The Escape Boy

I attended an interesting lecture last night, given by a professor in literature. She was using Powerpoint to project a few pictures. She hit against a key while shuffling papers, and the menu showed up with "Help/Next/Previous/GoTo". She interrupted what she was reading to panic.

"Oh, dear. What do I do now?"

Since I had been late coming and was standing in the back, I didn't want to call attention to myself by just saying "click again!". No one in the audience dared (or knew?) what to do.

Luckily, there was a technician manning the microphone from a booth at the back, he walked down with a sigh to click for her.

Why do people use tools that scare them? Why do we build tools that are so incomprehensible to use?


Looking for Brother

A colleague made his way through the dean's office yesterday with two children in tow, finding me despite my hiding in a locked office in order to get the materials for the next faculty meeting prepared and sent.

I was surprised - the kids were about 10 years old and I did not think this colleague had children. He didn't - the children had appeared in his office, looking for their brother. Their brother worked packing boxes for a Mr. Duck at our school, and they were to go to him. They had been sent all over the school, and since my colleague is actually named Duck, they had landed in his office. But he didn't have anyone packing boxes.

A student I might have sent packing, as it were, but you can't just let kids wander about, so we started looking for faculty with other spellings. Nothing. We found an adjunct that teaches Mondays (it was Wednesday), and called his department. Nope, and the kids had already been at that department.

They were getting anxious, so I pulled out the candy box to give them something to do while we though. I googled the brother's name - no hits at all. Now, university people these days tend to leave some sort of trail that is googlable.

Then I had the blinding insight - "Is your brother handicapped?" The children brighted up: "Yes, of course, he is handicapped!" We have a building on our grounds that houses a project that provides jobs for handicapped people - apparently not just groundskeeping, which they do for us, but also packing boxes. And of course - they are "at" our school.

The colleague, relieved, offered to accompany the kids across to that building, and I got back to work fussing with the motions before the board. Imagine sending your kids with such vague directions into a large university grounds!


Suffering Accreditation

So yes, I am alive. Two accreditations - one to deliver documents and numbers for, and one to suffer visitation - is exceedingly trying. Yes, it is good that we are forced to gather all this stuff in one place on dead trees. But even for the new program - the numbers aren't worth the paper they are printed on!

The number of professors we had in August is not the same as January. One left, we had a number of new hires, and a guest professor. The financial planning has been turned around numerous times. Teachers, responsibilities, rooms - all in flux. It is, after all, a new program.

Sure, it would be wonderful if the school first hired teachers, who carefully created module descriptions that are nicely balanced and nicely built on top of each other. Then these teachers would work out the curricula and hire and train tutors and sort out the room situation and get it all set to go before starting a great advertising campaign and accompanying the program with all sorts of research about the students.

Welcome to Reality 101. No extra money until we demonstrate interest. No interest until we set up the program and it looks good. Chicken and egg. So we build up something out of nothing, bootstrap up, and manage to get students in, hiring process pushed forward, tutors lined up for when financing is available (well, I can spend 75% of last year's budget, which was 0...).

We picked up a lot of flak for things we have no control over. I accept getting beat for things I did myself. But for things I tried to fix but where beyond my control - I don't like that. Yes, I should have thought of this and that and anticipated whatever. I was also busy with a major move and incidentals such as teaching.

And the school could have bought a lot of stuff for the students with the money we sank in the accreditation.

I'm crossing my fingers that we at least get accreditation with conditions that we can fulfill.


The Potemkin Airport

I haven't seen this on any English-language news, so I am translating and referencing it here, so that perhaps the one or the other might pick it up.

You have probably heard about a Potemkin village: mock towns built up along the Dnieper river in order to impress the Russian Empress Catharine II during an inspection visit.

Well, airport security has been called "security theater" by many, including Bruce Schneier. The German hacker's organization Chaos Computer Club (CCC) has demonstrated that airport security is not just theater, but in many places just a facade, put up to impress the traveling public.

While the poor people paying for transport are queuing up to have their underwear inspected and to dispose of their liquids purchased outside on the free market, the determined terrorist just has to invest about 200 Euros and walk around and use the side entrance.

Spiegel Online reporter Matthias Kremp reports on this simple hack in January 2010, as demonstrated on the public TV show Kontraste (ARD) (the 6:30 minute video by Matthias Deiß is available at this link, in German).

