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.