A Decade Later

10 years ago I was very relieved. I had been very worried about the Y2K problem, the year 2000 problem. So many programs were using two digits to store the year and were counting on next year being larger than year. But with the year 2000 - a leap year to boot - suddenly 00 < 99, and thing would be going awry.

For myself and my family, I risk-proofed our cabin in the woods. I had a more effective wood-burning fireplace installed that could be cooked on in an emergency. I stocked up on canned goods, flour, powdered milk, and candles. I made sure we had hand-driven can-openers and egg-beaters and what not. And during a test of effectiveness that was sprung on me in September 1999 when the electricity was out for hours, I had a camping stove and some sterno cans on hand. The first thing you need when the electricity is out is a hot cup of tea. Whiskey or rum is not a bad idea, either.

I was glued to the TV set as the new year began on some Pacific islands. Okay, they made it, but they didn't have many computer-driven systems. But when New Zealand and Australia made it, I began to relax. Puh. I didn't trust computer scientists to think about a special case like this, but the necessary services had finally understood the problem and worked like crazy to make sure that their systems were 2000 compliant.

Just the same, as is the custom in Sweden, I jumped at the twelfth gong, jumping into the new year. If the earth is falling, I want to be planning on being in the air.

We enjoyed our champagne, WiseKid shot off some rockets (causing a neighbor about 500 m away to get all angry because that scared her dogs), and we celebrated. Sure, lots of systems had problems, but we had electricity.

I've been very glad of the preparedness over the past decade. Electricity is carried in overland lines, which have a nasty habit of catching falling trees in storms. I have had numerous occasions to cook tea and soup on the fireplace plate. And it really does a great job getting the most out of every piece of wood we feed it. We spent years eating up the canned goods. Pretty much the only thing I never used was the camping stove.

But whatever - be prepared is the motto.

Have a good New Year's Eve, and all the best for us all in the coming decade!

Good ideas from Germany?

(From a German brochure on the electronic identity cards now being introduced)

I don't know. I'll give them Gutenberg. And I guess Nipkow got the first patent on something that looks like a TV, although that was in 1884. Or do they mean the first regular broadcasts? That may have been Germany, the Nazis were keen on broadcasting the Olympics 1936.

The computer - and most certainly the PC - was not invented by Konrad Zuse, no matter what Germans want to believe. The ABC computer was first. They won the patent fight.

Didn't the Japanese do the Fax? Okay, Germans again with a patent for smart cards, but the French were the first to use them widely.

As to whether the adjective "good" can be used in conjunction with the electronic identity card, the votes are still out on that.

Wikipedia - Deleted because of Irrelevance

The debate within the German Wikipedia on the question of relevance was taken to a new level at a podium discussion at the 26C3 conference, as reported here in German by heise. I listened to most of the discussion via live feed, as I was not in Berlin.

The fight is on between the "exclusionists", who want to make a high-quality, exclusive encyclopedia, and the "inclusionists", who want to include everything, as one does not know in advance what is relevant to someone.

As a member of the exclusionists, Kurt Jansson, former chair of the German group that promotes open information and now at the German newsweekly Spiegel, used an example to demonstrate why he wants high quality. The German president was giving a speech on the occasion of the German woman's soccer team winning another World Cup. His speechwriter apparently was using only the Wikipedia as a source, as the president spoke of the first team winning receiving a set of coffee china and an ironing board each. In reality, they only got the china, the ironing board was a joke put there by some troll. Jansson feels that we have a duty to provide correct information in the WP.

I call this bullshit. Expletive not deleted. Journalists must learn to do research, and not just parrot what they are fed. They need multiple sources for statements of fact. I mean, come on, surely someone out at the German Soccer Association could confirm or refute the ironing boards. People must learn how to use Internet media - and the first rule is to have a second source on everything, then to see what the quality of these sources is.

Sure, it would be sooooo nice to have everything be right at your fingertips and to be correct. But what, indeed, is the meaning of "correct"? That is one of the things we fight about a lot at the Wikipedia. I say that everyone needs to take the WP with a grain of salt. It's a great place to go for a first idea about a topic. But every fact needs collaboration if you are going to use it somewhere else. The links given will be a really, really great first step.

Mathias Schindler spoke for the inclusionists. He gave a really wonderful example: waaaaay back when, he started (he really did, I checked!) an article on a US local politician who was running for the Senate. He wasn't elected yet, but was showing some promice. Schindler did some research and started the article on Barack Obama. Schindler writes on the comment line: "This is a basic stub. Does anyone want to continue?" Indeed.

Using the current "relevance" criteria at the time the article was written, it would have been deleted. Sure, once the guy got to be better known (at the latest when he became president!) someone would have written an article on him. But hey, this was a start and there was some basic information about him in there.

And come on - it's not like as if we are strapped for space.

Martin Haase, the wise forty-something who has his own Wikipedia entry on account of being a professor of linguistics, points out that deleting articles that already have links from elsewhere pointing to them is a deadly sin and takes away information from the knowledge basis. He points to the Open Knowledge Foundation, an organization that is trying to get as much information as possible into the public domain.

He also notes that deleting articles kills the purpose of interwiki links, which are great helps in translations. As an example he uses the cocktail Tschunk, a cocktail popular with hackers that mixes rum, sugar, lime and Club Mate, a high-coffein drink based on mate tea. It is an acquired taste. There is a nice article in the English-language Wikipedia, but the German-language one was deleted and a sentence or so about it worked into the article on Club Mate. The problem is, if you want to know what Tschunk is, you end up on a completely different page and have to read through the entire article to find the bit about Tschunk, instead of quickly finding a short page giving the details.

Really, guys, the German idea of checked changes helps a lot. If people just keep an eye on new articles and quit making heros out of people who propose deletions, we'd be a lot better off. I liked the idea proposed from the floor: have Wikipedia money. Writing articles or editing articles gets you Wiki-Dollars. Proposing a deletion costs 5 Wiki-Dollars. There you go, let the market settle this! And have people buy Wiki-Dollars just like Linden-Dollars, and we even have money flowing in!


Book Review: Pragmatic Thinking and Learning

Andy Hunt, Pragmatic Thinking & Learning - Refactor Your Wetware. The Pragmatic Bookshelf: Raleigh, NC. 2008

Wow - a funny self-help book for programmers that is properly footnoted and a good read! And it makes a lot of sense, too.

Hunt begins with a discussion of the stages of knowledge in the Dreyfus model: beginner, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. These different stages are important, because people at different levels learn differently and need different tools to be effective.

In particular, experts are not always good teachers, because they don't always know how or why they make specific decisions - they just do, and they are right. Beginners and advanced beginners have not learned how to see yet - they take in all the possible options and are confused. They long for a rule book: if the situation is thus and such, do this. And they need quick successes.

Experts, however, can react to unforseen situations. This is why the so-called expert systems aren't really experts. They lay down rules for everything, but as soon as the rules are defined for one level, you have to do the next level down, sort of an infinite regression. And the rules do not make good use of context, which is vital for experts.

Hunt goes on to discuss research about the L-mode and the R-mode of your brain, linear and rich mode. Yes, these are approximately the left and the right side of your brain. The L-mode does the logical reasoning and R-mode takes in the whole picture. L-modes focuses on what to do next, R-mode sees relationships, but unfortunately is not really verbal.

The key is getting these two parts of your brain put together. Many agile methods are quite good at appealing to both parts of the brain, that's why they work so well - but not for beginners! I think this is very important for teachers to understand, that we have to teach beginners differently from those who have some competence in programming already.

Hunt has a wealth of suggestions for how to use your "wetware" effectively. Some are kind of bizarre, but maybe worth a try. I went out and got a little moleskin notebook for jotting down random thoughts. It's worth a try, and I've always wanted a reason to have one of those things anyway.

A great book that needs to be read by at least all who teach computing.


But this is me, really!

I had an errand to do at my Swedish bank today. I always dread these, because there is usually some problem involved with my lack of a proper Swedish personnr, personal identification number. Swedish programmers use it as a primary key for everything, so those who don't have them (like tourists) run into lots of problems.

We have had a bank account here in Sweden for the past 13 years. One has to pay one's bills somehow! This bank was nice enough to open an account for us years ago when we were standing there with our pockets full of cash that we had brought for the down payment on our house and we wanted to put it into a bank account. Without a personnr two banks refused us before we were able to bank it, but that is a long, old, other story.

Our bank uses Internet banking, so I can pay bills online using a PIN generator. The PIN generator is a piece of security theater - it always generates the same number for the challenge number put in. The login numbers are always chosen from a small group of numbers, and once you are in and have set up some bank transfers, the number for the signing the transfers is just the sum of the amounts in SEK. If I pay a bill for 250 SEK I always have to use 0002 5000 as the challenge. Duh. It would be trivial to set up a trojan to always fill up amount to transfer to a specific sum for which I already know the code.

