America's Prison System

Picked up a copy of "Mother Jones" at the newsstand in Lund yesterday. There is a shocking special section about America's prisons that is also available online: Slammed: Inside America's broken - and broke - prison system (scroll down a bit).

  • 1 % of Americans are in jail
  • 25% of the prisoners world-wide are in American jails
  • 11% of black men between 20 and 34 are in jail
  • Because ex-cons are often not allowed to vote, 13% of black men are not eligible to vote, and many others believe they cannot vote
  • In many states, women convicts who are giving birth must do so while shackled to their beds.
  • There are over a hundred youth serving life sentences in American prisons.
  • 70% of parolees who are returned to prison are returned for administrative infractions such as not showing up for a meeting or not giving their change of address in time.
How can they afford this and Iraq too? And is there any hope of ever changing the system? You don't have to be a bleeding-heart liberal, you just have to do the math to figure out that it would be cheaper to pay the citizens a wage just for living, which might cut down crime quite a bit. They spend almost 50.000 $ a year per convict.


Anne Holt: Presidentens Valg

As one of my major projects the other day I set up the hammock. Can't just laze around, so I picked up a book on the top of my book pile, Presidentens Valg (The President's Choice/Election - a play on words) by Anne Holt. She used to be the Minister of Justice in Norway and now writes nice crime novels.

The first line already shocked me so that I almost fell out of the hammock - "It's in Norwegian!" I hollered across to WiseMan. "Well, of course," he said. "I bought it for you in Oslo. They speak Norwegian there, you know." There was nothing nearby that I could throw at him, so I just hunkered down to read it. Norwegian is not bad, if you know Icelandic, English, German and Swedish.

Except for all the "slikke"s (seems to be an all-purpose word like "so") I actually made out pretty well following the story. The newly-elected American president visits Oslo for their national drinking holiday on May 17 and gets herself kidnapped. You read that right, and no it is not Hillary, 'cause this president met Hillary and got some advice from her: Trust no one but your husband, and only him if he is still with you.

Anyway, it was actually something of a page turner, so I kept going and finished up this evening. The book has some interesting explanations of how left-out Americans feel, and describes a great plot to destroy America from the inside. No, not hijack any planes. Just deprive them of gasoline, TV and shopping malls, and they'll overthrow the government of their own accord.

The book careens to a crazy ending, tying up all sorts of loose ends, and then makes a stupid blooper: The secret letters that will start the destruction are delivered to a post box outside a house in Maine - and she writes that the little letter flag was up so he knew that the mail was there.

NO NO NO! This is a basic misunderstanding that the first XWindows icons for E-Mail got wrong - the little flag would go up if you had new mail. But the point of the flag is *not* to let you know that you have mail - it is to let the postal worker know that you put a letter in the box for them to take with them. There just aren't many public mail drops, especially in rural areas, so the mail is picked up by the mail carrier. And if there is no mail for you, they would sail right past unless you let them know by lifting the flag that there is outgoing mail.

How on earth can we get rid of this fallacy?


Mamma mia

Just the thing for a summer's evening when you've spent all day pretty much lazing around, reading, eating, and staring at the gorgeous blue Swedish sky!

I wanted to see "Mamma mia" in Sweden so that I could see the original version of the movie made from the ABBA musical. It was interesting to see that the Swedish subtitles were the Swedish words to the songs that had the same general idea, but were not exact translations of the English song texts.

Meryl Streep - what a wonderful actress! She is just 100% Donna, so utterly believable that she has a hotel on this Greek island and raised her little girl alone. Her girl is getting married, and having found Mom's diary she has an idea of the three guys who are possibly her Dad, so she invites them all to her wedding - in secret. And of course, they all come.

It is really amazing that you can string together all these popular ABBA songs and actually come up with something resembling a story line! Oh, sure, there's a little bit of dialogue stitching it together, but there is a lot of singing and dancing, and it is fun to watch! You have the feeling of being right there in the middle of it - so catch the movie while it is in the theater.

