2010-12-28

The Concert

The highlight of today's 27C3 was the world premiere of "The Concert", a disconcerting moment for free culture. Canadian violinist Corey Cerovsek, French pianist Julien Quentin and artist manager Alex Antener hacked this hacker's convention, injecting excellent classical music in a performance about the evils of non-free culture.

There is a mix of projected chat, video, and visuals with some great music underlying it - played on some of the best hardware, a Stradivarius violin, a Steinway piano, and a MacBook Pro. The auditorium, used to listening to deep technical talks, was enraptured. Cerovsek and his violin unite to produce lively sweet melodies, as the fingers of Quentin flow in waves over the keyboard. They sound as if they have been playing together forever, when actually only Corey and Alex got together three days ago, Julien joined two days ago, and they created this work - remixing Bach, Debussey, and Beethoven with Wikipedia, some fair-use video, and their own texts.

They play a video by Richard Stallman about Beethoven making the point about patent absurdity - if music had been patented 200 years ago, you would have a hard time writing a symphony that would not get you sued, much less one which sounds nice.

They received a standing ovation, and after a fun discussion gave one encore with Alex standing in as a music stand, and another after the crowd would not let them leave the room. I think they converted a number of people to classical music this evening!

I enjoyed it tremendously, and would go see Cerovsek any chance I get!

2010-12-27

Daemon

Brrrrr. I thought The System was scary. This book is worse, even scarier. Daniel Suarez knows what he is talking about in Daemon, in which a rich game designer dies and leaves a program running that rather takes over the world. And almost none of the technology is too far-fetched.

I'm currently attending the 27C3, and there were two things spoken about at the conference today that are in the book: one is the 3D part manufacturing system, the other the possibility of identifying people trying to be anonymous on the net.

MakerBot Industries has a pretty cool rapid prototyping machine, the "Thing-O-Matic". For just $1225 you can make things up to muffin size by applying layer on layer of plastic that gets melted and extruded. Get more and colored plastic stuff to feed in for just 65$ for 5 pounds. In Daemon there are bits of weapons produced on printers like this, picked up by people who walk at the directions of the AI system, meet anonymous people on the street and snap their parts together - CrowdManufacturing.

And then there's this anonymity thing - I used to think it was possible to be anonymous on the web if you took precautions, like using Tor and all that. Nope. Dominik Herrmann and his pals have been doing a lot of data mining on this topic and have discovered that they can pretty much identify you by the size of the data packets you send and recieve and the time of day you are looking at which site. Scary. Listening to Internet-Radio helps a bit, but not much. So the only thing I found far-fetched in Daemon, the identifying one of the heros when they go online, isn't that far-fetched at all.

New Year's resolutions
1) Start learning data mining
2) Get the next Suarez book, Freedom, the minute it is published in paperback (Jan. 4, 2011)
3) Find some excuse and funding to purchase a Thing-O-Matic

2010-12-26

A Business Card from the Past

I was sorting out something or other last night and knocked over the pile of business cards I have on a desk. I have exchanged business cards will all sorts of people over the years, I don't throw them away. Ones that I use get put in my Rolodex (yes, even in the digital world I use a Rolodex because I can't remember the name of the people I'm looking for, but riffling through the cards I can often find them). Ones that I just collected I put on a pile. I have lots of piles.

The top one was a former student. Then someone from One Laptop Per Child. And someone from Transparency International that I met at a party where I was just being WiseWife. And then:

WikiLeaks.org
Home of the ethical leaking movement
Julien D'Assangé
Advisory Board

A telephone number and two email addresses, one from Harvard.

Where did I meet him? I have a diffuse memory of standing outside the c-base at night, talking with two geek boys of unspecific age. One was working on the Free Haven project, the other on a project where people could do whistleblowing anonymously. We had an interesting and animated discussion, apparently exchanged business cards, and parted ways. The Free Haven card is in my Rolodex, because I tried (unsuccessfully) repeatedly to interest students for the idea of anonymous computing. Maybe they are more interested now.

2010-12-25

The Thing-a-ma-jig

We seem to be reviving old habits this year. We had friends over for dinner and decided to make cheese fondue. We haven't done that in years, no idea why not because it is delicious. But trying to find the caquelon was an exercise in frustration - where did it go? Another pot was pressured into service, and a panic call to the guests to see if they had a stand with the thing-a-ma-jig for heating it up. They did, they could find theirs, the evening was saved.

For Christmas we decided to get out the old hot stone, haven't used that in years, either. We knew where it was, the box was waaaay up on top of the kitchen shelves. WiseMan got it down, turns out it needs two thing-a-ma-jigs, and none were in the box.

I volunteered to go for a look. I started in the cellar - a cow couldn't find her lost calf there, it should be declared a disaster area. When WiseKid moved back in in October he shoved his stuff down there. I poked around, nothing to be found.

I climbed up and investigated other shelving. I got down and emptied the corner cabinet, wiping the years of dust from it after getting it emptied. The nasty bit behind the beer cases was brought to light, there were all sorts of interesting things there (cupcake papers! Lemon flavoring! A first-aid kit!). But no thing-a-ma-jig.

An exasperated run through the jam jars found the fondue pot shoved in the back, and lo and behold: a thing-a-ma-jig! Well, we only need one more! I went through drawers, pulled stuff out of likely shelves all over, they were just not to be found.

It was 1.30 pm. Christmas Eve. I put on boots, hat and jacket, and stomped out into the snow. The stores close at 2 pm if I'm lucky. I managed three (!) stores in the 30 minutes, two of the three completely deserted and the seller happy for the diversion of speaking with me. I described the thing-a-ma-jig, not knowing the German word for it. No, don't have one of those.

So I gave up, came home, and we made do with just one. Worked just fine, by the way. This evening I googled around, and found the German name: Pastenbrenner. I don't think I've ever heard that word before, and I can't find a translation. Cost 4,49 € plus 4,90 € postage on ebay. Maybe I can find some store somewhere that has them.

Or I'll find it looking for the next strange cooking implement.  

2010-12-19

Where's the Head of Security?

I had a nice chat with a gentleman in the know this evening about WikiLeaks. Since he was speaking to me as a private person and not in an official capacity, he shall remain nameless. He brought up the issue that has been bothering him since this whole thing broke:

Why was it possible to obtain this much data - much of it marked secret - without someone knowing?

Who was (still is? I would imagine this person assigned to latrine detail in the meantime) head of security at the State Department? They have themselves a "Bureau of Diplomatic Security". Isn't it their job to keep an eye on the data floating around and the people with access to it? They have all this theater about having to have security clearances in order to see certain documents.

Of course, I've always thought it was a farce ever since doing my doctorate. There were papers that I wanted to read that pertained to my dissertation, but they could not be sent outside the United States and could only be read by a US citizen. Since I was at that time still a US citizen, I flew over, read the documents, and took lots of notes.

Oh, wait - they apparently didn't have anyone assigned to computer security. Look at this job announcement:

DS To Recruit Security Protective Specialists
On Monday, December 21, 2010, Diplomatic Security will open the position of Security Protective Specialist. The application period will close Thursday, January 20, 2011.  Interested individuals may access the announcement through www.usajobs.gov.
Apparently, Eric J Boswell is still the head of security.  If I was Hillary Clinton, I would have had his head on a plate the day after WikiLeaks broke. Why are the commentators in the US not demanding that Something Be Done about the computer security up at State?

Oh, maybe this is why:
Ambassador Boswell earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University, and served in the U.S. Army. He speaks French.
Does Stanford offer computer science degrees as a B.A.? I realize that security is more than just computers, but it would be useful if the guys at the top actually understood computers.

The gentleman and I pondered the state of computer security at weapons sites around the globe. This sent a shiver down both of our spines, so we called it an evening, wished each other a Merry Christmas and went out into the cold and snow.

2010-12-17

The Gun

Two weeks ago during one of our "terror warnings" I had an unexpected free morning. I got some things sorted out, and on my way to an afternoon meeting I treated myself to lunch at Salomon's Bagels. I love bagels, and there is a great little bagel store next to the Jewish bookstore in the Joachimsthaler Str.

The bookstore usually has a policeman standing outside, guarding it, and this day was no exception. Except that the policeman had a machine gun slung over his shoulder, and it was pointing straight ahead. And the policeman was not paying attention to anything other than his mobile phone.

I found this very, very strange, and was lucky to be able to pass behind him on the way into the bagel store. I had a lovely lunch, but on the way out, the policeman was still there, the machine gun still pointing straight ahead. He wasn't texting any more, but he had his back to the wall, so I had to pass in front of the mouth of the gun to pass him.

I thought about speaking to him, as a gun which is not in use is to be kept pointed to the ground - WiseKid, now experienced in the ways of the military, explained this to me later. But I decided that discussing anything with someone pointing a gun at me was not really a great idea. I gave the guy a wide berth, kept my eyes on the mouth of the gun, and passed as quickly as I could.