Entrance to the security areas is organized by an RFID chip-based challenge-response system. Personnel with a security clearance has an ID card that many wear on a lanyard around their necks. When they pass a guarded entrance point, an electromagnetic challenge is sent to the card, and the card responds.

Two CCC members purchased an RFID kit and set it up so that it can query an ID card. The card responds, and the kit records the response. The kit (which fits nicely into a pocket) can then be switched to respond mode, and when it passes a control point, the recorded response is replayed and the door opens.

The recorder must get within 70 cm of the card in order to record, but in a crowded airport it is easy to bump into someone on purpose and make it look like an accident.

The hackers alerted the airport security people, as they were not out to blow up airplanes, but had been interested in a security puzzle. As one of the men says on camera, they were shocked that it was so easy. Did security start insisting that people keep a one meter distance from all people with security clearances? Did they beef up security? No. They did nothing.

Exasperated, they turned to Kontraste, an investigative, publicly funded TV show which (apart from series like Tatort) is the only reason I am still willing to pay my TV tax without too much grumbling. Kontraste loves this kind of story. They demonstrated how easy it is to enter the building on film.

Then they contacted airport security, who was not willing to talk to them. By email they answered "for security reasons we will not be giving any additional information". Aha. Security by obscurity.

The system used for security is from the Swiss company Legic Identsystems and is called Legic Prime. From their online presentation:

LEGIC prime is widely used in access control related applications such as multiapplication company cards, in large-scale ticketing projects or in the leisure industry. Easier organisational processes and to increase the convenience are thereby the main focus.
Um, leisure industry? Convenience? I thought airports were focused on security! Kontraste But they were all unwilling to make public statements. quickly determined that not only did the Hamburg airport use this system, Stuttgart, Dresden, Hanover, and Berlin also use it. You see, it used "encryption", and that makes it secure. It also has "key management". Wooooo.

The gentlemen from CCC demure. No, they didn't find any trace of encryption, not even ROT13. So Kontraste headed down to the Swiss headquarters to try and get a statement on camera, but were rebuffed. However, their efforts did effect a change on the web page. Instead of "high security" this system now offers "basic security".

A speaker for the police union was quite willing to go on camera and demand that someone DO SOMETHING RIGHT NOW. They are the ones who have to put their lives on the line when some terrorist decides to start something. But of course, Hamburg alone would have to exchange 15.000 cards and numerous transponders, the cards run about 10 € apiece. At least, according to the web page, they could upgrade to Legic advant, which has

  • Advanced security
        • AES 128/256 bit / DES / 3DES encryption
        • Mutual authentication between reader and transponder
        • Diversified authentication and data encryption
  • Physical Master-Token System Control and Automatic Key Management
Well, then let's get going. Or else one has to wonder what the point of all the security theater for the paying patrons is about.


The Accreditation Blues

I've got the accreditation blues at the moment. I'm acting head of a study program that is up for accreditation - next week the accreditation team will come for our inspection. But Monday the documentation is due in-house for the accreditation of the program I teach in.

I am *swamped* with digging out information, emailing colleagues pleading for input, writing stuff, getting tables and chairs organized in a room for the committee, etc. etc. And then there is a bad case of organizational infighting going on, and I'm specifying hallway furniture for the school, and there is a report on what happened in the faculty last year due. Soon. Oh, and I am teaching 16 hours a week this semester. Did I mention that I'm associate dean? I get 4 hours off my 18 for this, but rules prevented us from hiring a qualified teacher to teach an entire course by himself, so I jumped in and took over the additional 2 hours.

Sure, it's great that we are updating all our data, writing down for posterity all the cool things we are doing. But without the two people we have hired to do the actual writing and formatting of these two reports, there would be no possibility for us to get it done. Our days only have 24 hours in them, just like most everyone else.

The amount of teaching that we do must be decreased. We desperately need people who can read and write and maybe even do research who work with us in the departments. We need far fewer rules regulating what we can and cannot do.

The current system only works because we all wort far too much for far too little money. We are creative in making ends meets. But the system is starting to come apart at the seams. Adding "quality assurance" to the toxic mix will not necessarily neutralize anything.

Teaching is not about counts of people and classes. It's about content, creativity, communication and caring. But since we can't measure that, we declare what we can measure - even if it is beyond our control - and declare that quality.

Sure - people needing longer than 6 semesters to finish can be an indication that we have screwed up the organization. But it can also be an indicator that people preferred to have more money on hand and worked in parallel to studying. Or it can be an indicator that they spent time studying additional subjects. Or just that they wanted to have an additional semester of the student bus ticket.

