An Untimely Death

I was just stopping by the office to pick something up when one of the secretaries approached me. She had just had a call that had shaken her up. Our young colleague, Prof. Q., was found dead this morning.

I thought I had not heard right - Q just turned 40, was quite the shooting star. He was a prolific researcher, a crack in his field, loved by the students. He was active as a member of the faculty board, even if he was the quiet type. He didn't run around making politics, but quietly made very good suggestions after studying all sides of the matter. He was athletic, jogged a lot, was going to run the marathon last Sunday. How could he be dead?

We don't know what happened. All we know is that he died sometime between Friday and today, he lived alone. He had not taught his class Monday night, which was unusual for him, but we didn't hear about that until this morning.

The day took a sudden, lurching turn. There were all sorts of things to be organized and people to be informed. People were shocked and sad - how do we react to this, how can we give people a chance to mourn at work?

We decided to have a candle and a flower at his chair at the next faculty board, and of course will have a notice in the paper. We had to quickly organize teachers - the semester started yesterday. Where to find new teachers for 4 courses at the drop of a hat? Everyone pulled together and amazingly, it looks like we have people willing to jump in and take over his classes.

We will still have to deal with things like his email and web page. We can put a death notice on the web page, but what do you do with the email? Send out a bounce "Sorry, I won't be able to answer because I'm dead."? Will someone have to answer his emails? What about his thesis students?

His death reminds us all that our life on earth is finite. The end can come at any time. The Bible reminds us of this:

"Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away" [James 4:14].
We need to learn to quit worrying about tomorrow - that may never come. We need to deal with today and enjoy the blessings of each day, even the smallest things.


Babylon - Myth and Truth

One of my Doppelkopf friends sent around an email the other day: "Have any of you made it to the Babylon exhibition? Didn't think so! [Geez, she didn't wait for an answer, but she is, of course, dead right.] So let's go together. I've set up a doodle with the times I can go. I'll order tickets for whenever the most of us can go."

Well, we actually managed to find a time when five of us could meet, so we were in the museum last night. They sell entrance tickets in advance by time so you don't have to wait in line.

We donned our little speaker guides (that were actually quite well done) and set off through the "Truth" part. This was the history of Babylon - what they have excavated and decoded. Man, they had cuneiform writing on everything! I quipped to one of our group that they must have invented graffiti.

The Ishtar Gate reconstruction, which is part of the permanent exhibition at the Pergamon museum, is really quite magnificent. And there were all sorts of exhibits about the deities, the Gilgamesh, the Code of Hammurabi, and a nice collection of science books. They had astronomical charts, used the Pythagorean theorem (pre-Pythagorus), etc. etc.

We were already full of impressions, but there was still the Myth section to go.

The sign said: not suitable for children under 18. This will be interesting. It was a collection of modern exhibits, Old Master's paintings of Babylonian motives, video installations, audio installations - wow. I really need to go back and spend a day here, but it is only open until October 5.

Having been raised a Christian, many of the terms were indeed familiar to me: the stories of Daniel, of Nebuchadnezzar, of the writing on the wall, of Psalm 137, of the Antichrist, of the Whore of Babylon, of the Tower of Babel.

And I am aware of many fundemental Christians in the US seeing Iraq as a modern-day Babylon, with Saddam Hussein the king to be crushed. ("The Bible told us to march into Iraq. Unfortunately, it doesn't say anything about leaving again..."). One of the exhibitions pieces that apparently many find distasteful consists of 20 front pages from the sensationalist press about the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein. Each has semen spritzed on it which has had glitter spread over it. I found it very fitting to the mood in the US after the capture of Saddam Hussein - in a hole in the ground, as an animal.

There was an audio exhibition that released sounds when people moved in the room, and a large room filled with renditions of the Tower of Babel. Best of all was a piece from 1968/1974 by Timm Ulrichs entitled "Übersetzung/Translation/Traduction". It is a sort of telephone game, in which the definition of the word "Translation" in German is given to a translator, and that translator to the next one - and so on through 26 languages. Greek, Turk, Chinese, Arabic - all sorts of difficult languages are included, and the last step is back to German. The text is still more or less the same, but quite different. (The first and last pages are available online.)