When I got home, I got mad, and wrote a complaint at the online police station. Today a woman called and apologized profusely. She said that the policeman had been called to a discussion with his boss and had reviewed with him the proper way to hold a gun and that he can only use a telephone for police business, not for personal business. I explained again that as a citizen of a free country that is not at war, that I do not want to have guns pointed at me by police. She agreed, and apologized another few times. They didn't want to write me a letter, but prefer the personal touch.

Well, okay. A letter would have been nice, but I really am surprised that my online letter had consequences. I rather expected it to be piped to /dev/null. Now if we could just get them to tone down the security theater ...

2010-12-16

The System

Scary. I just finished a German thriller, Das System, by Karl Olsberg. Olsberg is a pseudonym for an author and entrepreneur with a doctorate in artificial intelligence.

The book is about computer suddenly misbehaving - and it's not just the operating systems, it's a creature that consists only of code. Intelligent code.

The story is well-written, pulls you inward and onwards, and is correct in the computing aspects, except for the part of there really being such an "intelligent" program, which I very much doubt. But if there ever is, this book shows why we don't want to have such a program. Brrrr.

A great read, but no link to Amazon. I have an issue with them, and have managed my entire Christmas shopping elsewhere.

2010-12-12

WikiLeaks

I've been meaning to write something about WikiLeaks for days, but I don't seem to have any time, as I spend any excess minutes I might have reading about WikiLeaks and interpreting it for others. So many people have no idea what a wiki is, what WikiLeaks is, how it differs from Wikipedia, that I feel called upon to try and educate them.

The bizarreness of Sarah Palin calling for Julian Assange's death for not actually breaking any US laws, but embarrassing the hell out of the State Department, coupled with the Chinese calling Liu Xiaobo (the Nobel Peace Prize winner 2010) a terrorist makes me wonder if I have slipped over to some parallel universe where common sense and logical thinking have disappeared and been replaced by Newspeak and Big Brother. Or Sister.

Anyway, this is the best comment on WikiLeaks that I have found for a number of days:




Oh, and I really want to see the list of all the other guys who had broken condoms and are now being sought world-wide by Interpol. 'Cause I now expect them to go after each and every one. And after the guys who did worse.

2010-11-28

Food Memories

We stumble from Thanksgiving right on to Advent! I celebrated Thanksgiving as usual in Germany, a day late. Not having the day off rather cramps your style getting the foods ready, but it worked well this year. Friends did the bird and used the 15 minutes that it needs to wait before carving to drive over, I did all the fixings. I did pumpkin and apple pie, as well as the cranberry relish the night before, clover-leaf rolls, cornbread, yams, Aunt Jean's mashed potatoes, succotash, stuffed celery, and salad Friday afternoon.

The taste, as always, is tremendous, and brings back so many childhood memories. Although - they are not actually all happy. How often was I bored at Thanksgiving, thought all this tada about the food was silly. I didn't like the pompous things Uncle Jim's brother said. My cousins insisted on watching football on TV, I usually brought a book along so I had something to do until I could finally go home.

I see my father celebrating the turkey - engineered to perfection. I found his adherence to his mother's recipe silly, yet what do I do now, 40 years later? I keep to the recipe, exactly! And it tastes sooooo good! Our guests enjoy it, although they are not sure exactly what to think of cranberries and yams. WiseKid  refuses to sit at the table, but raids the cornbread and rolls, returning a few minutes later for some turkey and stuffing "just for his girlfriend". Fine, if they want to eat in their room, let them. We are just being boring adults and talking about politics.

Nothing went to waste in the Thanksgivings past, the next days were filled with turkey leftover this and turkey leftover that. The one I barely tolerated as a teenager was the turkey noodle soup, as I liked the noodles, but hated the bits of dark meat that were swimming in the soup. So what did I make last night? Turkey noodle soup. With the dark meat. And it was delicious! WiseKid declined, his girlfriend was polite and had a bowl, but was wary of the cornbread. I think I had three bowls, the scales groaned this morning.

I wonder if WiseKid will be insisting on a turkey at Thanksgiving in 40 years?

2010-11-13

Plug & Pray

I saw the German film "Plug & Pray" (Trailer) by Jens Schanze on opening night, November 11, in Berlin. It is about Joseph Weizenbaum and his very critical discussion of the attempts of many computing researchers to create robots that are in some way human, often called humanoids.

The interview scenes of Weizenbaum were done just before he died in March 2008. Weizenbaum was a German-born computer scientist who left Germany as a teenager with his family during the Third Reich. He was a professor for computer science at MIT in the US from 1970.  He returned to Berlin in retirement in 1996 - but still remained very active as the rational voice for the ethical use of computing.

He was an important person for me with respect to my own views of computing. He came to the University of Kiel, where I studied computing, sometime at the end of the 70s or beginning of the 80s. He spoke about his Eliza system, a simple system that tries to respond like a psychoanalyst. People would assume that this system - nothing more than code - was somehow human-like and be very open with the system about their problems.

He published a book in 1976, Computer Power and Human Reason. From Judgement to Calculation (German: Die Macht der Computer und die Ohnmacht der Vernunft) that really made me think about these questions - what is a computer? What does it mean to society when computers act in certain ways? What are ethical - and unethical - uses of computing? Can we even use computers if we are against the military uses?

He wrote occasional articles in the "Zeit" (his legendary Albtraum Computer is available online), and came back to Germany occasionally for speaking tours. I had the supreme pleasure of speaking longer with him in person on one occasion after a speech he gave at the Humboldt University. This elderly gentleman with very sharp, at times dancing eyes, and a razor-sharp argumentative presence was inspiring. The idea for my own small book about ethics and computing germinated in that room.

The producers of Plug & Pray wanted to investigate current research on the bleeding edge of technology that are questionable in their ethical consequences. They chose robotics, as this offers much in the way of visuals. This is a major problem for computing - it is difficult to explain to the general public what we do and what the problems associated with our work is, because most of what we do is abstract and not visible, most certainly not interesting to watch on film.

Schanze interviews a number of researchers as contrapoints to the words of Weizenbaum. Hiroshi Ishiguro, of Osaka University in Japan, has created a Doppelgänger he calls Geminoid that can play 20 questions with a partner, and in general is dressed like him, and moves like him. As he points out, when he comes home to his children he just plops in front of the TV and says "yes, yes" when his kids ask him something, so there might just as well be a robot there. I think that he ought to send this dead-eyed thing on conferences to give his papers and instead spend more time being sincerely interested in his children.

Introducing this sequence is a collection of manga comics depicting this brave new world coming up soon - and I find it so sad to see a child alone in a room with a robotic stuffed animal and a big screen, or being taught by such a lifeless robot. Life is not just about factoids, but it is about relationships and feeling, about empathy and anger and love, even about choosing to do something that is not rational on one level but makes perfect sense on another.

During the film I often got the feeling that many of these researchers, working as they do in an almost exclusively male environment, have problems with women. On the one hand, they are deeply envious of women's capability for creating life. They are not content to contribute that first spark, but they want to make something in their own image that completely follows their bidding. Some even seem afraid of women, for example in the lab of  Minoru Asada, also in Osaka, where we see researchers watching via camera what their robot in a shopping center is doing. It is flirting with a group of girls, and the researchers like this very much, safely distanced from the girls, watching them without the girls being aware that they are being watched.

Giorgio Metta, from Genua, is working on the humanoid robot iCub, that plays heavily on the cuteness of small children (the Kindchenschema described by Konrad Lorenz) in order to be appealing. I find this quite appalling. Even if they manage to make this -oid learn, it will never grow, will never mature.  It doesn't have a life experience to relate to. Metta notes that the Catholic Church would probably excommunicate him if they knew what he is doing, but the Vatican wisely refrains from having an opinion, noting that humans enjoy a free will and can use their God-given gifts as they choose, even to build robots.

The strangest interview is with Raymond Kurzweil, a veritable Energizer bunny who has invented many diverse things from a very useful reader for blind people and an amazing keyboard that makes authentic sounding music to a bizarre pill and tea regimen that he flogs on a web site. He wants to live forever. Imagine working forever, the world getting more and more crowded, constantly changing. Better to accept that our time on earth is finite, to enjoy each age as it comes, and to live each day to the fullest. Weizenbaum knows that his time is coming to an end. Even though there are so many things he still needs to write, he is, in a way, longing for the time when pain is a thing of the past. He listens to Bach's "Komm süßer Tod":


Come, sweet death, come blessed rest!
Come lead me to peace
for I am weary of the world,
oh come! I wait for you,
come soon and lead me,
close my eyes.
Come, blessed rest!
Another research group that is presented is the unmanned vehicle group of Hans-Joachim Wünsche from the University of the Army in Munich, Germany.  Presentations of their unmanned follower vehicle at a military conference were filmed. I suppose the idea is to have an unmanned vehicle that can explore "enemy" territory without killing soldiers when they drive over landmines.

But for me this shows the true goal of the robotic investigations - for military use. Robots won't feel bad about killing enemies. Their puppeteers can rationalize that they didn't do any killing directly. And anyway, can we be sure which robot did the killing? They don't leave DNA and fingerprints, as WiseKid points out when we discuss the film.

