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 ;)


Collaborative Writing

I attended the E-Learning 2009 conference in Berlin this past week - a combination of the GMW and DeLFI conferences with around 400 people in the new conference center of the FU Berlin.

During the first talk I sat with a friend from another university in Berlin. He knows I like to play with software, and he showed me their experiment in collaborative writing: They were using EtherPad to take notes on the conference online. There were three people participating, who could not all be at the conference for the entire time.

I was intrigued, logged on, and watched them write while I continued to take my notes long hand on paper.

Then my fingers started to itch. I like to copy & paste a link and put it in a digital document after tagging the URL for delicious. And I love to make comments on things online. I couldn't resist commenting on a note my friend was taking. EtherPad color-codes each person, so it is easy to see who wrote what.

He responded by correcting my German, as he is wont to do ;)

The next talk got us mostly writing nasty comments about the pictures. I was a bit irritated at all the pictures being used (let's not get started on the lady with the pointy breast) with no reference. I want to know where I can go to see the pictures and perhaps use them myself. Why can't people include a small caption? Oh, and slide numbers in the form of x/44 so I know how many more are coming.

We split into sessions, and suddenly the usefulness of this tool proved itself. We were sitting in different sessions, but writing on the same page. One of the talks we attended together, and with two people concentrating we managed to get a good bit more of the meat from the talk noted. Someone asked me if a wiki would not be better for this. I think not - I would not see the others writing if I had my own Wiki-Page, and that was a very important aspect of our writing, being aware of who was reading and who was currently writing where.

More and more we could jump to the parallel session, make a note, ask a question, and jump back to our own sessions to continue writing. We eventually developed a style for delimiting the talks, copying over the titles and abstract links from the conference home page, and formatting our work. Little things like a long line between talks and setting the talk titles in bold and including the organization of the speaker emerged as useful.

When we again attended the same session, it was a bit strange when both started writing the same thing down at different places, and my habit of not copying directly but summarizing sometimes got in the way. Also I have lots of typos and der/die/das problems ;) I began to adapt how I write to my audience - my collaborators.

I was twittering in parallel on this first day, and by the end of the day I was exhausted - it was hard to write together in one style and to twitter in another and to listen to the talks and to think and reflect....

On day two I dispensed with most of the Tweets, concentrating instead on getting a good record of the conference. Okay, that was also because I had my OLPC with me and was fussing with the keyboard layout setting and trying to figure out which of the 73 WLAN dots was the conference one while listening to Michail Bletsas talk about what he learned at OLPC.

My friend could not be there this day, but he dropped by occasionally and read what was written, asking questions about things we has written. In the parallel sessions we discovered that writing too much caused a few cursor problems, with the screen jumping from where it should be to someplace the other person was writing. We tried the "undo" functionality, unfortunately that (and disconnections) undo too much.

There is a little chat window next to the writing area, I asked the other collaborators to please meet me after the day's sessions - I wanted to know who these people were in real life!

We continued on the last day, and I discovered that I was developing collaborative writing "muscles" and was back tweeting again.

At the end of the conference I exported our work to PDF - 28 pages! The text would need work before being published (like getting all my German fixed), but it would be easy to have someone else do this, and then remove all the comments and colors.

It was hard to keep from writing comments in the text - they belonged in the chat, but sometimes you just had to put a comment right into the text. I spoke briefly with Michail Bletsas about our experiment at lunch the last day. He asked if we were using Google Docs, I said no, I don't like the delay. He nodded, the OLPC's editor was designed for collaboration with a quick turnaround after typing. Google collects up stuff first before it gets bundled off to the server.

I don't know how the system would scale to > 4 writers at a time, but it does seem to be a nice array of export formats so that you can move your collaboratively written opus to other platforms. A very interesting experience - I think I want to know more about this tool!


Can I bribe you?

