I had the privilege of speaking in the university city of Tübingen this past week at a seminar for doctoral students.

Tübingen is a university town - nothing much else around. The woman who picked me up at the airport noted that Pustefix is made in Tübingen - I joked that this is just hot air, too (it is German soap bubbles packaged up for kids to blow), but she didn't get the joke. The Wikipedia notes that Tübingen has the lowest average age in the population in Germany (39.8 years). And indeed, many of them were out with a beer on the warm summer evening, sitting around this fountain listening to a guy singing and playing the guitar. The Lord Mayor is only 36 and a member of the Green Party.

What a life it would be, teaching in Tübingen! Arise, rested, at a decent hour and have a leisurely breakfast with the newspapers; stroll from the old downtown area full of half-timbered houses across the old botanical gardens and a creek to your university building; give a seminar at ten to eager students; have a fast and efficient lunch at the mensa nearby, continuing the discussion with your students; back to the department for letters and coffee and some rounds with your thesis students in the early afternoon; then across the street to the library to pick up some material that you spend the afternoon reading before joining colleagues for a good discussion over a cold glass of local white wine before turning in.

Of course, if you are gossiping about a colleague, you have to look over both shoulders and quickly assess if anyone from the colleague's department is within earshot. I think I would go crazy within a very short time.


No longer a minority

One of our departments has moved into the 21st century and hired two women as professors, an engineer and a businesswoman. They both gave a talk on their research this evening, and invited the faculty to a glass of champagne afterwards.

Our faculty is not the most famous for showing up at things like this - there have been presentations at which the audience consisted of the dean only. But tonight there were two women from other faculties present, and a good number of members of their department. As I counted through I realized that we were 5 women in the room and 6 men - and I didn't feel like I was a member of a minority.

We had a great discussion after each talk, and some nice small talk around the champagne. This is how I think it should be at university - we don't just bicker about money or rooms or chairs with each other, but we also talk about what we are doing research on.

And my students today were on their best behavior after my eruption last week. They were prepared, quiet, and asked tons of questions. I would love to have days like this at least once a week - if that is not too much to ask.


I am not a movie star!

I slammed my laptop shut and left the lecture hall five minutes early today. I detest teaching in a noisy crowd. Some came late, some got up in the middle of class, and most were chattering away with their neighbors towards the end of class. It is not even really hot yet!

I am not a movie - I don't think I'm a movie star, and I am in 3D. Movie actors don't mind if you talk while they act when you are in your living room. People around you in movie theaters *do* mind when you keep chattering during a film.

In a lecture hall, everyone is there to learn (or rather, I thought they were adults and could choose not to attend the lecture if they found it boring).
I'm glad that they are getting to know people, but we have breaks that they can use to exchange comments with their new friends.

But how do I get them to resist the urge to immediately blabber every tiny thought randomly bubbling up from some portion of their brains to their neighbors? I have tried so much over the years. Nasty comments. Nice comments. Just standing and waiting until they SHUT THE F§$% UP. Speaking softly. Speaking loudly. Throwing balls or making peanut butter sandwiches.

I teach in a classroom right on a major street with major truck and tram traffic. I have tinnitus that I try to ignore to concentrate on teaching. The talking makes me have to speak louder and concentrate more on what I want to say. At some point I just cannot continue.

Anyone have some magic dust I can sprinkle in the room to get them to be quiet?


Thanks, Alice!

A store on the Schloßstr. in Steglitz has a big plastic sign printed and hung out in front of the shop reading "Thanks to Alice, this store has had no telephone since April 14, 2008".

Those signs are expensive to make, and Alice (a German Telecom and IP Provider) has been notorious at delaying new phones - this shop owner must be really pissed off.

Teenagers and the World

I had the pleasure of the company of five young people today (between 13 and 20, and a baby, but she didn't say anything) over dinner. Since the male of the species were playing "I'm-cooler-than-you" show-off-talk games, I decided to ask a discussion question to the round.

"Do you think they will have to call off the Olympics this summer?"

T13: When is the World Cup? [WiseWoman answers "2010" and then explains the difference between the Soccer World Cup and the Olympics]

T16-1: Why should they have to call the Olympics off?
WiseWoman: Because of the earthquakes and the danger of diseases.

T16-2: Isn't the president of China in Berlin right now?
T16-1: Yeah, what's his name?
WiseWoman: Ahem. It's not the president of China, but the spiritual leader of the Tibetians who is in Berlin. Do you know his name?


T20: It's something really easy, I think.
T16-1: Chang or something?
T16-2: Himalaya?
T16-3: No, that's the mountain, silly.
WiseWoman: No, he's the Fourteenth ...... and he even got a Nobel Peace Prize - can any one name him?