It was amusing that one of the cars got irritated by tall grass and left the trail and the convoy, getting mired in the mud. A press conference given by Prof. Wünsche and some unnamed, uniformed men I find it almost comical as they pass an enormous, phallic microphone around and speak about how great their vehicles will be - someday.

A brief interview with the researchers shows them rationalizing what they do - they are just investigating, they are not doing anything bad, anything to be ashamed of. "It's just my research." This is a decision that everyone must make for themselves - is there enough good to come out of what I do that it is worth the nasty uses the military will come up with? Sure, many offer up "helping the elderly" as one of the reasons for their work. But this is flimsy and not thought through well - there don't seem to be clear-cut non-military use cases for these robots, the production of which is taking an enormous amount of taxpayer's money.

I would prefer to have this money used in schools, and for health care - real care, of humans helping and teaching humans, not machines to teach and to heal. And that we train all scientists, not just computer scientists, to think about the consequences of their research.

2010-11-08

Nordic Film Festival 2010

And the other films I saw at the Nordic Film Festival 2010:

  • Run Sister Run
    Finnish film about two teenage girls - one good, one bad. The good one turns bad, the two of them raise hell, and then the good one turns good again. 
  • Caspar and the Forbidden Movie
    Finnish director Caspar Wrede made a film in 1970 about Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". The world was happy to see it when Solzhenitsyn got the Nobel Peace Prize, but Finland got its knickers in a knot about it and banned it. When the Swedes showed it on TV they cut the power to the senders located on the Aaland Islands so no one could watch. Caspar got mad and returned to the theater. In 1996 (!) the Finns finally resented and broadcast it on TV.
  • But Film Is My Mistress
    Another Ingmar Bergmann retrospektive. Reuses bits from other documentaries. Nothing new to see here, move along.
  • Beyond
    This one won the festival prize, although I was sick of yet-another-alcoholic-parent and dysfunctional-family. Noomi Rapace proves that she plays the same character in all movies - it was great in the Millenium trilogy, but rather tiring in a different setting. She does have good taste in men, however - her real-life husband Ola Rapace plays her husband in the film, and he sure is good-looking!
  • The Place
    An Icelandic youth gets put in jail by mistake, is brutalized, gets saved by his girlfriend.
  • The Trainer
    Jens Albinus, the actor who plays the Eagle in that wonderful Danish cop series, is a handball trainer. His goalie suspects that the trainer has jerked him off while he was drunk. Did he or didn't he?
  • Dreamland
    This time it is not people getting raped, but the Icelandic countryside, ravished to produce electricity that is consumed by aluminum plants to produce all those cans the Americans pitch after having a cola or a beer. Interesting documentary.
I would have liked to see more, but there was no time. Maybe next year!

Between Two Fires

The Polish-Swedish co-production Between Two Fires is about asylum seekers. Marta is a single mother in Belarus and lives with an older man, letting him use her, in order to have food for her girl. She works as a cleaner at the train station. One day Jurii comes by and sees her daughter, and when she comes home a few days later she finds her daughter raped by and sold to Jurii. He takes young girls to Minsk as prostitutes.

Marta quickly organizes a way to get to Sweden, where a friend of hers lives. According to the mother of the friend, she is now rich there, living in a nice house with nice clothes and a big car. 10 days later they are in Kiruna, in a home for asylum seekers. At first, Marta thinks she is safe, but she quickly learns that danger is everywhere for both her and her daughter. Her roommate scares her, because she has a knife in her bed. Marta applies for a different room, but this is not possible.

She applies for asylum, and waits. During the wait she meets Ali, from Algeria. She is afraid of him at first, but soon falls in love with him - rather corny, filled with shower-wet scenes. A bit less sex would not have detracted from the story proper.

Marta finally finds her friend, but she has married a Swede in order to get a residence permit. She lives in a little flat, and the beautiful house she was photographed in front of is one of the houses she cleans. Her friend, Gosci, offers to have her marry another older Swedish man so that she, too, can get a residence permit.

Marta gets her own flat, and believes that she will now stay, but there is no happy end. I don't want to reveal the exact details here, as the film has not been screened except for film festivals.

The film does an excellent job of showing that asylum seekers are not just leeches here to prey on a rich society. They are all traumatized, all in a different way, and putting them all in a home together is not exactly a good idea. We tend to ignore them, hope that they go away, back "home" - a home that may prove fatal to most of them. But they are human beings, they want to live, love, work, and pray, just like we do. They may not be like us, they have different values, but they are human none the less.

The producer and the first assistant director were there after the film. The extras in the film are real asylum seekers from the area around Kiruna. One person asked what the authorities said that they were taking part in such a move. They smiled slyly and noted that they didn't ask the authorities for permission - the asylum seekers are free to spend their days as they please. They did not use a real asylum center, but a camp site far outside of Kiruna as the film location.  

They are planning their next screenings in the south of Sweden - the part of Sweden in which the anti-foreigner Swedish Nationalist Party received 10% of the vote in the recent election. I look forward to hearing about the reception of Between Two Fires - the story of a mother between a rock and a hard place. 

2010-11-07

Sound of Noise

Ahhhhh!

A Scandinavian film that does not involve alcoholic, divorced parents, juvenile deliquients, the Nazi occupation, or pedophilia! Okay, there is anarchy involved - serious anarchy. And art. Much fun is made of the musical establishment and a case made for the rhythm, the music to be found in a city.

The music involved in Sound of Noise consists of four pieces of music for six drummers and a city. I can't tell much more without giving away the film. The directors first made a short film Music for one Apartment and Six Drummers - and they are now often asked if that film "inspired" them. Uh, yeah. They made it. Duh.

The main character is a great actress Sanna Persson, whom I had not noticed before, but who could act behind a chador, her eyes alone speak volumes. She and her buddy - one of the directors - hire the 6 best drummers, who play themselves in order to perform this work.

There are so many comical scenes, so much to make you smile or laugh out loud. The Nordic Film Festival is the first major screening, they are planning on releasing in Sweden for Christmas Day. Lucky Swedes!

As WiseMan notes - even just telling people about the film makes you want to go back and see it again. We're now sorry we missed this one as the opening film - apparently, four of the six drummers were there in person to give a short concert. If they ever go on tour: I want to be there!

Mamma Gógó

It's the Nordic Film Festival in Lübeck again, an I was finally able to visit on a Friday. It is much better with fewer people queuing for the films. The only problem is that they are showing three Icelandic films at the same time! Are there so many people interested in Icelandic films?

My first choice had to be Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's new film "Mamma Gógó". It is a typical FTF film with sly references to previous films of his - "Bórn nátturnir" (Children of Nature, nominated for an Oscar) and "Biódagar" (Movie Days). The film insists that only parts of the film are autobiographical, and he won't say what parts.

As the film is introduced and the director's apologies are given for not being there, my neighbor - also a filmmaker - whispers that he's got a bad alcohol problem. There is a reference to this in the film, when the mother says to her son that he handles his alcohol well, he replies "Sure, I only drink until the bottle is empty."

But back to the story. "Children of Nature" was about two elderly people who run away from the home in which they live. "Mamma Gógó" is about the mother of the director (the latter is portrayed nicely by the very handsome Hilmir Snaer Gudnason). She is 80 years old and suffering from Alzheimer's.

FTF portrays the decline - forgetting things, or thinking that one is forgetting things, mood swings, bitter accusations about loved ones, and finally that blank look that I know so well from my own mother who is in the same situation. FTF's character sits in her room, the tears in his eyes, saying to his mother that he should have told her earlier how much she means to him - and asking her where she has gone.

There are many small stories woven into the film: money problems, the decline of Icelandic culture, the rise and fall of the Icelandic company Decode. And some quite funny scenes, for example how Gógó manages to get herself out of a drunk-driving accusation, or the old car driving by without a visible driver.

The film is intercut with black and white images from a 1962 Gógó film - are these the same actors now playing Gógó and her husband, who is the obligatory ghost in the scene? Speaking of obligatory - Icelandic films have to have three elements: beautiful Icelandic nature, a ghost, and a pissing scene. The pissing scene has a twist this time - it is the mother who has to go, and her son helps her out of her diaper and into a fresh one in a touching reversal of the caretaker role.

The beautiful Icelandic nature - shot at Borgarnes and  S...fjörd - makes me long to return. The sounds made by the gentleman playing the saw with a violin bow remind me of the whistling of the wind in Ísafjördur one night I was out watching Northern Lights. Eerie, moving, deep.

I don't think it will be a box office hit, but for an FTF fan it was great. The film brings us face to face with a rapidly approaching future, when we are ourselves old and cannot take care of ourselves any more.

P.S. I just checked my suspicion, finally being back online with a connection to the Internet Movie Database: The actors playing FTF's mother and father are the actors in the 1962 film 79 af stöðinni - playing the lovers Gógó and Ragnar! The film is known in English as Girl Gogo. I spied this film in the credits, the black and white love scene between his mother and father must be taken from this. Sweet!


2010-10-31

The Sea Lady

I used the hour given to us this morning upon turning the clocks back to finish off Margret Drabble's The Sea Lady. It is a rather odd tale of academics and aging.