Pierce Brosnan, one of the prospective fathers and normally the protrayer of James Bond, is of course dashing (especially with the 3-day-beard he grows overnight). But he's lucky that James Bond is never called on to sing - 'cause he can't carry a tune. No matter, Meryl Streep actually gets so carried away in a scene just below the church (beautifully filmed with the setting sun in her hair and the wind gently blowing her clothes all around her) that you almost think that this is *her* song ("The winner takes it all").

Anyway, happy end and all that. And do stay for the credits - The three men in their ABBA costumes are just soooooo comical, you fall over laughing! And see if you can see Benny Andersson - (one of the B's in ABBA and co-writer of the songs and producer of musical and film). The audience put up a roar when they saw him ('natch, we're in Sweden). I didn't get it until the credits, so I guess I'll just have to go see the movie again for scientific purposes. :D

At the end the audience *clapped* - and then burst out singing the final song, "Thank you for the music". Indeed - thanks for this movie, I really enjoyed it!


The Magic personnr

We went to the bank today to get some cash, but the ATM refused our card. Hmm, worked fine when we were here in May. Well, the bank is still open for another 20 minutes or so, let's see.

"Oh, those cards are old," the young guy says. Old? "Yes, they don't work from the end of May." Aha. All right, let's get a new one - how much will that cost. 195 SEK !!! Are you crazy? This is only to get OUR money out of YOUR bank?

"Well, the Visa card is only 250 and you can pay in stores with that." Okay, let's take that.

But wait - WiseMan does not have one of the Swedish magic personnr. This is like a social security number in Sweden, only worse. If you don't have a personnr, you don't exist in Swedish society. I have one, because I worked in Sweden 10 years ago and badgered the authorities into giving me one (and that being an American at the time). Without it you can't even get coupons at the local store or tons of other stuff. The young man went to check, but the boss said "No personnr, no Visa."

I demanded to know why - we are rather credit-worthy individuals, I would think. We have had accounts with this outfit for 10 years and never, ever been negative. No, these are the rules. I tried to explain that we have this silly thing called the "EU" and that all citizens of the EU have to have the same rights as all the other ones all over Europe. And Sweden is in the EU, whether they like it or not.

"Oh," she said, "but you wouldn't be able to buy anything in a store if they ask you to legitimate yourself." WTF? I may have a personnr, but I don't have any card-like thing to prove it. No one has ever questioned my not having the last four digits to my birthday. I buy lots of stuff with my Visa, show my American or now German ID, and I get to take my stuff home. The merchants don't care. Or rather, the underpaid clerks don't care.

Then they mentioned the "T"-word: terrorists. , keeping people from getting a Visa card has nothing to do with terrorists! It should have something to do with credit-worthiness. I asked to have the rejection in writing. She began to search. The clock ticked. We still didn't have money. At one minute of 3pm I had WiseMan get over to the other line and get out some cash. More than we normally get, this might be necessary.

She searched and searched. Finally, she found it: on a form. The field for personnr was marked "obligatory". But she can't give me the form. She has to talk to the legal counsel and he is on vacation. I sweetly request to have it in writing, next week will do fine.

And then I am going to test the EU-Ombud. Getting a credit card should not have anything to do with your nationality. That is discrimination. Sure, it is easier if they have a number for you - makes a great primary key in the database, and they have a central register of sinners in Sweden. Well, then they just have to expand that and use something else for a primary key, I think. This is insane, something has to be done, now.

So we ended up ordering the 195 SEK card to get at our own money. It will take a week, and we have to come in to the local office and sign for it during their mini-opening hours.

Maybe it is time to change banks.


I was sure I had seen Mávahlátur already, and that it was a Friðrik Thor Friðriksson film from a book by Einar Kárasson. But since films in Icelandic are rare enough as it is, and shown on Swedish TV in the original with subtitles, and I have a new EyeTV bought to watch the Olympics on my Mac with, I decided to watch.

Had I seen it? I still don't know. It was, of course, by Ágúst Guðmundsson, the Godfather of modern Icelandic film, and it was a filming of the book of the same name (The Seagull's Laughter) by Kristin Marja Baldursdóttir . And either the book was so vivid, or I really had seen the movie before - it just flowed. It did win a minor prize at the Lübeck Nordic Film Festival in 2002 and some Edda awards, so I really may have seen it pre-blog.