The little box that generates the PIN was getting old - cover cracked, keys don't respond, display fading. I wanted a new one. Should be simple, shouldn't it?

No. We are in Sweden. They have to make sure that it is me. The young man at the desk gets his boss. She knows me. She's had to deal with every bank problem I have had in the past few years. We move off to another counter.

- May I have your ID?

Sure. I hand over my German identity card. She frowns as she scans it. Look, lady, you've done this before. We don't have a personnr in Germany in general use. Yet.

- If you need my personnr, here it is.

I scribble it on a scrap of paper. She lights up, types it in, frowns. Hmm. It is not in the database. Of course not. The Swedish government only has active personnr in their database. I am marked as having moved to a foreign country, so I am inactive.

- I need more identification, she says.

Let's see. I have my credit card, issued from this institution. I have the old PIN generator that has a number on it. I have the bank book that I got when we opened the account. It is in my husband's name, because at that time he was the only German citizen, I was an American.

It dawns on me. I was an American when I got the PIN generator. Now I am German. So I am not longer the me they have in their database. Identity is quite a hard problem, it seems, not just for teenagers!

She gets out paper forms. We make photocopies of my ID card. No fingerprints, though. She frowns at her computer screen again. I make small talk, about me being a professor from Germany and all. She asks in what field. I say computer science. She jokingly offers for me to come around and help her make this thing behave. I would love to!

She finally finds another form, prints it out, I sign that I am me (!), and we carry on. She first "destroys" the old one by pressing in the magic code "88888888". I wonder what would happen if I purchased something for 888 888,88 SEK? That would have invalidated my generator.

The new PIN generator is a one-time pad generator. It has to be initialized with the bank page when I log in. There is a button that has three different functions. There is an instruction booklet to accompany it.

I just tried it - it actually works, although it is not intuitive. It writes "APPLI" at you. That means "application". And you choose 1 to log in with the one-time code, 2 if you need an answer code. I wonder what 3, 4 and 5 do .... The instruction booklet is very good about telling you to choose a good PIN. 1234, 4321, and 7777 are bad. And your last 4 digits to your personnr are also not a good idea. I wonder how many Swedes do that? I would guess more than 10% use these 4 digits as their PINs. But this is just conjecture, no way to know unless one asks them.


The Girl who Played with Fire: The Movie

I saw "Men who hate Women" on DVD. I have now seen "The Girl who Played with Fire"on DVD (Swedish: Flickan som lekte med eld). If it would have been on TV I would have changed the channel, as I found it quite boring. Okay, so I read the book, which craftily weaves all sorts of subplots into a tapestry of suspense. And you really can't get the 1000 pages of the book into about 2 hours. But I mean, come on, they changed all sorts of things, like Blomkvist taking a car to Gothenburg instead of a train. Characters like Erika are just shadows, Stockholm is just a nice backdrop, and the police are just police. None of the fighting amongst the police that went on in the book.

Maybe reading the book first spoiled it, but the book was sooo great. If you haven't read it: start. I gave book one to two people for Christmas this year ;)

The Girl who Played with Fire: The Movie

I saw "Men who hate Women" on DVD. I have now seen "The Girl who Played with Fire"on DVD (Swedish: Flickan som lekte med eld). If it would have been on TV I would have changed the channel, as I found it quite boring. Okay, so I read the book, which craftily weaves all sorts of subplots into a tapestry of suspense. And you really can't get the 1000 pages of the book into about 2 hours. But I mean, come on, they changed all sorts of things, like Blomkvist taking a car to Gothenburg instead of a train. Characters like Erika are just shadows, Stockholm is just a nice backdrop, and the police are just police. None of the fighting amongst the police that went on in the book.

Maybe reading the book first spoiled it, but the book was sooo great. If you haven't read it: start. I gave book one to two people for Christmas this year ;)


In a word - no

Just got a Christmas email (spelling intact) from a prospective student who had wanted to meet me yesterday in my office hours. I had explained that I did not have office hours on Christmas Eve, as the building would be locked.

Dear WiseWomanFirstName,
I can also meet you any where. I can come to your house if you dont mind. Besides my study maybe in your university or not, we can be good friends.

please can you give me your handy number.

God Bless,
In a word: No. 


Avatar - 3D edition

The past two weeks have been hellish. I've just barely had time to eat and sleep a few hours, I'm shocked that Christmas is next week and the end of the fiscal year is looming.

I dragged home Friday night to find a note from WiseMan - I'm off to see Avatar (Wikipedia entry) with the UsualSuspects. Just then the doorbell rang, and WiseKid was there with CurrentGirlfriend. I asked if they wanted to go to the movies, they said "Sure!", so we wolfed down a slice of bread and high-tailed it to the theater. They always show half an hour of advertising at the start anyway so that you get all your popcorn eaten before the show starts.

We got tickets (expensive, you have to purchase 3D glasses) and found the UsualSuspects, and settled it.

It is wonderful.

Really. I didn't notice that an hour and a half had passed when they cruelly interrupted us during the wonderful love scene to have a break (meaning we could get more beer and popcorn). It went on for another hour, and I was truly enchanted.

Sure, it's a rip-off of a gazillion other films. There are traces of Lord of the Rings, Terminator, Alien, Mulan, Lion King, and who knows what else in there. Who cares. This strange world with bizarre (but logical) physics, fantastical creatures and pointy-eared humanoids (Star Trek?) was fascinating to get to know. The women were also warriors, and the religious elements were nicely woven into the story, contrapointed by the Marine's disdain for this all. The Marines seemed to have had their biceps Photoshopped, but it was very fitting.

I wasn't sure for a while how it was going to end, as I couldn't find a way to twist out of the avatar world, but something corny was indeed found.

I don't know why Grace had to smoke, but I do want one of those transparent mobile boards that you can just grab data off another screen and put on your mobile one for Christmas. Okay, I'll wait until next year if I have to. And if we can figure out how they produced all the electricity needed for all of their toys, we really, really need to start using it now (unless it is plutonium or some such).

The 3D stuff was interesting, polaroid filters are much superior to red/green. I jumped in shock quite a number of times as stuff flew out of the screen at me. This seems to finally be a new way to get people back into the theater - can't easily recreate this sensation at home (yet). And it really thwarts the secret filmers, as you need two projections for this to work, but they are only filming the composite picture.

The motion capture used to produce the film seems fascinating, according to the description on the Wikipedia. We just opened our own motions capture studio a year or so ago, wonder where we can get funding to have one of these toys.

The Na'vi language was designed by a linguist, Paul Frommer. There is already quite a body of information available on it online - from the hyperlinguistic treatment on the Wikipedia to a guest column by Frommer on a blog. I wonder how long it will be before there is a doctoral thesis comparing Na'vi, Klingon, and Elvish.

Update: Avatar won two Golden Globes!


Visit to the Job Center

Seeing as how WiseKid turns 18 next month and still is not gainfully employed, and has not made any motions of applying for a job, I marched him down to the "Job Center" today. That is what they now call the unemployment office.

A large building, with crowd-control waiting line ropes - space for a couple of hundred people waiting for a number. We are lucky, only about a dozen people in front of us. The atmosphere is charged - angry people, exasperated clerks. There are 13 clerks handling check in. We approach our clerk, I smile, greet her, and explain that I want him to apply for unemployment.

"Are you yourself a customer of ours?"

Tick.Tick.Tick. Right, they call the supplicants "customers" now. Newspeak right and left! We get a little note saying where we are to go, and are permitted to take a number. When our turn is called, we explain to the woman what we want. "Oh, no," she says, "you are in the Wrong Office."

This is a game that German officials love to play. They publish ornate web pages and print up brochures at taxpayer's expense that you study in order to determine a) where to go and b) what to take with you. Experienced people just take a shopping bag with all the documentation you have ever officially received. Because the first attempt to ward you off will be "You are in the Wrong Office." The second one is: "Do you have documentation on X?" X being something they think you don't have with you, like your vaccination records or your rental agreement.

I ask if the purpose of a job center is not actually to help people find jobs. She looks at me incredulously. People here only want money, I suppose, not jobs. She writes down the address for us and shoos us away. Good job I've got the car, it would be a long walk.

Outside WiseKid breaks out in giggles. "That was soooo funny," he bubbles. "They were so nice and polite to you. When I go with friends, they are really nasty to me."

The next place is actually quite nice-looking. Blue walls, a water fountain bubbling. We get in here quickly, too, this is starting to look too easy. We get a waiting number, and are soon shown into an office where three cases are being discussed at a high volume level at the same time.

I present our case. "Oh no," she says. "He can't apply for unemployment. You have to support him until he is 26." WTF? I paid a lawyer who told me that he could, under special circumstances. I ask her to please quote me chapter and verse on this.

