Long time no book reviews.... seems I never get around to reading for fun anymore. But this book was great, once started I could barely put it down. Restless by William Boyd is a spy thriller set in the years leading up to the Second World War.

The spy is a woman of many names, the story told through her daughter. The spy - Eva - leads an exciting life, first learning to be a spy and then working as a spy. Her daughter, Ruth, leads by contrast a very gray, boring life, with just odd previous members of her family showing up or one of her adult pupils trying to kiss her as excitement.

The story turns around and around, is told from two time perspectives, and filled with all sorts of details about a spy's life. And that is why I read a paragraph aloud in my Algorithms and Data Structures class this week, in the lecture on cryptographic algorithms.

I wanted to stress the point that codes can be devised that no computer will ever be able to discern, much less crack. They don't necessarily involve asymmetric algorithms and large prime numbers. Just a short exchange - agreed on in advance and transmitted through another, secure, channel - suffices.

- "My, you are looking nice today!"
- "Thank you, I just got back from a two weeks' vacation."
- "Did you go to the mountains?"
- "No, I prefer the seaside."

What message is hidden in these lines? No fair guessing if you have already read the book!


US Presidential Candidates

There's a cute poll on over at 2008 Presidential Candidate Matching Quiz

My results were:

85% Dennis Kucinich
84% Mike Gravel
77% Barack Obama
75% Chris Dodd
74% Joe Biden
73% John Edwards
73% Hillary Clinton
67% Bill Richardson
45% Rudy Giuliani
39% Ron Paul
39% John McCain
34% Mitt Romney
32% Mike Huckabee
20% Fred Thompson
12% Tom Tancredo

I have never heard of 5 or 6 of these people. At least the colors are sorted right. I am shocked that I agree with Huckabee on about a third of the issues. I wish the results would show me which issues it is that I agree with them.

Lucky me, I'm not voting over there anymore. Although they keep sending me voter registration cards, they don't seem to have a procedure for informing officials when people rescind their citizenship.


Our best loss to date

My handball team lost again - we've not been doing so hot this season, i.e. are in last place. We were playing the second place team this evening, a team of very young girls "playing up" an age group to "get experience".

The last game there were just 7 of us, I had to play the entire game. We were at least twice as old as they were, and they walked all over us. We never got a chance to try our defense, as they picked up balls we missed and ran really fast to their goal, walking all over our second goalkeeper, the first one was away. They won with something like 42-4, and were aiming for 44-4. They wrote up a nasty report on the game that we were "unesthetic" to watch and should quit playing handball.

So they were *really* surprised tonight. We had the entire team there - normally, not everyone comes to all the games. Even the women who had announced that they were retiring from the games and were just coming to training were there. It took them quite a while to get themselves sorted out, and then our goalie held a lot of balls.

Their trainer was getting mad, and hollering at his girls, but to no avail. They even mis-shot 7m attempts. He started screaming that they were all going to do 10 extra pushups at training this week. We grinned.

They won, of course, but "just" 28-6. And we thought this was great!


Pocketbike riding

I found myself in a car with four strapping 16-year-olds this afternoon, on my way to a pocketbike racing place. The 16-year-old I know best just turned 16 and wanted to have some fun with his pals. Two of the pals I have known since the whole lot of them was 3 years old and just a bit taller than my knees. They are now all taller than I am, must be something in the water.

They wanted to race these mini motorcycles that are not allowed out on the street. I ponied up for 30 minutes. They shoved helmets on and wrapped their big frames around the little machines, and off they went! After 15 minutes there was a break - their knees hurt already, but only one would actually admit to it.

The hall is horrible - cold, neon lights, smells like a gas station. One of the boys said: But I love the smell of a gas station! There are tires around the outside, in case a machine gets out of hand.

The guy doing the work refilled the gas tanks while the boss looked on, smoking (Alarm bells! Smoking strictly prohibited anywhere there is a chance of explosive fumes! What on earth are they thinking, these guys are adults???).

I took a folding chair and leaned forward, luckily, as a big steel thing came crashing down behind me. I counted the minutes until I could leave the place, hopefully in one piece and not in an ambulance. The boss asked if I didn't want to try it out. I said no - I actually got into a go-kart with most of these same guys two years ago.

Afterwards I offered a round of beer - 16 is the legal drinking age in Germany. There were 4 bar stools at the bar, and each got his stein of beer. I know that the birthday boy has been drinking a lot already, but the satisfaction on his face at finally being able to drink legally was grand. I can't bitch too much, as I know someone else rather well who drank a lot of beer while she was underage, although the age at that time was 21.

I had to stop 3 times on the hour-long ride home for them to pee.