Eventually, I give up and explain who the Dalai Lama is and why he is in exile and why the Tibetians are so riled up right now. T16-1 then asks a thought-provoking question: if he's the spiritual leader, why did he leave because he was afraid of getting killed? I thought religious types didn't mind dying because they get new lives or something.

T14 then chipped in with something about a girl born in India with two sets of arms and two sets of legs and T20 said that was the born-again Shiva and off they were talking about that. I think they meant Lakshmi, but I seem to have missed that item in my news feeds, maybe my RSS is broken.


The World is their Garbage Can

While waiting for the tram this morning I watched a young woman take a last drag on her cigarette and then just throw the butt on the ground. Yesterday I saw a guy throw his butt down just inches from a garbage can. He only had to take 2 additional steps to get rid of his garbage.

Last week one student left a pile of candy wrappers on his desk after class. Today there were 4 batteries on another desk. The wrappers I canned and wrote a nasty-gram to the student (I remembered who was sitting there). I don't remember who was sitting at the battery place, and you just can't pitch them.

People just drop their trash, leave it behind them, "forget" to clean up after their dogs - what on earth would the world look like if we didn't have cleaning people picking up the trash and the butts and the poop?

I know it's hard - I have had numerous fights with WiseKid on the topic of pick-up-your-butt-dear-and-put-it-in-the-garbage-can-over-there. But why do people not think? Is there any way to get people to realize what they are doing? I've tried dark looks and tsk-tsk when I see people pitching butts. Any ideas?


Why Baptize?

Sunday was Pentecost (among other things like Mother's Day and birthday and what not) and I attended the early service being held in our village in Sweden. I was too lazy to drive anywhere, WiseMan dropped me off and drove off to scrounge for fresh rolls and newspapers.

As I walked up the church walkway I saw the place was going to be packed - and so I knew right away that this would be a baptism. I had seen this before, but as I came in at least they were all sitting down in the pews. One I had attended previously the baptismal party waited outside the church until we got to the "juicy" part.

But they were laughing and talking, just having a good time, when normally one is quiet and collects one's thoughts before the service begins. The dozen people who normally attend the church all sat together on one side of the church, back a bit near the loud speakers. We be old.

The service began, and we were to sing the first song - but only the regulars sang. No one from the baptism party even bothered to open their hymnals. We kept on going, hit a song that one stands for - only the dozen stood, the party remained seated. I looked over at them questioningly, but they were not looking at us.

We sat down, some readings started, and then the Gospel was to be read. In Lutheran churches you stand for the Gospel, and the dozen did, the rest remained seated. This finally got the goat of the preacher, who pointedly said to the group: We stand for the Gospel. They grudgingly got up.

The preacher keep the sermon boring, short, and sweet. I would have probably pontificated on "Why bother baptizing?" or "How to behave in Church" at this point, but apparently the preacher wanted to get it over with. He then began the baptism portion of the service, and the party sprang to digital life - video and still cameras were whipped out, the beaming parents came to the front with the godparents, and the baptism began.

The little girl was very well behaved, put up with all the motions and let herself be carried around the church and shown to everyone. She was given a candle, then everyone sat down and we carried on. The preacher noted that the next hymn should be one that everyone knew, but no, only the dozen sang. We stood up for the benediction, again the preacher made the others stand up, and then with a nice organ piece the service was over.

I lingered to speak with Mai-Britt, and noted that I really didn't understand why they bother baptizing their babies and didn't she think it scandalous the way they behaved. Mai-Britt was a missionary for many years, and she answered - we're glad that something brings them to church, and it is not the baby's fault she has parents and family who do not know how to behave. The main thing is that she is now baptized.

So I suppose I should just hold off the lemons, but I am genuinely confused: why on earth do they want a church baptism, if they themselves have nothing to do with the church!


Last Day of 50

Today was my last day of being 50 - where did that last year go? Seems like just a few months ago that we were celebrating.

I wanted the exact opposite this year and so am spending my birthday up in our cabin in Sweden. The weather has been absolutely gorgeous, warm and sunny during the day, quite chilly night times, with a splendid array of stars lighting up the nights.

So many friends are talking about retirement, getting old, what not, and the thought of turning 51 does sound rather horrifying. But what did I do on this last day of 50? Let's see, I got rolls and the newspaper for breakfast, which we had outside; did dishes and started trimming the bits of the lawn I mowed yesterday; I planted potatoes and peas and cucumbers; weeded two flower beds and planted a few bulbs WiseMan found sorting though some stuff.

I did a load of wash, cleaned the gutters and scraped some of the moss off of two of the roof sections. I read a chapter on cryptography (I want to teach a new course next semester) and a Swedish consumer magazine and picked the combination lock on a suitcase that had closed itself and no one knew the numbers. I suppose the lock came with this combination, as it makes no sense to me, but I was proud of having picked it, even if I had to take off my glasses to get a good look at what I was doing with a paper clip to figure it out.