The story is told from the perspective of Agga, a young girl in a household full of women. The grandfather, a seaman, only comes home to read the papers and have a good smoke. He can't stand all the womenfolk, so he sets off for sea as soon as possible.

Freyja has come home - back from the USA, where her American soldier husband has died under mysterious circumstances. She brings lots of luggage filled with fine clothes back with her to this poor country and moves in with her mother's foster mother until she can find another husband.

It is a true Icelandic film - great landscape (Hafnarfjördur), elves, stones that move in the wind, fish, a mysterious woman. Oh, wait - no men pissing. Must be because the story was written by a woman. Anyway - lots of family secret stuff, secret love, affairs, alcohol, class problems in a supposedly classless society. And a girl growing up into a woman. And the classic Icelandic solution to any kind of problem: how about a cup of freshly-brewed coffee?

A nice drama with some little Águst-jokes: pictures of Freyja and Björn Theódór taken from the camera's perspective, with the camera falling over; the colors in the film reminiscent of early color films; a Danish maid (normally it is the other way around, Icelandic girls serving as maids in Denmark).

The film is from 2001, so it probably won't make the German circuit, although the book was rather a success in Germany, I gather. But if your local European film festival is showing it - do see it: it twists and turns and in the end you really still are not sure what is up.


Cheap gas

Ahhhhh, back in Sweden!

It used to be that we would fill the gas tank in Rostock, because gas was soooooo expensive in Sweden. Now we try to get on the ferry with just enough gas to coast along to the first gas station in Trelleborg.

The price for a liter gas was around 1.60 Euros last week, since school vacation just started and the gas stations like to gouge families. I filled up the tank this evening in Trelleborg for 13:05 SEK (about 1.38 Euro). This is not a tax difference, it is the oil companies.

Now can someone explain to me how there is a free market for gas in Germany? I smell a cartel.

(For the Americans: the German price is south of 9 $ a gallon. Qwitcherbitchin.)



I always dread having to change anything having to do with our telecommunications infrastructure, as for some reason normally well-organized Germans manage to screw things up *every* *single* *time*.

But the teenager will be back in house and since his current girlfriend is a long-distance call away, I think a flat-rate would be a good investment. I went to their web site to check the prices and maybe book the Germany + local flat rate.

The web site was impenetrable. It is full of flashy pictures and Great Deals that come with Wee Tiny Footnotes explaining that after the honeymoon period everything will cost twice as much. They offered me movie flat rates and really fast DSL (tempting, my current provider, 1&1, slogs along at "up to 1 Mbit/second" which really means "maybe 200 Kbit/second if we feel like it and 19 if you are downloading anything important") and telephones and all sorts of gadgets. But where could I book an upgrade? Why is it so difficult buying something simple?

So I called the free number and spoke with a lady. She was reading from a script sheet and had trouble pronouncing things. She said something like "mirwersteuer" and when I asked what that was she started reeling of the definition of value-added tax. Ah, Mehrwertsteuer. Now I wanted to know what the difference beforetax was to what I pay now, as the bill only adds the tax in at the end. When I finally figured out that it was 10 Euros a month, I said "Fine, please book that for me from August 12."

Yesterday I got the confirmation in the mail. 60 Euros surcharge for a tariff change! And the change will be effective July 20.

So I called the toll-free number again this morning, and this lady had a look. "Hmm," she said, "you changed from ISDN back to analog, did you?" I did no such thing, I'm not crazy, none of my phones and my DSL from another provider would not work! "Good thing you called, yes, this is just an additional service and not a change of tariff. I'll fix this and send you another confirmation."

Maybe T-Com should invest a few Euros in actually training their people. Stupid stuff like this costs us both money.

I suppose I'll end up with a movie flat rate on the next confirmation....


Georg Schramm

It was decided that we needed to go see a live cabaret and not just watch movies all the time. The director of activities decided that Georg Schramm would be just what the doctor ordered. His new program, Thomas Bernhard hätte geschossen, was on at the Wühlmäuse Theater.

"But I don't know this guy!" - "Sure you do, he's on TV all the time."

I got called over one evening to watch - hm. Kind of a weird old guy with glasses and a leather glove over a paralyzed hand. I never really understand what he is going on about.