She gets flustered, asks her colleague. He starts rifling through a booklet, desperately looking for the right paragraph. She finally decides to let us have the forms, cautioning that we will just get a "No" if we submit them. Fine. That's all I want. She types some stuff into her computer and it spits out a centimeter's worth of paper. The forms are written in Amtsdeutsch, a special kind of German that is supposed to be precise but is in general just not understandable.

We go outside to wait. And wait. And wait. WiseKid would have left by now. He goes for a smoke, comes back, we wait. I read the booklet. Aha, here it is: special circumstances.

After quite some time we get to speak with a very competent lady who makes very good suggestions. I do hope this works out, as I think she will be good for him.

At home we start to attack the pile of paper. It is worse than a tax form. You need to put in all the numbers you have ever had in your life. And dates. And make photocopys. And put in numbers. And sign all over the place.

It's about a third of the way done, his next appointment is on Thursday. Now I understand why most of the shops on the way to the Job Center were all either lawyer's offices or form-filler-outers. The rest had bread and booze.


Swiss Minarets

The Swiss people had themselves another referendum recently. They are very proud of their direct democracy and go to the polls pretty regularly in order to vote on this issue or that. The parliament is bound by these votes.

This past issue was brought by an anti-foreigner political party and was geared at forbidding the building of minarets in Switzerland. There was no apparent current issue that provoked it, it was just a fundamental vote to see where people stand.

Well, 60% were for the measure, which caught liberal Swiss by surprise. All of the polls had indicated that the measure would be voted down. But apparently, when asked, the Swiss public was too chicken to tell the truth, but at the polls, alone with the ballot, they voted with their hearts.

Oops. Now what do they do? I spoke with a number of people during my short visit to Switzerland, they were quite ashamed for how their own country was acting. And they are at loss as what to do. They can't really get rid of their plebiscites. They can't easily get this one declared illegal.

Pupils in schools have been building minarets, some of them even lasting a few hours on the roofs of their schools. I think the easiest way would be to just build towers, put a clock in them, and declare them to be clock towers, not minarets. There are clock towers all over Switzerland, and no one would dare try and forbid them.

Security by .... Fruit Box

I went down to the hotel lobby to use the free computer to read the news last night. Underneath the desk was a green fruit box.

Curious person that I am, I lifted the box. What a surprise! Here was the router with free connections, and the IP number of the router helpfully taped to the front of the box.


The Bridge May Be Closing

We have a little transponder called the BroBizz, in our car for the bridge between Denmark and Sweden in Copenhagen. It's very nice, you don't have to stop to pay the toll, just slow down, drive through the bizz lane, and the price is added to your credit card bill. Of course, you had to give them your email address, and they send out lots of messages.

Today there is a message about the Copenhagen summit.

"Dearest WiseWoman [I didn't realize we were that chummy]

The climate conference COP 15 will be starting on Monday. There will be over 20.000 delegates from all over the world attending. About 2000 of these will be staying in Malmö and commuting to the conference at the Bella Center every day. [By car? Why? There's a train every 20 minutes from downtown Malmö to Örestad and a short walk from there. I bet they will have a shuttle bus, too.] We suggest you leave home in good time. [That's Sweden for you, just like a good mother.]

One visitor in particular can possibly be posing a traffic problem on the bridge, even if he won't be staying in Malmö. The president of the USA, Barack Obama, has announced that he will come to COP 15 on Wednesday, December 9. [Actually, he has to pick up his Nobel Prize on the 10th and there will be a spot of grub with the king and queen afterwards.] It is not clear at what time Obama will be coming to Copenhagen and what this will mean for traffic.

The cortège can cause temporary closings of the bridge during the conference. [Translation: It will be closed. Period. We are scared some terrorists will blow it up.] We will keep you updated by web page or by SMS service and signs on the bridge, as well as over radio.

We apologize for any inconvenience and hope for your understanding."

Well. At least they are announcing it. Maybe it will do the climate some good if everyone just stays home that week. Save some CO2.


More on Wikipedia Relevance and Women

The relevancy discussion at the German Wikipedia continues, the fires being fanned this time by Spiegel Online. Many people have written to me, wanting to have a copy of the article "Professorin" that I worked on and got itself deleted, because the "real" "main" category is, of course, the male form "Professor". I had fought to get this made into "Professur" (the office, not the person), but that was about the size of it. My statistics disappeared (only to partially resurface when the Swiss and Austrians wanted some comparative numbers.

So anyway, I went back through my editing history for a look down memory lane. Goodness, one learns a lot about a person reading the editing history! And then I stumbled on Anna Maria Schleiermacher. In 2005 when WiseMan and WiseKid and their pals were biking to Sweden, I had been visiting the little museums along the way and stumbled upon a collection of her paintings. There was a little booklet for purchase which I got (where on earth is that now??), and while waiting for the bikers while enjoying some free WLAN (used to have that in the olden days when people didn't protect their WLAN) I set up a little stub about Anna Maria. It went like this:

'Anna Maria Arndt, geb. Schleiermacher (* 18. Februar 1786, † 16. Oktober 1869 in Bonn), zweite Ehefrau des Rügener Dichters Ernst Moritz Arndt.
Before I got all the painting stuff sorted out, I wanted to read the booklet. Well, it was a nice summer and I never actually got around to doing anything with the article. Today I had a look:
Ah yes, the women get subsumed into the articles of the men. Musn't have these uppity women having their own precious pages.

A check of the edit history reveals that there was a deletion discussion three years later in 2008, at the end of which the user Wahrheitsministerium (Ministry of Truth, how fitting) notes "redirect, wie in der LD angeregt, Lebensdaten bei Ernst Moritz Arndt eingearbeitet" (Redirect as suggested in the deletion discussion [which lasted 5 hours], data has been put into Ernst Moritz Arndt.)

The discussion was only about that she was sister-of and wife-of. No one made any attempt to find out more about her, and I did not realize that I had to observe and fight for everything I contributed. At that time I naively believed that we were collecting the knowledge of the entire world.

So go have a look at the entry on Ernst Moritz. Can you find anything on her? After I had edited, others contributed their wedding day and how many children they had.

I think I have to find that book again.



In the November 2009 monthly report from the German Wikimedia Pavel Richter reports on the project "Generation 50+". As he has done in the past, he uses the term Senioren (senior citizens) synomously for this group.

Let me translate the lemma for you:

Senior citizens

  • are seldom constrained by time restrictions imposed by working life
  • make independent purchasing decision and have a sophisticated purchasing behavior that is different from the younger generation
  • learn differently
  • suffer more often from and are susceptible to sickness, especially old-age diseases (see Geriatrics)

Well, Pavel, the current age for retirement is on its way from 65 to 67, and not all of us over 50 are out of work. We may make wiser decisions when purchasing goods and learn differently (i.e. not through YouTube et al), but I don't think you want to be calling us all susceptible to sickness.

Is there any way I can convince you to rename this project? And focus on something other than age? Like life experience? Discrimination on account of age is not allowed by law in Germany any more, you know.


The Priesthood

Recently it seems that in discussions with computer science people about political issues I often hear the statement "They just don't understand X!". And of course, this is true - the majority of people on this planet just don't understand computers and computing. And they don't really get why and how some systems work.

Are they stupid? No, of course not! I can't fix my car motor and I don't even want to think about trying brain surgery. But I am a computer scientist, so it is my job to explain to people how things work. Repeatedly, if necessary.

But it appears that many in my field feel themselves to be members of some technologically elite priesthood. The know the magic incantations to bring printers to life, find lost files, discover the answers to important questions and to weave intricate applications for solving some problem (hopefully without introducing new problems). And they like it this way - they don't really want the rest of the world to be able to deal with computers, after all, that would put them out of a job, wouldn't it? And it is fun to make jokes about the "lusers".

I am reminded on a book by Ted Nelson, the father of hypermedia, called Computer Lib. It was published in 1974 (right, that is not a typo. And wow, these are selling used for serious money, I better take care of mine). The first paragraph:

Any nitwit can understand computers, and many do. Unfortunately, due to ridiculous historical circumstances, computers have been made a mystery to most of the world. And this situation does not seem to be improving. You hear more and more about computers, but to most people it's just one big blur. The people who know about computers often seem unwilling to explain things or answer your questions. Stereotyped notions develop about computers operating in fixed ways -- and so confusion increases. The chasm between laymen and computer people widens fast and dangerously. [...] This book is therefore devoted to the premise that EVERYBODY SHOULD UNDERSTAND COMPUTERS."
Well said Ted, but unfortunately, it doesn't look like people were paying attention. 35 years later, this is still very true.

Nelson introduced the word "Cybercrud", defined as "putting things over on people using computers."