Two academics in their 60s are traveling to the (presumably, I can't find it on Wikipedia) northern coastal town of Ornemouth to receive honorary doctorates at the new university there, which is desperately trying to pretend that it is an old English university.  Humphrey, the marine biologist, and Ailsa (apparently named after the Scottish Ailsa Craig), the gender studies star, had spent a summer together as children here together with her brother and a friend.

Drabble switches perspectives from Ailsa to Humphrey to an irritatingly omniscient Public Orator, and we follow their respective trains of thought as they review their academic and personal lives - and tragedies - on the trip northward. Ailsa and Humphrey had been lovers and briefly married at one time.

The book was hard to follow as my usual read-a-few-pages-before-bed companion, but the last 70 pages or so - read this morning - did finally become fascinating, even if the ending I was envisioning did not present itself. The very few chapter divisions and typographical breaks when skipping over time make it hard to pick up the thread again. I suppose Drabble wants to draw us into the stream of consciousness and make us participate in the thought processes of the main characters. But I don't read books at one sitting anymore (okay, with the exception of Stieg Larsson during a summer's read-a-thon).

I long, somehow, upon finishing reading, to head right for the sea.

2010-10-20

Farsan

We saw the Swedish comedy Farsan (Daddy) by Josef Fares this evening in a well-visited film club in Berlin - in Swedish! Fares is the director of other comedies such as Kopps and Jalla, Jalla, both family favorites. I also saw Leo, a more serious film, a few years ago at the Berlinale.

Farsan features Fares father, Jan Fares, a Swedish actor of Lebanese descent as - what else? - the father. Such a charming macho, getting himself into all sorts of trouble. We were laughing and laughing at the embarrassing situations he was getting himself into.

Love, relationships, manliness, minorities: lots of topics and subtopics, but mostly just an enjoyable 90 minutes. Just noticed that it is available in English as Balls - oh my, yes, I have to giggle about the grilled sheep's testicles that play an important role in this. Aptly named, if I do say so!

2010-10-15

Doctoral colloquium

Our engineering college does not have doctoral programs (none are allowed to grant doctorates in Germany). But there are some "friendly" universities that realize that a few of us actually are able to do some research, and have been reaching out to us. We even tried to get money together, but that was rejected because engineering colleges don't do Real Research (tm) by definition, so you can't be giving them money to start. They might get high and mighty.

Anyway, we decided to have a joint doctoral colloquium. We are from 5 institutions, 2 engineering colleges and 3 universites, and we had 7 doctoral students or prospective doctoral students speak about their work. Three called in sick at the last moment, so there was more time for the others. Some doctoral students showed up who were not presenting, just to see how this worked.

It was wonderful. It is something that I really, really miss. I have tried to re-create this situation in my thesis groups, but most students don't ask really hard questions, and not of each other. Each is just trying to make out the best they can for themselves.

Here the students presented - behind closed doors, so to say - their ideas, and got them shot full of holes, but by friendly fire. The discussions were delightful, with really interesting questions raised and not the pompous but-you-didn't-cite-me blather that goes on at conferences.

We decided that we want to do a repeat, even if we don't have funding. This is what I feel is real research: asking questions, looking for answers. I just wish it was easier to get funding for this.

2010-10-09

Germany vs. Turkey

WiseMan and his soccer buddy took me to the soccer game Germany vs. Turkey last night in the Olympia Stadium in Berlin. The game had been preceded by a lot of hype, since Berlin is the second largest Turkish city, making this an "away" game for the German team, even though it was played in Germany.

The 75 000 tickets were sold out within minutes of the open selling, but WiseMan had luckily joined the DFB Fan Club in order to get tickets to the Women's World Cup. They are able to buy tickets a day before the general sales, and he managed to get 4 tickets. Poor WiseKid was at boot camp, but we had no trouble finding someone to come along.

The tickets warn: Singing section. That means that you are in with the Fans with a capital F. The game didn't start until 8.45 pm, but experienced soccer fans warned that early arrival was imperative. So we met at Bahnhof Zoo at 6.30, the trains were already packed with Turkish and German fans.

On the way out we were talking about the Tagesspiegel article on being German. I explained to the guest that I felt the same way, our guest expressed surprise. A young man standing next to us chimed in "Exactly! Even if my parents are from Turkey, I'm German! But they never let me belong." I explained my theory that for many these days, nationality is the same as loyalty to a sports club. For some: lifelong. For others: it can change. For a few: dual loyalty, and then when the clubs play each other, like THW Kiel and the Berlin Füchse a few weeks ago, these people are torn, but they survive!

The logistics of getting people into the stadium was well thought out, and we made it in with plenty of time before the game. The fan curve had presents laid out - we all got a white T-Shirt we were to wear, and we had paper sheets that we were to hold up when the teams take the field. Later on TV we saw that we spelled "Heimspiel", home game.

The Olympic Stadium is breath-takingly beautiful. The clean lines, the new roof over the seating, and the opening out towards the bell tower create quite a nice atmosphere, especially with all the seats taken. There was a bit uneasiness when some Turkish fans lighted some flares, and when some of the paper bits in our part caught fire on a tossed cigarette butt.

It is possible to see the players, even identify some of them. The Turkish fans were booing every time Mesut Özil, a German player from Gelsenkirchen with Turkish grandparents, touched the ball, although he had put on red shoes for the occasion. The German fans reacted by chanting his name, and he thanked them for that with a goal.

The male-female ratio in the fan area was similar to a computer science conference: there were a few other women there, but it was mostly a guy's thing. The fans did a lot of silly singing and waving of arms when the Germans had a corner kick. There were a couple of idiots who were singing "Deutschland über alles" instead of "Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit" during the national anthem, but it was all quite peaceful.

The Germans won 3:0, and the way home was quiet and subdued. The Turks were sad and the Germans wisely avoided provoking them. A lot of cops stood by to encourage people to shut up if they got a little frisky at the train stations.

It was an interesting experience, but I think I prefer to watch at home. There's instant replay, so that I can be doing something on the computer and just have to look up when something interesting is happening. There's no cigarette smoking at home. We have beer with alcohol in it, and an ice-cool schnapps for after the game. And you don't have to leave home 3 hours before the game, and come home in a train packed like a can of sardines!

Although we do have tickets for the Women's World Cup, so there is more coming....

2010-10-08

Never really a German

The Berlin daily Tagesspiegel has an excellent article today about being German: Man wird nie Deutscher. A German business man and politician, Ozan Ceyhun, who was born in Turkey and fled as a teenager to Germany is having coffee with former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Schröder invited people who were instrumental in getting him elected over for a visit.

Schröder settles in for a chat with Ceyhun, and asks him: "Why did your people vote for Erdogan, anyway?". That was the moment that made him decide to return to Turkey. You can work so hard to be German, but you are still always a Turk.

This is not just something that happens with Germans and Turks - it's about US vs. THEM. "Your people" can be blacks, women, Jews, Turks, Germans, Americans, whatever the speaker is not.

2010-10-07

Off to the army

Yes, it's been rather quiet around here lately. We've been getting WiseKid out of his old apartment and off to the army at the same time the semester started. Sleep? When do I have time for that?

WiseKid reports on long hours at boot camp (they let them use their phones for half an hour evenings) and bad food in the mess hall. But he's in a room with a bunch of "cool guys", so that must make life bearable. And they didn't make him shave yet.

Hearing the news of the German soldier killed in Afghanistan today hits a bit closer to home, now that I have a German soldier in the family. I do wish they would pack up and get out of there. My condolences to the soldier's family.

2010-09-27

The Berlin Marathon 2010

This year was a special marathon in Berlin. We've always enjoyed going out and cheering people on (and wondering what drives all these thousands of people to run 42.195 kilometers or so in just a few hours). A friend used to run and we'd try and spot him.

But this year my good friend from Iceland is over with her running group - and she is running her first marathon the far side of 50. Crazy. Anyway, she came Thursday and we had a great time in the evening and on Friday. Yack-yack-yack all the time, like as if we hadn't seen each other for a few years (only on Facebook).

We dropped by to pick up her number at the Templehof airport. My glory, they have it set up so you have to walk past ALL of the stands of companies flogging shoes, clothes, special food, more marathons, and assorted stuff. The inner sanctum was only permitted for registered runners, so I waited outside. I killed time playing the assorted contests and won a nice travel coffee mug ;)

After getting the number and wolfing down some delicious garlic bread with tomatoes and mozzarella cheese we headed out to my school so I could show her where I work. We ended up at the cafe next to our school, directly on the Spree River. It was a wonderful, warm, late summer's day.

Saturday we organized a pasta party for her and her husband and her good friend who is running with her with her husband. We had 5 different kinds of pasta, 2 sauces and 3 pestos. It was delicious, but of course, the runners will run those calories off, I won't.

Their hotel, while nice, and glad of all the customers coming because of the marathon, was not willing to offer breakfast for the runners at 6 am. So they bought some toast and breakfast stuff and I loaned them my toaster.