I've spoken with a number of friends who all thought the "Myth" part of the exhibition to be really bad. I wonder if it because these are religious motives that have no meaning for people today?

Anyway, I liked the exhibition and wish I had time to go back and spend more time with some of the exhibits.


Knut again

The Berliners are moved by the sudden death of Knut's foster father, Thomas Dörflein. (Of course there is a Wikipedia entry on him, with pictures even!). Knut - a polar bear born in the Berlin Zoo - was born in late 2006, and since his mother abandonded him, one of the bearkeepers decided to raise him.

Germany ignited with a love for Knut, streamed to the zoo to see him and buy all the merchandise that was springing up. But that's another story.

There was a movie made, and people quite liked the quiet man who raised Knut. He was found dead at his home of a heart attack at age 44, and the Berliners are in sorrow. They bring flowers, forced the zoo to set up a condolece book, and stream to the zoo to see how the bear is taking it. Of course, no one speaks bear, so they have to try and interpret his expressions.

It is sad that Dörflein has passed away, but many people are sorrowing as if an old friend has passed away. I suppose this is a result of the media blitz that surronded Knut. I suppose it keeps our minds off that spot of money trouble in the States...



The youngest princess is having a birthday soon, so Aunt WiseWoman set out to get a present. Praise be mail-order - I can sit in Europe and order mail-order from America.

I asked the Princess Father what kinds of things she is interested in. Thomas the Train (nope, gave that last year); princess dresses (no); painting (weeeell, maybe); and Webkinz. Webkinz?

"Webkinz pets are lovable plush pets that each come with a unique Secret Code. With it, you enter Webkinz World where you care for your virtual pet, answer trivia, earn KinzCash, and play the best kids games on the net!"
You "adopt" your pet online. No. I don't like using the term adoption in referring to stuffed animals. And this gets the kids hooked up early to web pages with secret codes and lots of promotions for them to buy more and more and more toys. And you can buy books explaining how to use the web site. Can sheets and towels with Webkinz on them be far behind?


Found some nice Color-your-own-modern-art coloring books. And a book on painting rocks.


One goal is enough!

Puh, what a day of excitement!

First my handball team's game in the morning. Since we lost all games last year, sometimes by very bad margins, we swore that we would try to achieve 2 goals: no opponent gets more than 40 points, and we get at least 10. We didn't quite make it today, we made 9 goals. But the other team - a new one - only got 8, so WE WON! How wonderful! We were all in such bad shape, I even got to play for 15 minutes because everyone else was pooped.

Just home for some lunch, then off the Foxes game. One of the two upcoming teams was in town, Dormagen, and these young whippersnappers had already *tied* THW Kiel (the grand reigning emperor of handball) and *won* against Hamburg (the Crown Prince).

They sure gave the Foxes a run for their money. There was never more than 3 goals between the teams, it went back and forth, the last 15 minutes either tied or one team one goal up. They also won by one goal (although they had some really, really bad plays). I was exhausted after all the shouting - and then I still had church and Wikipedia (both with rather long distances to walk). I hope I can still move tomorrow!


Turned on to Linux

I think I've mentioned before that I think that kids are bored these days. Just had an interesting experience with the leader of WiseKids gang/clique/peer group.

WiseKid tends to disparage my computer knowledge - What do you know about computers? But when LeaderOfTheGang found out that I teach computing, he wanted to know if he could bring his broken computer over. I don't really like fixing broken Windoof boxes, but I said yes.

We finally gave up on Windoof (and no, I wouldn't give him the licensed CD I have in the closed) and I gave him Knoppix (a free Unix version) to install. Wow - was he ever impressed with all the stuff available on the default install.

Instead of hanging out at the playground they are playing around with Knoppix. And apparently having a ball. Let's hope it lasts!


Back online!

I still didn't have Internet when I came home Tuesday, so I called Hotline-Hell to see what was up. I spent over an hour there, and was transferred here and there.

One person told me that my line had been open from last week. Of course, no one told me, and I tried at least once a day. The last lady noted that I was sending the wrong password (?!). My router changed the password itself? I got out my faded password sheet and typed it in. Three times. And then it worked. I don't mistype that badly, and anyway, the *router* should not change the password by itself, should it?

Someone along the way said that they are not charging me for resetting the line. That would at least pay for some of the hotline charges. I wouldn't mind paying for the time I'm actually speaking to someone, but 24 cents a minute for 8 minutes of muzak really, really irritates me.