If I look closely at the current relevancy debate surrounding the Wikipedia, I see the same mechanism. There is the priesthood of the active people behind the Wikipedia (admin or not). They understand the baroque system (more or less) that has been built that is rather scary for new users. Oh, they complain about too much to do and very few new people, but is it any wonder? They make it so difficult to join the priesthood. And in a way, they have created "PediaCrud". I'll define that as "putting things over on people using the Wikipedia".

This includes all the trolls, who deface the Wikipedia just because they can. It includes the people who write lengthy novels for a lemma, instead of breaking it into a dozen or so more manageable chunks. It includes the deleters who want to keep the Wikipedia "clean" and "relevant".

But what about the users of the Wikipedia? Why do they come, millions a second, to the Wikipedia? What are they looking for? No, they don't want to read a 25 page treatise on Prussia. An encyclopedia (even the EB) strives to give people a quick overview of the lemma, and points to places to get more information, if necessary.

The users want a fast system that is pretty good. They want a system that is easy to use. They don't care about the authors or how the article was written. They just want to know more about a term they picked up somewhere. And many are willing to contribute their mite for the general good. But they don't want to have to register YetAnotherUserName with YetAnotherPassword and fuss with a system and then when they push save maybe discover that there is a concurrent user editing the same page.

The Wikipedia must get better - in usability. The Wikipedia must get better - in broader coverage, lemmata in areas that are not broadly covered. The Wikipedia authors must learn to edit, work with the texts and get them tighter, cleaner, more neutral, better verified.

Above all, they have to get away from the notion that they are somehow the high priests of Wiki-hood. Or the apostate, pointing fingers at the priests and taunting them. Quit wasting your energy on fighting and get down to writing.

[Idea developed during an interview with a Spiegel writer about the Wikipedia Wars.]


Ethics and Computing

Well, welcome to all the Wikipedia surfers! My daily readership jumped from an average of 80 a day to 900+ in just the evening hours of Monday. And as anonymous said (I know which anonymous you are!!), that rather kills my semi-anonymity. Whatever. I'm still blogging here as WiseWoman, because it is my private blog, as opposed to all the other blogs I run in my real name. I've had to get ScribeFire installed on my Firefox to deal with them all.

So here's a plug for my book (in German) about Ethics and Computing, which just got published:

Gewissensbisse Ethische Probleme der Informatik. Biometrie – Datenschutz – geistiges Eigentum
Oktober 2009, 144 S., kart., 16,80 €
ISBN 978-3-8376-1221-9
In order to keep the price low, we are not earning anything on this book. If you do read it, we would appreciate a comment at Amazon. Seems a former member of the group retaliated at us there. As a friend has said: One is forced to consider the possibility that his criticisms are not entirely devoid of self-serving motivation.


Wikipedia and Relevance and Dreams

The German Wikipedia has been embroiled in a discussion of its relevance criteria for a couple of weeks. Even the stately FAZ had a long article over the weekend one it (Das Schweigen der Lemmata, the silence of the lemmas, a pun that actually works, something Germans rarely use). I had a longish discussion with one of the bloggers leading the charge, Felix von Leitner (known as Fefe), by email, and I agreed to meet with him. I was going to be in that part of town anyway, and I was curious to meet him.

He and another CCCler, Frank Rieger, met with me at the CCC headquarters in Berlin, and we had a nice chat over donuts. The CCC sees the problems, and they are basically solved problems. Technically. The problem is, that the Wikipedia does not really have a captain on the bridge, telling this oil tanker where to go next. There are a bunch of people in the galleys, paddling every which way.

Making changes in an extremely large, global system like the Wikipedia is a very, very delicate operation. You can't just change the interface or the way one edits or introduce icons that signal how trustworthy a lemma entry is just to see if it works. There are literally millions of users out there who don't really understand what all the extra tabs are for, don't even realize they can edit and see the history or even follow a discussion on a page.

Yes, the technology is just so last century. People don't come to the Wikipedia for the technology. They want to settle a bar bet - or look something up for school. Or worse, copy it for use at university. But that's a topic for my Other Blog.

If you want to fork the Wikipedia - please, do so! That's the point of free documents. If you succeed where Wikipedia fails - all the better!

As for making up new rules to keep the trolls and vandals at bay - I don't know. Since we now have only checked versions on display in the German Wikipedia, that is, changes are only possible for unregistered users when a checker has eyeballed them to make sure that it is nothing stupid or silly. I suppose we ought to apply the same rule to new articles (maybe we do - even experienced people get lost in all the pages).

But it's a wiki, everyone should be allowed to edit. That's part of collaborative writing, there is no one author, there is just the collaborative authorship. If you want to have someone responsible for the text, to have the text be some sort of authority, then it has to be linked to someone. I have suggested that users could sign versions of articles, saying: What is written here is true, as far as I know. But when I see how difficult it is to get people to use digital signatures or even use PGP for encrypting their communication, I despair of getting some sort of change put through the Wikipedia.

But it's okay. The Wikipedia does not need to be 100% correct. Good enough is just fine. It is meant to be a starting point for answering a question, not the end point. It is troubling, that lately I have been wanting to look things up in the Wikipedia and there has been no entry. Just this weekend, I wanted to know more about Borussia, the female allegory for Prussia. Nix. Nada. Lots of soccer teams with Borussia in their name, and of course the article on Prussia. But nothing about all these statues with the name Borussia. I secured some links on my user page, I guess I will have to start an article in my spare time.

The Verein, the Wikimedia, does lots of things. What it does not do is run the Wikipedia. It offers technical support. Sure, a lot of the stuff they do is boring. I rattled of the list of what the Verein has been doing the past few months. Oh, sure, the picture action was great. But things like teaching teachers how to use the Wikipedia was met with a puzzled look.

I know, it is hard to realize how little many teachers know about the Wikipedia. My son tried to tell a teacher that his mom "worked" for the Wikipedia. Okay, work was not the correct work. His teacher laughed at him, he was telling tales. I put a notice up on my user page for the teacher: Dear Mr. X, yes, I am the Mommy of WiseKid, and he told you the truth. WiseKid tried to get the teacher to look up my user page, but he didn't know what that was. Instead of shaking our heads at the ignorance, we have to let people know. Show them how to use it. Show people how to research, edit, write.

And if they want to make a new Wikipedia, make it, and show us. Maybe we like it so much, we all switch!

Yes, I've given up on the Wikiversity. I personally declared it broken for me in 2007. My attempts to create a new university, a web-based one, were foiled by people re-inventing the broken wheel of German universities. Okay, I turn my attentions elsewhere.

I've not given up on the Wikipedia, Felix. And actually, I'm not currently cutting back. I've started reading the requests for deletion again, and adding my 2 cents worth to the discussions. I am even trying to save a lemma from theoretical computer science. Some guy insists that all lemmata need to be generally understandable. I don't think so. I need to get a general idea of what the concept is. And then I either decide to dive into the literature given in order to understand the maths behind it, or I decide that I don't understand this. It's okay.

I'm an inclusionist.

Oh, and I have papers to grade.....


Introitus et Fuga (John Allison Campbell)

I went to the ecumenical service at St. Matthäus Friday night, because a composer friend, John Allison Campbell, was having a premiere of some new music. It seems there is this organization that pays artists to paint sacred pictures and composers to compose and musicians to perform sacred music, and it is all presented at St. Matthäus.

The church is lovely - very bare, just pictures on the walls and one over the altar (they refer to this as the temporary altar picture, as it appears to be changed every now and then).

The service was very Catholic with all sorts of Gregorian chant bits and a Magnificat and a Kyrie Elesion. The sermon was on Luke 13:6-8:

6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?'

8 " 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.' "

Now this sounds like giving people a second chance, even if they have screwed up multiple times in the past. Perhaps this applies to teenagers....

The postlude was "Introitus et Fuga (Op. 10)", and as I listed, the music felt vaguely familiar. I figured it was just John, as I have heard a lot of his music over the years.

I went up to John after the service, and he asked me if I liked that last piece. "Yes, I did," I replied. "Good job, since you paid for it!" And then I realized it was a piece we had commissioned for WiseKid's baptism. My famous organist brother was to come play it, so I had requested that it be "a challenge". Then bro didn't come, and we had to find an organist willing to tackle it at the last minute.

One brave soul was found, and we invited a professor for modern music, a friend of John's, to come to the service to hear it. The organist bravely fought on, but got his fingers in knots at one point and stopped, restarting the phrase. Afterwards she went up to him and scolded him: "Young man, this is modern music! No one will know that you've made an error except the composer. Just carry on!"


Another Funeral

Today was the funeral of my mother-in-law. A wonderful, almost spring-like, sunny day in November. The church was full and there were lots of flowers - how great to have so many people thinking of her. I picked three apples from her garden an placed them next to the casket, when they carried everything out they put the apples on my father-in-law's grave.