It started to rain Saturday evening, and the rain continued all through Sunday. What a horrible weather to run in! The TV station that had paid lots of money for the rights to send the helicopter pictures was in panic, as the helicopters could not start, so they were scrambling to get cameras on the ground somewhere. The quality was not very good.

We stood out in the pouring rain, and managed to pick her out of the crowd, giving some rousing Icelandic cheers (Áfram, stelpa!) in the few seconds it took for her to jog past. She finished in a good time (4:30), I don't think I could have biked it in much less.

I joined to Icelanders for dinner. I had suggested a Berliner Restaurant, Zur Gerichtslaube, and we had reserved a table for 20. They had a separate room upstairs, the Ratsherrenstube, just for the group. The runners had their medals on, and enjoyed good German beer and wine and pork knuckles and pork roasts and sauerkraut and rotkraut and dumplings and fried potatoes ....... I opted for a cheese-stuffed fried pear that was actually quite good. 

They described the pain, that horrible last kilometer, but also how great it was that so many people were on the sidelines cheering them on. They see Berlin as a very sympathetic city, and apparently the businesses in town do a very good business with the runners, so it 's a win-win situation.

I'm still not planning on running myself. Handball is quite enough, thank you!

2010-09-24

Sitting in the Sun

After an interview downtown I decided to enjoy the autumn sun and have a nice chai latte at 'Bux. I managed to score a chair at a table on the sunny side and watched the groups of school kids, the throngs of Asian tour groups, and the business people hurrying here and there with their computer cases.

At nearby tables they sat with their iPhones and iPads and worked and yakked on the phone.

I nursed my chai and read an interesting article in the Atlantic on the pharmaceutical industry.

A great way to get ready for the coming semester!

Music for 832 Loudspeakers

I attended a {sounding code} concert last night with a good friend, her son was having a premiere of one of his pieces of computer music that evening.

The concert took place in the Wave Field Auditorium at the TU Berlin. They have 832 loudspeakers in a 600+ seat auditorium that are driven by an assortment of computers in order to permit, among other things, generating the impression of sound in the middle of the room where there is nothing.

There were about 70 people assembled as Marcus Schmickler presented his Bonner Durchmusterung (2010). The table in the middle of the auditorium has a large screen, a keyboard,  and three MacBooks on it. The lights are dimmed and the artist steps forward, pushes a start button, and takes his seat again. The work was done in the weeks (months?) past.

It is quite a new experience to have nothing to look at while experiencing the sound. It began rather soothingly, and I perhaps nodded off at some point. Every now and then some sudden sound erupted to shake the audience awake. I looked at the clock hands down front, crawling ever so slowly forward, and thought that I perceived an ending coming two or three times. I was wrong. It took a good 30 minutes, and it would have been better if it was shorter.

During a round of applause the door was opened and another 70 or so latecomers were admitted to the auditorium. Now it was Alberto de Campo's turn, with a premiere of Reversing Pendulum Music. The booklet explains that Steve Reich composed music for swinging pendulums and suspended speakers that creates feedback on purpose and calls it music. I don't know, I seem to be more on the side of avoiding feedback. Anyway, de Campo reverses this and uses stationary microphones to collect sound - I suppose our collective breathing and coughing, and amplifying this with the feedback produced to some sort of sound.

de Campo sat at the computers and had two screens open, one with a box that had an edged droplet in it, perhaps the sound sampling sources, and one with the outline of the room. There were little balls bouncing around that he seemed to be doing something with, as he could draw them all into the middle of the droplet, or spin them out through some controls. I later read that there is some sort of "gravity" constant that he can control.

I must admit that I enjoyed having something to watch. It was fascinating to hear the sounds that he created, rather like insects moving thorough the room, in the nothingness.

After a short break John Bischoff presented the premiere of his Sidewalk Chatter (Redux). He used something called a crackle box to create what sounded like radio static with an occasional fire engine thrown in. Not my cup of tea.

Up last were Bjarni Gunnarsson and Miguel Negrão with a premiere of Fallacies. After a bit of muttering incantations at the computer altar, assisted by Schmickler, the duo pushed their respective buttons and released their sound. They remained seated to occasionally tweak what was being presented. The had the lights put out, which was really good, because it really helped to focus on the sound.

It sounded like I was in the jungle - or at least the jungle I know from TV and movies. There were sounds all around me of strange insects and animals, some high in the trees, some low on the ground. Somehow it also felt a good bit warmer in the room. It was probably just all the warm bodies heating up the air, but it did make it feel more jungle-like.

After a while some sort of machine (a spaceship?) whisked me out and away, it perhaps transformed itself into a helicopter. Even through the helicopter noise I could hear a waterfall we seemed to be passing. A rather startling, loud noise was rather unpleasant, but was followed by what I understood to be soothing, water noises that slowly petered out. It was hard to tell when a piece was over, because a loud boom could shake you at any moment, but they lowered the lids on their MacBooks to signal that they were done, and the crowd clapped and clapped.

It was an interesting evening! This is not catchy music to sing along with or to dance to (although I am sure that there are people who can interpret this in dance presentations). But it seems to attract a lot of geeky types that weave intricate sound patterns out of electricity and programs: Sounding Code.

2010-09-18

Turn off those atomic power plants!

The German government made a speedy decision to let our rotting atomic power plants continue to produce for another 14 years, although there is still no secure place to put the radiating garbage they produce and the "Asse" that was built to survive 100.000 years is already leaking after 40....

One assumes that the energy companies lobbied hard (= paid a lot) for this, as this is pretty much free money for them: no investment needed.

So today the good citizens had to take to the streets again. The idea was to surround the parliament and chancellor's office and blow whistles at them.

We got off to a late start, but the subway was filled with like-minded people - we had all dug out our "Atomkraft - Nein danke!" buttons from the 80s. And it was kind of strange - normally we don't speak to strangers on subways, but people were talking with each other. The guy across from us mentioned that his daughter was now a Greenpeace activist and was coming with friends.

And indeed, there were all ages there. Around 100.000 people with all sorts of posters, stickers, costumes, wagons, T-Shirts. I laughed at the vegan people in their cow suits (complete with udders on their bellies) with their signs "Don't split atoms or animals". The stickers with "Just be glad we don't build atomic power plants - BP" were quite true. And I really, really want one of these Hard Rock Cafe - Chernobyl T-Shirts.

The FDP house (Picture linked from ard.de)
We passed the central offices of the junior ruling party FDP - we whistled a lot and they got their windows covered in stickers. The three police officers in riot dress stood calmly by, accepting this small misdemeanor to avoid larger conflict. Many cars that were unfortunate enough to be parked along the way got the same treatment. Seems Beemers and Mercs got more stickers than other ones.

When we hit the Bundestag everyone just kind of cut across the space, and we found a place to sit and watch the masses strolling by. There was a bit of rain, some really great steel drum groups (drumming on atomic waste cans), and a large pile of cans of "atomic waste" was collected in a big pile.

We didn't stay for all of the speeches - it was kind of preaching to the converted. But I am glad that there is protest, although I would have hoped that it would not have been necessary.

2010-09-11

I don't get this

I suppose this is just spam search results.

2010-09-07

Cheap flights

I popped up to Norway Sunday evening and back Monday night on a cheap flight. I was giving a talk at a college near the airport that Ryanair calls Oslo (about 150 km south east of city hall).

I've been on Easyjet and Air Berlin before, the former was strenuous, but the latter was a luxury trip compared to Ryanair. Okay, the price was right, but honestly, I was getting the flight reimbursed, so I wouldn't have minded paying for some comfort. Just some odds and ends on the trip:

  • You have to go through a pre-security in Schönefeld in order to even get to the bag drop.
  • Bags cost 15 € each per direction and only 15 kilos are allowed, not the standard 20, so they can collect excess weight limit fees. 
  • Many people avoid this by taking everything in their on-board luggage, which they smash into the overhead bins with no regard to your backpack which was already there.
  • It is worth every penny of the 4 € "Priority" charge. You get to sit in a chair in the waiting area and can get a window seat.
  • There are no seat pockets in front of you. This probably saves them having to clean them, but it means you have to have a bag in your backpack with the stuff you want to use during the flight.
  • The flight attendants do not speak either English, German, or Norwegian as their mother tongue. Communication is difficult.
  • The pilot doesn't even take time to tell you what the beautiful stuff is that you can see out the window when flying over.
  • They are Prussian in insisting that you be at the gate 30 minutes ahead of flight time. They board and get off early. The scheduled flight time is about 45 minutes longer than needed, so that they are always on time. I had to wait for my ride to come, as the plane was not yet expected. 
  • Being on a plane with a (drunken) men's choir is unpleasant on any airline, although perhaps other carriers would have told them to shut up. At least they sang in 4 part harmony. 
  • A gaggle of teenage girls sitting around you is worse.
  • With no amusements, no TV, and the attending parent ignoring their offspring as usual small children can continue to kick against the lady sitting next to them without reprimand from the parent. If I make a remark, however, I get the nasty look. 
  • They charge for everything, I was amazed there was not a window fee.
  • The noises the motor made just after take-off were not comforting.
  • But okay, they got me from A to B and back, my suitcase did not get lost, and the price was very cheap.