I was doing the church books this morning and had Skype on. I permit students to ask important questions if necessary if I am not doing something I don't want to be disturbed by. Our exchange went rather like this (my thoughts in square brackets):

Stu Dent: Do you have a second?
Me: [this will not take a second - it did, actually, take 9 minutes] Sure!
Stu: I need your signature on this student loan form, will you be at school any time soon?
Me: [My summer office hours have been posted since July] My last office hours were Wednesday. I have the next one in 2 weeks, because I am attending a conference next week. There were lots of people needing signatures who showed up Wednesday, all with the proper documentation.
Stu: But I was waiting for (excuse) and (another excuse) and (a third excuse) and I didn't know (something else).
Me: [How typical! The letters requesting the signatures has been out since July. They must have just sent around reminders. ] Sorry. I don't get paid for this, so I only do it on my office hours. The next one is in 2 weeks.
Stu: My fault. But could you please make an exception and maybe do it by fax because I have to pay my rent?
Me: No. Since we got a 10% pay cut for doing the same work I quit doing freebies. Office hours are in 2 weeks.
Stu: But (a fourth excuse) and (a repeat of a previous excuse)!
Me: Office hours were on Wednesday, and many people were there.
Stu: I don't suppose you could make an exception for me and accept a bribe of a bottle of wine or so?
Me: [WTF?] Of course not. This conversation is now ended. [Switches Skype button to DO-NOT-DISTURB]
Stu: That was just a joke, of course you don't take bribes.
Me: [Silence]
Stu: I need the money! I'm broke! I don't know what to do!
Me: [Silence]
Stu: It was just meant as a joke, I would never try and bribe a professor because I know that this is a big problem.

Listen up, Stu. Maybe you want to get out a pen and some paper and take notes. I am a German civil servant, a Beamte. According to StGB § 334 you are looking at 3 months to 5 years in prison for even making such a suggestion. It's like trying to joke with the security people when going through security to get on a plane about the bomb in your shoes. The rule is: keep you mouth shut. Tight.

It might not have been that bad for me, you were only wishing to have an extra appointment. If you had offered something for my signature so that you could get money, I would be in danger of getting fired and losing my pension. Does this help?

The correct answer for our discussion above was: My fault. See you in 2 weeks. And then go out and get a day job at a construction site shoveling garbage or moving bricks for 3 days to pay the rent. That will help remind you to respond to letters from the student loan office in a more timely fashion.


Inglorious Basterds

We managed to see Inglorious Basterds tonight. Wikipedia corrects the spelling, which is ridiculous.

Don't want to give it away, so here are a few bullet points:

  • There is far too much unnecessary blood and brutality.
  • The film must be seen in the original in order to savor the language mix. And trying to dub Brad Pitt while preserving the character would seem to me to be an exercise in futility.
  • There is so much suspense built in, it hurts some times.
  • Crazy Americans writing for the Wikipedia seem to think this is in some way non-fictional.
  • There is a typo on the last word shown in the credits: uinintentional.
  • The camera work is great.
  • I really liked the French actress playing the movie theater owner.
  • It is a must-see film. You can close your eyes for the horrible bits, they are announced, so to say.
Update: And the SS-boss won a Golden Globe for his efforts!


Pirates clean up

The Pirate Party managed to get on the ballot for the general elections end of September in Germany. But many places are trying to put them in their place. The Bavarian town of Altötting permitted the party the right to place three (3) posters around town.

The local pirates thought that was a few too little. So they rented a truck and a high-pressure washer, and did a bit of selective cleaning up around town. Pictures can be seen at http://forum.piratenpartei.de/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=10401#p133193


Quantum Mechanics

WiseMan was playing in the German Kubb championships today together with some friends. I was along in the rain and freezing wind for moral support, along with a few others (the team lost in their group, but still had fun playing).

The TeenageGirl, who is so interested in physics that she took a summer school course on it, came over to sit with me and ask if I understood anything about quantum mechanics. "No," I said, "I have a friend who works with bits of it, he tries to explain it to me on occasion, and I had it in college, but I am not sure that I really understand it." We chatted on, she explained the experiment that was troubling her and wondering about whether it could be used to transmit information faster than light. I launched into a short lecture on information vs. data and commutative mapping functions, and we chatted about that for a bit.

One of the team members came over and smiled at us, asking us in a bit of a condescending voice if we girls were bored. The look on his face when I answered - honestly! - that we were discussing quantum mechanics was priceless. He stumbled around trying to find a response to that, finally giving up and going back to the game.

We then had a good giggle together about the incident!


The Salesman

I used to wonder what horrible things WiseKid would do to demonstrate his distance from me. Like I was a Democrat just because my Dad was Republican.

We're academics, so he hates books and school. We like healthy food, he could live on white bread and Nutella for years (he thinks). We tend to the left when thinking politically, so I was expecting him to be more to the right. Actually, my nightmare was him in a suit, head of the Junge Union.