We invited everyone for lunch to the restaurant in the village where they lived and have celebrated pretty much every family celebration there is to celebrate. We were unsure how many would come, so we had more places set than we needed. One table remained empty - the one where Oma and Opa always sat during the parties they gave. The candle was lit, and gently burned down during the afternoon.

I can still hear her voice "Segg bloss!", "Wat hest du aufm Herzen, Deern?", the house still seems eerily lived in, as things are still where she left them the day she had the stroke. Neighbors tell of seeing her in the garden that morning, of her being at the church coffee the week before she died.

The pastor read from Revelation 21: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'"

Update: A friend sent this link of a wonderful choral piece (And I saw a New Heaven by Edgar Bainton) on this reading. And then two evenings later I attend a choir concert, and they sing this same song. It is really beautiful, listen to it!


Nice try.

Sorry, this is just for those who know German:

Sehr geehrter User Webmail-Konto,

Diese Nachricht wurde automatisch von einem Programm auf Webmail Admin-Center, die die Kontrollen in regelmäßigen Abständen die Größe der Posteingang gesendet, wird das Programm automatisch ausgeführt, um keine vom Anwender zu gewährleisten, Posteingang zu groß. Wenn Ihr Posteingang zu groß wird, werden Sie nicht in der Lage, neue E-Mails empfangen. Kurz vor dieser Nachricht gesendet wurde, werden Sie derzeit auf 20,9 GB, Sie haben die Grenze, die 20 GB Speicher überschritten wird.

Um uns zu helfen ändern Sie Ihr Konto SPACE auf unserer Datenbank vor Ihrem Posteingang zu erhalten, müssen Sie die Antwort auf diese E-Mail bieten Sie uns Ihre Unterhalb der Informationen:

E-Mail (... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... .... ..)
Benutzername / ID (... ... ... ... ... ...)
Aktuelles Passwort (... ...... ...) Passwort wiederholen: (... ...... ...)

Ab diesem Zeitpunkt werden Sie keine neuen E-Mail erhalten, wie sie an den Absender zurückgegeben werden, Geben Sie die oben genannten Informationen zu ermöglichen, setzen Sie uns helfen Webmail sofort.

HINWEIS: Ihr Webmail-Konto läuft in drei (3) Tage. Nachdem Sie diese Meldung lesen, ist es am besten mit den erforderlichen Informationen ANTWORT zur Mailbox zu aktualisieren. Antwort auf diese Nachricht sofort an Re aktivieren Sie Ihr Konto.

Vielen Dank für Ihre Mitarbeit.
Webmail Help Desk. System Administrator
Next time don't use automatic translation.

Relevant Irrelevancy

There has been quite a discussion raging throughout the German blogosphere about the question of relevance in the Wikipedia. German admins, the people who can delete articles, use a complicated document that they have produced called the relevance criteria to determine what is relevant and what is not. Pavel Meyer wrote a good blog article called 99% of all Germans are irrelevant.

The fight all began with the deletion of an entry (called a lemma) about a group of people who are fighting the silly German government idea of putting stop signs in the Internet to stop child pornography. Right. I have actually offered to give a course Internet 101 to the members of parliament, but I am afraid they are too busy to attend.

Anyway, the German A-Team blogger picked it up, some Wikipedia authors and admins retaliated by deleting all sorts of other articles, and the fight raged on.

There was a meeting, packed into two rooms at the Wikimedia headquarters in Berlin, where everyone had their say, but nothing was actually decided. Many people do not understand that Wikimedia has nothing to do with the Wikipedia on the level of content or administration. That is for the community to do. Wikimedia can encourage community, but has other jobs in the area of wrenching knowledge and information and data that has already been paid for by the taxpayer from the claws of those who want to make money with it and get it put into the public domain.

And of course this falls at a perfect time, when Wikimedia itself is having communication problems between the leadership and the general membership and having a ton of vague notions about where they want to be in 10 years without realizing that the whole project may implode if they don't solve the current problems.

To me it just seems to be an exercise in Applied Anarchy. There is no government in the Wikipedia, just a bunch of rules and regulations that have developed over the years (including the rule to ignore all rules). But this means that people who delight in the attention they get by destroying work that others have done or who cannot tolerate any view of the world that is not their own, have very few checks and balances on their doings.

Oh, sure, we suggest that authors don't feed the trolls, and there is a vandalism patrol that keeps check on the most virulent of the vandals. But there are enough ways around this, and so many are calling for the installing of a Wikipedia Police Force (or at least a full-time editorial board with sweeping rights). But this opens up the whole thing to the lawyers, with people then having someone to sue to get an article about themselves or their companies either included or cast in a more flattering light.

Lighten up, people. If we could just channel this energy into writing articles and not deleting things that have promising beginnings (and not trying to stuff a doctoral thesis about topic X into the lemma) we can start to get the Wikipedia on better footing, so that we have a chance to indeed still be around in 2020.


More on the Palm Pre

Random thoughts on random use

  • It is worth the 10 Euros a month to have Internet access everywhere. Over the last 10 days I have used it for various things - looking up a telephone number, an address, hours of opening. It is slooooow, but it works (faster connections cost more).
  • Google maps is great on maps and very bad on time planning. The maps work well, even as a pedestrian. But take the time suggested with a big grain of salt. They seem to have to driving at 120 km/h through town and areas restricted to just 80. I have consistently needed more time: 8 1/2 hours instead of 6 1/2, 4 1/2 hours instead of 3, 45 minutes instead of 2. The maps app works well for going between text and map. The only problem is the zoom - you cannot easily zoom while driving. This needs two fingers and eye concentration, something I don't have when driving. I want a tap-to-enlarge button.
  • The battery sucks. It lasts a day and a half, max. So I end up giving it some juice every night.
  • The time got out of kilter, and all the online forums said: just change it at the date/time thingy. I couldn't find one! I looked for the apps button - not to be found. I saw a little || button, tried to tap it, but nothing happened. I gave it to WiseKid to play with this afternoon, and he had it working in about 5.4 seconds. For him it was obvious to use the || as a slider - and there were all the things I was looking for!
  • FINALLY all of my google appointments have been downloaded. I think the problem was that I have been using my iCal forever, and that appears to store all historic data (and to sync all historic data). So it just took it a while to download them all. It was weird, because at first it only had my just-entered appointments.
  • Haven't done much calling with it, as I wanted to see the first statement to check out the price. I want a button: current statement amount ;)


Vulgar Feminist

I was able to attend the German Wikipedia discussion about the deletion and relevance discussion last week in Berlin (more on that in another blog entry). I made my point that most of the admins who are doing all the deletions are youngish men of German descent who live in cities, to make the point that they are quite biased in their view of "reality". Other bloggers have extended this to include childless. My point was rather drowned in lots of other points, although the blogs Spreeblick and Netzpolitik at least recorded it.

We stood around afterwards making small talk and I went over to join two other professors who are active and tend to attend such events. We began speaking and then two journalists joined us, a male reporter from a print newspaper and a female blogger. I repeated my point about the bias of the Admins, and a colleague began berating me as a "vulgar feminist". I was rather taken aback, especially at the vehemence of his words and his agitation.

This is something that I have been noticing recently. The gentlest of mention of the word "gender", or a reminder that professors are German Beamte and have a constitutional duty to work for equality of the sexes, brings out the fighting in many men, especially in colleagues.

Now, when I was going to university in the 70s the women's movement in Germany was much more radical. We wore purple bib overalls, cut our hair, smoked pipes, debated politics, and set up women's health centers. We fought for abortion rights, started discussions about rape and about violence against women and noted that we were not paid the same for doing the same work. There were radical groups that demanded the castration of men - I never saw that violence was useful for fighting violence, but there were people demanding this.

But why was I a vulgar feminist for pointing out a gender difference? It was impossible to get rational argument out of the colleague, and he could not listen to me even speak a complete sentence - as so many men can't - before he interrupted me. He began ranting about the nonsense of "feminist mathematics" - so I challenged him to name 5 female mathematicians. Before I could say "besides Emmy Noether" he interrupted me with "Emmy Noether, the first woman professor in mathematics". Sigh.

I waited. I goaded him. He couldn't come up with any names, then sputtered that it was the fault of the women if they didn't go into mathematics. Great job, it's always our fault, right? I remarked that Sonja Kovalevsky was the first woman professor in mathematics. She submitted 3 doctoral theses in Berlin to Karl Weierstraß, so they pretty much had to give her a doctorate. She was made professor in Stockholm (the first in Northern Europe) before her early death of pneumonia, caught while traveling to Paris to receive the Prix Bourdin.

