of wireless mike is also extremely gendered - it wants to be clipped on your tie and the transmitter fits nicely in your coat pocket. Assuming you are wearing a tie and have a coat pocket....


Geek heaven - CERN

I had the privilege of visiting CERN last week, in Geneva. On of the members of a working group I am in is currently there setting up his part of the project ALICE.

Now I had this vague notion of CERN, the particle accelerator on the boarder between Switzerland and France being big - but not this big. It is a 27 kilomenter long ring 60 m down in the ground that starts near Geneva, runs around underneath a good bit of France, before returning to the start. There are a number of experiment "holes" drilled at various locations along the ring.

The experimental holes don't look all that fancy - just a security gate, and then a large hall - could be any sort of production facility. Inside, however, are the most amazing things. In one room a group of people stand around some large, golden-foil wrapped electronic device, carefully doing something to its innards. In another, a guy is surrounded by hundreds of ethernet cables, wiring them up while piles of computers await their final destination inside of huge 19" racks.

The atmosphere is charged - people are excited to be working here. The ring itself was turned off a few years ago, the old experiments dismantled, and now some new ones are going in. People are working feverishly to get everything done by November, when the ring is to be turned on again.

We got to go down the ALICE hole (somehow this should be Alice going down the Rabbit Hole....) wearing hard hats and have a look at what was going on. Massive bits of steel are holding four detectors in place. The size of the detectors seems to be inversely proportional to the size of the bit they are trying to measure. They will be looking for quarks, which make up the protons and neutrons of the universe - so the detectors are enormous.

A ring of sleds carries special computers sandwiched in between cooling layers - something like a quarter of a million (!) processors, and once the thing starts you can't get in to change anything or reboot. No Microsoft products anywhere to be seen....

The logistics of getting all of this delivered and installed is enormous - hats off to the people sorting it all out.

The CERN main area itself is a strange place - it is extraterritorial, that is, neither France nor Switzerland has jurisdiction inside the gates. Once you are inside you may move freely and photograph at will. The tables and chairs are the cheapest around, there are cheap places to stay and a few cafeterias with affordable and good food.

The money is all in the experiments and the computers and the books and so on. People seem to not sleep much, but just work round the clock. In the cafeteria they talk about - what else, particle physics! Every now and then someone strays off to a real-life topic, but soon they are back on everyone's favorite topic.

This seems to be the place to be for geeks - round the clock playing with expensive toys!


The Lost Bag

I flew to Geneva for a meeting at CERN (more on that later). I had had some strange feelings packing my bag (I put my abacus necklace in my pants pocket, for example), but had the thesis I was planning on reading in the bag.

It arrived in Geneva soaking wet - apparantly the El-Cheapo-Airline does not pay for covers for the baggage carts. Whatever, thesis is still readable, clothes will dry, we ask our way and get directed to the wrong bus. When we discover this we hop out of the bus - and stupid me leaves my bag on the bus, I had put it on a bag carrier place.

Stupid idiot. Chasing a bag in a bus is not possible in Geneva. As soon as I got to CERN I asked for help at the reception - they had no idea what to do. They found a 0900 telephone number to call, but couldn't call out themselves, as these numbers are also sex-line numbers..... But the guy I was visiting had a VOIP line to Germany, so I was able to call from there.

No, they couldn't help. Also, they speak French. But I could call in 45 minutes. I tried to get her to page the bus driver - I knew which line, what time it left the airport, and it was a very long bus line, the driver must still be on his bus. She did not seem to understand. We called 2 more times, no, no bag. She suggested I call the lost-and-found the next morning.

I spent a rather sleepless night being angry at myself for being so forgetful and sad about the nice newish clothes I had in the bag - and irritated at not having the thesis to read. Sleep you can do without clothes, but it felt horrible not being able to brush my teeth in the morning. Luckily, the newspaper shop on campus had toothbrushes, deoderant and razors. I got two out of three and dashed for the ladies' room.

Just before the meeting my colleague had a French-speaking secretary call the lost-and-found. And guess what - the bag had just came in, and the guy checking it in found it highly amusing that he had the same last name as mine. I was just so relieved that the bag was found. My colleague drove me down through a horrible traffic jam to retrieve the bag - had to fill out a ton of forms and pay 15 Swiss Franks, and I got my bag back. And nothing was missing, not even my other silver necklace. Extra points for Geneva.

How nice to sleep in my nightgown again and brush my teeth and do my hair the next morning :)