2010-09-03

The Dead Tree Collection

I was visiting someone at the university I used to work for 20 years ago today. After our lunch date I had about an hour to kill before I had to get to my next appointment. As I passed the library I decided to pop in. I had always liked sitting there, reading the current magazines and chancing on fascinating books.

The lockers seem to be the same ones ... the sofas seem to be the same ones ... the books seem to be the same. I head back to the department having books in my field. Oh yes, I remember when this was new, and this one, and this one. 1991. 1992. 1995.

I look for the collection of books on the topic I will be teaching this semester, Cryptography. Oh yes, a few books here. Let's see: "Datensicherung durch Chiffrierung". 1979. Okaaaay. "Contemporary Cryptography": One version from 1992, one from 2005 by different authors. Ah, here's a gem: "Cryptology and the Personal Computer with Programming in Basic". 1986. Pages and pages of BASIC code to implement a Caesar code.

The oldest book was from 1961. There were 3 books from 2008, the next oldest were from 2005.

I sometimes try and tell my students that there are things called "books" that are bits of dead tree with ink on them that keep information around for years. But today I realized that even though it is nice to have this stuff around for reference, a library is no good if it is not kept current. *My* collection of cryptography books is more recent than this.

I assume that this is because the government slashed funding for universities, or because someone thought everything is on the Internet anyhow anymore.

But it's sad - this dead tree collection, with an empty rack where the new acquisitions used to be displayed, is not a place where a person would want to spend time. It is just too depressing.

2010-09-01

Vergebung

I tagged along with the usual suspects to see "Vergebung" last night, the German version of "Luftslottet som sprängdes",  the last of the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy.

The movie is sooooo interesting, that it felt like I hadn't seen it before, although it was only a few months ago. Maybe there is such a difference in the TV and the movie version. Anyway - worth it to see it twice!

2010-08-23

The porcupine

Now I know what that strange scratching noise is that I hear when I am working. WiseMan was cleaning out the weeds and dead flowers from the flower bed, when he saw a prickly nose sticking out under a pile of leaves. So he left off taking those leaves away, and I've been seeing that the little fella still lives there.

Today is cold and rainy, and I realize why he is there: he's right next to the fireplace. Chrr, chrr, there he is again, turning around in his little nest. I suppose it is this guy I found one early morning a few years ago, but if I catch him with his nose out again (and it ever stops raining), I'll upload a new one.

I bet he's ruining the wood siding, though.

2010-08-20

Oh dear, we owe you more money

Grumble. Just got an email from the Human Resources Department. "We just figured out that you are entitled to a pay raise effective August 1. However, the guys who do payroll for us have been on vacation for a year are not finished yet with reprogramming the payroll system. We will give you the raise retroactively with your October paycheck."

Oh. Like the government decided on this months ago, but didn't pass into law until just a few days ago. So we let it lie in case it gets changed again.

Note: The last "raise" we had was a negative one, when we took an approximate 10% pay cut to "save" the government. No raises since 2003, although the cost of living has been striving ever upward. Gas, electric, newspapers, food, clothing - everything is going up. Good job we have a fixed monthly mortgage.  How much is the raise? 1.5 %. The current cost of living has increased by 7% vs. 2005, according to the Federal Institute of Statistics.

I suppose it could be worse. But not paying us the increase in August just adds insult to injury.

1222 över havet

And another book report! This time from Norway, read in the Swedish translation, although I have read a book of hers in Norwegian, it just takes longer.

Anne Holt: 1222 över havet (Norwegian title: 1222). 2007
Translated by the master thriller writer herself, Maj Sjöwall, she must be about 70. Yes, indeed, just checked the Wikipedia (and got mad that the highlights of the article are her relationship with Per Wahlöö and that she is a Marxist....).

Anyway. Anne Holt, trained as a lawyer, briefly minister of justice in Norway, now a journalist and thriller writer, has written another great one!

I was just getting a newspaper when I saw this on the shelf. I like Anne Holt, the last one I read, Presidentens Valg, was really great. So I got it, and mentioned it to a friend the next day, who writes book reviews on thrillers for a living. She gagged, saying that the books were soooo boring, they made her want to vomit. Harumpf. So it goes on the top of the pile.

Hanne Wilhelmsen, former cop, is now confined to a wheelchair after being shot in the back during a previous thriller. She's on her way by train to Bergen in winter, when the train derails. And since Murphy was an optimist, it's at the worst possible place - the highest point of the journey, 1222 meters above sea level, 40 km from the highway on skis, if one was able to ski. The only other way to get here, other than train, is by helicopter, and they don't fly in weather like this.

People fly about, get hurt, and are pulled out of the wreck and taken to the local hotel, as there is a horrible storm brewing. It doesn't take long for a murder to happen, and since all communication with the outside world is cut off, it is up to Hanne to overcome her aversion to police work and letting herself be helped up and down stairs (doesn't Norway have accessibility laws?) and starts to figure out who-dunnit.

It's rather Miss Marple-like, and really quite charming with all sorts of diversions thrown in. Just as it was about to be solved, I put it down and went out to hose down the house. I deliberated who the murderer might be. I chose two people, and at least one of them was right, and part of the reason I chose was right as well.

It was another page turner, I had to put off making dinner until I was finished with it. The chapters are introduced with the Beaufort scale, the wind picking up as the book heads for the solution. So just ignore the gagging - it's coming out in English in December, just the thing for a winter's read in front of the fireplace.

Voices

"A voice like an angel" - and here he is, dead as a doornail, wearing a Santa Claus suit in a Reyjkavik hote.

Arnaldur Indriđason: Engelsstimme. 2002. (Icelandic title: Röddin, English title: Voices)
Another Erlendur thriller, but it's rather boring. Or maybe it's me watching these Beck films while reading this. Police officers my age and a bit older are overweight, noticing their age, missing female companionship, and have cases to solve.
I pretty much had to force myself to read a chapter each night. The plot is a bit thin, although it does lurch nicely back and forth. Maybe the melancholy just got to me too much. Anyway, I finished it, check, on to the next!

2010-08-19

Die Hirnkönigin

Book report time!

I have this large, large pile of books that I have been planning on reading for years. I am trying to work my way through them, and report on each one, mostly to remind myself which ones I have already read.

Thea Dorn: Die Hirnkönigin, 2001
(Okay, so it's been on the pile for a long time).  Brrrrr. Scary. Constructed like a Greek tragedy, filled with allusions to what I assume are famous Greek stuff (like Homer and so on). Bloody. Bizarre. Berlin.

It was a quick read, couldn't put it down, and it will give you nightmares for days. What a shame it's not in English yet.

2010-08-16

How did I ever live without this?

It slices. It dices.

How did I ever live without a high-pressure cleaner?

WiseMan got one becuase he got irritated at all the moss growing on our roof. WiseKid owes us money, so we set him up with a special deal: we'll pay you a normal rate for cleaning the roof, but we'll keep half for debts. He agreed, and spent 3-4 days cleaning the roof.

We also needed a new hose in the middle. Roof tiles are abrasive. Holes in high-pressure hoses can't even be fixed with duct tape. But we wrapped the new hose in duct tape first, so that that is what wears off first.

I finally got my hands on the thing this morning. I washed down the deck. Nice! I washed down a wall - pretty nice, except it takes the paint off where it was a bit blistery. More work for me.

Now I had to wash down the deck again, but whatever. Looks nice. I wondered if it would do the job on that throw rug WiseKid walked on with dirty shoes when he got something in his eye. Yup!

I wondered if it would clean the paving stones up to the house. Indeed it would! And oh, my, they are white, not black! The step up to the front door now shines, as does the little planter out front.

You get soaking wet from all the spray, so you need work clothes on. But there are so many things here need cleaning! It says on the machine: not for use on people, animals, cars, and electrical outlets. Okay, but everything else is on my cleaning list for the rest of the week!

2010-08-10

We could easily feed 60 or more

Cutlery. Piles of cutlery. Boxes of cutlery. Nice stuff. Silver stuff. Horrible stuff. Cheap stuff. My mother-in-law had boxes and boxes of the stuff. One large set is very nice and is almost just like ours. We can replace the stuff at the cabin, give the kids a set, expand our own, take some to work, and we still have cutlery left over.

If we had kept all the plates, we could feed 60, easily.

What cutlery did she use everyday? The horrible, wartime stuff. Large, unwieldy, uncomfortable to touch. I used to offer to set the table so I could dig through the drawer looking for a knife or two I didn't shudder to use. But this stuff wasn't broken yet, so she kept using it, while having all this nice stuff in her drawers.

I don't think I'll take the silver spoons to work, though. People don't wash MY cups when they drink MY coffee. I don't want them thinking the spoons are for the taking, too.

2010-08-08

Free Sakinek Ashtiani!

The column by Mely Kiyak in the Berliner Zeitung this morning (online at the Frankfurter Rundschau) has stuck in my mind all day. She describes death by stoning - from the perspective a a woman being stoned.

The column gets under your skin as she describes how the sand gets under the white sheet wrapped around you as the stones come crashing in. You can't see the men throwing the stones, only hear them, chanting verses from the Koran.