He lashed out again, this time at the female German politicians in Hamburg who had voted against something that was near and dear to him (I didn't catch what). The female blogger pointed out that there was at least one man who also voted against the measure. He got called a green "Weichei" (a German derisive term for an unmanly man). And again he complained about vulgar feminists.

I asked for a definition of "vulgar feminists", as I tend to see the anti-feminists as the vulgar ones. Seems that he has a problem with the PorNo campaign. I see. And these feminists are prudes. It seems to be flashback time. The woman's strike at the taz newspaper where I was a free-lancer end of the 70s, beginning of the 80s was started over exactly such a reproach. A journalist had published a full page under a pseudonym about pornography that we complained about. When we were called prudes - which we were expecting - the leader of the group gave the code words "Sisters, are we prudes? Let's make ourselves free." Which we did. The author of the pornography page was so freaked out by all those women sitting calmly with bare breasts at the table that he ran screaming from the room and never returned. And we got a daily woman's page in the paper.

But what does that have to do with my point, that the admins find lemmata in the Wikipedia about women's topics "irrelevant"? The female blogger and I tried to get back to the point at hand. He now turned the blogger a cold shoulder and brushed her off. "Fräulein, I'm trying to talk with this journalist." And he turned to the male journalist.

I was speechless. I have seldom seen such bad behavior in recent years, and then to have a colleague, one who is interested in many current topics, act like that and call me a vulgar feminist - I was nonplussed. I nodded - oh, by all means, do speak with him. And went to another corner of the place to speak with the blogger in peace and quiet.

What on earth is going on? Some men seem to be of the opinion, we have had quite enough of this equality now, it is time to shut up and get back to more important things. I remarked that an oldish SPD sticker I have in my room is so true: you can judge the necessity of specific actions by how loud the men shout about them.

I am reminded of the book by Susan Faludi, Backlash, that I read many years ago. I dug it out at home - it was from the early 90s. It was published in 1993 in Germany as "Die Männer schlagen zurück". I surfed around a bit and then found a wonderful book review of this in the Emma from 1993, written by the Minister for Family of the time, the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The book review is excellent - she notes how Faludi makes clear that men use irrelevant statistics to try and make us feel guilty about having power. She states that women must continue the march through the institutions.

Spot on, Angela. You made it, now we have to see to it that our sisters are not drowned in guilt and accusations because it is still making many men uncomfortable. And that they, someday, earn the same money for doing the same work. We aren't there yet.

My colleague left in a huff, I went out for pizza with the usual suspects from the Wikipedia. One young man of German descent who lives in Berlin and is an admin brought up the women's topic again. He just didn't see why, when two people are equally qualified for a job, it had to be the woman who got the job. I sighed and explained that this was only necessary in cases where women are underrepresented. As soon as 40% of the jobs go to women, this is no longer necessary. And in fields where men are underrepresented this rule holds equally. He shook his head - he just didn't get it. I wrote, calmly, to my colleague the next day. I wonder if I will get an answer.

Sisters, we got a lot of work cut out for us. I wonder where my purple bib overalls are.

Update: My colleague has replied within a day and apologized. And promised to read a paper if I send it to him. I immediately looked for Frances Grundy, "Computer Software - A Clue to De-Gendering Technology?" And guess what? Frances is now retired, and her department had nothing better to do than to remove her works from their server. I'm so mad, I wrote to them and asked for her private email. I want to publish a collection of her papers. Now!


I should have stopped for coffee

I was on my way from Sweden to Hanover on Sunday, as I was giving a workshop there Monday morning. I had calculated the time needed as 6 1/2 hours using Google Maps (advice: don't. They seem to take a speed of 120 km/h, even in 80 km/h zones or through town) and was now with an estimated time of trip around 8 1/2 hours.

I drove past the exit where we get off to go visit my mother-in-law. I debated turning off and getting her to make me a cup of coffee. But I would like to call first, and she never hears the phone, and she'll be irritated that I didn't call so she could make a cake, and anyway, we're visiting next weekend. So I drove by.

Monday evening we got a call - the neighbor had found her passed out in her bedroom that morning. They took her to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered a massive stroke Sunday evening. She died without regaining consciousness this afternoon, three years and three months after her husband.

I wish now that I had stopped for coffee.

She celebrated her 80th birthday this spring - I'm so happy her friends and family came for that. We'll soon be meeting again in the village pub, this time to remember her, and to give thanks for her life.


More spam poetry

Cleaned out my spam again, deleted the via*ra stuff out, and this was what was left. Random, bizarre, strangely beautiful.


Just answer my question

We only have 15 minutes between classes to pack together our equipment, move to another part of the building, and set up the computer or whatever in the next room. Not a lot of time, and I usually spend the time also reviewing what I will be doing while I am fighting with the beamer.

I am in the lab trying to coax my laptop to connect to the Internet. Stu Dent enters, he speaks German with a Russian accent.

Stu: Where do I get the login forms for these computers? [in German]
Me: We passed them out on orientation day. [in English]
Stu: Where do I get the login forms for these computers? [in German]
Me: We passed them out on orientation day. [in German]
Stu: Where do I get the login forms for these computers? [in German]
Me: [$%&§] What program are you in? [in German]
Stu: The first semester. [in German]
Me: [$%&§$%&§$%&§] What program are you in? [in English]
Stu: The first semester. [in German]
Me: [$%&§$%&§$%&§$%&§$%&§$%&§] What program are you in? [in German]
Stu: International Complexification
Me: Hey Stu, you better get used to speaking English, because many courses in that program are in English!
Stu: Where do I get the login forms for these computers? [in German]
Me: We passed them out on orientation day!!!! [in English]
Stu: I just want a login form for these computers. [in German]

He leaves.

I return to fighting with the beamer, now one minute to go until class starts.

He returns.

Stu: What is your name? [in German]
Me: [I give him my name and add that I am a professor. In German]
Stu: What is your name? [in German]
Me: I just told you my name, it's [my name]!
Stu: I'm gonna report you to the dean!
Me: [Smile. I'm the vice dean.]

Ah dear. I don't think he will survive the semester. The form is also available on the web site, if you didn't attend orientation. But that would involve navigating the site.


Google Wave: Is it fun yet?

One of my Web 2.0 thesis students invited me to Wave so that he could have someone to wave with. He gave me an invite, so here I am. Duh. What do I do now?

I put a pic in my profile, and then Google told me:

This is exactly the way I want it. Thank you.


Men who Hate Women: The Movie

Just saw Men who Hate Women on DVD. We bought it in Sweden because we just missed the first movie in the theaters and the second one wasn't to be out until we were gone. The Swedish Embassy showed it the night before it opened in German in Germany as Verblendung, but I had handball that night, so only WiseMan saw it. So since he is up in Stockholm meeting with all sorts of folks, I made a great dinner and then curled up.

Condensing this massive volume into a movie, even a longish one like this one which clocks in at 2 1/2 hours, is a difficult task. A lot of the very many side stories that Stieg Larsson so craftily wove into the story to lead you astray had to disappear. Also, the journalism involved in producing the story is collapsed into a party at the office and some headlines.

But the movie is very well done, great music and the two main actors do an excellent job - they fit right in with the ideas I had in my mind about who these two were, although I had Mikael down as being a bit handsomer. But Nyquist is sooooo well-known (for example in Så som i himmelen) I suppose he is just handsome by definition.

Do see the movie - but read the book first, because it would spoil the book to know how it turns out.

Fun with the Pre - not

Okay, Pre is out of the box, SIM card is activated, I am logged on. I'm using one of my many Googlemail accounts that speaks English, I was using this one for the Android in order to upload my contacts.

My Mac Address Book always asks me to put in my contacts last name first, so I do, and it sorts nicely by last name. Uploading to Googlemail they were written in the field "Lastname Firstname", and the Android managed to understand this. The Pre, however, reads the fields as "Firstname Lastname", so now everyone is stored under their first names! Duh, like metadata hasn't been invented yet! All right, I'll just sort my data by "Firstname", and we are back in business.

Now let's hit the calendar. My alter ego is allowed to see all of my calendars. And indeed, soon my little Pre (I think it needs a name soon) has a list of all the calendars - but it didn't take the colors I have assigned! In my Mac iCal *and* with Google calendars I have work appointments in green 'cause that is the school color. Ah, okay, I can assign the calendars colors. Why don't they use the ones I already have assigned? Grumble. But still no dates. Maybe it needs some time to download my years worth of data.

The gestures are nice and smooth, though. The positioning is off by a city block. I was at work, though, when the picture was taken, my car is not there, just the neighbor's. My garden table is out, though, so it was in the summer.

So, let's calculate the way to work. Duh. Berlin has a gazillion streets with the same name. It calculates the one to the street in the alphabetically first listed part of town. Okay, try another street nearby. Okay, sort of. It says 20 minutes (hahaha, fit of laughter at that) and routes me through the worst traffic jam part of the way. No thanks!