The place was sold out - people stood outside, pleading for tickets. Our friend's daughter decided not to come, her ticket was gone in an instant long before the show. We seemed to be some of the younger ones there, I was afraid this would be a horrible ha-ha German laugh-a-thon.

No way. This guy is great. With a completely straight face he just recites at an impossible speed the daily insanities of life, couples with some observations that do demand closer investigation. He shoots off at the German health system and its Mafia-like structures; the degenerate school system; Politicians from top to bottom (Köhler over Merkel to Wazzisname Jung, the minister of defense); the German economy (or lack thereof).

Some of his characters speak a Frankfurt dialect (the real one not that "other" one in the East) that I found hard to understand, I really had to concentrate. Behind me sat two guys who had a good, lout guffaw after every joke, so you always missed the first few words of the next statement. Another guy tried pointing this out to them and a short fight erupted: When you go to a cabaret you laugh! Yes, but you are not at home, there are 500 others in the room with you.

The ringing mobile phones were horrible - why can't people discover it is their phone and get it off? They have such distinctive ring tones.

Schramm make fun of the people coming in late - digging in for a seat only to discover that the seats were already taken, then beating a retreat. Schramm picked this up, asked for empty seats, made sure they got real comfy before he continued - I bet that couple won't show up late to a theater again!

The last part got kind of strange - his talk of blowing up stuff, of killing some of the idiots in power was a bit out of taste. But his analysis of how Hanns Martin Schleyer was transformed through his assassination from nasty, mean, former member of the Nazi SS (he joined in 1933) president of the Confederation of German Employers' Associations into a martyr that they even have named a sports arena after, was brutal but honest.

Now, if this guy could organize the people on the streets and the Stammtische, he could easily overthrow the government, judging from the applause he got for every analysis.


Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

I was tired. Don't sleep much. Have over a hundred exercises to correct and two exams to make up. Spent all morning at a Berlin-wide church service. I don't have time for movies.

But the movie bunch insisted. I could still do my exams in the evening. And it was only 3 Euros at the little movie theater around the corner and I could leave any time I felt the violence was too bad.

Okay. So I went. Ah, flashbacks. Or a "multiperspective" film. A bit of sex at the beginning (I rather wanted to shield the eyes of the 17-year-old, as it was rather unappetizing). Then a bit of violence, but as it progresses, it is a sordid family drama. Melodramatic, no one has normal relations to their relatives. Anyway, it develops, racing toward a nasty end.

Don't want to go into detail - check out the IMDB. Philip Hoffman, the most horrible Truman Capote (he got an Oscar for that one), was very convincing. I know someone like that, and they even look similar. Brrrrr.

It was worth the 3 Euros, now I have to get the exam finished for tomorrow.


Well, that put me in my place!

I'm on a search committee at another school in town on account of there having to be women on the committee and externals and having an external woman kill two birds with one stone and I owed it to someone so - anyway.

The talks are this week, the first one today. The talk was your usual attempt to cram lots of material into 45 minutes plus a lot of look-at-me-Ma self-aggrandizing stuff. I've seen worse.

At the interview we were plodding along and I had rather ascertained that he did actually know more about the topic than he had indicated during the lecture, so things were looking up for him. Then the equal opportunity officer asked him about how he would make his teaching gender-sensitive.

He waffled around, finally stating that he would just kinda wait until there was an official policy and all that. The EOO gave him a frosty - we do actually have an official policy, I was interested in how you would apply this to your teaching. I did one of my pithy remarks to the tone of "Ok, right, let the women sort this out." He protested energetically, and we changed the subject.

We went through some more questions, and then we had to bridge some time as some copies were made of an exposé he brought along with him. I asked him to explain one of the stupid comments he had made during his lecture trying to be funny. There were lots of them, this one I found rather nasty.

He exploded. He had the impression that I was insinuating that he was not a sensitive person and he would just not stand for that, he feels that he must sharply refute this and insist that this is not the case!!!!!!! He rose a bit up from his chair (so he could holler down at me). He turned red in the face. I just shrugged and said "Sorry" and changed the subject.

Can you imagine losing your cool and hollering at someone on your interviewing committee? What is the expected outcome of that? I suppose he felt that he put me in my place. We'll see...