Ah well. Back online, although I do miss the speed my neighbor's had... I am creeping along here, and my account (I really do only have one contract, my account says) is listed as "6000 kbit pending".

I really don't like the 2-year contracts, they make it so difficult to switch providers (which is, of course, the point). Okay, ton of work to do!


Still no Internet

The saga continues.... where did I leave off?

Before I left for the conference I sent 1&1 a letter telling they had better have my Internet restored by (last) Thursday, or I would do dire things. They responded with - "Gee, guess what, your Interent will be back next Tuesday." Sigh. So I decided to wait, I was away at a conference, anyway.

Thursday I got an E-Mail "Welcome as a new customer for 1&1 complete!". This is what I tried to order after the Telekom cut off my telephone, but which the support people said was killed by my DSL being turned off. It was gone, they said, numerous times. I checked again just the other day: yes, your contract is without telephone and ends on March 31, 2009.

Now I have a new "complete" package. Wanna bet that from Tuesday I have *two* contracts running with 1&1?

Anyway, the neighbors are on holiday, so I'm watering plants in exchange for sucking their flat rate. Yeah. Except I want my TV and fridge over here, too.


I decided to attend the Vielmehr conference in Lübeck this year instead of the GMW. The main reason is the co-location of a number of different conferences, an e-learning conference, a human-computer interface conference, a usability interface and a cognitive design conference. Over 500 people are milling around the University of Lübeck, attending the lecture.

The main result up front: No one used the word "learning object" in my hearing during the entire conference! There are new buzz-words, however. These are the talks I attended:

  • Rolf Schulmeister spoke about the Myth of the Net Generation (in German). He listed many studies and statistics that show that there actually is not such a thing as the "Net Generation", no matter how often the media try and tell us that they are there. There is actually quite a number of subgroups that are very diverse. And most youth watch TV and listen to music, sometimes using a computer to do so, instead of participating the Web 2.0. When they do participate, they are interested in the communities, i.e. communicationg with their peers.
  • Martin Gieseking (University of Osnabrück) demonstrated an interesteing system, media2mult, that offers a wiki-based authoring system for cross-media (web and print) publishing. It sounds like just what I need for my current book project, so I will be trying it.
  • Angela Carell and Isabel Schaller from the University of Bochum used a mix of Netvibes, WordPress, Google Docs and Bibsonomy for sorting out learning processes. Bibsonomy is a tagged literature database that I will be looking at more closely. They report that the students didn't use Google Docs, but didn't investigate the reasons.
  • Sarah Voß from the University of Frankfurt reported on a class she conducted in Second Life. But she did not evaluate anything or measure anything, but the students were happy although there were a lot of technical problems. Why, she doesn't know. And it was so difficult to record what people did, so she is now working on connecting up a wiki and SL. Why she just doesn't dump SL is a mystery, she got a lot of flak in the discussion about her paper, which was more of a "My nicest memories from work" essay.
  • M. Dahm, FH Düsseldorf discussed the problems that occur when usability and security meet - they seem to be mutually exclusive.
  • Roland Hartwig, User Interface Design, preached to the converted, talking about in-house usability testing and doing some advertising for his company. He also demonstrated that self-moderation doesn't work.
  • N. Oberg from the company phaydon had some nice slides with a lot of things we already know before she started talking about using ethnographic methods for doing usability testing. These were interesting, but she breezed through overloaded slides. She didn't manage to have a paper for the conference proceedings, but one can send her an email. Or maybe you can find it on the company homepage.
  • Harald Amelung discussed his Master's Thesis from the FH Erfurt in which he looked at usability methods for mobile devices. Many techniques of traditional usability evaluation are not usable or adaptable to the mobile applications. There is a nice picture of the context of mobile use to be found in Savio and Braiterman.
  • Then a group of computer students presented their semester work (this seems to be a trend at this conference, completely unreflected work without empirical evidence is presented, mostly in the form of: gee, look at me, I can program a web site / PDA application / server. There are horrible slides and mumbled technical explanations. When questioned on how on earth this can work, they have no answers. In this case they developed, among other things, a chat application that children are to use on a PDA via WLAN outdoors. That there is no cheap, readily-available WLAN outdoors was just a technical problem. Sigh.
  • Ekatrina Kurdyukova wins my personal prize for research dedication for her Evaluation and Design of Auditory Feedback for a Mobile Outdoor Training Assistant. She was evaluating whether voice or signal was better for a jogging training assistant. She had her 20 test subjects think aloud while using the systems, and she jogged along, taking notes.
  • Gilbert Cockton gave the invited lecture on Tuesday, and decided to use a military metaphor of usability for his presentation. He began equating usability to shooting: Load, aim, fire. One "wins", when the target is hit. That hitting targets with guns or cannon involves killing people seemed to have escaped him, he joked on, and then introduced a bunch of diagrams and forms that have a column for recording "emotions". I wonder how he defines emotion. I went up to him in the coffee break and told him about my displeasure with his analogy, he defended himself with the origins of usability being in the military. Well, gosh, the entire computer industry is rooted in industry, but that doesn't mean that we can't be using it for peaceful purposes. Thinking about one's metaphors might be helpful. At least he was the only one to footnote his decorative pictures, a habit I have gotten into lately myself.
  • Jürgen Steimle demonstrated a paper-centric interaction concept for collaborative learning, that is, writing using the Amoto method after doing ethnographic studies (these seem moern at the moment).
  • Another student project was presented (at least nicely presented) by a student from Linz. The group set up a MirrorBoard that takes pictures of passersby and integrates them into the picture, i.e. a vacation goal or a piece of clothing. Violent objections from the audience were put off by the session chair, who was the advisor of the student group. Eventually, one guy read off the data privacy law paragraph for German, which quite clearly states that this is not permitted.
  • Anja Hashagen from the University of Bremen spoke of a nice application, "Der Schwarm" (the swarm), that is projected onto the floor and which interacts with people (here kids in the 3rd and 4th grade) to show them how a swarm of things reacts. However, they chose beetles, which as far as I know don't actually swarm. But it was a fun-looking application.
  • The last three talks I attended was on the topics of data privacy in E-Learning. One young whippersnapper ripped into an old version of Moodle, explaining how bad it is. Well, it is open source, propose a fix! Actually, the HU Berlin has fixed it, although the young man had a slide stating that it was unfixable. A nice lawyer explained data privacy for universities and E-Learning in very understandable terms. I used one of the statements he used at a meeting on Wednesday and appeared to be very wise. The third one was a woman going on and on and on an on about some system made with an enormous amount of taxpayer money that is not actually in use yet, but they are publishing papers on it by the minute.
Then there was a business meeting, and I could go home. Had a lovely trip with a former thesis student who is now working in industry and was attending the conference.

Meeting folks was fun and useful, but the quality of many of the talks was lacking, one wondered what the program committee was actually thinking when they accepted these papers.


No Internet

Sorry for the silence, but I have been without Internet at home for over a week. The Deutsche Telekom screwed up royally.

Instead of adding a service to my account, they terminated it and made a new one. The droid probably got points for getting a new account. This caused my Internet provider, 1&1, to drop me. Of course, I still have to pay the monthly fee... Telekom needed 3 days (when I didn't have phone service) to fix telephone again, then 1&1 wanted 14 days (!) and 50 Euros to restore Internet service. Telekom will at least refund me the 50 Euros, if not the cost for time and fees for waiting for the 1&1 hotline. The hotline of 1&1 is so irritating, I am seriously considering *not* switching to them.

Anyway, just to make matters worse, WiseKid wanted to help and signed a contract with Vodafone for DSL. Seems they let you sign a form that moves the service without checking ID. There's a box that says: If I am not the owner of this line, the owner knows and is happy about me organizing the switch. They promised WiseKid a good chance at a free mobile phone, which he thinks he needs, so he signed.

When he didn't win, at least he confessed and I dashed off a nasty letter to Vodafone telling them that they cannot do business with minors. Luckily for us, their droids are too stupid to read long telephone numbers, they got a switcheroo on two digits, so unfortunately, Vodafone can't switch us. Lucky us, and good thing that phone number is not assigned, or someone else would be without telephone and Internet....

The current situation is that the Telekom says no one has applied for our DSL line, and 1&1 says that the Telekom hasn't processed our order....

Carrier pigeon anyone?