A German educational organization had requested that their members no longer participate in this system, something I heartily agree with, even though I am not a member of the organization. But I'm afraid that the pressure from the money-giving bureaucracy will force people to participate.

I have decided that I won't participate in auditing other schools - mostly because I don't have time. Now, back to my to-do list of number collecting.


Das weisse Band

Finally got to see "Das weisse Band - eine deutsche Kindergeschichte" (The White Ribbon - a German children's story) this evening. We wanted to see it in Sweden, even drove to Lund for it, and then it was sold out!

No danger of that here, it was a Monday night. We had the usual suspects with us including TeenageGirl and ExchangeStudent. ExchangeStudent didn't understand a word, although they really didn't say much ;) TeenageGirl and I collected the impressions of the group on the ride home.

It was shadows and light; pre World War I; no music except for Wagner at the piano and two hymns, one by Paul Gerhard and one by Martin Luther; it was very slow paced; it was wicked; the children were so helpless; the children were so viscous; strict discipline ("Zucht und Ordnung"); Luther and Sutterlin handwriting; sin; poverty; small houses and many children. No solution at the end - but such is life, says TeenageGirl, wise beyond her years.

The forums are filled with speculations. I like this one best. And of course, the unspoken finger pointing: this is what caused the bestiality of the next generation, the Nazi generation.

See it!

Update: The White Ribbon won the Golden Globe for the best foreign film!


Relevance and the Swedish Wikipedia

This is getting to be kind of repetitive. I was in Sweden over the holidays and was reading through the Aftonbladet about a Swedish blogger, Sanna Lundell, who is currently under attack by people putting up hate comments on her blog. She happens to be the daughter-of a famous author and musician and a sambo-of [that is Swedish for "life partner you are not officially married to", meaning literally living-together] a famous Swedish actor.

I wanted to know more about her, and started my search at the Swedish Wikipedia, which now has about 300.000 entries. Nada. Zilch. Hmm. I googled a bit, and found out that she is a free-lance writer and that her blog, a blog about being a mother which was awarded the blog-of-the-year award by one of the women's magazines, pulls in 30.000 page impressions a week. Wow!

So feeling especially virtuous and wanting to contribute to the knowledge of the world, I started the Swedish article on her. Except that there had once been an entry on her, and it was deleted. Why? Well, because she is daughter-of and sambo-of.

Hey, guys! What do women have to do in order to be "relevant"? Other than be porn stars, that is. Here we have a journalist who has studied theology, written for numerous journals, and is currently an acclaimed blogger. Sure, she's not president of a company (very few women in Sweden are) or a well-known politician (Sweden has a few). But she has worked hard to come out of the -of shadow. And she even went to work for a daily newspaper that had been doggedly trying to get photos of her with her (at that time new) boyfriend. She just said in an interview that she would not be reporting on him.

I put a request for restoration on the discussion page of the admin who had deleted the page. The answer was quick: No.

Excuse me? Like, you don't have reasons in Sweden? No, you won't because it is against your religion, or no, you can't because your arms are in a cast, or what? I protested.

Another admin gave the the link to the place where you can officially make a restoration request. I noted that I read and speak Swedish, but my written Swedish sucks, so I had written in English. This nice admin said: English is no problem.

So I duly submitted my restoration request, and was told to WRITE IN SWEDISH. And another said: there was nothing in the article of value. Sigh. I wrote, politely, that I was hoping that at least her birth date and place and such would be in that article. Finally, some other admin took pity on me, and restored the article.

While I was on the boat home, a request for deletion was entered. Daughter-of and sambo-of = not relevant. Ach ja. At least the Swedes have an orderly sort of deletion request page. There is a discussion part and a voting part. I've put in my vote and my discussion, and at the moment, the keepers are in the lead. While the article is open, I've added a few more tidbits of information (such as her mother's name, strange that people have two parents...) I gleaned from the media reports published when her blog was given the award in November. Neither she nor her mother were listed on the Wikipedia entry on her father, so I ended up adding that section as well. We'll see how long that lasts.

I am getting more and more concerned about the so-called "relevance" discussions deleting information that could be useful to others. For example, Sannas birthdate given in the original (and deleted) entry was wrong, but has been quoted in numerous articles about her. I checked the Swedish person database (everything is online) and was able to correct it. I've spent an hour doing so - why should others have to do this work again? Sure, if they want to verify the fact, they should. Otherwise: why delete?