Kung Fu Panda and the Pirate Filmer

We hadn't been to see a silly children's film with the usual suspects for quite some time, so for Kung Fu Panda we rounded them up and headed for the local theater, which has recently remodeled. And they remodeled their fees, too, and are surprisingly now cheaper. They must be having trouble filling the theaters. Adults in the accompaniment of children attending the matinee can get in for children's prices - also the teenager who forgot to take his student ID card (grrrr) was able to get in for kid's prices. Okay, for 25 €, I'll watch Kung Fu Panda, although the party last night was wonderful and long and I think I had one whiskey too much.

The film is a Dreamworks one, they do lots of hairy figures, now that they have hair figured out. They need work on snakey-ness, that one didn't look right.

Let's see, the plot was the usual one: outcast bumbling main figure overcomes bad guy, saves the world/country/village and becomes a hero. Did I miss anything?

There were very few jokes for the adults to get, and lots of cartoon Kung Fu. The kids roared. Just loved it. Even the teeny thought it was not bad.

There was this strange sound two seats down during the film, some guy had his backpack on his lap during the whole thing. As the credits began I realized what the sound was - it was a video camera. And the guy was peering into his backpack that was lighting up his face. What cheek! And what do you do?

I whispered to the guy collecting trash behind me that it looked like he had a video camera, the trash guy went away briefly and then returned. They video guy had his kid with him, and waited for most people to go before he left. We stayed for the last shot, which was not worth the stay. The guy caught up with us at the ice cream stand outside, but did not say anything, and I didn't either.

Maybe I was mistaken and he was emailing on his Crackberry. But why would you do that inside your backpack, not out in the open? And if he was filming - why go to all the danger of getting caught for a crappy copy? In front of your kid? Or maybe they don't get caught, because there is no way to stop them and search them.

Anyway - don't bother for this film. It kind of looks like they had to do something nice for all those rich Chinese out there now wanting to have movies made for them, as Spiegel pointed out.


My Second Book

Oooh, my second book was published this week! The first one was relatively easy - the papers were collected before the conference and had to be put together and published in time for the conference. It was a lot of work, but we had a real publisher, and it worked, even if it cost a lot.

Last year I helped organize a conference that used a wiki to collect material before and during the conference. I offered to make the stuff into a book (<- so it is my own fault for volunteering). It was painful, getting people to get their stuff in shape to publish. Luckily, I was given a free student worker and she even had experience in making a book!

We finally got it done, when another person from the conference said: oh, wait, I have more material! And so we waited, and then reformatted the thing.

They we started to publish with a books on demand publisher. They did not understand the concept of a Creative Commons book. We fought for the longest time. Then we went back and forth over the cover - what was the right size? Fonts? Colors? Yuck.

Anyway, it is out and available for only 8,60€. There is actually some good stuff in there. So if you know my name, ask Amazon - they have it listed, too.

Now, on to the third book, in progress - a real one, written by me and some colleagues. And no less painful.


That Gleam of Understanding

I'm teaching Programming 1 this semester, which is always a hard job. Those who have done "programming" in school parrot their teacher's misunderstandings of the mechanics; those who taught themselves made up mostly wrong explanations for things; those who never programmed before think I am speaking Martian.

We slog through exercise after exercise, with a lot of people just repeating cool stuff they found on the Internet with more or less success. But the current exercise (actually only about 5 lines of code, but trick is knowing which 5 lines of code) is such a great one. They have to stick 4 classes together to make a system.

One woman yesterday who had had some prior programming experience began asking questions in the lab that showed me that she was on the right track. And suddenly there is the bright gleam on her face, followed by a wrinkled brow - do you mean that I just have to do X? Yes. (smack to the forehead) "Here I've spent hours trying to understand this, and it is that easy?" Yes.

She can't follow the lecture (we are in the lab for lectures too on account of there being an air conditioner there and the lab is free, they would rather sit on the floor than sweat) - I see her madly typing. And then a wide smile of satisfaction - it works! She proudly shows me her work during the break.

These are the moments we live for as teachers. No evaluation form can capture this moment. I have created an environment that helped this woman finally understand the basics. It will still be a lot of work, but she took a giant step today, hooray!