What is particularly worrying is that a 43-year-old woman in Iran, Sakinek Ashtiani, has been sentenced to death by stoning. Her crime? Adultery. And even though there are two who participate in this, only she has been sentenced - to die by this brutal method. In 2010.

The death sentence (apparently also being demanded in the USA for whoever leaked the Afghanistan Papers) is an abomination. Who are we to decide who shall live and who shall die? And why is a woman not allowed to decide who she wants to spend her life with?

Her children have set up a site: freesakineh.org. They are collecting signatures there, although I'm not sure that that will do anything. If you read German, read Kiyak's column. Then add your name to the list.

2010-07-30

2010-07-23

Showtime!

The last day of classes! Sure, I have grading and paperwork to do, and I have to find my desks under the piles of paper. But school's out!

Many programs now have a showtime on the last day of classes in which students demonstrate what they have done all semester. We have our semester projects presented and graded.

This is grueling for us and for them. They have 30 minutes to make it clear to us, what they spent all semester doing. Paper reports can be very useful for this purpose, but not all groups see the necessity of this. They prefer snazzy booths with video presentations and slide shows. As one colleague remarked - one group's slide show was miles better than the nervous guys trying to get something resembling a coherent description of what they did presented. We have to concentrate on all of these groups and ask nasty questions in order to be able to judge how hard their project was, how far they got, and how well they presented it. I take copious notes, because my brain gets addled after about the second group.

After I got the grades sorted out for our group I went around to look at the results from some of the other programs.

The games design people were doing character studies this semester. They had wonderful scrapbooks and sketchbooks they had made on Jeanne d'Arc and Queequeg. I enjoyed looking through them. The teacher showed me the part where she made them draw women's breasts - real ones, not the fantasy ones that the few women that show up in computer games come with that are worse than Barbie's. Very good!

Over at the clothing design department I missed the main fashion show, but the first semester students were out in full force with the clothes they designed and sewed themselves out of sackcloth (which is cheap). They were bizarre, lots of layers and boxes and straps and, um, things hanging off them. Looked like fun to make and a bitch to wear.

The communications designers hat some delightful thesis work, not all of which I understood. There was a large board with little blocks cut out with shells glued on like knobs. I pulled one, and they did indeed come off with some terrifying eyes and things in pictures behind. I especially liked the furnishing designs that had nicely color coordinated info-graphics used to make plates, cushions, lamp shades, curtains, and such. Honestly, I would have pulled out my wallet if the pillows had been for sale!

There was also a fun laptop bag that you weave yourself by choosing three different colored bits of stuff - very clever. And some theses on communication in a big city and children's book illustrations and posters on restoring pictures and - my feet hurt so bad, that I headed off for the train.

Lovely to see what a creative, insightful bunch of students we train here!

2010-07-19

Crawling with Tourists

I had a meeting downtown today and was there early, so I did a bit of window shopping.

Who buys this stuff? Fancy-named clothing and bags and cosmetics and do-dads. Do the tourists? I mean, the place was crawling with tourists. I heard English, Dutch, French, Italian, and a number I couldn't identify on the short walk. I understand them buying the Berlin souvenirs and eating in the Bavarian (!) Restaurant Unter den Linden. But all these extremely expensive stuff - who has the money to buy stuff so they have the money to pay the rent?

2010-07-18

Playing with Ubuntu

Our labs purchase new high-end computers every 3-5 years, depending on the system. I don't know that we will continue to do so - it seems all the students have laptops these days, anyway. But when we do purchase new ones, we have to dispose of the old ones. After the school has asked around if anyone needs a computer (and we did, we had two new staff members who really only needed typewriters, they are fine on these boxes) the rest are sold off to anyone interested. I bought 2, one for WiseKid and one for WiseMan.

2010-07-14

New Dean on the Block

I know blogging's been light. I've just been elected dean. That means I'm part of the administration, the one to get bitched at for everything that goes wrong. But I see it as a challenge, to see if I can "win", to get everything to run a little bit smoother.

My goal is to start documenting how we do things, and fix any process that takes more than a page to describe. Wish me luck!

2010-07-09

The Deutsche Bahn can apologize

I am dumbstruck. I didn't think they could do it.

I got a call during dinner this evening, a Friday. It is usually telemarketers, so I had my prickly voice on.

It was the Deutsche Bahn (DB). They were calling about my complaint. Was I satisfied now?

Let me gather my wits. Where's the file on this little spat? Must be about an inch thick. Let's see if I can put together a digest for my readers:

  1. I am going to spend a week in Sweden on an Erasmus exchange. For complicated reasons I am taking the train. I order my tickets by telephone and they arrive in good time. This is how I want things to work.
  2. It snows. As in really snows. As in it snows so much in Sweden that they have curtailed service for the train I am planning on using. And they can't tell me if my train will run because they aren't God and are busy shoveling out from under all this surprising snow.
  3. I panic and make other arrangements, i.e. long drive up by car. On Feb. 24 I send the tickets back, before the first day of validity for a full refund. I purchased fully-refundable tickets. I spent 30 minutes in a hotline to ask how to do this properly. I paid 14 cents a minute for the advice I got. Paranoid, I made copies of the tickets before I sent them back.
  4. The drive up is wonderful, I have a nice time in Sweden. When I come back I see that the DB hasn't moved. Oh well, there's work to do.
  5. After about a month I notice that there still is no refund. So I try and call the DB. They play telephone ping-pong with me, sending me from Erstattungsanträge to Entschädigungsanträge. And dropping the line occasionally, so I get to call again. I dig out an email address and send a stern email.
  6. The bot answers that they will deal with my case shortly.
  7. Two weeks later I request a definition of "shortly" from the email address, including the number I was given by the bot.
  8. The bot is silent.
  9. I week later I call the telephone number. "This number is not in service, please check your listing." Duh.
  10. I write another email, sterner than the first.
  11. The bot answers that they will deal with my case shortly.
  12. Three days later I call again, and play ping-pong. Unsuccessfully.
  13. The next day (April 19 by now) I have a message on my answering maching. The DB is so sorry for this mess and will refund my money shortly.
  14. I write an email and set a deadline: If I don't see the money by then and then, I will consider legal options.
  15. The bot answers that they will deal with my case shortly.
  16. I get an email that has a person's name on it, but it is just a bunch of canned text. The same email comes twice.
  17. I write back that if the money isn't here by the end of May, I will get a court-mandated payment order.
  18. The bot answers that they will deal with my case shortly.
  19. I get another email from another person sending me back from Erstattungsanträge to Entschädigungsanträge. We are now playing email ping-pong.
  20. I call again, and when they interrupt my sentence to send me to the other department I get very loud and nasty. [Ask my students - I am generally nice, but when I get nasty, look for cover.]
  21. I write a real letter, describing the mess, and set a final deadline for the refund.
  22. I get a real letter saying that they will deal with my case shortly.
  23. I give them two weeks past the deadline, then I get mad. There's an online form for putting together a court-mandated payment order. It costs 23 Euros and an hour to put together and 1,45 € for the stamp to send it off. In a fit of rage I walk it to the post office.
  24. The court is exceedingly fast. They find an error in my form and request a correction just a few days later.
  25. I suddenly get a letter from the DB saying that they are so sorry this has taken so long, and the money is being refunded to my credit card and here's a 25 € gift certificate for my next trip. Okay, that about pays the telephone calls.
  26. I withdraw the court-mandated order, but have to pay anyway. Drat. The moment I would have had that court order I was planning on marching down to the Grundbuchamt and putting a lien on some nice DB property and then insisting that that property be auctioned off to satisfy my debt. I wouldn't see a penny (I've done this twice before, the debtors are served in order and usually there are lots of them in line before me) but would have been immensely satisfying to irritate the hell out of them.
  27. I chalk up the 23 Euros to letting off steam.
  28. And now, on July 9, over 4 months later, a guy calls and apologizes and asks if everything is okay now. I say that I still had to pay 23 Euros. He professes to know nothing about the court-mandated payment order I applied for, but quickly offers to send me 23 Euros right away. Who am I to say no to this?
And so, the snow saga concludes. The question remains: how much money does the DB keep from people who are not stubborn enough to keep bugging them?

Update:  Yes, the 23 Euros arrived promply. And for Falko and others: Online-Mahnantrag is what I used.

2010-07-05

An Advantage of the Cloud

Putting files and data online is all the rage today. Often, people speak of having stuff "in the cloud".

Well, I was very happy to have many important things in the cloud today. WiseKid's apartment door needed to be fixed (for reasons best left to personal discussions). A guy came by Friday, measured, sent an offer by fax, I accepted, and he said: fine, I'll be there on Monday at 8. But I need you to pay me in cash 'cause I have to purchase the door.

Okay, I don't have to be at work until this afternoon, so getting up early to be at WiseKid's place at 8am is not high on my list of fun things to do. But what we don't do for our kids.

I show up just before 8 and see a guy carrying a door across the courtyard. "Hi!" I said, "will you come back up so we can settle the bill?". "I'll be back in about 3 hours, he says, I gotta get this adjusted in my workshop." And he was gone.