I manage to get the WLAN hooked up (save on small download amount, 200 MB before it gets throttled, that's nothing these days) and fire up Twitter. Now I need a real Twitter app. Typing with my thumbnails is kind of, well, strange. But the gestures kind of grow on you.

Will continue this saga....

Update: the calendar still won't behave, but I got it hooked up to the eduroam at work today - very painlessly. But ohmymy, it needs a lot of electricity, must be plugged in every night!

Error: "Frau Prof. Dr." does not exist

I was just at the O2 store to get my new Palm Pre this afternoon. The guy gave me page 4 to sign, and I asked to see pages 1-3 as well. He handed them to me, and I saw that it said "Herr Dr.". I did a quick body check, but I appeared to be unchanged from the morning. I requested that this be changed, and suggested that he enter in "Frau Prof. Dr.", the whole 9 yards as a sort of compensation.

He cheerfully did this, then sent me off to shop while O2 did a credit check on my. I 'm sure this is a plot to get us to spend money, which of course I did because I found the cute peacock I don't have in my collection yet.

On returning he got out my precious box, scanned in the bar code, pressed the button - and got an error. Hmm. He tried it again. He laughed. I asked what was so funny. He turned the screen to show me - "Frau Prof. Dr. is not a valid title. Please select a valid title from the list!" Except that the list did not let him either edit or select.

He called the central office. They suggested starting over. He started over, but again: no such title. He called back - there has to be some way to get this solved! He was put on hold, and eventually he was put through with someone. He explained the problem, and spelled the title for the guy on the other end. Then he was asked to restart the system. Now it worked!

It turned out that they had actually gotten hold of a Real Programmer with access to the database on a Saturday afternoon. He had added the title "Frau Prof. Dr." to the database so that the transaction could clear. The only version in the database had been "Frau Prof. Dr" (without the final period).

Aren't you glad they so rigorously check for errors? But O2 does get extra points for solving the problem in real time.

Poetic Spam

I was wading through the spam in my private E-Mail account (our spam killer at work does a really great job) and had clicked on all of these to have them deleted. I realized that these lines actually make a rather poetic statement, only the line in German seems to be a bit out of place.

The rest is just bizarre and seems to be just random words taken from the Internet (except the male tool bit).

Maybe I can start a new genre: found spam poetry.

Overbooked Dreams

Last night I dreamed that I had booked lunch today with four (4) different people, two of which I could not remember the names of. The three I didn't end up eating with put on pouting faces before I woke, sweat drenched.

I was really kind of worried heading off for work.

But no, the only person expecting to have lunch with me was the nice person booked in my calendar whom we want to hire for our department. So I had a lovely lunch and no dirty looks - in the cafeteria I was in, at any rate. Wonder how many other people waited for me for lunch today?


Breakfast on the Spree

WiseMan is on a business trip this week, so I seem to be spending more time than ever at work. This morning I only have a 10 am meeting instead of 8 am classes and 5 pm meetings, so I was looking forward to sleeping in.

As I brushed my teeth I realized that I left important papers for the meeting at our old campus on my desk in the new campus. Drat. But I had read that the new mensa on the Spree offers breakfast. This needs testing, so I got dressed and hopped in the car.

Okay, driving without coffee is a tad difficult, but I made it okay. Dashed up to my office, got the papers, and then down to the mensa. Yes, they are open. While they are stocking the shelves for lunch you can have bagels, croissants, fruit, hot dogs, coffee or tea, juices and soft drinks. Müsli would have been nice, but I assume they will be learning.

The mensa is nicely empty this morning (but not deserted, there are little groups sitting and working together). I scored a little table at the big picture window looking out over the Spree.

It is windy, so as the Spree flows one way there are little waves going the other way on top. There are trees and boats across the water, waving in the wind. A swan coasts lazily by. I took my morning paper with me, what a wonderful start to the day! I could even deal with the clueless after this!


Syllabus? What's that?

Ah, the semester has started in earnest!

Stu Dent shows up this morning at 8.35 in the lab. We started at 8.00. I request to see his lab preparation work, which is required. "My what?" Didn't you read the syllabus, sweet snowflake? "The what?" I ask if he attended class the first day. No, he had other plans that day. Well, since you are repeating this class, you may not know anyone here, so I suggest making friends fast and asking what we did that first day. Was he here any of the other days we had class? "Yes, I was there the day you spoke about the whatch-a-ma-call-it."

Dear Lord. Please keep the clueless out of the 8 am lab. I can deal with this at noon, but not when I got up at 5.45 to get to class.

After the lecture I had office hours, another Stu dropped by. He had been unable to attend the first lecture, but he had discovered there was a syllabus. Great! Unfortunately, he had a hard time understanding it. Now this was bizarre - the syllabus is in English, and he is a native speaker of English. To put it bluntly, the syllabus says: attend class regularly and submit lecture notes on time; attend lab regularly, be prepared, and hand in reports on time that use complete sentences; pass the exam. I explained this again, patiently. After all, that's what office hours are for, aren't they? Okay, now he understands.

"I wanted to ask you something," he continues. Okay. "But I've forgotten what it is." I suggest that he write down his points the next time he comes, that will make things go so much more smoothly.

Ah, and then there was the snowflake who forgot his password and emailed the dean's office today to ask if we could help him. Sure. Right after I get all this toilet paper distributed and the rooms vacuumed, because a teacher is refusing to teach in dirty rooms. Anything else? I would not have *dreamed* of asking the dean something like that! Is this because of email or what?


Sitting in Front of Leo

I had a four hour train trip this weekend and had the misfortune to be sitting in front of Leo. Okay, I had a seat, which was a definite advantage over the first bit of the trip down, in which because of a "technical problem" there
was an equipment change meaning that there were 8 less cars than normal on the train. We stood packed in the aisles, unable to move up or down. They made us get off at the next station and wait for another train. Sigh.

Anyway, after I sat down a mother and her perhaps six-year-old son, Leo, sat down behind me. Leo began unpacking his toys and throwing them on the floor, although his mother admonished him to be patient and wait until she had all the bags stowed. Every sentence she spoke to him began with "Leo, ...". And as we soon learned, Leo did not listen to his mother, even if she constantly used his name. Or maybe because? Anyway Leo was extremely loud.

I don't know which was worse - the kicking against my seat, the repeated experiments with the foot rests, the whining for food, the extremely loud questions, or the mother trying to exercise some sort of restraint on Leo and at the same time trying to educate him. And constantly calling him by his name.

She read books to him that were far over his level of understanding. She had him do math exercises, but didn't know if the results were correct or not. She admonished him at one point: "Leo, that's not scientific!" My guess is that her husband - who was working on a Sunday and might-pick-us-up-Leo - is probably a scientist of some sort. She gave him lots of explanations for numerous words and things that were, in fact, quite off the mark. He will probably grow up to be one of those smartalecks in my classes who think they know everything, and don't actually know much at all.

Leo managed to wiggle out once and went to find the fire extinguishers. He loudly informed the folks in the entire car that we did, indeed have a fire extinguisher on board and that there was a sign on it. He was very excited
about this, and was trying to explain his discoveries to his mother - loudly. She shushed him: Don't talk so loudly, you will disturb the man in front of you.

Hmm. I am actually wearing a skirt today, on account of having led a church service this morning. I even curled my hair. Sure, I am using a computer. I suppose that this is a male marker. I grumbled under my breath: the *lady* in the seat in front of you is trying to work. The woman sitting next to me nodded, silently.

Leo was interested. He peeked round the side, then scrambled up for a better look. "That's a woman!", he announced to the car. Well, what a relief. Leo can at least determine that, although I would love to find the volume knob on his voice box.

Oh, and did I mention that Leah and Joanna played horsie in the aisles, and that the baby a few seats back had a screaming fit? A sweet toddler at least cooed at me on occasion over the front seat. As Leo's mother noted to Leo at one point, many parents are here with children, because they can't be kept quiet in the quiet zone. And the parents spend lots of time on the phone, too,
I have a sudden longing for the noisy quiet zone. Even if they speak loudly into their mobile phones there, at least they don't constantly kick the back of my seat.


A room full of girls!

We have a new program that is starting this fall, a women's program in computing and business. We managed to get it set up (with the official permission to open the program coming the day before we started, published on official document 42/09, how fitting!) and had 130 women apply! There are 40 positions and 40 women matriculated - women from 18 to over 40.

We are doing an orientation week with them - luckily in a room with a working beamer and since Friday with a working Internet connection. They were really scared Thursday, but Friday I saw little groups chattering away, new friendships in the making.

Coming to the room Friday afternoon to set up the beamer for the business teacher, two painters were walking towards me. "Did you see that?" the one asked of the other. "There was a room full of girls back there!"