Anyway, he dropped by this evening, we've been on vacation without him, as he has a Real Job. One that will pay him oodles of cash (dare I say that none has, as of yet, materialized?). He works as one of these door-to-door salesmen. And loves it.

I have nothing against honest salesmen, people selling proper products to people wishing to purchase this particular type of goods. But WiseKid is now one of those people canvassing the neighborhoods, promising you the best buy in town (if it's so good, why do they have to sell it door to door?), and getting you to sign on the dotted line.

He laughed this evening - he gets called names, gets doors slammed in his face. He enjoys the power that he is discovering in himself to not kick in their door, but to go outside, have a smoke, and try the next door. And he got 30 signatures today.

The way he describes it, I feel it is like one of these brainwashing sects. It is, of course, a pyramid scheme. I tried to explain the mechanics and mathematics of these schemes. Mooooooom! What a party pooper.

So we'll see if he ever gets any real money out of this. He has, however, gotten himself up every morning at 6 am to get to work on time. This is the kid who was always late to school that is 4 minutes walk from our house. If you take your time.



After church on Sunday in Lund they had a speaker, Martin Smedjeback spoke about an action that his group, Avrusta (Disarm!) conducted in 2008 (although the web page says that they did this in 2009, I don't hardly think they can have done something a month and a half in the future ;)

On October 16, 2008, two groups of activists carried out some planned civil disobedience. Sweden, although it pretends to be neutral on the question of wars, not only contributes soldiers to international forces, but they sell weapons to pretty much anyone willing to pay for them.

They entered the production facilities of Saab Bofors Dynamics in Eskilstuna. After putting up a sign stating that disarmament was underway, they destroyed a few Carl Gustaf anti tank launchers just using hammers and other stuff you can get at a hardware store.

However, no security or anything showed up (!), so they had to call the police and turn themselves in. That is the point of civil disobedience, you have to be arrested and call attention to why you are doing what you are doing. The police did arrive, and arrest them.

They were tried and sentenced to 4 months in prison. You may wish to note than men convicted of rape or swindling large sums of money often get suspended sentences in Sweden.

Life in a Swedish prison is apparently not bad - except that you have no internet. Nothing for me!

The discussion afterwards was the question of civil disobedience - can it have an effect? And how best to point out people getting rich selling implements of death?

Kunst der Fuge

We went down to Lund for some culture this evening. The yearly organ festival was finishing up with Johann Sebastian Bach's "Kunst der Fuge" in the Cathedral. Can't pass that up!

This is the fugue that was supposedly the last thing Bach wrote. His son noted on the partiture "The author died while writing the name BACH in the contrasubject". Yeah, right. Did they have the yellow press in 1750, eager for any and all sensations? Did he really drop dead over this sheet, smushing that bar on the top?

Anyway, Tomas Willstedt and Janåke Larsson played using two of the five (!) organs available in the Cathedral in Lund. According to the Wikipedia, the gallery organ is one of the largest in Sweden with over 7000 pipes!

We got there early for the free concert, but the doors weren't opened yet. Seems everyone shows up on the dot of 5 minutes early and gets seated quickly. Some discipline they have! The church was full (maybe 300 people) but there were a few seats available.

The program had the first few bars of each fugue printed, so if you could read music it was easy to follow where exactly you were. I had my eyes closed for the first few ones, and suddenly realized that I was now surrounded by sound, as there were now four hands playing, one orgen in the back, one in the front. I did not see the organists communicating, other than that they had decided who was starting each Contrapunktus with the other joining in as marked.

The cathedral is a wonderful place for music, although it could have been louder, as WiseMan noted. One of the Contrapunkta was so delicate, it sounded like drops of rain gently raining down from the roof.

The worst part was the very end - approx. 30 microseconds after the last note was played some boffo in the first row started clapping wildly and others joined in, must microseconds later to demonstrate that they knew that the piece was over. Why can't you let the music settle in, that last, unfinished note reverberate in the largeness of the cathedral? Tomas Willstedt was so mad, he didn't want to come out to get his flowers from the people who organized it. Larson had to drag him from behind the console down to the front.

I rather felt in those last few fugues some sense of dreading, of the Bach approaching his end. And strangely enough, my sense of smell, which has been making quite a comeback this summer, suddenly smelled the dank that is inside such a building.

An enjoyable evening, now I have to go read "Gödel, Escher, Bach" again.