It will be another interesting year. Already had three arguments that began with "But I'm 16 now!"....


Do I know you?

Back in Berlin, I walked to the subway at the Templehof Airport and had just come down the stairs when I saw a woman walking towards me. She was shorter than I am, had long black hair, was smartly dressed, and looked terribly familiar.

I paused for a split-second. She paused, too.

We both continued, and then both paused again.

As we passed each other, she stopped completely, and so I did, too. We looked at each other, and she said "Do we know each other?". We had, apparently, both been trying to decide whether to nod at each other. As I learned in a talk yesterday on intercultural communication, Americans will nod quite friendly-like to anyone they make eye-contact with. Germans will only acknowledge the existence of people they have been introduced to. This is why Germans think Americans are superficial, because they act like friends, but aren't.

So we were trying to discover if we had been introduced to each other. Apparently, each of us could quite clearly remember the other's face. But a name? And where did we meet?

I tried "Do we know each other from computing, or from handball?" She tried theater and business women's breakfast. Yes, I had attended a business women's breakfast many years ago, but somehow the image of this woman in my brain was much younger.

I said my name, it meant nothing to her. We shrugged, smiled, and wished each other a very pleasant day.

But it is still bugging me: who was she?


Flying to Brussels

I flew to Brüssels for a meeting, taking the El Cheapo plane from Klein Kleckersdorf Berlin-Templehof to Brüssels National. There is only about one flight an hour or so from THF, because they are planning on closing it so that everyone will use the new airport waaaaaay out in Schönefeld that is still under construction or the horrible overcrowded Tegel airport you can barely get to in rush hour at the moment, because the autobahn is under construction.

I drive to the airport and find 5 free, unlimited parking spaces just before reaching the pay spots. I was ditching the car and having WiseMan pick it up on the way home. I had expected to have to pony up a Euro or two for this, but free was just fine. You walk into the wonderfully large hall, and there are no shops, just a few chairs, and one counter open. There are just 2 people in front of me. I am checked in quickly, pick up my free paper, and chat with WiseMan (who took off work a bit early) until I go through security.

You then sit in a bus-stop like room and wait. No idea why the flight is delayed, it is sitting out there on the tarmac. Finally we are allowed to board. It is kind of spooky, going down the stairs and walking across to the plane, lit up in the winter's afternoon darkness. No other planes are to be seen.

After lift-off there is a wonderful view of Berlin by night, and the skies are clear almost the entire way to Brussels. It must be glorious to be a pilot on a night like this!



Our computer center tightened up their spam recognition, I have been getting almost only good email for the last few weeks. But upon hearing today that someone got my Christmas letter in their spam files, I decided to check mine. I last checked and cleared on November 21.

There were 12172 emails in the folder.

That is almost 300 a day. I checked the 300 for today - not one real letter in there. The thought of checking 670 or so pages of spam, looking for real letters, does not appeal to me. So I hit the "clear" button, it's all gone.

Spammers will eventually kill email, it seems, but there is not really anything else in the wings, is there? Do they really all make money on this, or is it only the companies that sell spam kits?


Sleuth (2007)

We started the movie year 2008 off last Friday with "Sleuth" (in German, unfortunately). In this remake of a 1972 production, Michael Caine (who played the young man against Laurence Olivier in the 1972 production) plays a rich, oldish author who is approached by Jude Law (my, isn't he sexy?), asking the elder man to divorce his trophy wife so the younger one can marry her.

It is an amazing psychological thriller, with both men playing games with each other. The camera work is excellent, often focusing in close-ups on their faces. The actors are forced to work exactly with their mimics, and they do a fine job of it.

You are kept on the edge of your seat, not knowing what is real, what is not real, and what will happen next.

The movie was free from 12 years of age in Germany, so we took a bunch of teenagers along. In the States it was rated "R", and indeed, I do think 12 is a bit on the liberal side, as most of the conversation that took place was about sexual.

The set was just tremendous with all the modern art furniture and the moving parts, all set in motion with the flick of an Apple remote.

The adults voted that it was an okay film, the teenagers voted it really cool.


The Perils of Automatic Translation

Just found an amusing translation: Iconocast offers information on health in many languages. If you pick up this German link you get

"Das maximale Planck Institut der molekularen Zelle Biologie und der Genetik (MPI-CBG) ist eins von 78 Instituten der maximalen Planck Gesellschaft, eine unabhängige, gemeinnützige Organisation in Deutschland."

WTF? Oh, right. The first name "Max" got translated as "maximal" :)

The original: "The Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG) is one of 78 institutes of the Max Planck Society, an independent, non-profit organization in Germany."