Indeed, a room full of girls is not the norm at an engineering college. I hope to be able to report a successful graduation of all 40 in three years time!

The new campus

The past two days have been the grand opening of our new campus, right on the water in Oberschöneweide. The weather has been horrible - heavy rains and quite windy.

The papers write of a "modern place to study" (all news to be found here), and indeed, there are some highlights here. The Spreehalle includes a lunch hall with large windows out to the Spree, a coffee bar, a new library with many places to work, and some engineering labs. I took a tour of some of the labs - some have new equipment, others have just moved their older equipment down here. For example, they have a cleanroom for doing work in micro- and nano-sized areas. There is a terrace stuffed will all sorts of solar panels. And there are many rooms full of oscilloscopes and such.

There are two "modern" lecture theaters in the complex - two beamers installed! But the seating is your normal, cramped rows with fold-down tables, and no electrical outlets. What are they thinking?

Speaking of electricity - our labs still can't be opened, because we don't have the wiring or the electricity. I still have the specifications we submitted in 2003 - we noted that we needed 42 additional outlets for electricity and 21 for Ethernet, on account of having 21 computers on 21 tables in the rooms. I even drew diagrams showing how the tables were to be arranged. But no, there is only electricity along one wall, and just a few outlets. We have been screaming about this for months, but there is just so much else to do, it seems. At least I spotted an electrician yesterday - putting in Ethernet. Maybe they'll work all weekend...

The dirt is indescribable. They did a "final cleaning" in August - but have been working through September. Desks and chairs are covered with plaster dust, the floors are occasionally mopped, but that just smears the plaster around.

There are modern visualizers and beamers in every lecture hall - but they don't work. I was giving tours to colleagues, and only one out of three halls had functioning connections. This will be interesting.

There is a chalkboard in the rooms for mathematics instruction - but no water for wiping them. We threw out all of the chalk prior to moving, because we though we didn't have any of these, so we have to get some sorted out pronto.

There are no chairs in the hallways, no bulletin boards, no nice pictures on the walls, no garbage cans in the lecture halls or labs - these things can hopefully be fixed!

Instruction begins Monday - I think we will need oral lectures and paper-and-pencil labs for the first few weeks.....


German General Elections 2009

For this I spent 12 hours as a poll worker? What were people thinking? The FDP is the party of the greedy bankers, the party of the better-earning folks. When they were talking about tax cuts, they only meant cutting their OWN taxes, not yours. And now they will be ruling the country? With a foreign minster who needs a lot of tutoring in English?

I had to put up with Little Miss Johanna von Schlagmichtot, a local SPD politician who is loud, garrulous, vexatious, arrogant, and extremely childish. She knew everything there is to know about elections, you see, and we were all idiots. When I tried to explain to her that she had to keep the urn covered to prevent people from putting in their ballots before we checked if they were eligible to vote, she actually sat there with her fingers in her ears! I mean, that's just the kind of politician I want to see, one who not only doesn't care about listening to voters, but who is so suffused with her own self-importance that she cannot tolerate the least little bit of criticism of her person. She made a big point of sharing her food with everyone but me, and when I *dared* sit in her chair while she was out smoking I got chided on return. Well, Goldilocks, I'm glad your party got a beating.

Luckily, she took looooong cigarette breaks very often. Of course, she was useless doing the counting, as she was only willing to count the votes for her precious SPD and she kept berating us for being idiots and sorting things in the right piles. She could not remember from one moment to the next which pile was which (except for her party, of course).

She signed the election report blanko and disappeared to an election party. I had half a mind to put the words "I acted like an idiot" above the signature. I do not want to be a poll worker again if she is on the committee.

Ah, yes, and Germany will continue to be governed by the "C"DU, now partnered with the money-grubbing FDF. They call this the "Tigerente" coalition, after a well-loved German cartoon character, a wooden duck that is painted with tiger stripes. Actually, that fits quite nicely.


Weizenbaum: Rebel at Work

The INFOS09 conference in Berlin showed a film from 2006 about Joseph Weizenbaum, Rebel at Work, last night. They invited the filmmakers to discuss the film with the audience afterwards.

The film tells the biography of Joseph Weizenbaum, a critical voice in the tidal wave of technical enthusiasm that computer technology has brought us. His book "Computer Power and Human Reason" (Die Macht der Computer und die Ohnmacht der Vernunft) was first published in 1976 and is still important today for understanding computing ethics.

His stories of his early life as a Jewish boy in pre-WWII Berlin, intercut with some historic footage is quite interesting, but once the film follows him to the US things get chaotic. We have some interviews with his ex-wife (with no explaination offered for why she is an ex-), some nice pictures of him with other founding fathers of computing, and some bizarre clips from 50s films on what an engineer is and how to act during an atomic bomb attack: Duck and cover.

The sirens make me feel ill, as they remind me of my own childhood and the panic I felt when this siren would squeal, signaling yet another (we hoped) drill as we filed into the shelters or practiced ducking under our desks. I inquired after the film as to why they chose these sequences. Oh, they said, we wanted to give the audience a feel for the 50s in the US. Well, why didn't they focus on WonderBread? Play Elvis? Show a church service? Ah, well, it fit their pre-conceived notions, I suppose. The clips have nothing to do with Weizenbaum, and I found them jarring, as they often did not fit in the timeline that was jaging back and forth in time.

In the last third one of Weizenbaum's four daughters joins the story, speaking about reading in her father's library and such. Suddenly, the film is over. And in a voice-over during the credits, Weizenbaum asks for forgiveness for lies he may or may not have told.

It was nice to see him, and to hear his funny little stories. But I was not impressed with the film, as it does not tell the story promised in the title: Rebel at work. Perhaps "Pioneer now retired" would have been more fitting. There was nothing explaining his criticism of the belief in computer technology that so pervaded his time - it was assumed that the viewer understood this.

A few scenes were shown of him at a discussion at the University of Jena, but there was no clear explanation here either.

I had the supreme privilege of hearing him speak at the University of Kiel end of the 70s. I attended the talk, not knowing who he was, just because it was in English. But my, what a storyteller he was, and how he fascinated me with these foreign notions of ethics and responsibility for the technology we create.

I enjoyed reading his work over the years, and was happy when he came back to Germany after retiring from MIT. He was often a guest speaker at the Humboldt University, I attended a number of his talks. The plans for our soon to be published book [shameless plug!] on computing and ethics was born over a glass of wine after one of his talks, many years ago.

Joseph Weizenbaum died in 2008 - and a hardworking rebel he was. What a shame this does not come through in the film.


Henning Mankell in Berlin

Due to WiseMan's good connections to the Swedish embassy (which he intensified, being the only one from the department there and shaking hands with the ambassador, which gets him at least five golden kharma points), we had two seats at the talk Henning Mankell gave last night in Berlin.

For those who live outside of Europe, Mankell (pronounced Man-kell with the emphasis on the first syllable) is a Swedish author, playwright, and theater director who lives part of the year in Mozambique, running a theater in Maputo. One of his best known characters is detective Kurt Wallender from Ystad. The books have been filmed and re-filmed and the books translated into numerous languages.

For the film enthusiasts, he is the son-in-law of Ingmar Bergmann.

He is in Germany because he received the 2009 Erich-Maria-Remarque Peace Prize for his books about Afrika.

He is quite the storyteller - and eavesdropper, as he confessed. He insists the we are not so much homo sapiens, but homo narrans, the tale tellers. And indeed, people learn better when the hear the story, especially one with a dramatic point.

One of the stories he tells during the evening emphasizes the point. He is sharing the shade outside of his theater in Maputo with two elderly gentleman. One is telling the story of a third man, recently deceased. He visited with him one night, and a long involved story was begun. The night turned late, and they went to bed, to continue in the morning. But the friend died in his sleep. "Now I'll never know how the story turns out!" laments the man on the bench.

Mankell tells his stories in Swedish, and is in charge of the entire room. He is aided by a competent simultaneous translator, who retells in German at every pause he makes. He understands German well enough, to repeat what he said when she missed one of the three points he was making.

WiseMan notes that the stories are pretty old - many of them were told when WiseMan first heard him speak 10 years ago in Berlin. But he tells them in a way that keeps them fresh.

And he is very pointed about our responsibility to help those hungering and dying of disease in Africa and elsewhere. In the 20 years since the wall came down, he says, more money has gone from West Germany to the former East Germany than went from all of Europe to all of Africa. The reason often given - corruption - is also a bit false. There are two parties in any corruption, the giver and the taker.

It was very enjoyable listening to him speak. We left as the rest of the room made a mad dash to get his signature in one of his books. WiseMan joked that he might want to go up with another crime writer's book, the one he is currently reading, and see if Mankell would sign that ;)