I suppose that all counts as still active, although I noticed that the knees hurt rather more than they used to while weeding, so I must get me one of those cushions for kneeling on in the garden.

And I didn't grade a single paper. They can wait until Monday.



Today was the monthly faculty meeting, which is about as much fun as going to the dentist's.

During one point on the agenda someone suggested that we set up tutorials for the students because they can't do maths.

Then it was time for the budget. They were sharp enough to figure out that we were trying to take 1/3 of the money they don't spend away from them at the end of the year, and they insisted that they be allowed to keep 1/3 of the money budgeted to them if they don't spend it. We tried to explain that if they don't spend 1/3 of their money we are in grave danger of getting much less money in coming years. But this fell on deaf ears.

Then we went on to discuss dispersing the funds for 2008. I suggested that we give 10% of the funds according to the number of students enrolled in the programs according to the formula: #B /(#B+#M) for the bachelor programs and #M / (#B+#M) for the master programs, i.e. proportional to the number of students in the programs. No, they wanted it "fair", i.e. 50% for the bachelor's and 50% for the master's. It took over half an hour to make it clear (I hope) that if only 15% of the students are in a Master's program, giving the Master's 50% is not proportional.

Maybe the professors could use a little refresher course themselves.....


Why won't they prepare?

I normally run the threat-of-dire-punishment routine with my first semester students to force them to prepare for lab. He who does not prepare sits outside the lab in the hallway preparing. There are very few people who choose to sit outside more than once.

I decided to try a different route this semester. We are all adults here, aren't we? My evaluations often note that I treat them like little children. So I gave a big pep talk the first week on how to study and why they are at university and that it is their responsibility to take charge of their learning, not my responsibility to throw food chunks in their little upturned open mouths.

We had three "warm up" labs getting ready to work hard, and then yesterday the first lab with actually doing some programming started. I suggested preparing the lab up to a particular point, and checked their level of preparation by going around at the beginning of lab.

5 were prepared with something written down. 32 at least brought the written answers to the little finger exercise lab last week with them. 8 didn't even manage that and 8 just didn't show up.

How on earth are they going to get an education? How did they graduate from high school? What were they thinking? There is only a 90 minute lab and they have a lot to learn and understand from the experiments. The lab just started with a "get to work" order from me, which rather confused some people. "But what are we supposed to do?" Uh, read the lab sheets before class, come prepared, and do the exercises here, where you can ask me and fellow students for help and show off what you got running?

No one, not even the prepared ones, got very far in the lab. No cool solutions to wow everyone. The guys who "already know how to program" were completely and utterly lost. They could not "find the bit to program" - which they weren't supposed to do. They were to be experimenting in a closed environment with expressions. They didn't want to do the given experiments, because they were so "baby easy", and then they picked some really complicated stuff they wanted to do and did not know where to start.

I forced a couple of guys to re-do the "baby" stuff - and sure enough, there were some odd things happening. They had just let their programs run a few seconds and were convinced that they were just fine.

Sigh. At least I had my Master's seminar in the evening. Nice to have students you can have a proper conversation with and want to learn.


Iron Man

Wow, a film for the whole family! I hadn't read anything about the movie, but I wanted to go along with the guys, and they were going to see Iron Man, which was just released in Germany.

There was lots of action (shooting, blasts, car crashes, etc) for WiseKid, a rather witty screenplay with some references to other films and some good politics for WiseMan, and for me there was a ton of kick-ass mechanical engineering, robots, computer interfaces, and some awesome vfx. Figures, some of it was done by Industrial Light and Magic.

There were, of course, more people involved with the vfx and animations than there were actors and second second assistant directors. The music was rather nice, and the violence was, well, kind of comic-book-like. Guess that's what you get when you film a comic book.

An enjoyable evening, although Tony never got to kiss Pepper.


The Engagement

There is something to be said for sitting in the non-smoking section. We were at a newish Spanish tapas restaurant this evening. They have a tiny non-smoking section downstairs, the kitchen and the smokers are upstairs, and mostly you get ignored downstairs, but the food is great.

It wasn't crowded, but the tables were all nicely decorated, especially one where a young couple sat. About halfway through the meal I noticed the owner over at their table, smiling and pouring champagne. She then came over to us - apparently he had just popped the question (to the background of two live singers/guitar players) and she had said yes.

They invited both the other tables that were occupied downstairs, the musicians, the owner and the waitress over for a toast! Never had something as touching as this happen to me in public in Germany. We all toasted, wished them luck and many years of happiness together, and then returned to our own very excellent dinners. I even gave the musicians money when they came around, although as a rule I don't, it only encourages them and you can't get a word exchanged when they are screeching away. These guys weren't bad though.

So whoever you are - hope this wonderful evening is the beginning of a very happy time for you!