I came upstairs to find WiseKid and his girlfriend in a state of shock. The guy had taken their apartment door - and they both had appointments. WiseKid at the job center, the girlfriend is getting her school-leaving certificate at school today (I think she's the wise one, but that's another blog).

At least her laptop was connected to the Internet, so I offered to stay the three hours. They blew off with sighs of relief, and we agreed that when the door was back in I would take the new key and put it in their mailbox.

So what can I do when I am unexpectedly not in my home office for working?

  • My business calendar is on Google so that my secretary can see my business appointments. Me, too, today.
  • The exercises I needed to grade are all on the learning management system at the school. It takes 3 tries, but I remember the password.
  • We have a web-based interface to email. I don't have a IMAP, so I don't have access to my files, but I can see incoming email and respond.
  • It takes 4 tries (2 different emails, 2 different password possibilities) to get into Facebook. Nice.
  • I remember the password for my RSS feed reader, so I can at least catch up on all the reading I missed by being off the grid for a day.
  • I remember the password for this blog, so I can blog about what I am doing.
I can actually get some work done moderately well, Not having a mouse and having to deal with Vista is causing some grief (took me ages to figure out how to make the screen lighter, and it wanted to reboot in order to offer me some larger type).

I called the guy after 3 hours. "I just got the new doorknob, I didn't know the doorknob was missing!". I thought that was the point of someone coming by last Friday to assess the damage. So here I sit, in the heat, with a sheet nailed up over the doorway so that I am at least spared the curious glances of the neighbors. And wondering what I will do if there is still no door at 2, the absolute latest I have in order to get home, get my computer, and race to work.

Well, what do I tell my students? Don't panic!

2010-07-01

Mean Programming Teacher

Ooooh, I am just a mean old programing teacher! I had my first-year students design a simple text-based game last week and implement the basic floor plan. This week I made them exchange games and the specification for items to put into the rooms with a neighbor and continue programming the *other person's* code.

Pouting.

Protests.

Excuses.

Exactly. Those who handed in something suboptimal should feel a bit naked. Those who handed in something chaotic will have to deal with the abuse from a fellow student. Those who didn't follow directions and forgot to put the code in their report have to call home and have their girlfriends upload the code from their machine.

They grumble and cuss for about half an hour. Then they get to work - and imagine this: they discover they can read the code. Critique it. And are busy speaking with each other about the code.

This is a great way for them to learn, even though they are disappointed about having to hand their "babies" off to another student for continuing.

2010-06-28

And now: Sushi!

As I was driving to a faculty meeting this afternoon (and yes, I can think of better things to do on a sunny afternoon) I saw what the new store the just opened near the university is: a sushi place!

This part of town has about 17% unemployment, there were lots of empty and rotting buildings and not much infrastructure. When the first 1000 students came, an espresso bar opened. When the next 5000 came, there was suddenly another espresso bar, a hot dog stand, and now sushi. And a farmer's market once a week.

What a difference just one large people magnet makes!

2010-06-27

As if I were in a novel

We were at a 65th birthday last night. It was a wonderful celebration held in a Jugendstil villa right in the middle of town. There were many famous and (self-)important guests invited, and we began the party in the garden. Many men were in white linens, the women in colorful, summer dresses. We sipped champagne until the first speeches were held.

Our places were arranged with care, couples were split up and the tables had young and old, different careers together, but careful to have at least two people speaking the same language at the same table. The tables were named after people that the birthday boy had written papers about at some time during his career. I sat at the Olaus Rudbeck table in a high-ceilinged room with beautiful stucco and a bay window. We ate excellent food and drank very good wine and engaged in witty, intellectual conversation.

I suddenly had the feeling of being a character in a Thomas Mann novel. And of course, I was expecting that we would be hearing lots of gossip or have some nicely scandalous happenings. Not much of that - the children (both with degrees, one a doctorate) gave very funny speeches, as well as the older brother and a best pal.

Then a former national politician (who had given his most recent book as a present, how gauche) stood up to give an unscheduled speech. He of course referred to his own position and tried to be extremely witty, I found him extremely tiresome.

But that was pretty much it for scandals, unless you count the young woman accompanying the elder brother. She was from the US, working on her doctorate, and in general quite well behaved. I was in line behind her when she was pouring coffee and spilled some on the saucer. She exclaimed "Oh dear!" and grabbed a white damask napkin to soak up the liquid. Damask! Coffee stains won't come out of that! A few minutes later we were standing near the bowl of strawberries, damp with water. She ate a few, and then *wiped her hands* on the damask table cloth. How uncouth!

The food was wonderful, and the conversation interesting - really a very nice evening. But I'm afraid that other than in this blog, there will not be a novel recording the evening. How times have changed...

2010-06-25

That will be enough soccer for now

Yuck.

I've been quite amused by all the soccer fanatics around, most particularly by my nearest and dearest.

But flying back from England to Germany on June 23, the day both played their games and proceeded to the next round, I decided I'd rather had enough.

I planned well for my English getaway. I needed to be at the airport for my 5.30 pm flight, and England started playing at 3 pm (local time). So I had the registration desk order a taxi for me for 4.10 pm (only 15 minutes to the provincial airport). The taxi came on time, we heard the game on the radio, the driver explained his thoughts on soccer, soccer schedules, soccer hooligans, and lots of other stuff in the Geordie dialect. Or rather, I assumed he was talking about soccer, I just nodded occasionally.

The streets were deserted. There were no car, and this during what is normally rush hour. The parking lot was almost deserted. I entered the airport, remembering my last run-in with the check-in folks there two years ago.

The machines are still there, but I can approach a counter (okay, not KLM, but Lufthansa this time). There is one person before me in line. A polite young man takes my bag, attaches a HOT sticker to it, explains to me that this means it will get quick attention for the transfer to the Berlin flight, and gets my seat assignment.

The hall is deserted, so I head for the gate. There is no one in line. A boarding pass checker takes my boarding pass and passport, but his attention is elsewhere. I do the undress dance, both women operating it are busy looking elsewhere. I get my stuff and head on past the security guards, intently watching the game. England is still in the lead 1-0, but there are 10 minutes left to play.

Everyone is watching one of the three screens. The woman pretending to work filling juice bottles is also watching the screen. Notice (in the circle) the door guards. Yup. Could have smuggled a bomb in there, or (gasp!) a bottle of water. No one would have noticed. They were watching the game.

As the final whistle sounded, people clapped, sighed a sigh of relief, and got on with their lives.

We flew to Düsseldorf, where the continuing plane was late. I wanted to have some food in a little bistro, but the servers were so busy watching the Germany game that no one wanted to take my order. Oh well, I had a packet of cookies left over from the conference. Our plane was late taking off, and the pilot let us know the halftime score.

Just after landing the stewardess got on the PA system: "Please remain in your seats with your seat belts fastened until the plane has reached its final parking destination and Germany just got a goal YIPPIE!!"

I retrieved my luggage and decided to watch the last few minutes at Tegel. It was the same scene - everyone intent on the screen. When the whistle sounded I headed for the bus and started to doze.

We had almost reached Bahnhof Zoo when I heard the noise. Those pesky trumpets! And horns honking, and cars all over the place and PEOPLE, people streaming out of the station heading for the Ku'damm. They smacked on the windows, I took a step back, fearful that the window would break. The bus inched forward, finally deciding to dump us. I got out, smiled at the mess, took a few pictures, and headed for the U-Bahn.

Or rather, tried. There was a mass of humanity sweeping up the steps I wanted to go down. I tried to go down, but the waves would not part. I saw the tail end of a train I just could not reach - too many people between me and the train. Disgusted, I resigned myself to wait for the next one. At least they show the minutes.

10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-3-3-3-3-3-2-1-1-1-1-1-1-1- Please be patient.

The platform was packed by now, and there was no train coming. I decided to invest in a taxi, and headed back to the surface. Except there were no taxis. None. I tried waiting, but there was none to be had. So I headed up to the elevated train. That would be a horrible detour, but it should get me home.

I pushed up some stairs that had masses of humanity pouring down them. My clue should have been that trains in both directions were stopped. I made my way into one, and it just sat there. And sat.

I got off again and headed out. Still no taxis. So I started to walk, with my little suitcase trolly behind me, through the crowds. They were exploding firecrackers under the bridge. The sidewalks were so full, I had to walk on the streets. People were smacking the busses caught in traffic. There were broken bottles everywhere, and police standing by, waiting for something. They had the Ku'damm blocked off.

Resigned drivers had turned off their motors and were out leaning on their cars. There was singing, dancing, fireworks, fights, stupid chants - I just wanted Out Of There Right Now. Finally, the other side of the Lietzenburger (that had cars parading up and down with flags and people hanging out the windows and roofs), I flagged down a taxi. In a few short, quiet minutes I was home.

If this is the reaction to making it to the eighth final, I don't want to be near (German) "civilization" if they go all the way. I like the comment a friend has on his Facebook page. The niveau of these fans is so low, there is a basement flat free above them.